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?