There is something I have noticed in Fantasy, and I’m sure many others have too. Certain races not only share universal characteristics, but individual members are indistinguishable from each other. Take a look at orcs, not just in Lord of the Rings, but in other forms of fiction they have appeared in. Their race is depicted as war-like, strong, and destructive. Depending on the story their might be some variations, but that is typically what happens. Elves are stuck up prudes and dwarves are rowdy Scotsmen essentially. Yes, I know, there are plenty of stories that give a more nuanced approach to these races. However, I feel the generalization of specific races may represent our humanness when it comes to people outside of our group who shares our ideology.
On social media I have become a silent observer of conversations. I have concluded that arguing on Twitter or Facebook about important issues is rather pointless. All it does is cause tension, after all has anyone changed their opinion about something due to an argument on Facebook? If the answer is yes, then I doubt the number is very high. I’ve seen Atheists attack religious people based purely on presuppositions and assumptions instead of what the person is trying to say. I’ve seen the opposite where someone assumes things about all irreligious people and create strawman attacks. This has been happening especially amongst Conservatives and Liberals since the last presidential election. I’ve seen Liberals attack Conservatives, especially white rural Conservatives, for being dumb and uninformed, while Conservatives attack Liberals for having a supposed mental disorder. When it comes to these discussions there only listening or reading to respond, not to hear what the other person has to say. Honestly, this is the sort of thing social media breeds since people can hide behind a computing device and not see the hurt they cause others.
In the Lord of the Rings there is very little attempt to understand orcs. They are orcs and serve the Dark Lord, and there is nothing more to it. This viewpoint may work in fiction depending on how it’s utilized, but reality is nuanced. I have my views on faith and politics, same as anyone else, but I need to listen and understand why someone may believe differently. If we do not spend the time doing that, how then will people ever understand one another? How will the chasm between political belief systems ever be bridged if we cannot even agree on the fundamentals of communication and human decency? Is being right of the utmost importance? These questions I must ask myself a lot, we all should.
Previously I wrote how I feel that people often do not want the level of honesty they ask for. Often our friends and family claim they want absolute honesty from us, but if we give it, despite being gentle, it backfires. I recognize this isn’t always the case, but it is something that appears to happen quite frequently. For us writers, feedback is essential to our business. We need to know if our stories and characters are relatable to our audience. Honesty of people also plays a role in characterization. Characters are believable based on their interactions with each other and the world around them in the story.
It is difficult when you spend months or years crafting a tale and making it available to the public. Will readers enjoy it? Will your audience connect to the characters as well as you have? Just as we ask for honesty in our relationships, us writers should not only ask for, but accept honest feedback when it comes. When we put so much of ourselves into a book, we must fight our urge to get defensive when someone doesn’t react the way we would like. A book an author has written is like his child, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss any criticism.
Sometimes though readers simply miss the point or bring their own presuppositions to your novel and that taints their experience. Sometimes there are things us authors can do to remedy that, but usually not. For my first short story I got feedback that it needed more to the story, but that was at a time when both sequels were published and “more” was already available. Some of my feedback, especially with the first book, was a little disappointing but incredibly valuable. Everyone will form an opinion on your works, that is inevitable, and like all opinions, discernment must be utilized.
In order for authors to create well-rounded characters they must be familiar with real people and themselves. Honesty, and how people react to it is a key component to crafting characters. How well will the cast within the story respond to honesty? Do some prefer lies? No? Why not? There are many people in the real world that do. These are things that we must ponder. Not only though how a character responds to honesty, but why do they react in a certain way? This is where my observations on honesty in the last post ties together with my writing. I hope that as I continue to learn about others and myself I am able to better hone my writing skills.
There is a trend lately I’ve noticed. Perhaps it’s been this way for a long time, but it didn’t start to grab my attention until about five years ago. I don’t know if it is the hypersensitive culture we now live in that’s contributing or not, but it appears that individual characters in fiction are viewed as representing a whole group. An example, someone I used to know made the comment he doesn’t like the show Home Improvement because Tim Taylor is aloof and a bad example of a husband, father, and a man in general. That assessment may be true, but that isn’t the point. Tim’s character isn’t supposed to represent all men it is an exaggeration of what some men might be like, or more specifically these are traits specific to his character that are hyperbolic due to the comedy genre.
