Friday 12 April 2013

I am not my character. Duh.

Niven's Law: "There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is 'idiot'."

The past 18 months have been a great experience. There have been small negatives though, and this aphorism pretty much sums them up. I was moved to blog on it by an unexpected and quite illuminating observation.

A few months back I dived into a forum debate prompted by Joe Abercrombie's post 'The Value of Grit'. Joe and a whole bunch of other authors engaged in the discussion along with other regulars.

One author particularly passionate about issues concerning the portrayal of women and the undesirability of graphic rape scenes etc was Francis Knight, a lady of strong feminist principles. She had a lot of sensible things to say.

Imagine my surprise then when browsing Goodreads I discovered that she finds herself in the position of having the top of her review listings capped by a 1* piece accusing her of sexism. The reviewer states plainly that they know what Knight thinks of women (and it's not good!). This view was probably not helped by the fact the reviewer read and reviewed the book thinking Francis Knight was a man. It would be interesting to see what would have resulted if they hadn't had that misconception. (The fact that 'Francis' is not the author's real name could lead us into a whole other debate on women and gender-neutral pen names... but let's not go there!)

I found this ironic because similar accusations have occasionally been levelled at me. At the start of the aforementioned debate Francis and I were supposedly on opposite sides. This division being wholly the construct of people who'd not read my books but had read the rare, but controversial (& therefore well known) reviews that painted me as the enemy of all that's good (see blog post title).

The debate fizzled out when the people who were 'against grit' (whatever grit actually is) turned out not to have read (or at least have read and then be ready to decry) any of the books commonly labelled as gritty. We appeared to settle on the consensus that if books as terrible as the ones people were up in arms about actually existed then we wouldn't want to read them. Thus the debate was more a case of one section raging against books that don't exist whilst another section tried to point out that such books don't exist.

In any event - it seems like Francis suffered from the same strange phenomenum that I, and I guess all other authors, do... namely readers thinking that they are their character.

Francis wrote about a sexist man - some readers have demonstrably assumed she is a sexist man.

This seems to be hard-wired into the human psyche and even intelligent individuals can slip into it. We react emotionally to fiction. If that fiction centers on a particular character who we have strong feelings about, particularly if it's written in the first person, we as a species have trouble separating author from character and it slips into what we say about both.

An ostensibly more sophisticated spin on the same idea, and one that I've seen in a couple of places, is that the character is an aspiration, an avatar, i.e. who the author wants to be. This seems clever until you take three seconds to consider it... then it's stupid. Authors of fiction (at least the ones you might wish to read) possess a better than average imagination. If they want to imagine themselves in some sort of Mary/Gary Sue/Stew role where they are 'winning all the sports' they can lean back and do so. If they take on the considerable labour of many months (or years) to create an entire book then they are either making a conscious effort to create a work of entertainment, and selecting characters who will get the job done, or they tend to have something more to say than, 'Look at mmmmeeeeeeeee! I'm great!... or I would be if I was... you know... this guy here.'

So the tl:dr for those who have scrolled to the bottom is:

I am not my character. Not this one. Not the next one. Not the characters who disagree with them... it just.doesn'


I'm not Jorg. I'm not angry all the time. I am not a stranger to fear. I don't consider friends to be assets to be spent easily in the pursuit of my goals. I am clever.

I'm not Jalan. I don't chase after all the women nor would I experience his level of success should I try. I am considerably more loyal to my friends and more considerate of other people. I don't ever go berserk. I am cowardly. I am a bad loser.

I'm not Nona. I'm sorry to say that I won't die for my friends. I am far less brave or determined. I do take things to heart and doubt myself.

I'm not Snorri, or Makin, or Gomst or Dr Taproot, or Kettle, or Abbess Glass.

Again. It doesn't work that way. And even where I share a trait, that's also true for hundreds of millions of real people. We all have much in common.


  1. Indeed.I think I related to you the Niven quote on this subject. :)

  2. But you look so fetching among the dead bodies and swords. ;)

    Very good points. I saw something similar happen to another writer who was attacked for her "laughable" and insulting portrayal of queer characters. The reviewer snidely suggested she leave the subject alone because she obviously didn't understand it.

    The author was queer herself.

  3. I saw that review on Goodreads. I even mentioned it to Francis at the Goldsboro event. The ironic thing is that a little further on, the reviewer says "I can only judge her book and not her mind."

    Except she wrote in the review: "The strongest female character was actually a whore, who escaped from sexual abuse to open a whorehouse, which pretty much sums up what Knight thinks about women."

    Hmm. Reminds me of another review and exchange on a high-profile fantasy site...

    1. the 'he'--> 'she' were a later edit when the author's gender was pointed out in comments.

    2. So the reviewer edited out the part where she made a factual error but not the part where she insinuates Knight is a misogynist - even though it clearly contradicts what she later said?

