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Apr
15
2018

Character versus Characters -- by Jon Goff

I remember someone telling me how wonderful the Battlestar Galactica reboot was, and that I would really enjoy it. I trudged through it and after several weeks emerged feeling bruised and battered. There wasn't one single character for whom I felt empathy, admiration, or even a liking.  The "heroes" were no better than the villains. I don't know if that was supposed to be the message, but the series left me feeling depressed and emotionally exhausted, and not in a good way. I've read books where I've been taken up and down on an emotional roller coaster of triumph and despair, and feel exhausted, but good at the end of the book.  

I remember reading Flowers for Algernon years ago and feeling a sense of loss and emotional trauma at the story's ending, but it was, after all was said and done, a truly inspirational and moving story about the human spirit's indomitability. Last night I tuned into Jeffery Donovan's new series, Shut Eye, about the dark underworld of psychics and the organized crime families that run many of these shops. There is not one single character with a shred of moral integrity. They are all vile, disgusting people who I can't come to care about. In short, there are no heroes.


This seems to be a growing trend, the writing of deeply, tragically broken, not flawed or imperfect, but mentally damaged people set as protagonists. The most popular one in recent memory would be Brian Cranston's Walter White in Breaking Bad. There is, of course Dexter, the serial killer with a conscience, if it can be called such.  I don't understand the appeal of these kinds of characters and stories. When I first decided to be a writer, I wanted to write things that uplifted people, that made people want to be more than they were.

Shakespeare certainly had his share of deeply flawed characters. Macbeth comes to mind, but he also had noble characters who inspired us to greatness. Cervantes' Don Quixote is about a character who is delusional, but in his delusion, he is also inspirational. All of Jack London's books inspire, and while I am not a fan of Hemingway's style, his books also uplift and make us wish to be better than we are.

I am bothered, to some extent, when I hear or see writers talk about "being true" to their characters. These characters are not real people, they are the constructs of the author. I do know that sometimes characters can take on a life of their own, but they are still the author's constructs, they are not writing the story.  There is no one other than yourself to be true to. Characters don't have to swear because that's what they would do in real life, by its very definition, fiction is NOT real life.

I am old enough to remember a time when people did not swear in real life, they conducted themselves with manners and civility and moderated their speech in public. I have no doubt that behind closed doors, there were moments of profanity and swearing, but in public people behaved better. And I think there is a correlation between our entertainment and the coarsening of our language. No one spoke like we hear people speak in movies and books today, but we popularized it by writing "real characters" who spoke the way we imagined people spoke, and people, seeing it in movies and books, voiced by sympathetic characters found themselves repeating clever phrases, which then writers began to hear more of, and thought, oh, this is "real."  So, they write "real" dialogue that isn't real at all, but a reflection of the imagined dialogue people found in their entertainment.

There is a reciprocity to the effect. Language in movies, song, and literature coarsens itself to be "edgy" and "real" which in turn coarsens the language in real life, which then affects literature. Which came first, the coarsening of real speech, or the coarsening of written dialogue is impossible to say, but the two feed off of each other, and I do hold writers responsible in part. We are creating dialogue that can find its way into every day speech.

Each writer must choose themselves what they want their writing to accomplish. Are you writing simply to titillate or shock? Are you writing to make people question their preconceptions? Are you writing to be edgy and push the boundaries? What is it you're trying to accomplish? I submit that you can write in a way that is titillating, shocking, pushes the boundaries, and challenges people's preconceptions all without resorting to vulgarism and profanity, obscenity and coarseness.

Regardless, I perceive a coarsening, and consequently a lessening in artistry in much of what is being written today. And I have to ask myself, what do I want my books to do? Well, the answer has been with me since I first started writing at 15. I want my books to be something people won't have to worry about being crass or vulgar. Entertaining without resorting to adolescent titillation and exploitation of sex.

