Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writerly Wednesday: When your characters don't agree with you

Armed with the satellite remote, my husband sat down on the couch and began flipping through channels.

I entered the room as he settled on a rerun of CSI. "Hey, I love this episode," I said. "This is the one where the kid kills his college roommate because the roommate is having a homosexual affair with the kid's dad."

Exasperated, my hubby turned off the television and pushed himself up from the couch. "I guess I don't need to watch it now. Thanks for ruining it for me."

Scenarios like this are why my husband started watching Bones instead of CSI. I can't spoil the ending because I haven't seen every episode. In fact, I never really liked Bones.

Then a few weeks ago I caught an episode where the charred body of a man with devil horns was found on the altar of a Catholic church. That's when I discovered the main character -- Dr. "Bones" Brennan -- was an atheist.
At one point in the episode she said, "That would have great meaning to your superstitious followers."
I found the expression of her views on a higher power (and those who believe in one) to be irreverent, offensive and condescending.

I should have been saying, "Hey, wait a minute, jerky. Those are fightin' words."

But I didn't. Instead, I found myself more drawn to the show.

Why? Well, there were a few reasons.

First, Dr. Brennan's attitude fit her character. Second, it forced me to reassess why I believe what I believe, thereby strengthening my faith. And third, her partner -- Special Agent Booth -- balanced Dr. Brennan's lack of beliefs with his own take on faith.

There ended up being a lot of truth behind the message in that particular episode: "We all become angry with God sometimes." (Amen, brother. Amen.)

I mentioned my shift in attitude toward the show the other day to a friend. Surprisingly, the friend responded by telling me about a similar situation.
She had grown to love a character on a medical drama but, as someone who is pro-life, she felt conflicted when the character encouraged another (an unmarried teen) to have an abortion. In the end, the unmarried teen chose to have her baby and give it up for adoption.

My friend said the happy ending for all kind of balanced the message.

But not all endings are happy. Not all fiction -- whether in word or on screen -- adequately balances the pros and cons of controversial topics. Sometimes we become so wrapped up in the offense we feel to our personal beliefs that the greater message gets lost.
Creating a character who is vocal about a controversial topic is a tricky thing. There is a delicate line between potentially offending an entire group of people and broadening someone's view of the world.
My advice: Proceed with caution.
Have you encountered a character whose personal beliefs clashed with your own? Did you continue reading the book or watching the movie/television show? And have you created any characters who do not share your beliefs? If so, was it difficult to get into his/her head?


lbdiamond said...

I think this is why I can't get into Anne Rice's Christ series and why I had to stop reading The Shack. Because I know a bit about the subject, the authors' plausibility tanked for me, IMHO. So, sometimes it works, sometimes it don't.

Great post!

Michelle McLean said...

I haven't tried tackling a subject like that...yet :) Gotta say though, I LOVE Bones :) and Castle - *happy sigh*

Kat Heckenbach said...

I think in situations like you described, the scenario wouldn't have worked to send a message at all if there had been no "opposing" viewpoints. If the one character had not encouraged the teen to have an abortion, would there have been a message that she COULD CHOOSE NOT TO? The show gave both sides, and the teen chose life. That is a great message, that may have been lost if she'd not had to make an actual decision.

Aubrie said...

I guess it would have to depend on which beliefs. The Shack didn't bother me. Although I didn't agree with everything in it I kept reading to see how it owuld end.

Good question!

Journaling Woman said...

I'm like you with Dr. Brennan, I didn't like her character and I felt insulted. Everyone around me was watching it- I watched it once then again and finally I was touched by her character. I found compassion for dr. brennan. Compassion is huge.

KM Wilsher said...

For me, I have been all over the place in my life. I do not write characters whose personal beliefs are not my own now, or that I may have had in the past and learned different.

I guess, there are some characters I would not write. Not that I couldn't but I don't think I would enjoy writing them.

Good thoughts Kat. I need to ponder this.

Sarah Bromley said...

I frequently write characters whose beliefs are different from mine. For some reason, I have this quirk where there's a hint of religion in my stories. The characters always question it even though I myself know precisely what I what believe. And I think some of that questioning comes just with the age I write about. I think being willing to look at anything--religion, lifestyle, etc--from a viewpoint other than your own can benefit you by letting you examine your own life while creating a richer, deeper characters.

Christine Fonseca said...

I'm a very eccletic reader (okay I am just pretty ecclectic overall), so I can read things that are very opposite of my POV. As for writing it..I try to treat lightly when it'll be controversial. That being said, I am all about authenticity, so I wil make suure my characters are athentic to their beliefs

Crimey said...

Why yes I have! The antagonist in my WIP has a blind, unwavering belief in his path to god. Let's just say that his path breaks all of the ten commandments and it's quite a challenge for me, but the more I get into trying to make him believable, the more I realize that I have to see it from his point of view.

Elana Johnson said...

I read a lot of books that have characters saying, doing and believing things I would never say, do or believe. That I don't want my children to say, do or believe.

When I write, I try to make sure I can put my name on it and show up at church and no one will go, "Oh, man, she wrote that one book."

You know?