I have come across countless critiques like this where someone will complain about a character poorly representing women, the LGBT, religion, race, or anything you can think of. There may be certain isolated incidents where this complaint is warranted due to shady motivations from the writer. However, unless there is evidence to support that the writer is using a character to propel stereotypes, that shouldn’t be assumed.
The personality traits of my characters reflect on them alone. If a woman has a weakness that doesn’t mean I think all women are weak or need to be saved by men. If there is a male character in my books that is a little dull that doesn’t mean I think men are dull or can only survive if a woman is there to prop him up.
Fiction, if done right, should not be afraid to have a variety of characters and the personalities of the individuals in the story do not necessarily reflect on a greater whole.
Recently, I heard powerful testimonies from a few people who endured several hardships. It got me thinking about characterization in fiction. We as reader’s demand that the characters grow and change over the course of a story. That’s what makes characters relatable and intriguing. On the other hand, we have all known people who remain pretty much the same throughout their entire lives. They maintain the same behavior as they did in high school or earlier, even well into their fifties and beyond.
These people who would be labeled as “static” characters in fiction may have children, have gotten married, maintain a home and mortgage, but still excessively party and have an immature black and white view of the world. Especially with all the explosive controversies arising lately. I have seen people from older generations have an “agree with me or you are evil” perspective. Now, I understand I’m only getting a small glimpse of these people’s lives on the internet, but there are writings and social media posts from some folks that maintain a similar theme, “I’m right and everyone else is wrong.” There are of course, issues that should be black and white, but immature virtue signaling that appears to be all too prevalent.
I heard a quote, “If you aren’t growing you are either stagnant or regressing.” That means if we are not actively seeking out growth than we are at very least staying the same. It is entirely plausible to have a story of static characters and have it be “realistic.” That would not be an engaging tale that most wouldn’t finish. We expect growth and change from fictional characters, but what if we held ourselves to the same expectation? In the real world, true well-rounded people who are constantly growing sometimes seems like the exception. Imagine if that was the case in fiction? Everyone would undoubtedly be bored. It is easy to fall into the rut of routine of work, bills, and general numb feeling to the day to day life. I challenge myself and those reading this to work toward growing a little every day.
I am waiting for the day when someone asks me, “Why don’t you have a _____ character?” or maybe “Why aren’t you more inclusive with your characters?” Well, my first answer is it is fiction with fake characters and fake races and fake religions. The key word there is fake. My second response is that my characters are who they are because that is who they reveal themselves to be. Simply put, my characters are who they are and cannot be changed any more than I can because that is who they are. In our overly sensitive culture that looks for reasons to be offended, it is imperative that we think of a few things about fiction.
I strongly disagree with the notion that every people group needs to be represented in every work of fiction. I know that many people passionately disagree with me on this, but hear me out. I can relate to a completely fake character of a fake species, let’s say a Wookie, just fine as long as the character is developed properly. Character development is the most important thing in fiction, not that they appear the same, believe the same, or live the exact same lifestyle as me. Let me be clear that I don’t have objections to people who are different from me in fiction. My objection lies in the complaint that we need to pander to all people groups just so they can “relate” to the characters. It’s fiction. It is fake anyway. What if the story is comprised entirely of anthropomorphic rats?
There is a simple truth that people tend to miss. A writer may play a role in creating the characters, but well-developed characters are more discovered than anything. If a writer is true to her work, she will write the characters exactly as they are, not make them something else just to appeal to cultural demands. The same holds true on the other side. A character shouldn’t be limited out of fear of cultural backlash. Ultimately, the writer should follow where the character leads him, not pander, not worry about offending because guess what? It’s fiction, and we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be exactly like us in order for us to relate to them.