I had a big debate a few years ago with a fellow who apparently believed that writers only express their real life viewpoints in their fiction. We were particularly arguing over whether a particular writer was “racist” because of a racist character in his story. As a writer of horror fiction who often features less than savory characters in my stories, I find this kind of thinking really disturbing. I wonder what conclusions readers are drawing about me because of the views and actions of specific characters in my fiction.
It has already happened to me twice. Back in the early 1990s I wrote a piece called “Turnabout is Fair Play” in which the “monsters” could only possess human females. It had to do with my idea of the hormone responses of the creatures. The possessed females were then very vicious. The first magazine I sent the story to promptly rejected it for being sexist. I revised it to make half the nasty characters male and it sold immediately to the next magazine I sent it to.
Why did I write a story with only female “bad guys” in the first place? I did it on purpose because by that time I’d sold about 20 short stories, and every single one had featured primarily male bad guys. I’d had only one female bad guy at all in any of these stories and she was a vampire. In a fun kind of way, I felt I’d been unfair to the male side of the species and wanted to spread around the evil. Even the title, “Turnabout is Fair Play,” suggested my intent, but my desire to be a bit more fair backfired. And it bothered me a lot because to this day there is at least one person out there who thinks I’m a sexist.
The second time it happened, I’d sent a kid’s story entitled “The Great Cookie Caper” to a magazine. In the story, someone is stealing the cookies mom is making and at one point mom laughingly teases her son about it being him because he’s getting a little “fat.” The “fat” was a mistake. I got a mini lecture in the editor’s response letter about being more considerate of larger sized individuals. Both of these incidents involved “editors,” not just your general reader.
This kind of misunderstanding is one reason I’ve never had a realistically portrayed human character utter a racist comment against another human group. It’s not very realistic because racist people really exist, but I don’t want my own personal feelings to be misjudged on the basis of what one of my characters might say. And I’m reminded of some criticism I’ve heard of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for being racist because of certain words used in dialogue in the book.
The Mark Twain situation brings up the issue of “tone.” I’ve heard people say that one writer’s use of racist characters is OK because the writer’s “tone” clearly indicates that he or she is not racist in their personal feelings. Wow! That really opens up a can of worms for me. I have a feeling that Huckleberry Finn is actually an anti-racist story, and it’s because of the tone I sense in the work. But I don’t consider myself sensitive enough to judge a writer’s racism, or other “ism,” purely from “tone.” Consider satire. A satirical story might feature characters who show exactly the opposite feelings from those the writer actually holds. But, 1) is everyone going to know the story is satire, and 2) what if a writer gets called on their story for being negative in some way and then promptly claims, “Oh, I was being satirical.” Do you know the difference? I don’t feel like I’m always going to make the correct judgment in such cases.
Personally, I try not to judge a “writer’s” character or personality from the fictional characters they put on the page. Now, I may not read a story that expresses certain types of thoughts or actions. For example, I generally don’t enjoy a story that features major characters who are overtly racist, but I don’t go from there to assuming that the writer feels the same way as the characters.
I used racism for most of my illustrations in this piece because I think folks understand the issue. However, humans are an opinionated group and the same issue can apply in multiple situations. Imagine a writer’s liberal character making negative comments about conservatives, or an atheist character making snide remarks about religious believers, or a bully character saying something insulting to a physically challenged character. The potential for misunderstandings is rampant.
I don’t imagine there is any way to avoid occasional misunderstandings of this type. I’ve probably made the same mistake myself. How about you? Do you make judgments about writers from their fictional characters? Are there times when it seems correct to do so? How do you know? And what does your writing say about you?