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January 31, 2013

Author vs. Characters: Can Our Morals Be Different?

Graphic of two faces with text: Are We Our Characters?

The recent talk of watching what we say on the internet and being aware of our brand has brought up several ways people come to odd conclusions about us as writers. Despite all our work to ensure that our behavior supports who we are and what our brand is, people will always form their own impressions.

Too often, we see authors judged by the characters they write or the stories they choose to tell. I used to hope that social media, with the ability to interact directly with readers, would bring an end to misconceptions. But I now know it’s not a cure-all to banishing every type of assumption, as I learned last summer…

The Blog Assumptions: Sometimes people form opinions of us based on how we run our blog.

I keep my blog at a PG-13 level. However, that doesn’t mean I—or my stories—would ever be considered PG-13. While some of my stories have nothing but kissing, they still touch on very dark subjects, and many of my stories have open-door sex scenes. In movie language, most of my stories would be rated R. I write for adults, not teens.

Yet at the RWA National Conference last year, several people not only tried to watch their language around me, but also apologized to me when they swore. Several people. When I asked them why, they said, “On your blog, you’ve mentioned that you don’t swear.”

Uh, wow. I then pointed out that I’d also mentioned on my blog that some of my characters do swear, so my choice not to swear is about me, and only me. For the record, swearing doesn’t offend me. But I’d never realized that my choice not to swear—which I consider to be strictly a personal decision—could be interpreted as “swearing offends Jami.” Um…No. *smile*

The Genre Assumptions: Sometimes people form opinions of us based on the genre we write.

Annie Neugebauer commented on my last post:

“I do struggle with this sometimes, especially when it comes to the difference between “horror novel character” and “horror novel writer,” which many seem to think are the same thing (but I don’t).”

I empathize. I replied to Annie with:

“I run into similar thoughts about being a paranormal author. Some people expect me to be covered in tattoos (I have not a one) and sacrifice bats or something (nope) just because of the genre I write in.”

I know some paranormal romance/urban fantasy authors who are goth or pagan, but most aren’t. (And I don’t know of any who sacrifice bats. *smile*) Most are people you wouldn’t glance at twice if you saw them in person. Similarly, I know several erotic romance authors, many of whom write about BDSM, menage, etc., who are as vanilla as can be in their own life.

Just as people who read murder mysteries aren’t vicarious murderers, the authors who write them aren’t frustrated serial killers looking for an outlet. We are not our stories.

The Character Assumptions: Sometimes people form opinions of us based on the actions, dialogue, or morals of our characters.

This is a big one. Whether it’s our villain being how-could-the-author-even-come-up-with-that evil or our hero being flawed, some think that characters are a reflection on us as people. I can probably speak for most writers when I say “I am not my characters and they are not me.”

As I mentioned above, I have characters who swear (unlike me). I have one character who is a pacifist and one who is a murderer (and not the villain either). I have characters who are cynically non-religious and others who are believers. Some of my characters are on one side of the political spectrum, and some are on the other.

In short, my characters’ morals are sometimes different from mine. They make different choices than I would. They value different things than I do.

From the romance author perspective, I’ll reveal that they’re turned on by different activities than I am. The heroines choose guys they find attractive, and those heroes are often not “my type.” But hey, whatever works for them.

Characters Who Don’t Match Our Morals Are a Good Thing

I don’t want my characters to match my morals or values. All my heroes and heroines are “good” on some level (with some more questionable than others), but their beliefs—and how they express those beliefs—do not match mine.

For one thing, although I’m not perfect by any means, I need my characters to be extremely flawed and damaged. They need issues and complexities to work through during their stories.

I need my characters to be “real” inside my head, and that means I have to listen to what they want to say or do, even if I disagree with them. They couldn’t be their three-dimensional selves if I was censoring their thoughts or actions because of a worry about political correctness or an attempt to match their beliefs to mine.

In fact, the more my characters are different from me, the better I feel as an author. Then I know they’re not just a Mary Sue character representing my “ideal” life. I’m proud of being able to see both sides of religious or political divides so well that I can portray each position sympathetically.

Personally, I’ve found that my values come out more in my stories’ themes than through my characters’ thoughts, dialogue, or actions. My stories are about the power of love, the possibility of redemption, and the ordinary person growing into someone extraordinary while navigating a world that’s shaded with nuance more than black-and-white issues. Those ideas match my beliefs. But I could see other writers, especially in other genres, succeed with stories where even the themes don’t match their personal values.

Yes, I thought up (usually at a subconscious level) and type everything that appears in my stories, but imagination is a wonderful thing. Just because we can imagine it doesn’t mean we condone it, agree with it, or would want to do it ourselves.

