09 October 2016

How would your Protagonist Vote?

If I had avoided social media and television, I would not know what has happened with regard to the presidential campaign during the past week. But I'm naturally curious. I feel the anguish each side has and understand their derision for the other side. I even feel a little pity for the third sides of this two-dimensional juggernaut overrunning us. 

I've even suggested that friends write in my name on election day. After all, I have paid taxes since my first job at Taco Bell and I have never deleted any emails. I've always spoken well of other people and seldom even go into locker rooms. At this point I'm not sure what my platform would be but I know it will be made of wood - good ol' American timber, of course. Mostly I just want everyone to get along, treat each other kindly, and work together for the common good. (More on my non-candidacy next time.)

About a year ago I posted the following because at the time such issues as same-sex marriage and gun laws were in hot debate. It caused me to wonder how much authors consider political and social viewpoints for the characters they write. Does the character need to have a certain view to act a certain way? Or does the character act according to the author's political and social views?

See what you think....

From 4 October 2015

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story a self-contained entity with its own political views? Must or should the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is throw to the wind for the sake of the story? 

(Apologies for using a white, male, middle-class image.)
Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book. In this case, the writer is a "he" and the story involves a "she" as the main character. What could go wrong? one might ask. Many male authors have written female protagonists, and certainly many female authors have written male protagonists. Still, perceptions exist. "Write what you know" is an old axiom, and yet if that were to be followed religiously, a writer would only be allowed to write his (or "his or her") autobiography.

Conversely, the writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know" - shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. So, if we allow for rule number 3, then anything goes. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that is a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular category of reader, the writer may shape the story to appeal to that reader, for example, in genre-driven stories. Part of that may be, say, for the author to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.

I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against, say, guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? Or keep the baby? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act? And if they do, is that realistic for the character?

I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues - or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure - because some of us like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent - or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent when necessary to maintain personal mental health. 

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, espouse views the author would espouse, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it even though the reader and the author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. 

Fiction writers, as a clan, do not generally deal with pontification; we do not write a work of fiction solely to push our view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we?

Sure, the literary canon is full of writers who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who left strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. Or were they simply good stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? 

And yet, in this present-day world of saying the right things, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility... or compulsion?

UPDATE: My latest work, an epic fantasy, started off innocently enough but then gradually began to delve into the relationships in society between men and women. I bent over backwards to not take sides or seem to give weight to one view over another. In the story, different cities our hero visits have different customs, not all of them agreeable to our hero or to me, the author, were I to visit. So, even though it was supposed to be just a fun fantasy to pass the time, it turned out to have quite a bit of politics and social issues covered in it. Apologies in advance; my only goal was - as it always is in everything I write - to tell an interesting story.

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  1. You raise an interesting point. I'm working on a character that holds a profound belief that God has initiated armageddon and that he must stop humanity's attempts to avoid it. I fear my fanatic will come across as a stereotype.

    1. It's always a good writing exercise to create a character the total opposite of you, the author.

  2. Five of my books take place in a theocracy and two under a monarchy. In the Theocracy I haven't had as much of a chance to do more than just lightly touch on the "other" side, although I am planning a book that will do just that. In my two monarchies, they're set alternate medieval worlds - If Henry Tudor decreed it, my Kings would too.

    In a contemporary novel that I am in the planning stages of, politics plays a subordinate role to hypocrisy, which drives the plot. Their proclaimed ideals draw on the best of both sides of the center of the political aisle, but not one of these people is walking the walk the way they believe they are. My own politics are mine, so I don't wish them on others.

    1. Theocracy in fantasy is somewhat dubious. There is a tendency to take something from Earth cultures are rework it. Nothing wrong with that, of course! GoT has the Seven Gods vs the Lord of Light. In EFWD some pray to gods and some pray to goddesses, and some pray not at all. And magic may be its own theocracy!

  3. The above blog does not seem to need any changes following the debate televised last evening.