      I think the problem with this whole silly author/character conflation trend is that it's often not clear whether the accusers are just being cynical to generate controversy. Goodreads in particular seems to have a "let's see who can get the most liked negative review!" competition going on. Have you seen the Game of Thrones reviews? Yeesh.

    3. Do not attempt to find logic, common-sense, or much decency in negative online commentary. Especially if it's written by that prolific critic and provocateur, "Anonymous".
      It. Does. Not. Exist. [Usually.]

  4. Quite a lot of people have turned their hand to writing. Not so many have made it to a point where their work is publishable; many give up before then. Maybe they assume that, because what they wrote about in their inexperience was largely about themselves, an avatar or aspirational character, that all authors must do the same.

    Case in point: I'm an amateur, albeit one with a few hundred thousand words behind me, and the main character of my WIP does have a certain amount of me in her - political naivete which she later becomes embarrassed about, a moral question she is so certain about until she learns more about the situation that she was previously unwilling to research; a doggedness, a stubbornness; the relationship with her mother. All are very much from me. It's about drawing on experiences I've had to try to tell a compelling and believable story with a character who has depth. All writers are told "write what you know" and mostly, what they know best is themselves.

    Writing from a different perspective is a lot harder to do well, and because of that a lot more people stick with what's easy: writing a character like themselves. A few of those just forget that it's not the only way to write.

  5. Well, if author's were their characters then:
    JKRowling is a young boy wizard
    Roald Dahl is a big friendly giant, a girl named Matilda or a fox, etc
    Tolkien is only three foot tall and lives in a hole in the hill
    Philipa Gregory is a number of long passed away Queens
    Gillian Philips is a a Sithe character called Seth
    Bram Stoker was a vampire
    Mary Shelley was a mad scientist
    and, Alice Sebold is a dead girl called Susie Salmon, address: heaven
    I could go on...(and frequently do), people need to get over themselves. This is fiction not the news.
    Lynn :D

  6. I don't aspire to be like any of the characters I write about, nor am I anything like some of them but I'll admit that the way they think rubs off on me just a weee bit sometimes. For example; I found myself feeling less daunted by violence after I wrote about a particularly brutal character in an 80 page story though I'm nothing like him and I highly doubt that I'll ever kill someone.

  7. A pity, I imagined the author as having survived the Day of a Thousand Suns, morphing into Gorgoth: a superhero with nuclear scientist-intelligence and the strength of three oxen glued together in an orientable way.

  8. The facts is, the world is an ugly place, and so to believably write about this world, or others, ugliness should be employed. I think the grit of the story is what settles in our minds, and grates on our psyches', thereby turning a story, into an adventure...with pitfalls and rises. I despise the idea of someone taking a story, and attaching; rather- forcing, their agenda, and world view into a critique, painting an author into a character of their making. Nasty business that.

  9. This reminds me of a certain kind of person who assumes that actors ARE the characters they play. Nevermind the script they read or anything else for that matter.

    There's a point where artists put themselves into their work, but it's never usually that obvious, is it? I think the worst examples are the Mary Sues, but I think that's usually more of a plight in fanfiction than in the published world.

  10. Some characters are author avatars, by the author's own words. Ones with a similar appearance to the author, similar personality traits. Faramir for example, or Hermione. Hermione actually serves as the main infodumper, what with her being an exaggerated version of the author. Both of these characters have been confirmed by the authors as author avatars- see their wiki pages for sources

    You could be your character. It depends on your personality traits and looks compared to those characters. If your character frequently gives off moralistic speeches saying how great some philosophy or religion is that is also a common sign of you inserting yourself, especially if no one offers a contrary perspective.

    1. "If your character frequently gives off moralistic speeches saying how great some philosophy or religion is that is also a common sign of you inserting yourself"

      Maybe yes, maybe no. Rojan is a confirmed atheist, and rants about it a fair bit. I've written from the POV of devoted Catholics. I am neither.

      But yes, it certainly CAN be an indication. Usually it's fairly easy to tell, but sometimes the waters get muddied (understandably so IMO)

    2. The presence of characters with religions different to your own doesn't exclude your views being obvious. If you were say, a polytheist who believed all religions contained a bit of truth the better characters in your novel would slowly come to see that absolute Catholicism wasn't great. If the Catholic characters were villains they would do many evil things for stupid reasons to prove the idiocy of Catholicism. An atheist's foolishness would be shown to all by the obvious spirituality of the world and the pain he caused non atheists or he would come to realize hard atheism wasn't really good and slowly become agnostic, then spiritual.

      From googling you are probably a feminist. Could a person who read your novels segregate your characters into good/ evil by how feminist they were? Do good sexist males come to understand their privilege over the course of a novel? Are there any anti feminist characters in your novel who on the hero's side and are clearly morally good?

