There’s a habit authors have of talking about and viewing their characters as living, breathing people. And in a way, they are. Most authors know firsthand the experience of having a character show up in their mind one day, fully formed and ready to tell their story, or of writing and wanting a character to do something specific, but watching helplessly as they drag the plot off in a different direction. Often that can be a really cool writing experience, and can help make the story better. But sometimes it can also be a problem.
I’m not going to point out specific examples, but there seems to be a trend lately of authors writing offensive storylines, and then defending themselves by saying that it wasn’t their fault; the characters (or story) “made them do it.” This can apply to, say, a “love story” actually reading more like horrific abuse, POC (or other minority characters) being sidelined or killed off more regularly than their white counterparts, or even something less offensive but still quite disrespectful to readers like marketing a book as a romance but then having the main characters break up or die at the end.
And here’s the thing. When I was younger I really was quite fond of the “characters have their own minds and you can’t control them!” way of thinking. It was cool, and it made me feel special. Plus there really is some truth to the fact that trying to make your characters do something they don’t want to do can lead to a writing block. But the truth is, characters are not real. They’re not living, breathing people who behave independently of their authors. The author creates them, and the author creates the story, and if the character is doing something that they shouldn’t, either because it doesn’t work for the story, or because it’s leading the book in a direction the author doesn’t want to go, the author has the ability to change that character, so that they will make the decision to have the story go in the direction the author wants it to.
We live in a culture that’s steeped in things like misogyny, racism and abuse. Whether we want to admit it or not, those things have crept into our subconscious and effect the way we write stories. As authors, we have to be critical of the ideas that come out of our subconscious, because like it or not, those ideas, characters, storylines, are going to be effected by the problematic media and stories we have been exposed to. To treat every character that walks into our mind unbidden, every storyline that we come up with in a moment of shining intuition as flawless and without bias, is to risk continuing to pump out those flawed, offensive narratives. So I’m extremely critical when an author tries to defend their problematic narrative by saying that “they didn’t have any control over the story” and “it just happened that way,” as if that excuses the story from all flaws and criticism.
Stories are never just stories. They effect us deeply, and shape the way we see the world. And authors are never off the hook for writing offensive content simply because “that’s the way the story wanted to be.” We are there for every step of the story’s development, and it’s our responsibility to watch it with a keen eye, to do our best to create works that contribute to making the world a better place, even if it means we have to give up a little of that “writing magic.” Sometimes writing is hard work, and that’s the way it should be. Just because it’s easy to write a story the way your subconscious wants it to be written, doesn’t mean it’s right. You are in control of your stories. Use them to make the world a better place.
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Look at all the cat hair on that chair. That’s my life.