Sex is a part of human beings, but at the heart of it, it isn't the sum of human relationships. The deepest, most profound relationships are not centered in the act of sex but are rather the end result of sex. Family, husband and wife, lovers who are connected beyond mere physical congress. These dynamics are far more compelling and long lasting than any tawdry sex scene in a movie or book. We don't remember those, but the deeper connections that are more meaningful because of shared experiences, pain, suffering, loss and triumph. We don't remember Romeo and Juliet for their sex scene (from the countless movies - Shakespeare was more discrete), but their impassioned devotion to one another, and the tragic death of the young lovers. Their suffering, their passion, the tragedy of it all, these are the things that have remained indelibly imprinted on the minds of millions for centuries.

What is being written now that might endure decades, let alone centuries? Well, let's look at some of the movies and books that have endured:

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Harry Potter
  • Star Wars
  • Pretty much every Disney princess movie ever made

In fact, of the top 100 biggest movies of the last 50 years, there is one R rated movie. One. That means no gratuitous sex scenes, no obscene or vulgar language, and no excessive violence.  And these are also some of the most beloved movies. The point is this, these movies are made under extreme censorship from the studios because they want the biggest draw, so they restrict what they'll allow, and this self-censoring has produced not only some of the biggest grossing movies of all time, but some of the most memorable, endearing, and generation spanning stories ever told. These are movies that we love to quote, and are sometimes imbued with wisdom that make us, if even for a moment, want to be more than we are.

They inspire.

So, rather than being true to your characters, or letting them "write themselves," consider for a moment what you want your books to accomplish in the lives of the people who read them and stay true to that.

Posted by Jon Goff 15 Apr at 00:36
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Responses to this blog

Lynkel 15 Apr at 04:35  
Hi, Jon
I love your question: What you want your books to accomplish in the lives of the people who read them?
I regarded myself as wanting to stay true to my characters, but your blog makes me realise that actually I strive to stay true to myself in terms of who I am and what I believe in.
I want my Junior Fiction pony series to take readers on a journey (across five eBooks) where they see how people have obscure depths. I want them to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and to look for the deeper person. And to enjoy stories with lots of threads.
In my adult work of fiction, I want my story to put across what life has taught me: that truth and integrity are essential and that lies and deceit will never really work.
Thanks for the read
Lyn
Rellrod 16 Apr at 10:12  
Jon — Excellent, excellent points. I bookmarked the essay at once for my "writing notes" file.

I agree about the characters that lack character. I just don't have any interest in an array of characters, none of whom I can respect or like. Why should I care what happens to a bunch of (fictional) people who I'd rather never existed in the first place?

We do have to think about, not only about whether we're creating something artistically accomplished, but also about what effect it'll have on the people who read it. I don't want to write something that will make readers worse off. (There are a couple stories I've read that are technically very accomplished — and should never have been written.) And adding to the torrent of disgust, frustration and incivility we're experiencing is not likely to have a positive effect on readers. Or, for that matter, on the author.

I agree that we can startle and shock, question preconceptions, warn and encourage, without resorting to excesses in language or imagery. Some of the best effects I've seen have been the most subtly achieved.

Rick


Rellrod 16 Apr at 10:13  
(Aak! Excuse the miswordings and errors in the above! I thought I'd get a "preview" chance to clean it up before posting. Oh, well.)

Rick
Paulpowell 16 Apr at 12:37  
One of the better blog posts I've seen on CC blog. Paul Powell, the rhinocerous who agrees with no one, surprisingly finds himself in agreement with this insightful bit of rumination. Its both articulate and thoughtful.
Paulpowell 16 Apr at 13:06  
The remarks about television's "trendy flawed heroes" is apt. On TV these days, you could probably insert Reinhard Heydrich as a protagonist and viewers just wouldn't give a darn. The gaze induced by television is too insidious, too judgment-strangling. Amorality floats on a river of laziness; no contemporary American would even consider for a moment rising up off their sofa and turning OFF the TV.
__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Bentletter 16 Apr at 19:57  
I'm going to have to disagree. I don't watch horror movies and then go out and reciprocate acts of killing that I witness on screen. I didn't learn curse words and edgier language from movies or books, or art in general, I learned them from real life people.