*remembers some things characters have done* *shudders* Definitely not.

Do you disagree? Do our characters’ morals or the genres we write reflect on us? Are we responsible for what our characters do and say? Have others had the wrong impression of you because of your blog/social media interactions or the stories/characters you write? Does any aspect of your stories reflect who you are (characters, themes, etc.)?

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Aimee Laine

I’ve thought about writing something like this several times. This is SO spot on! Like you, I am ‘me’ and my characters, in most cases, are in no way a reflection of me. They create themselves in my head and I only put down on paper what ‘they’ tell me. So I have characters who swear like sailors, yet I don’t. I have characters who’re so willing to try new stuff that you’d think nothing bothers them, yet I’m a picky eater. It’s not that I’m going in the opposite direction of me either … they just are who they are. I just happened to be the conduit through which they came alive.

Excellent post!

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Taurean Watkins

I agree that what write in our stories isn’t always reflective of who the writer is or what genre we write. But for me, some overlap is sometimes unavoidable, but so long as it doesn’t read like a one-sided rant to beta-readers who better know the me separate from my writing, I’m fine with it. For instance, one book I wrote deals with bullying (Outside school) and I was bullied in non-deadly ways, but as it evolved I realized I was looking at things too much from my “former victim” eyes and neglected what my antagonist needed from me as a writer. This story only improved when I saw the scenario from my antagonist’s perspective more, and my MC less wimpy, without betraying his more laid back yet firm-principled nature. The hardest challenge in writing about shy, non-dynamo MCs is not making them sound passive, yet not cheapen his or her’s eventual growth. When you were the victim of bullying, the anger and pain (emotional and/or physical) you in some ways revisit as a writer, in consequence you don’t necessarily see things from your tormentor’s perspective. Eventually, I used my more adult distance and perspective to inform, rather than take away from, the child or teen’s perspective of being bullied, yet it also took seeing parts of the bully in myself (Though I didn’t bully people) that fleshed him out. In the end, neither side of the conflict felt/read one-sided. Since I write for children primarily, I have to walk…  — Read More »

Juli Page Morgan

The reactions I get from people who have read my books sometimes leaves me scratching my head. So many have told me they aren’t a bit surprised by the themes from the first book because they say I am “such a hippie.” Um…no. 🙂 I’m really not. I don’t think I am, anyway. And I’m left wondering if they’re really seeing me in the character or if they’re just projecting the character onto me because I wrote it.

Then there’s the hero from this book. He does something that romance novel heroes are never supposed to do, and I know some people will have a major, MAJOR problem with it. But given who he is and the time period in which the book is set, his actions are completely believable. I didn’t soften it up or shy away from it because to do so would be dishonest, not only to the character but to the story. Would I do what he did? Never. But he would and so he did.

I like how you said, “Just because we can imagine it doesn’t mean we condone it, agree with it, or would want to do it ourselves.” Bingo! But getting the reader to realize that? I don’t know if we can.

Excellent post, Jami!

Carradee

Can characters’ morals differ from the author’s? Yes. Do most people understand where others’ perspectives come from (or even care)? No. Due to the latter item, a lot of folks think that for an author to convey or be accurate to a certain perspective, the author must believe that perspective. I took a poetry-writing class, in college. My teacher admitted that if I weren’t so cheery and outspoken in class, he’d be worried about me, due to my poem topics. ^_^ Actually, a reader of my writing might think my family’s abusive or neglectful. They aren’t. I just know several people who have had abusive or neglectful families, and it’s a topic that’s made an impression on me. Like you, Jami, I also don’t swear. I’m not offended by cussing, and I’ll drop a potentially offensive word on occasion, when it best fits my meaning (much to my friends’ shock and amusement), but I’m only really offended by items that violate the Third Commandment. (Even then, it’s more of a “*sigh* I wish you wouldn’t say that,” than a “How dare you say that!”. Because I know why/how people dare.) Even so, due to the detail that I’m a Christian—and conservative, at that—folks assume I’m offended by more than I actually am. (For the record, if someone believes something else and is true to their beliefs, that doesn’t offend me, though I admit to being concerned about their eternal destination. Now, when someone claims to believe that the Bible is…  — Read More »

Carradee

Actually, a reader of my writing might think my family’s abusive or neglectful. They aren’t.

And, through the lens of hindsight, I have to edit this. Short version is that, at the time I wrote this, I thought “domestic abuse” only referred to overt, explicit physical contact.

Christina @FaerieWriter

I think it’s a natural tendancy for new writers to put a lot of themselves into their main character, but beyond that, of course not every character or character trait is a reflection of ourselves, otherwise our characters would all be the same.

