Thursday, August 16, 2012

Handling Hot Buttons

Recently, a friend asked about a book I was reading.

She said: "I've heard that it has parts that are really anti-(insert persuasion/lifestyle/religious affiliation here). Have you reached that part yet?"

I hadn't noticed anything like that in the book yet. But as I continued reading, I came to THE PART that this friend was talking about.

In the book, a main character's friend was trying to make her feel better by insulting a rival-girl. Yes, she used derogatory language to describe this girl. No one in the text set her straight. No one said, "Oh, you shouldn't say that about other people or make a joke of them because they're THIS WAY."

The scene didn't bother me. But I knew it was the part that my friend's friend had been bothered by.

Do we expect all characters in literature to set good examples about how we talk about people of other persuasions/belief systems/lifestyles? Do we at least expect them to be corrected for their behavior if they do make generalizations or derogatory statements? How do characters' belief systems reflect on the author?

I'm being vague here on purpose because I don't want to launch a big angry debate on hot-button topics. The specific issue here isn't the point.

When I read I don't automatically conclude that every character's opinion will reflect the author's. Not all my characters agree with my opinions and belief systems.

But it seems like some readers are quick to think that every character (even if that character is set up as a majorly flawed person) reflects the author's thoughts and beliefs exactly. This worries me, because when I write characters my goal is to include different perspectives. I'm trusting my readers to pick the good from the bad and make up their own minds. Am I expecting too much?

What are your thoughts? Should all our characters think the way we think, and if they don't, should they be corrected?  

Photo credit: rezdora70 from


  1. Oh, Amy. This is a topic that bothers me deeply.

    And I'm going to guess that I wouldn't have been bothered by "the scene" either. I'm very aware that I live, work, and breathe in a world where my worldview is different from others around me. And I hope that my fiction reflects this as well. That's what makes the world interesting and it's what makes fiction interesting. AND knowing that we're different and view the world (and religion) diferently challenges us to grow stronger in those beliefs.

    One of the best books I read last year was Unwind by Neal Shusterman. And I remember thinking while I read that book, "Man, this author knows how to introduce hot button topics and major themes that challenge a person's beliefs without ever giving us a clue as to what he actually believed." I was able to read the book and challenge myself with what I belived to be true.

    And to answer your question, if our characters went around correcting others for being "wrong," I think our readers might throw our books under a speeding locomotive. :)

  2. Oh gosh, all my characters DO NOT believe what I do or act in a way I would like to see us all act. They act the way their CHARACTER compels them too.

    If people read into it as my beliefs well... they're mistaken.

  3. As a writer, I had to wrestle with this idea a couple of years ago. My faith is the most important part of my life, and it spills over into everything else. How to reconcile that with my writing took a lot of thought and prayer.

    One of my favorite books by Kathy Tyers has a character that said something along the lines of, "Evil exists, and we've all partaken." This is true, and our characters faults are what make them real and give them depth. In the end, I decided that it's possible to write about evil, without justifying it. For instance, a mystery writer can write about a murder without justifying murder as being OK.

    As a reader, I want to read about the struggles that a character faces with their own flaws. I want to read about the woman who struggles with pride and what that costs her. On the flip side, even the "villains" need to have something about them that brings home the fact that they are people too. We all have the capacity to do great evil, and it's not always a bad thing to be reminded of that. :-)

  4. As a writer of historical fiction, I face this every day. And it's HARD. There are a lot of characters in my books (mostly secondary characters, if they're going to stay that way) who hold opinions I would instantly challenge in real life. But the story would all be a lie if I tried to make them all think as I do.

  5. Heaven help us if we have to get politically correct in our writing.

  6. I don't even know how to respond. I am not my books/character/plot. Whatever happened to the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? It's absurd to think we must be *teaching* lessons on every page. Give me a good story first ... the rest will follow.

  7. As a middle school teacher I LOVE hot button topics and usually pick books with them in it so we have good discussion. That's part of helping kids think- introducing them to perspectives and opinions that are different than your own, and learning how to handle them in an appropriate way. I'm not a writer, but if I was I think I would take great pleasure in developing characters that have drastically different opinions and beliefs than my own! I love to play devil's advocate (maybe a little too much?!)

  8. Oi Vey! As an avid reader I must say that fiction would be incredible boring and bland if the characters all ascribed to the authors personal beliefs, faith, etc. Also, it would be frightening if all the characters in the fiction I read (and really enjoy) ascribed to the beliefs of the author!

  9. How boring everything would be.

    Some characters are just gonna be nasty--people are in real life. And other characters need to realize things on their own. If secondary characters are gonna be telling the main character what's right and wrong, and they do it, we'll have some pretty short books.

  10. I write historical, so every so often it's inevitable that a character might say something or espouse beliefs that I personally find repellant or don't agree with. Sometimes it pains me to have an otherwise beloved, intelligent character spouting a racial epithet or turning on formerly dear friends who've been discovered to be lesbians, for example. Even the most radical character in my Russian novels, a Socialist and feminist ahead of her time, still espouses some opinions that are no longer considered progressive or enlightened, such as her support of eugenics and twilight sleep birth.

  11. I do hope people realize that the way my characters act is not necessarily the way I would behave! You can't have every character be morally correct and good, and you can't correct them every time when they're not. You have to stay true to the characters.

  12. Hmmm. Part of the fun of writing is to live vicariously through a character that is completely unlike me. But because it's my MS, I plot to elicit reactions showing how differences in world views impacts our choices. So yeah, I'm trusting the readers to notice those differences and then decide for themselves.

  13. All I have to say is that one of my characters is THE DEVIL. For real. So what does that say about me if this is true?

    LOL! Don't answer that. :)

  14. Amen sister! In one of my books, I had a dad who paid his kid money for each merit badge he earned, and you wouldn't believe the flack I took for it. It was crazy. People were very upset.

    Our characters are NOT all us. Not even by a long shot.

  15. If we made all of our characters reflect our beliefs and opinions, we'd have a book full of the same character, and why would anyone read that? But also as a writer, I'm not sure I'd have one character say something against my beliefs without having another character oppose this, if only for the sake of reality. Every third person (character and reader) will have a different opinion about something, and you just can't please everyone.

  16. I wanted to mention Nim's Island as a good example of the disparity between author and the characters they dream up. Fun family movie.

  17. Oh, this is such an interesting question to me. I have a book set in south Mississippi with a few black characters who have prominent roles in it. I've struggled with whether or not to go THERE in certain scenes for this very reason.

    Good stuff, Amy! <3


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