      Or to put it another way- characters are often used as tools to explain the author's ideology, not as characters.

      Even in the most biased of novels there are people who disagree with the author's intentions. But they are treated very different by biased authors than non biased authors. In the best treatments I've seen you could read one passage by an atheist and be convinced atheism was good and another passage by a Catholic and be convinced Catholicism was good.

  11. Thanks Mark -- it has been an interesting discussion over the past few months! ALways great to see other POVs on stuff.

    And to be clear I have no problem with people having opinions about my stuff. Some people don't want to read about the sort of character my guy is, and that's fine. It was bound to put some people off. I get all frothy about some books/characters myself! We all have stuff we'd rather not read, and everyone is entitled to have their opinions about what they read.

    But I am not Rojan, by any stretch. When I started writing him I knew he was going to be -- at BEST -- an anti - hero. I didn't write him as a sexist unknowingly, I had my reasons, and it's actually dealt with in the books in several respects (depending on your POV, I'm sure). But, as you say, when writing in first person, writing from someone else's point of view, it can be hard to separate author from character -- I appreciate that so I try not to let it worry me when it happens. Hazards of the job perhaps?

    And while there are some books I *cough* have problems with, if it's one book (or a series following one character) then I reckon it's probably just the story, the character. Now, if it's a load of books spanning years, and *all* the guys are sexist douchenozzles and *all* the girls whimpering idiots, then perhaps there might be something to be said (Gor, I'm looking at you)

    1. Good point. It occurred to me that a misogynist/racist/homophobe would have trouble writing characters who *didn't* reflect those prejudices - but the presence of such characters in a given book isn't proof of the reverse, because a good writer has empathy with all kinds of people, good and bad.

      As you say, you have to look at the bigger picture - but for us debut authors, there isn't track record to judge us by.

    2. Spoilers for the novel.

      From what I have grasped of your novel Rojan is a sexy man who doesn't believe in the obviously evil modern religion of the world (aka organized christian religion) which tells people that enduring torture will bring you happiness. He sometime in the past may have been a womanizer but doesn't womanize in the novel much and is kind and sweet to downtrodden women.

      Society in general is patriarchal, and women and some boys are tortured to make society work. Rojan meets a sexy redheaded warrior who may or may not be an author avatar who is beaten down by society but manages to help Rojan a little.

      Rojan falls in love with the redhead, is changed to be less sexist and more caring by his love for her, and learns to believe in himself. There is a contrived separation due to misinformation as happens in all romance novels and then Rojan solves all the problems of the novel on his own.

      The author's views are quite clear. Unless I missed something, Rojan's sexism is told, not shown. The novel is all about rescuing girls from the evils of organized religion and business. The bad boy in name is redeemed by his love of a redhead. It's pretty clear what is up.

  12. I think the whole character / author relationship is very complex. I think when we start writing, we put ourselves into our writing, either as wish fulfilment or to exorcise some trauma big or small. As we progress, we may try and write something very much the opposite of ourselves, explore the idea of being in another person's skin. But as we further progress, we break down character into a thousand different moving parts.

    The protagonist of my novel is an 82 year old woman. I am a 40-year old man. There are bits of Maureen that are me - her sense that the world had passed her by speaks of my (then) fears of never being published. But her selfishness comes from wanting her flawed not because I see myself as selfish. Most of her comes from being brought up around old people (my parents ran an old people's home). She, like every other character, is a product of experience, of watching and of knowing.

    I doubt whether, even under torture, an author could accurately identify all of which bits of character come from where. All we care about is a character interesting enough to write about.

  13. I think if I was (accidentally or on purpose) condoning my MC's sexism, the other guys would all also be sexist and/or he wouldn't get called on it. But they aren't (okay, one is) and he does.

    HOWEVER, what I see and what someone else sees in a character aren't going to be the same, almost always, because we see things differently. If anything, perhaps it was my failure to make those aspects more apparent, but I didn't want to use a shovel, you know?

    I was interested in writing about this sort of character, and getting under his skin, working out the why of him. There was a risk that not everyone would see things the same way (there is in every book we write) And that's a risk I willingly took -- that we all take, I think, when we release a book. Death of the author and all that.

  14. Thanks for writing this piece. I have experienced something similar. I guess people with no imagination are blind to certain truths.

  15. I'm still writing my first book (series actually, since I've found myself working more on the prequel for some reason) and I am not my main character, BUT I like associating myself with one character here or there.

    Maybe it's an old bad habit from writing self-gratifying fanfiction, but I like having a personal space inside the story where I can look on my characters as if I were standing there.

