Reading into Writing

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No, I didn't intend for that to be some clever turn of phrase, it was just the most succinct way I could think of to sum up the topics in this post.

Last week a discussion was started on a forum I frequent. The discussion started when someone posted an alarming "find" in a book where the author had "obviously" interwoven his/her own beliefs into the fiction. I have no idea what book the person was talking about because they didn't share the title, but it got me thinking about just how "obvious" this was.

What I'm wondering is if the "obvious" viewpoint in this case wasn't that of the character rather than the author.

Sure, it's possible that an author with a particular world view crafted a novel in such a way that his/her view is carried like a standard from start to finish. Most of the time, unless the author says up front that their novel is a celebration or denouncement of [touchy subject or belief system], readers pick up on this pretty quick and it rarely has the effect the writer hoped for. In general, readers want entertainment rather than soapboxing and finding the former masquerading as the latter can lead to reflexive book tossing.

I think it's far more likely that the viewpoint in question was the belief of the character, and that's where the "problem" comes in.

How do readers separate the beliefs of a character from that of the character's creator? A devout believer can write an Atheist, just an Atheist can write a faithful priest if such a character fits their narrative. Bigotry can run amok in a book written by someone who finds the practice distasteful, and the words uttered by the characters will be just as hateful as if the author was writing from behind the eyeholes of a white hood. Cowards can write the heroes they never were and the outcast can build the perfect prom queen. It requires research, but that's true of most anything.

Do you ever worry that a reader might mistake something fictional in your book for a very real part of yourself? Have you created a distasteful or repugnant character that's so real the people around you began to wonder if there was a darker side to your personality they'd never encountered before?

Convincing characters, and those that are multi-dimensional have to be real enough to jump off the page and that can't happen if writers water down their personality for fear of having a character's personality traits assigned as their own. And it truly surprises me when people have a hard time separating fact from fiction. (Worries me as in I start to wonder if they think Stephen King really has monsters in his closet and a rabid dog chained in the backyard.)

It's fiction. By definition it's false.

Yes, writers put a bit of themselves into everything they create, but what they put in is their effort and heart and creativity. Bias and opinons are necessary evils to make characters as realistic as possible. Without them, there's no chance of an antagonist because no one thinks differently than anyone else.

(This, of course, assumes the writer DIDN'T intentionally set out to showcase a specific viewpoint. There are propaganda books that do this. There are allegories that do this. There are satires that do this. They have their audience, and the readers who open those books usually know what they're in for.)

It's a bit of a two edged sword hearing that a character resonates so well with a reader that the reader sees them as a real person. On one hand, you've done your job as a writer and created something where the readers can immerse themselves for a few hours. On the other, you know there's that kernel that makes the same reader who enjoyed the book look at you in a different light.

Apparently, a writer not only puts him/herself into a piece, but takes a bit of that piece into him/herself, even if that wasn't their intention.

8 Chiming In:

Amparo Ortiz said...

Excellent post! I agree with writers who put bits of themselves into their work, as long as it serves a purpose. Self-indulgence shouldn't be part of the equation. We're not writing 100% for ourselves, after all.

Ted Cross said...

Sure. I have lots of things, such as the elves never marrying, that I expect some readers will decide is some sort of commentary on my part. There is no religion amongst the civilized realm in my fantasy world, either, but that doesn't mean I have an agenda. It's the way I felt this particular tribe evolved.

Terry Towery said...

If you want to read a very successful commercial author who consistenly weaved his personal agenda into his fiction, read Michael Crichton. :)

Melissa said...

I think readers need to work on separating fact from fiction, we aren't our books even though we put ourselves into them (in the ways you described). I mean, if someone reads my book, they will probably think I'm some sort of hippie who is very environmentally aligned. And while I do care about global warming and all that kind of stuff, to be honest I hardly ever think of it and I'm no hippie at all and I love me some technology. That's just how my world evolved.

I hope people don't make misconceptions about me from my work but I'm sure they will. And that's on them, not on me.

Amanda Sablan said...

People just need to learn not to care about what other people think. The minute they do that is the minute their writing reaches a whole other level. If someone wants to think that I'm just as secretly sadistic as some of my characters, then that's fine with me. Maybe then they wouldn't dream of trying something on me. >:]

Magnificent post! I think of this all the time.

Abby said...

It does worry me... I think there will always be people who read too much into a work. *shrugs* oh well.

Ellen said...

There are some writers (CS Lewis and Philip Pullman come to mind) who have stated that they specifically want their books to be read with their personal beliefs in mind... But personally, it always surprises me when people don't learn to separate fact from fiction with other novels, ones that aren't meant to be a reflection of the author's views, necessarily.
Maybe this just happens because mostly only my friends read my stuff, but I have a looot of beta readers who read my stories and then say things like "wow, I didn't know you were scared of heights!" or "why don't you like the smell of salt water?", and I'm like "... that's the character. Not me." And it surprises me every time. I guess I should get used to that :)

P.S. - I gave you a blog award :D

Dave @ A Writer's Look said...

Stephen King had that problem with "The Dead Zone". In the opening pages, the villain kicks a dog and stomps it to death. King got a whole bunch of hate mail... despite the fact that it was the villain doing the kicking and no real dog was harmed.

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