Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I don’t hate you, but my character does

We're all used to the never ending argument about whether women can write realistic male characters, or whether a Caucasian can write an African-American character without falling into stereotypes. The argument flares up every few months and is never resolved completely. Those who don't think an Anglo woman has any business writing about an Hispanic man will never be convinced and those who think the idea that we can write from many viewpoints, will persist in doing so.

But how do you write about a character that is so diametrically opposed to your own world view and make that person interesting and someone you want to read about? In my first historical novel, Shadows and Smoke, I had Billy Brewster to deal with. Racist misogynist, a violent man who also happened to be an LAPD officer in Prohibition Los Angeles. He is the opposite of everything I am. But to make him believable, I have to get into his head and understand him. I have to feel what he feels and believe like him, that what he is doing is right.

Another example are the two characters in Geography of Murder and Forest of Corpses, Alexander Spider and Jason Zachary. Now Jason bears some similarity to me -- he's very into birds, he did some stupid things when he was younger and made some bad choices. But that's about where our similarities end. I find nothing sexually arousing in pain. I can't stand possessive men. If a man told me I belonged to him, my only response would be “Not in this lifetime” and I'd be out the door. Nobody owns me, period. I told an ex that once, and that's why he's an ex. But in Spider I had to create a man who has to be in control, who is a damn good cop because he's smart and never shows weakness to anyone, who seems cold and unfeeling, but inside is a person who can find love for one person: Jason. He picks up men in bars and is into hard core bondage -- and Jason loves him more than life. Spider is everything I hate in a man. But the two books he is in have been some of my most successful and a lot of people have told me how much they love him.

When you create this type of character, you run the risk of people assuming those characters speak for you, especially if you write in first person as I did in both the Geography series and in Shadows and Smoke. If they do, you can at least be sure you made your characters real enough for readers to hate them. It's a risk, but it's a risk I'll take, and keep on taking, since I like edgy, dark characters and that means they have edgy, dark lives that are seldom politically correct.

How do I do it? How do I make sympathetic and even lovable characters out of people I wouldn't sit in the same room with? Because I'm a writer. I don't know if it's an innate talent all writers have or if it's learned over years of reading and writing. All I know is I have the ability to enter the mind of a person that exists only in my head and give him life in my novels and I know his thoughts and the way he looks at certain people. I cherish that ability and am forever grateful that I'm able to make a modest living doing the thing I always wanted to do, which is being a fiction writer.

So, yeah, be assured that I don't hate you or anyone else, but my character sure might. Trust me, it's nothing personal. :-)

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Paris said...

What a great post! I think you nailed it when you mentioned getting inside the character's head. I love reading edgy characters and learning why they act and react the way they do. These are the characters that stay with me long after I finish the book. I'm looking forward to reading yours!

Tina Donahue said...

Believability is definitely the key and essential in any good story, whether the characters are likeable or not. No matter the race/culture/background/whatever, we're all humans. We all bleed. We all have emotions. Putting those emotions on the page is what separates an okay writer from a great writer.

Good post, Pat.

Kathryn said...

It's not an innate talent all writers have. If it was there wouldn't be so many Mary Sue books out there. :-) Some of them are good books, but after a while it really does feel like the author only has one character which shows up in permutations. If you read SF, look at L. E. Modesitt, or to a lesser degree, Roger Zelazny.

The flip side is that for me, at least, if I spend a long time climbing into a character's head while I write them, a little of that character rubs off on me. Spending the better part of year writing a character that's deeply committed to Israel, for example, has changed my perspective on that situation beyond what I think is explained by simply knowing more about because of the research I had to do.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

As always Pat, you never disappoint me with your commentary and controversy. I do believe that a good writer has a certain intuition about people and their motivations and that they can walk in another person's shoes. It's an ability to be treasured and I believe it is innate. So many times I hear a writer say that they had a passion for writing at a very young age.
I really appreciate your work, Pat. Your male characters are not always so much charming as they are realistic and unique and I like them. Wonderful blog, Pat.

Rawiya said...

This is a great post Pat. You are spot on about the arguements you brought up about who can write who.

I feel as a writer, you will only get better with doing more research as well as reading books from other authors who are seasoned at the craft like yourself.

I love your post and from the small excerpts I've read of your work, I am definitely a fan!

Continued sales and the best of luck.

Joylene Butler said...

Fascinating topic, Pat. I like where this takes you. I'm also reconsidering one of my protagonists, the one giving me some problems. Thanks for making me think.

P.A.Brown said...

Glad you enjoyed it. It's something I've thought about a lot, since once I was accused of being racist because I had a character use racial slurs, so I know there are people who can't separate the writer from the character.

But Kathryn said an interesting thing, about how her perspective was changed in the course of her research. I'm finding the same thing happening right now in my research on Irish immigrants to America in the 19th Century. I have Irish ancestors, but they weren't Irish Catholic and left the country before the Irish Famine. But I never knew the whole story of the Famine and previous to beginning my latest novel I never paid much attention to the history of my people. Now I have a great deal of respect for all the people who gave up everything and left their homes to go to a strange place, among strangers, many of whom didn't even speak a language they understood and built both our countries.

I always figured I must have got some of those risk taking genes, since I picked up and moved from a small city in squeaky clean Canada and moved to that vast, sprawling city Los Angeles where I knew nobody and couldn't understand what half of the people there were saying. :-). So I was following in my ancestor's footsteps.

Fiona McGier said...

What a thought-provoking post! I never gave it a thought that some might find it odd that I write characters unlike me until a reader asked me if I know some Hispanic men really well, because she found my Reyes men to be so believable. The answer is no, but I imagined them very well, I guess. And yes, some confuse the author with the character, which is why erotic romance writers are greeted with raised eyebrows, and sometimes "significant looks" by men who sometimes even offer themselves for our next "research" assignment! As if! It's a tribute to imagination and writing skill, when you can create believable characters at all, and especially those different from you. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

Anonymous said...

I recommend that writers take acting classes. The groundwork an actor does in creating a character is similar to writer's work. For a play I wrote, a left-leaning pagan actress played a conservative Christian character--and did it well, thanks to her acting skill.
As for writing in another gender, I had a male friend read my mss. with a male protagonist. He found a few minor things that he said a guy wouldn't do or say. But mostly I got it right!
Sally Carpenter

Anonymous said...

Great post, Pat! I think you said it all, very well, and have expressed alot of authors' opinion on this.

Hugs, Kari Thomas, www.authorkari.com