by Keith Morrison
©2006 Keith Morrison
With a change of venue for the thoughts of the day
whatever, it seemed appropriate to think about another sort of change. Specifically, the change an author needs to perform when theyre writing about characters that arent representative of themselves or their beliefs. The problem I see far too often is that when characters dont share the authors viewpoint on some particular issue, they rapidly become stereotypes, caricatures or even outright parodies of themselves.
Mind you, this sort of thing isnt always bad. For fiction in which Making A Point is the pointAyn Rands Atlas Shrugged being a prime exampleor for light fiction where the bad guys are really Bad Guys and the heroes are square-jawed Men (or large-breasted Women) of Action, a simplistic portrayal of the opposition is pretty much a requirement. After all, when your hero is supposed to wear the white cap, dressing up his deadly opponents in shades of gray would be counterproductive to the type of story you want to write. It doesnt make much sense to try and convince everyone that your political/economic viewpoint is the correct one if you concede that on at least some issues, the other guy has a point. Similarly, if your noble hero is busy offing truckloads of bad guys, it makes it a tad less heroic if the bad guys have even a few sympathetic motivations.
But if that isnt your goal, you have to do something which, fortunately, your brain has evolved the capacity to do: You have to get into someone elses head. No, Im not suggesting humans have telepathy, or even that such exists. Rather, Im saying that as a social species in which politics is tied up in our genes, the capacity to understand what someone else is thinking and what their motivations might beempathy, in a wordhas been a prime factor in our success as a species. Since youve got it (unless you are one of those unfortunates with a different brain structure or chemistry that makes you lack empathy), why not use it?
So, what do I mean? Well, how many times have you read a story involving anthropomorphic animals (whether that way from birth or changed into that form later in life) where every human character who might be less than 100% in favor of said furry heroes is a monster straight from the bowels of Hell, with no redeeming characteristics at all? Theyre the bastard offspring of the Nazis and the Klan, often with just a tad of extremist religious fanaticism thrown in. On the other hand, what about those human characters who sympathize with the heroes? Well, they are true beacons of compassion, understanding and equality. In fact, they often have the secret desire to be one of the befurred.
And dont even get me started on the protagonists. Oy, the moral superiority oozes out of them so hard Im surprised surrounding characters dont drown!
Excuse me while I gag.
Real life tells us that characterizations like the preceding are so simplistic they belong in a kindergarten writing class. Real life tells us that people dont break down that simply. A good example is the spectrum of responses to homosexuality. Seeing two men in a sex scene doesnt do anything for me. I find it mildly repulsive, to be honest. On the other hand, Ive fought in public for gay rights, argued very vocally for gay marriage and are amused by people who have a problem with homosexuals. Theres no contradiction in my responses: I can fight for people to have the right to do something when that something is personally repulsive to me, just as I expect that some of my own kinks might well be looked down on by others.
In the types of stories Im talking about, I, as a character, would probably be portrayed as either an unpleasant bigot, or else a pseudo-gay who secretly longs to get it on with the centerfold from Playgirl. The writers who do these stories seem to not be able to grasp that there is some middle ground between those two extremes. Even Hitler liked dogs, to use the standard example of the excluded middle.
Religion, politics, sexual orientation, its all fodder for this crappy Youre either with us or against us view of the world. And man, does it suck. Tie the characterization into some personal hobbyhorse the writer is going on about, and it can get really brutal, really quickly. You can find a lot of classic examples in science fiction, especially American military-SF from the 1980s and 1990s. When politics are mentioned in these stories, inevitably the best way is shown to be a free-market/libertarian/conservative mindset, with Manly Men (and Women) bravely going out to face the enemy while whiny-ass liberal crybabies go on about understanding the enemy, trying to cut back the military, and traitorously undermining the heroes, in the end having to be saved from themselves. Gag me even harder.
The key to escaping this kind of thing is to assume that a character who holds a position different from yours (or your heros) isnt a complete idiot. Whatever their particular mindset may be, with its quirks and kinks and biases and prejudices, theyve reached that mindset for some reasonand quite often its a comprehensible one. Granted, their reason might be illogical, not just from the point of view of someone holding an opposing opinion but from an objective standpoint, but its comprehensible. Real-life example: I know someone who is mildly homophobic. I also know the reason for ithe was hit on, aggressively, by a gay man and found it really uncomfortableand while its illogical (said gay man didnt represent the entire gay population) its a reason you can understand even if you disagree with it.
Basically, this gets back to doing proper characterization. Just as your hero really cant be Mary Sue personified, your antagonists (either the main antagonist or those secondary characters that have some sort of dispute with the hero) really shouldnt be straight off the train from Villain Central Casting.
To be fair theres a lot of fiction, a lot of very good fiction, where the lines are clear. Yet theres something satisfying about having flawed heroes and understandable villains. Not only does it bring the characters down from the archetype to the relevant, it gives the audience more of a sense of the characters. Whats more, it gives the characters reasons to be in opposition.
If you look at superhero comic books, where the line between the good guys and the bad guys tends to be drawn much more clearly than in other fiction, youll see that most of the bad guys have motivations beyond just Evil For The Sake Of Evil. Youll also see that the best bad guys, the ones whove stuck around the longest and are the best antagonists, have understandable reasons why they are bad guys.
Doomsday killed Superman, in present continuity pretty much the only villain who has ever done so; yet Doomsday isnt Supermans greatest opponent. Doomsday was simply a mindless killing machine. On the other hand, consider Lex Luthor. He was the most powerful man in Metropolisuntil a certain alien knocked him off his perch as the most respected power, confounded his goals, even got him booted out of the presidency. Luthors hatred of Superman is grounded in something that can be understood, even sympathized with, by anyone whos been screwed over in their workplace by a fellow employee.
Another famous supervillain is Magneto. In his initial appearances, he was your basic would-be Ruler Of The World. But nowadays, his motivation is entirely understandable and even sympathetic: He was a member of a minority sentenced to death once before, and hell be damned if hell let it happen again. In his own way, hes noble, brave, dedicated. You can understand that. You can even imagine it happening to you, or at least have conflicted thoughts about how youd handle his situation if you were in it. That doesnt mean he cant be vicious, planning monstrous acts, a person who must be stopped from succeeding. Your hero can still be a hero, acknowledging that even though the bad guy does have some points, the means by which hes trying to achieve his ends is so wrong that he has to be stopped.
Its easy to be the hero when you are totally in the right, and the other guy is a two-dimensional villain from the Snidely Whiplash School of Pointless Evil. Its even easier when you, the author, conveniently sets up this universe where the rules are biased in favour of your alter-ego who is rampaging through the text.
Ah! but when your villains have a legitimate point? Then you have a story worth telling.