Have you ever seen or spoken with someone whose very existence was confusing to you? Someone who thinks and makes decisions in ways that baffle you, that leave you with squinted eyes and furrowed brow unable to fathom how they can see the world so differently?
You probably have, and it’s weird, right?
We see people saying or doing things that make little sense to us, and we’re not sure how to react or what to think. These people are often the ones we find most frustrating in our lives. They are difficult to work with, hard to get along with, and seem to make our lives more difficult. And you know what? They probably feel the same way about you. Sorry.
We’re programmed to think that the way we see the world is both sensible and accurate, and people who don’t fit with those parameters are confusing to us. Even when it’s as benign as someone who likes a food you find disgusting, our reaction is often a mix of shock and confusion.
Seriously people, olives are gross. I’ve tried, I really have.
Outside the Comfort Zone
But one of the most interesting things writers can do is, at least occasionally, try to write characters with whom they have nothing in common and with whom they would disagree on everything, should they meet in the real world. This forces us to try to understand how others think, to see the world as they do, and maybe even do a better job at empathizing with people who are not like us. You try on someone else’s skin and do your best to see what that’s like.
And it’s hard. Making a character say and do things that I would not can be uncomfortable. Part of this discomfort comes from never being truly certain how other people think, and part of it comes from making characters say and do things I might find objectionable. But this is all necessary for the sort of conflict that makes stories come alive, and it’s perhaps best captured by the following quotation:
“You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.”
It can be tempting as a reader to conflate the behavior of a character with the beliefs of its creator, to assume that because a given character responds in a certain way that it means the author would do the same in real life. That might be true, but just as often it probably isn’t.
When I create a character, I’m doing my best to shape that person (or creature!) into a being that fits into the story world. This is not the same as saying they are wholly realistic, but it’s important that readers at least believe the character is plausible within the context of the story being told. Much of the time, those characters will be recognizable to us. Parents who worry about the safety of their children. Siblings who squabble.
But it may also necessitate characters who do terrible things, who take actions or say things I see as horrific or disgusting. And these characters may not even be a villain! Making an audience care about a character who behaves immorally is difficult to do well, but it’s not uncommon in fiction. Part of writing any character is an attempt to answer the following question:
How might someone like this respond to circumstances like these?
The extent to which I succeed in answering that question is likely to vary from reader to reader, which is fine, but answering it in believable and interesting ways is the goal. It’s central to storytelling.
Freedom of Speech Is Not Freedom from the Consequences of Speech
Now, if this sounds like I’m suggesting that it’s okay for writers to make their characters say and do anything they want, no matter how horrible or socially unacceptable, that’s correct. I am saying that, more or less. I think it’s important for storytellers to feel free to tell whatever story they want, and I’m asking readers not to assume that what happens in a story is necessarily indicative of the kind of person that writer is.
The flip side of this is that authors must accept responsibility for what they write and understand how audiences might perceive it. That we shouldn’t “blame a writer for what the characters say” is a good rule of thumb but does not constitute freedom from consequences of writing stories with content that readers might have problems with. Just as writers should have control over their characters, audiences have freedom over how they react to them.
The clear example of this in the cultural zeitgeist right now is Game of Thrones. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the TV show and the books it’s based on have received a lot of attention lately for some particularly brutal sequences, ones that have unquestionably started to alienate portions of its audience. For the most part, the show’s creators and author George R.R. Martin have stuck by the argument, “hey, this is the world we’ve created. These things happen.”
That’s their prerogative. It’s their right to tell the story they want, and I certainly don’t think they do not owe the audience any particular outcome. But they also must be prepared to deal with the consequences of the story they tell. The audience doesn’t owe them anything, either, after all.