To the best of my knowledge, no one ever accused Dr. Seuss of being, well…a Grinch…after he wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Nor, do I believe anyone called J.K. Rowling a soul-sucking lord of darkness and destruction because she created the character of Voldemort in her Harry Potter books. And, though people were appalled by the twisted violence of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, I’m pretty sure author Bret Easton Ellis was never accused of being a murderous, dismembering sociopath. And yet, there are clearly some readers who believe that the author is, indeed, a reflection of his or her characters.
Case in point, my latest novel, Solo. After it premiered in May, I received some unexpectedly negative feedback about a couple of my characters. Now, please keep in mind that there are no Grinches or killers or evil, soul-sucking lords of darkness anywhere to be found in my story—just a couple of academics vying for tenure in the music department of a small college in the North Carolina mountains.
So, what’s up with that?
All I can think of is that, in my previous examples, the characters in question are so over the top that no one would make the leap in associating them with their authors’ personal attitudes or behavior. Maybe it’s just when faced with a distasteful character that could easily be a “real” person that readers get their hackles up.
Okay. I get that…sort of.
No, actually, I take that back. I don’t get that.
Look, I’m an author. I populate my fictional worlds with myriad characters from mystics, to murderers, to your garden variety Nancy McNastypants. Because that’s what the world is— a melting pot of wacky, mostly well-meaning people, occasionally punctuated by an individual totally devoid of a moral compass, just to make things a little more interesting.
In, Solo, there is a character in the backstory who committed suicide more than five years prior to the start of the story. In the last chapters, a truly awful (fictional) human being refers to the woman as a “psycho bitch.” Terrible right? Well, duh! It’s just part and parcel of what this character does…and who she is: An inconsiderate narcissist wholly lacking in the qualities of decency and compassion. So, I felt more than a little stung by some of the comments made by people who reviewed this book. Particularly hurtful was the accusation that I clearly didn’t understand the nature of mental illness and how inappropriate and insensitive it was of me to write such a comment.
As a woman who suffers from diagnosed major depression, I take offense to the notion that I don’t understand the nature of mental illness.
All I did was put characteristically nasty words into the mouth of a characteristically nasty character.
One reviewer flat-out refused to finish the book because she didn’t “like the way they talk to each other.” Okay, yeah, well, our main guy is pretty harsh in the beginning…but that was the idea. He undergoes a huge transformation. If I can’t portray him as a jerk initially, how am I going to get readers to appreciate the life-altering turn that he’s taken by the end?
Racists, rapists, slimy sexist bosses, philanderers, incompetent boobs—my point here is that most authors have, at some point, had to create characters who they’d hate to come across in real life. These are the characters that make our heroes and heroines better people. They’re the ones who provide the obstacles our protagonist must overcome to get to that happily-ever-after we’re hoping for.
Do I really need to be afraid now that I’m expressing my own viewpoints and prejudices every time something that’s less-than politically correct comes out of the mouth of one of my characters? Cause that’s a pretty scary thought.
To those who would judge me on this, I ask you to stop. Just stop looking for something to be offended by. There are plenty of books out there by plenty of authors who are actually trying to incite hatred and violence and bigotry. Mine are not among them. At least, you’d better hope not…because if I pulled the character of Jeremy Corrigan from someplace deep within my psyche then, trust me, you don’t want to know what I do to people who stand in my way.