Writers are not their characters

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When I was younger I used to write all the time. Then I got sucked into a terrible relationship and I stopped writing. Aside from being clinically depressed and being made to feel worthless on the whole in the relationship, the real reason I stopped writing was because the people I was involved with believed that every character I created was a representation of me. They used my characters against me. Every time a character in one of my stories did something wrong, I was blamed. If I wrote a character they perceived as sexist, I was sexist. If they thought a character was irresponsible or thoughtless, I was too. They focussed on the negative every time and slowly chipped away at my self-esteem until I just gave up on writing altogether because I was so terrified my characters would make a mistake and I would be found guilty.

It was a shitty way to live.

Now that I’m free of that relationship I’ve taken up writing again full force, but the thought that I’m intimately connected to my characters still lingers and sometimes it scares me so much I’m tempted not to explore taboos or subjects that could be seen as ‘risky’.

I sometimes get scared, but then I push on through with the mantra of ‘I am not my characters’.

As a writer it is vital to distinguish yourself from your characters, or else you’ll take on the burden of their mistakes and be tempted to keep your writing in a safe zone. But writing, and art in general, is not about being safe. It’s about taking risks, putting yourself out there and exploring the deep dark places where other people won’t go. As an artist I feel I have both the privilege and responsibility to rip myself open and show my inner conflicts to the world. Through our artists, humanity has the chance to examine ourselves and others and that is so important. Sometimes I hate my characters and disagree with them, but I write them anyway because art should be a place to explore anything and everything that’s in your mind.

Lately though, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people out there who think in the way I was conditioned to think: that writers are their characters. I’ve seen writers torn to pieces by politically correct activists because they dared to explore something that was taboo or because they presented a sensitive situation in what others consider ‘a wrong light’. Some people seem to hold the opinion that writers are personally responsible for the views of their characters. If a character in a novel or TV show is sexist, racist, homophobic, weak, stereotypical or any number of other perceived issues, then the writer is directly to blame and clearly holds all of the same values or flaws as their protagonists.

This is wrong.

If this was really true, why wouldn’t more writers be personally lauded for creating wonderful, heroic characters? When was the last time you heard a review of a book that included the idea that the writer personally must be a true hero because they wrote an amazing character? It never happens.

If this was true wouldn’t every murder mystery writer be a psychopath?

We can’t just cherry pick what traits an artist gets endowed with because we’re angry or upset about a certain piece of art.

My (unverified psychological) theory is that people look for the bad before they look for the good and when they find the bad they want a scapegoat, someone to blame for the fact that they’re upset or don’t agree with something a character has done. But unfortunately this is just a quick, easy way to alienate writers and make them scared to explore concepts or look at angles that might not otherwise see the light of day.

As a society we need our writers and artists to feel free to express themselves without fear of personal attack. We need them to plumb the depths of their souls and expose their dark places without a band of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks banging down their door. We need to adjust our view of fiction to see it for what it is: a fictional story with fictional characters.

Sure we can infer things about writers from what they chose to write, but to make assumptions and rage against the individual for making a piece of art and being brave enough to put it out there is nothing but a subtle form of personalized censorship. We should be better than that. We should understand that fiction is not necessarily indicative of a person’s beliefs and disagree with the characters and their actions instead of the writer who created them. Criticize the art not the artist.

Writers are not their characters and it’s a dangerous thing for the freedom of art to suggest they are. If we condemn our artists for their creations they might stop creating altogether, like I did once upon a time, and then where would we be?

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10 thoughts on “Writers are not their characters

  1. Very well said! I’ve always had the fear that people might assume I am the characters I write, though I never felt the consequence of it like you have. I’ve been blessed with readers who understand the distinction between writer and character. I also think that as far as the craft is concerned the strongest and most interesting characters are ones that are unlike ourselves. If all of our characters were based on ourselves they’d be pretty generic and uninteresting, and I think this goes for the writer as well as the reader. Write through the fears my fellow author!

  2. Nice post. sweetie. You know I sometimes email some of the writers I read and when they write back, (and they do, beileve it or not) they always let me know that there is a separateness between them and their characters. I think this is because of exactly the thing you’re writing about here. People tend to think of you are the character you’re writing about. But the one thing to keep in mind is that this is their problem, not yours. Never second guess yourself. Fear is the mind killer. You’re pretty fearless anyway, so I know this will never hinder you. I get the feeling from this post that it’s mostly an irritation. People are a pain in the ass. Sadly they are hard to make go away. And unfortunately you need them to read your stuff and all. Love, Dad.

  3. I agree – we should write what we want to write and not feel constrained by people who think it reflects on us (or, a problem I’ve talked about before, them.) The only thing I’m not sure I agree with though, is you saying that this plumbs the inner us or some dark part of ourselves.
    Personally, I think we can write characters which really don’t go to any part of ourselves (beyond perhaps those things shared by all humans). In writing a prejudiced character, for example, we are not necessarily plumbing our own dark places. We are more making a commentary on the darknesses of others, those which we see in the news, in the people we meet, etc. Even if we don’t give the story a moral, by making the ‘bad’ character suffer for or overcome their flaws, we’re not necessarily condoning their behaviour.

    • Hi! 🙂 I think you may have misinterpreted what I was saying. I didn’t actually mean that people have to plumb the depths of themselves to add something to their stories, but more that people might be scared to write any type of character (dark or not) for fear of ‘getting something wrong’ or having a trait we can’t even see reflected on to us. The business around writers plumbing the depths and digging into themselves (which I think is beneficial to art and isn’t always about darkness, it can be about writing stories that are hard or any number of things) is what we could be losing out on if we persecute our writers and make them scared to write something for fear that they will be personally held responsible for the actions of their characters.

      • I don’t think I misinterpreted. I totally got the points about being scared to write ‘bad’ things for fear of people thinking that reflected on the writer. I understood that and agreed with it as I said.
        But your writing suggested twice that writers should ‘plumb their depths’ to write and I think that’s a completely different point, and almost contrary to the main point of your article.

      • In this case plumbing your depths refers to making a deep connection with your writing in one way or another, being passionate, digging deep, etc…which I believe is important in art. My point is that people might be afraid to care too deeply if they are being taken down by people comparing them to their characters.

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