Savvy Saturday – Confounding Characters

I’ve written before about the potential danger of handling controversial topics poorly and ham-handedly as a writer. An example from real life raised this issue to me again today, and provides a good example of how to use character diversity and similarity to carefully and sensitively make potentially controversial points. To set the scene, I am (when not writing fiction) a graduate student at a large university, where I teach undergraduate classes and do academic research. Today, a Pakistani coworker of mine who is newer to the university approached me with a question. Knowing that I am religious and American, both of which he is not, he presented me with a teaching predicament: a student in a class of his turned in a religious opinion piece instead of the assigned research paper, and he didn’t know how to react. If he failed the student, he worried that the student might think he was being persecuted because of the religious content of the paper he had turned in, rather than because he had not completed the work as it was assigned.

This raised an interesting point that is very applicable to writers. As a non-religious non-American professor, any action that my coworker took against a religious American student, no matter how justified, could be interpreted by some as an attack against the “other” demographic group rather than as an appropriate response based on a given individual’s action. As I considered the issue, I thought about how I would respond. I would have absolutely no qualms about failing the student – if he complained, I could tell him that I agreed with his beliefs and understood where he came from, and that the reason he earned the failing grade was because he had not completed the assignment as specified. The student would likely not be happy, but would likely connect the reason for the failing grade accurately to his own failure to do the work. If my coworker did exactly the same thing, however, the student could still maintain in his head the fiction that he was being persecuted for his faith, no matter what the reality was.

This situation has clear implications for writers. We, as creators of characters and cultures and worlds, have the luxury of creating individuals who can have fundamental disagreements and fight with each other. We can choose their demographics and their personal background for maximal narrative effect. Even more powerfully, we can choose whose perspective to tell a story from. With this power, however, comes the responsibility of using it well.

If you are going to raise issues that are tied deeply to characteristics that reflect important group identities – whether issues of religion, politics, race, culture, or something similar – then you need to consider the group identities of everyone you involve in your conflict. If you have characters who are different from each other on an important characteristic and you only give one character’s point of view, you could easily find readers assigning group stereotypes to the other character’s actions. An easy way to solve this problem, of course, is to present the situation from both opposing characters’ viewpoints. This will ensure that readers see the reality of the situation, as well as the misconceptions, that are going through all your characters’ heads, and keep them from judging you as an author for your supposed biases regarding certain demographic groups.

If you only want to tell your story from one character’s point of view, however, you are more limited in the type of conflict you can accurately portray without the threat of misunderstanding. If you want to give a nuanced presentation of what is right or wrong in a given situation, then make your conflicting characters similar to each other in all ways that could lead to misinterpretations of motivations. In the case of the example above, if I wrote the scene with a religious professor, I could then incorporate the religious student who blatantly did the assignment incorrectly without my readers thinking that I was saying as an author that all religious individuals are bad academics. The same would not hold true if I wrote it from only the student’s point of view and the professor did not share their belief system.

What issues have you seen raised in novels that have either been handled well or in a biased fashion by their creators? If they were handled badly, how might the author have done it better?

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