  16. I think it's entirely possible for someone with viewpoints that society as a whole or segments therein would deem undesirable or inappropriate to write, and to write well. It is also possible for an actor who excels at their craft to portray a character who believes in everything that he or she actually despises, and this can be true in both negative and positive ways. Some authors write about mass murder or serial killers without having gone out and stabbed people; others write about an attempt to strive for equality or fair treatment or freedom without necessarily believing that everyone should have it in reality. It's a mark of skill.

    We can judge an author's level of craft by what they write -- of course, we must also consider the experience and expertise brought to that craft by their editors, but the same could be said of any of us. If I worked the fry basket at McDonald's, and I burned every French fry I was trying to cook, and gave you a bucket of blackened fries, you could rightly say that my work is subpar. But if I worked the fry basket at McDonald's, made the fries as well as fries are ever made at McDonald's, and presented them to you with a smile and thanked you for your business, would you ever know my internally held philosophical orientations? My political thoughts? No, because in order to do my job (and keep my job), I would have to keep a lid on it.

    I guess my tldr rant is this: the same can be true in the opposite. I'm glad Francis Knight doesn't hold the same viewpoint as her character, and it's a mark of craftsmanship that she can write him in a viewpoint that doesn't resemble her own. But don't assume that an author who writes from a point of view you do enjoy and associate with holds the same opinions as their characters, either; try to find their website or biography and get to know them that way. No author of a character with "bad" characteristics is necessarily a bad person, but the reverse is true as well.

  17. I think that's very true

    I also think it's kind of natural to link an author with their characters in some ways -- it's certainly understandable when it happens. When I read a book, I feel (rightly or wrongly) that I have a little link to the author. I feel like I know them through the page, even as I know I can't. The trouble is, I may have picked up on something that is them intentionally being someone else, and not know.

    It's easy to do, unless you're aware that you're doing it (I put a piece through my writers group recently and because I didn't explicitly say what gender the protag was, and because there was a certain quality to the scene, several thought he was a she -- and then immediately said 'But I don't know if that's because I know you're female!', and this is people who know that I am not my characters)

    So while you can't tell an author really through their work (unless the specifically say they did X, or that character is me or whatever)I think it's natural that people DO do it, but a bit of a shock the first time it happens to you! It's certainly made me re-evaluate things, have a double check of my own preconceptions, which can only be good.

  18. A little update, because I've been in quite a few conversations this week about both this blog post and other aspects (of sexism in media) and particularly a couple of email convos winkled a few new thoughts out of my brain :D I shall probably blog about it (coming soon, the excitingly titled What We Mean When We Say Sexism) but someone suggested I might want to clarify what I mean when I say that Rojan is sexist, because there's a whole range of sexist behaviours, some more acceptable than others and what I think is sexist, others may not.

    So, when I say that Rojan is sexist, I'm not saying that he hates women, abuses them* he demeans them or thinks they should all be quiet and make his sandwiches, or that he doesn't think they should bother having an opinion. He doesn't patronise them (or tries not to), or ignore them. (Tbh, no matter how big of a challenge that would be to make a guy like that sympathetic, I'd want to brain an MC like that waaay before the end of the book!)

    At the start of the books, Rojan is a philanderer, but that doesn't especially make him sexist (as someone pointed out to me git doesn't always equal sexist), or no more than say Jack Sparrow -- in fact there are similarities between the two. However Rojan is ..obtuse about women. In short, he'd have trouble grasping the concept of privilege if you shovelled it into his brain with a trowel.

    *except in a love them and leave them way.

    And this is getting long, so I shall leave the rest for my blog post.

    But thanks again Mark (and everyone else who's joined in the convo here and elsewhere). Lots of food for thought!

  19. This whole topic scares the crap out of me, because I'm writing a book with a 1st person viewpoint character who has about average amounts of racism for an upper middle class southern lady, which is to say, not maliciously racist but deeply and subconsciously so. Her racism comes up a lot because she is now living in a city that is far more diverse than the one she grew up in. I try to have other characters call her on it, and for her to feel ashamed on the rare occasions when she becomes aware of it, but there is only so much you can do when you have a tight POV and your character can't get out of her own head.

    Given the fact that one reader assumed I was a bilateral amputee just because she is (and scolded me for "depressing" him with my fantasy of being the hero of a story despite my unfortunate condition -- don't even get me started on that), I don't have high hopes for people giving me the benefit of the doubt about her racism.

  20. I highly agree. The idea is sort of ridiculous. I never once thought about that, like you writing about yourself or your main character being the kind of person you truly want to be. Perhaps the "having the capacity to love even when you're broken" part but to be like this literally badass Jorg of Ancrath, it's a wild idea. But I gotta say, awesome job on the books. It's... different. Not the cliche kind of different. It's an unusually interesting kind of different because at first I never pegged myself as the medieval-scifi-paranormal-fantasy with a crazy-badass-protagonist altogether kind of reader. Prince of Thorns really stood out in all aspects, so thumbs-up!