Art steering the psychology of humans? Not even close. It's the other way around; psychology steers art. If you want proof of psychology steering art, go back and look at the days of the black plague and see what passed for art then.

Take a look around, it is increasingly difficult to tell good guys from bad guys. Who are the good guys in the religious vs. lbgt conflict? Back in the good old days that you speak of, the good guys touted the bible and homosexuals were sinners. Plain and simple, cut and dry. Not so cut and dry these days.

Maybe art that challenges our notions of who is good and who is bad is exactly what the doctor ordered. Maybe a little mud in the face that challenges our notions of dogmatic thinking is better suited to reflect the changing realities of the world around us today. Maybe anything less than that is to settle for stagnation.

I'm not saying that you don't have a point. Personally, I love a good uplifting movie or book, nothing wrong with that. And don't get me wrong, I am not defending anybody's art, but on the other hand, I'm not holding anybody's art responsible for the way people act. That's up to the individual.
Paulpowell 16 Apr at 20:46  
Bentletter
I'm going to have to disagree. I didn't learn curse words and edgier language from movies or books, or art in general, I learned them from real life people.
Well. I like your spirited reply (whether it was to me, or to the OP). Give me a firm perspective like this, any day. You're certainly forthright in your beliefs. I applaud this.

So my first answer is merely a reminder: citing yourself or your own personal development, (your lack of criminal record, etc) ...this isn't really an argument as to what happens to millions of other citizens.

Bentletter
I don't watch horror movies and then go out and reciprocate acts of killing that I witness on screen.
Glad to hear it.

However, would you admit that even an intermittent diet of visual violence from a young age, may have desensitized you to violence? Would you allow that it has desensitized others?

Bentletter
Art steering the psychology of humans? Not even close.
I myself can hardly think of a source for this opinion but if you have one, I'd sure like to know it. Can you remember any place in particular where you ever heard this?

At most, you might be ok suggesting that psychology steers artists. But not audiences. Merely the fact that people have individual qualia and subjectivity can't be stretched to say that their psychology 'determines what they see'.

The consistent way in which reactions are reported annuls such a notion. Psychological tests and optical tests, color theory and composition theory; gestalt theory, Kuleshov's experiments...all reinforce the shared commonality of audience reaction before any psychology might even come into play.

In sum, we are more alike in our response to art than we are different. Whatever 'we bring to a museum' isn't enough to shift the blame for the reaction back onto the viewer over what is viewed.

Bentletter
If you want proof of psychology steering art, go back and look at the days of the black plague and see what passed for art then.

What 'passed for' art?

Are you perhaps thinking of the trend in paintings known as the 'dance of death' and that kind of thing? Heironymous Bosch, etc? Not indicative of the whole scope of arts at the time. That was just one style of painting. The medieval era is one of the most glorious in western civilization. The age of the atelier crafts system. Cathedral building, gothic architecture, illuminated manuscripts; textiles, horology, lithography, typography, woodcuts, cartography.

I neednt even mention poetry, philosophy or metaphysical thought. The 12th century is even sometimes called a 'northern renaissance' (preceding that which later took place in Italy). At the same time there were death's-heads, there were fabulous gold altar pieces and ornate carpentry found in church naves; the luminous paintings of Giotto, etc.

Bentletter
Take a look around, it is increasingly difficult to tell good guys from bad guys.
Contemporary popular culture has a lot of superficial trends. Everyone from Darth Vader on down, captures the attention of popcorn-chomping simpletons as a 'real' villain. Still, all this 3-ring circus & phantasmogoria is not to say that we can't continue to turn back to our intellectual heritage for a yardstick anymore, for what is deeply right or deeply wrong. Nichomachean Ethics, for example, or Jeremy Bentham, or Immanual Kant, if nobody else.