We need villians and diversity and it speaks to your maturity as an author that you can have characters very different from yourself and still love them all the same 🙂

Melissa Maygrove

Very thought-provoking post, Jami.

I definitely agree with you that an author’s characters are not always a reflection of themselves. But I find that some of my traits make their way into some of my characters.

As far as morals, politics, etc., I haven’t had occasion to write much diversity yet (other than my villains), but I’d like to think I could. As a reader, I have no problem with characters being characters as long as I don’t feel like the author is speaking through them, trying to shove his or her views down my throat.

Marcy Kennedy

I love this post. I don’t know what it is about me as a person, but I’m constantly getting strange reactions from people (even other writers) as they try to reconcile me as a person with the stories and characters I’ve written. My husband still talks about his reaction when we were first dating and he read one of my suspense short stories. He says he was worried that the “sweet” woman he was dating might not be what she seems if she could write a story like that.

The most repeated surprised reactions have come along with the novel Lisa Hall-Wilson and I co-wrote. When people meet me, and then afterward find out I was the one who created or male POV character and our villain, they react with such shock. I don’t know whether it’s because I look young or I’m soft spoken and smiley, but they can’t seem to wrap their heads around the differences between those characters and me.

But I think as writers, that’s the way it needs to be. Our stories would be flat if every character was just a slightly different version of us (not to mention how boring they’d be to write) 🙂

Annie Neugebauer

Oooo, I got quoted! 😉

I agree with all of this. In fact, I blogged about my fear of being judged based on my characters in a recent post. I think most good characters have some part of ourselves in them — some truth or spark that makes them real — but the scary thing, to me, is that the closer they are to me the more readers will feel justified in assuming they’re like me in every way. For a small example, I gave my MC in my recent book wild curly hair (because, well, I know what that’s like, lol!), and I know that means that some readers who know me will assume she’s just a stand-in for me. These things bother me, but I can’t let them hinder me to the point that they affect my writing. At some point, we just have to stop caring what other people assume about us, you know?

Todd Moody

Great post as usual, Jami! I think I try to do the same thing with my online image that you do and that is basically be nice to people and keep it PG-13 or even G most of the time. I try not to talk about politics or religion, which can polarize people and drive away a potential book buying fan. Things on the internet are forever and I’ve tried to educate my children to that level of awareness. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t catch me dropping an eff bomb in person or having opinions on politics or religion that I would share with you over a beer or a cocktail of your choice.

Assuming I ever get a fan base it will be interesting to see how they see the writer vs the person. 😉

Serena
Serena

Yes, this is SUCH an annoying problem!!! E.g. sometimes I want to have a very dissy, insulting etc. narrative voice and I have to keep clarifying that this is not me! (The following are not all to do with morals. More to do with desires, behaviors, attitudes, personality, etc.) Once I wrote about a very idealistic romance between a supernatural being and a human girl. My friend immediately assumed that I myself wanted to marry and live with such a supernatural being too, LOL. Not really, the story was just for fun! My main characters seem to always have SOME thread of similarity with me but everything else is definitely different. E.g. that really antisocial girl who is ultra independent, tough, and resourceful. The antisocial-ness was only partof my childhood, and though I really wish I were so independent, tough, and resourceful like her, I know I am not, sigh. It also so happens that VERY MANY of my main characters I ever wrote about were antisocial, friendless, etc. Yet this personality was only a period of time in my very distant past. My present self has nothing to do with that antisocial-ness anymore. I’m free from my past! Lol. There are also times when you want to write something dramatic and then people think that was you. Like one time when a female protagonist had thoughts and desires of suicide and later went to see a psychiatrist and took antidepressants. My friends were worried that I was suicidal as…  — Read More »

Gene Lempp

I think people would have the same misinterpretation of me. I do not swear on social media (a personal choice), very very rarely on my blog and then only the “vanilla” words – but in real life, yep, they do slip out on occasion. Someone recently told me I have an “old school” feel, which comes from being raised by my grandparents (WW2 generation), however, I am quite modern, fully embrace technology, think progressively and am “new school” (is that a term?) in all aspects of life.

Theme, at least for me, would be the place where I think my writing contains a bit of the author, but in general, it is typically the thing first to inspire a story. After that, nope, sorry, it is all characters and story, and I exercise zero input in how they choose to explore the theme or the world they are placed in. I also don’t spend the day walking next to my children and forcing them to comply with my thoughts and ideals. But, I have set their “themes.”

Thought-provoking and well presented post, Jami 🙂

Daphne Shadows

Oh my gosh – thank you for this post! You just summed up something that has been irritating me and simmering on the back burner. What we imagine and who we are are two very different things. I found myself smiling and bobbing my head up and down as I read this. 😉 Couldn’t agree more!

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