Are fictional characters held to a different standard than real life people?
I’m working on this YA contemporary novel, the longest I’ve ever written as a first draft. And there’s a character who, should I be so fortunate to publish the novel, will doubtless be decried as a villain. Rightfully so; the character does some pretty awful things by anyone’s standard.
But it got me thinking.
I try hard not to judge my characters. I try hard to give them concrete, sympathetic motivations for even their most grievous sins. Most readers and reviewers … (who am I kidding, I’ll just call them reviewers)…realize this. They might rail against the characters’ choices, to which I say, huzzah! Tear ’em apart. Reviewers are perfectly free to judge my characters. They are also free to judge my writing.
It’s when they judge me as a human being – based on my fiction – that I get a little, shall we say, nettled.
But I digress!
Remember that bad guys rarely think they’re doing bad things. If I told you a certain man was loyal, peace-seeking, and perhaps even ambitious, you might assume he’s a Good Guy. Ambition can be a little tricky, but properly managed, can certainly be a boon.
Except I just described Darth Vader. BOOM! Lightsaber-drop!
I mean, really — in parts 4, 5, and 6 (the ones that matter. Snap!) we have something of a tragic figure in Vader. The point, though, is he’s not out trying to rule the galaxy for the hell of it. He believes in his cause. He is utterly loyal (to a fault) to his mentor, the Emperor. He tells Luke they can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy, and I think he really wants that. That is seeking peace. How he goes about these goals, of course, becomes the issue.
So here I am with this teenage protagonist who commits horrific crimes. Is he a Bad Guy? Is he redeemable? Should readers and reviewers judge him, and if so, by what measure?
Are fictional characters held to a different standard than real life people? Should they be?
Some reviewers have criticized Anthony, or Morrigan, or Beckett’s mother in Party. Some have torn the literary flesh from Chad and Brian in Sick. Some have dismissed Tyler in manicpixiedreamgirl. And . . . some of these reviews have been spot-on. Can’t lie about that. I’ve learned a lot from them. Others . . . well, others have frankly been pretty senseless, and a very few have attacked me, personally. But that’s a blog (or pending libel lawsuit) for another time. I’ll get more of these come August when Random is released, I’m sure; but I hope what happens more often is conversation.
I write these characters for a reason, and it’s never to be an asshole. It is to make investigations into who we all are as people, and it is to start conversations. I write edgy YA fiction, yo. It’s been broughten! I wouldn’t be doing my job if everyone was sweetness and light on every page.
I wouldn’t be being honest.
But most readers understand that. The point here is that fictional bad guys (and, often, good guys) are prone to the same errors in judgement, petty squabbles, and rash decisions we all are. No one is all good or all bad in reality, and neither in fiction. Let your good guys have flaws, and let your bad guys have admirable qualities. I think this is the beginning of what is hoped to be “multi-dimensional characters.”
It’s not your job as the author to beg forgiveness for the actions of your villains — in-book, or in real life. Let them do their thing, and let the good guys do theirs, and most importantly, make sure they collide in the middle.