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  • Writer's pictureT.R. Slauf

Authors & Their Characters - does a bad character make a bad author?

Authors are nothing without their characters and the characters would be nothing without the author to write them. So, does that mean a 'bad' character means a 'bad' author?

Now, it's important to note in this sense when I say 'bad' I do not mean 'poorly written', I mean rude, sexist, racist, narcissistic, manipulative, crude, just all around awful and naughty. And I think the answer to this is that it depends, but more often than not, no. An author writing a character like this does not reflect the author themselves.

I am going to start with an example of the exception to the rule. I was reading a book by a famous now deceased author. The main character (MC) was a wealthy woman who lived alone in 90's New Orleans. Her house had a team of workers from kitchen staff to gardeners and drivers. In ever interaction where the MC described these characters, all she did was ramble on about how dark they were, how she couldn't understand anything they said because of how they moved their large mouths, and how uneducated they were, but despite these things they were nice.

At first, I thought the character was just an awful and self-righteous person. Later I found out the author wrote this book as a self-inserted internal discovery novel. Which is a roundabout way of saying the author wrote herself as the MC and the book was symbolic of her emotional journey with life and death. (There was a ghost in the house).

Needless to say, that information immediately turned me off to the book and I have been hesitant to read more of this authors work since. Now I count this example as the exception to the rule. This author was blatantly writing herself as the MC and because of this the MC's flaws and bad behavior were (presumably) her own.

A second example I have is a horror novel I recently read. In that one the MC was a middle-aged woman who was unmarried and childless, she found herself caught up in a cult. The cult in question was formed around a (fictitious) serial killer who prayed on middle aged, unmarried, childless woman and the cult in question continued his teachings claiming these women were useless to society. While this cult was fictitious in nature, the author tackled some all too real societal issues, as such many middle-aged female readers resonated with this novel because of this.

After I finished reading this book myself, I went to GoodReads to read the one-star reviews of it for fun. (I have an odd sense of 'fun') Let me tell you, I was flabbergasted by the number of readers who said 'this author clearly hates women' or 'this book is sexist and ageist' or complaints about the language the characters used in direction at the MC and others like her in the book. The undesirable behaviors pointed out in these reviews were written in by the author to demonstrate the societal issue the author was trying to highlight in their novel.

Another example I have is a series of urban fantasy novels where the MC is a bit 'rough around the edges'. The series is the type where the plot is driven forward by the MC making a series of very dumb decisions and being too cocky to ask for help or consider others capable of assisting. This is the type of MC that is fun to read about, but I would hate to know in real life.

Many readers hate this series and despise its author because of the MC's pig headedness and chauvinism. But here's the issue with that, the MC's behavior is painted as a character flaw that they need to get over and is something that causes serious issues. Time and time again the MC realizes they made their life harder by being a butthead. As the series progresses the MC is forced to confront this and alter their behavior.

See the differences?

Not every character in every author's work is going to be a shining star of exemplary behavior, because not every person in real life is exemplary. It is the flaws and nuances that make these characters believable and more so, it is the terrible things (or other characters) they are up against that make them memorable.

The very idea that an author who has written a villain is a villain themselves because of this, well it makes no sense to me.

I for one cannot imagine reading books where nothing bad happens, there are no antagonists for our characters to triumph over. That would be boring.

The main reasons I read and write is to experience things I have not and would otherwise not experience. It is to explore the underbelly of society and the depths of human nature safely from my own home behind the lens of fiction and fantasy.

How can one craft a narrative exposing these things without writing about them?

How can an author explore uncomfortable themes and truths, without writing uncomfortable and terrible characters?

Now it is true that not every book and every author is out to pen a groundbreaking social narrative. Many books and stories are meant to be escapism and there is nothing wrong with that! But in these books, don't we still have a 'bad guy'? If not in the cartoon supervillain sense of the word, there are still antagonists who drive the plot forward.

All stories have a few essential elements: plot, MC, protagonist, antagonist. Sometimes those elements are unpleasant.

MCs don't have to be 'good people'.

All characters don't have to be 'good people'.

Because an author displays and narrates bad people doing bad things, does not mean the author agrees with, nor condones, this behavior. Often times the author included these things to purposefully draw attention to it, to make the reader conscientious of it.

When evaluating these things, the context of bad behavior in these books is important to consider. Is the terrible behavior painted in a terrible light? Is it condemned by the other characters? Is it something that character has to learn to overcome and rise above?

I want to know your thoughts on this. When is an author crossing the proverbial line in writing bad characters?

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