Sometimes people write such awful, villainous characters and people ask: ‘Is the author secretly a horrible monster to be able to come up with this stuff?’ George RR Martin and Karin Slaughter come to mind on my own bookshelf.
Other times, authors try and tackle delicate, depressing, violent or otherwise disgusting topics and just end up coming across like they are in favour of it. Instead of readers being awed by the villain, they’re just disgusted with the author.
So today, I want to talk about the character’s voice, VS the author’s voice. In the hope that you can avoid this particularly treacherous pitfall.
There is, hopefully, a difference between the beliefs and ideals of your characters and yourself, as the author. If all your characters believe what you believe—including your villains—you would struggle to have any conflict and it would, overall, be a very boring story.
However, if you are trying to write a racist character, how do you do it well without coming across, as, well, racist?
I just read this line in a story:
‘They had two of the most gorgeous children you will ever meet; a blonde haired, blue eyed dream of a girl and her strikingly handsome ten-year-old brother.’
Its narrative, not dialogue. So, its information from the author to the reader. Has the author ever met ten year olds? Do they really think ‘strikingly handsome’ is applicable to a ten-year-old? I’m not sure about you, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable, as I suspect I have just read a story written by a paedophile.
Creepiness factor aside, this issue has come up before in my writing group, where material comes across as racist, sexist or otherwise offensive and the author becomes incensed, saying ‘It’s not me, it’s the character!’
However, there is a huge difference between information we are given by the author and the character’s point of view, thoughts and feelings. If you want to make a character racist, sexist or controversial in some way, you want to make damn sure you know the difference.
Let’s take the above example. How would I take the same information and make it not weirdly sexualising of a child? Easily. Take out the sexualising words.
EG: ‘They had two of the most adorable children you will ever meet; a blonde haired, blue eyed angel of a girl and her cutely freckled ten-year-old brother.’
Okay, that’s much more comfortable. But what if we wanted the reader to be uncomfortable? What if the POV character is a paedophile and we want to show that without sounding like a paedophile ourselves? We looked for a deeper POV.
EG: ‘He gripped the chain link fence, watching the children swing higher and higher in the playground. She was the most beautiful little girl he’d ever seen, with her lithe, pale legs and short pink skirt. As the swing, peaked he’d catch a glimpse of blue panties.’
I feel dirty writing that, but you get the idea. However, if I strip out the POV elements, it’s even worse:
EG: ‘She was the most beautiful little girl, with lithe, pale legs and a short pink skirt. As she swung on the swing, you could catch a glimpse of her blue panties.’
Hopefully, you see the difference. Generally speaking, deeper character POV is better anyway, as it fosters a deeper connection between the reader and the character. If you are writing a villain like this, the deeper POV will make the reader much more uncomfortable, which is the goal.
Let’s look at another example:
EG: ‘Unable to fight, the women were all in the basement, where they would be safe.’
This is sexist, because it is implying the women are in the basement because they are unable to fight. What you need to do, is show the women are in the basement because whoever is in charge believes they are unable to fight.
EG: ‘Amid protests, Captain Greggory sent the women and children to the basement, claiming they would be safe there.’
Everyone is going to make a mistake like this eventually. Even my sweetest, most tolerant friends, and my fiercest social justice friends, have tripped up and misworded something in an unflattering way. If someone says, ‘this is racist/sexist/offensive’, don’t argue and explain why it’s supposed to be. Check the attribution, assign it properly.
Remember, give someone ownership of your offensive beliefs, if you don’t, to the reader, they’re YOURS.