Slightly different topic today – every now and again this sort of question pops up on writer’s forums, and while I don’t have every answer I figured I’d at least lay some thoughts down.
By the way by hateful views, we’re kind of talking about various forms of bigotry, particularly racism and sexism – Dr Evil type villainy is not usually hard to deny as an author!
First of all I want to address whether this is a non-issue or not. The worry that one’s readers may assume that an authors hateful characters share said authors POV fits into the broader discussion about whether its OK to ‘offend’ people as a writer. A subject which to say is somewhat divided is probably an understatement – however many pundits express that offense is an inevitability, and at times a necessity of writing and effort to minimize or reduce this is needless worry.
I take a different stance to this, but perhaps not because of the obvious reasoning. Hateful characters seem like an important part of fiction, and they are going to make some uncomfortable. Authors, I think, should take steps to distance themselves from such views through their skill at writing. So not so much writers should worry about offense, but that they should take steps to ensure proper characterization.
Now I’m not saying that writers should be polishing their disclaimers, pre-writing interviews or adding footnotes to repudiate their characters. Rather I think that if they are playing with hateful views that some extra care and attention is giving to character voice to ensure that the views are firmly entrenched within story not without.
Like many points I make, this may seem like common sense, however fiction often prompts a number of assumptions, for example if a view-point is expressed by a protagonist its usually assumed to be a virtuous viewpoint. Well sort-of, one of the key parts of fiction is of course MC change, usually including some sort of learning experience. however even though this may be a change from a “wrong” viewpoint the whole change is assumed as normative or OK. That probably sounds like gobbledygook – what I mean is for example Frodo Baggins starts LoTR complaining its a shame Gollum wasn’t killed earlier in the piece, to becoming a strong pacifist, while a big change in POV occurs the whole character arc fits relatively comfortably as a viewpoint (e.g. Frodo doesn’t go from serial killing to passive or something).
All of this is a very long winded way of saying that characters viewpoints are important, and if not handled then writers should worry about hateful viewpoints being misconstrued, not necessarily because its “offensive” (highly sarcastic scare-quotes intended) or that an author should be too precious about what readers think of them, but more because strong hateful views will stand out to the reader and easily break immersion.
So pontificating aside here are a few thoughts on how to do that:
- Ensure that character’s views are expressed in a characteristic way, that is probably embedded in a believable story consistent with their overall character. If a hateful character is setup as a stereotype or they are forced into situations which expose their nasty point of view it can feel contrived, which in turn makes a reader feel like the POV has taken precedence over story
- Show don’t Tell. Sometimes the tritest advice is the most useful. As we know shown drama is more powerful than told, and its more likely to be interpreted as in story, rather than author’s opinion.
- Make use of foils. I often struggle with this concept, but it makes sense. A foil is a contrast or comparison character within the text that helps shape the narrative. A foil can be a character with opposing views, similar-but-different views (for example if your MC is mildly sexist, their best friend might be outright misogynistic). It needs to be said that this probably shouldn’t be too obvious or you might find yourself in another ‘author intruded into the story camp’ where the reader gets sick of the writer trying to hard to distance themselves! The use of foils though is creating perspective, again within the story, of the hateful POV if your story show-cases multiple stances a reader isn’t going to assume the writer holds any particular one of them.
So just to recap, my view is not that writers should be overly freaked out that readers will assume that they are their characters worst viewpoints, however we should freak out that our stories actually seem like stories and not extensions of ourselves. Whether a viewpoint is hateful or not we should worry about this, although it is likely that stark hateful views bring along some additional baggage requiring more TLC than more run-of-the-mill views.
Just my thoughts on a slightly different topic: are there any other strategies that need to be added?
What are your thoughts on handling characters hateful viewpoints?