06 November 2012

How would your protagonist vote?


For citizens of the United States, today is election day. A president, as well as senators and representatives, and possibly local candidates will be chosen. The campaign process has gone on for a year and I think a lot of people are ready for it to be over. Meanwhile, a lot of support has been shown for candidates of all affiliations, sometimes to the point of media overload, and occasionally resulting in the undoing friendships.

I have tried to fly below the radar and remain publicly neutral. I have my views and my opinions and I think I weigh issues fairly. However, I also know that approximately half of my friends may not agree with me. As someone who is now selling books, I do not want to turn off half of my potential market by foisting my politics out there. If I did, half would agree with me—at least, I estimate—and sales will continue; those who would then disagree would likely refuse to buy.

Beyond the issue of an author’s politics—short of writing a political thriller, say, where politics becomes a crucial factor in the story—comes the politics of fictional characters.

I could be wrong, of course, but I think there is a tendency for authors to make our protagonists reflect the author’s view of the world. That only makes sense; we write about what we know. I suppose an author could wish to advance a certain agenda by portraying a hero in a certain way, have certain experiences which illustrate a certain viewpoint. It’s not much different than all the political ads propagating across our televisions every day.

A clever author, however, would make characters have views which serve the story. If the story works better having a conservative protagonist, for example, who then faces challenges by her liberal sidekicks, it could be an effective plot device. Likewise, a liberal character could be faced with a lover who turns out to rather conservative. How are they ever going to work it out?

What characters believe in regard to the same issues of the day real people concern themselves with is part of the background and persona of the character. How would he speak about this issue? How forceful would she be asserting her view of that issue. How easily would either compromise? Just as in real life when people disagree about social or political stances, fictional characters also need to argue. Or, if not actually arguing, they still have beliefs and opinions which inform their actions. Those actions need to be consistent with the character’s personality and behavior.

There can be so-called oxymoronic situations, however, such as when a character acts in a surprising way, signaling a shift of viewpoint. In my literary fiction work A BeautifulChill, the female protagonist, Íris, a pregnant Wiccan with seemingly liberal views, must make nice with her opposite number, Sandra, a Christian right-wing colleague to gain a favor. A clash of politics ensues:

“Next week there’s a rally and the Salvation Corps”—Sandra’s vice-president of the campus student group—“will be spearheading it. Because you’re a new mother-to-be, I’d really like you to join us. Iris, you don’t have to be Christian to participate. We have some Jewish people. A few agnostics, too. Anyone who believes that Life is sacred. That’s why I thought you’d be perfect.”
“Me, perfect?” Now Íris is suspicious. “What do I have to do?”
“I’m hoping you’ll give your testimony,” she says, voice full of joy, “about choosing to carry your baby to term rather than turning to abortion as a solution to your unexpected pregnancy.”
“My testimony?”
“We’d like to hear your thoughts about Life. About five minutes. Just tell us what it’s like to be a witch and still be pro-life.”
“What are you talking about? Witches aren’t pro-death. I want this baby because he’s mine. Not because of politics.”
“It doesn’t matter, Iris.” She is so sincere she believes what she says. “I’ll help you get back together with the father of your baby because you stood up for Life. We need people to speak out against abortion, even those who don’t happen to be Christian. That makes you the perfect witness. We need your testimony. Will you help me help you?”
Íris regards her a moment. “Do I have a choice?”

We see that despite their inherent opposite positions on abortion they manage to fall into collusion if only for this one event. It’s a compromise.

The final point to make concerns a question I’ve been thinking about for a while. Who buys books? Is there actually a majority of readers, hence book purchasers, who lean left or lean right who will buy only books which have characters or story situations that reflect the same values and views of the readers? I’m not referring to non-fiction books but to novels. In short, only certain stories would appeal to a segment of the readership: books which align with those readers’ position. I suppose the same would hold true even if the story did not concern anything overtly political.

Then again, as one internationally famous economist I once heard speak said: “All politics is local.” Hence, every act can be seen as a response to the particular way a person, even a fictional person, interacts with the world. How that person interacts depends on so much, far more than a wheelbarrow in the rain, and sometimes it depends solely on the mindset of the author, that puppeteer at the other end of the strings.

And now, without further adieu, I am off to visit my voting venue. I hope we can still be friends tomorrow morning.

(C) Copyright 2010-2012 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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