Bentletter
...but on the other hand, I'm not holding anybody's art responsible for the way people act. That's up to the individual.
It's pretty well documented that visual media has the power to influence human behavior to an inordinate degree above their own powers of judgment, skepticism, and critical thinking. Think about the powers of persuasion a professional magician can wield over an audience in Vegas. Or a good sidewalk con man. Or how about the well-known power of political propaganda? Even the most innocuous television commercial can do anything all these can do, and more.

Just my 2 cents. Enjoyable discussion.
__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Jole 17 Apr at 02:31  
i'm only on my first cup of coffee, so forgive me if i'm missing anything in the conversation. just want to say thanks for sharing the blog post. i love swearing in real life and for many reasons (no seriously, there are many reasons for swearing); but actually i don't like it in performance art or fiction. i find it cheap and unintelligent, especially in comedy. if you can tell a laugh-out-loud joke and not resort to swearing, that takes a lot more skill and smarts, imho. that said, swearing isn't really used that much in fiction anyway, is it? am i just reading the wrong genre? i don't think it's used because it doesn't have the same effect; you can't 'suddenly shock' someone with a swear word when it's written down.

regarding whether art or fiction influences behaviour, yeah no, i don't think it 'changes' behaviour, but it does normalise it. meaning, if you're already a violent person and you see violence in movies or fiction, you may subconsciously start thinking it's normal; you're not the only one, lots of people do it. same with swearing, cheating on your spouse, drug use or whatever.

i'm in law school and i was just reading this case where this teenager who was 'addicted' to cannabis, played some violent video game and then went out and killed his neighbour. not saying this is common, just saying if you already have problems and you indulge said problems in entertainment or art it probably doesn't help.
Random47 17 Apr at 09:53  
Hi Jon:
Excellent article. I disagree with almost everything you say, but I respect the viewpoint. I'm perhaps at the opposite end of the reader spectrum. I like to read stories about anti-heroes and villains. No one wants to read the parts of Paradise Lost when Satan isn't present.
You can have your Luke Skywalker — the goody good adventurer who needs a cause. I'm a Han Solo guy — the criminal who accepts a cause after being convinced. I need to be convinced. The world is a terrible horrible no-good very bad wonderful place. People are horrible to one another, to other life forms, and the environment. People excuse their actions with policies and ideologies and religions and syntax rules. People swear every other word. Your point is well-made but it reads like the WASPy patriarchs who complain that homosexuality was fine when men had the decency not to hold hands in public.
And it's always a surprise when terrible things happen. You say "I am old enough to remember a time when people did not swear in real life," which is utter bullshit. You remember that experience as being a part of YOUR life. I'm old enough to remember when publicly saying "Damn" was worth a Buckley column on the decline of Western Civilization. And I can report that swearing out of the earshot of self-righteous social engineers is as much a part of the American experience as a malfunctioning automobile.
Random47 17 Apr at 10:04  
Hmm. Got cut off there on my rant. There is too much, I'll sum up:
Don Quixote was an anti-Catholic screed about getting too inspired by book(s). Uplift is a byproduct of art more than an aim. I'm of the opinion that art should make you uncomfortable. It should point out rather than glorify. And that goes for both the good and the bad. I mean, are you seriously arguing that Disnified fairy tales are superior to the originals because they're more pleasant?
Jongoff 17 Apr at 12:45  
Not because they are more pleasant but because they inspire, they uplift. There is enough ugliness in the world I. See no reason to make more, let alone celebrate, glorify, or humanize it
Bentletter 17 Apr at 12:59  
To Paul Powell, pool player. I am humbled by your worldliness and education. I'm a simple man. So, I'll keep it simple.

Your personal tastes about today's trends in portraying heroes and villains aside, how do you really feel about the underlying question posed by the article.

Do you agree that all writers should aspire to right only pg-rated stories so as not to corrupt the world with titillation, vulgarism, and the like?
Rellrod 17 Apr at 19:14  
Bent — I don't think that's exactly what the OP had in mind.
Paulpowell 17 Apr at 20:35  
Rather than my worldliness, I think I let my usual verboseness get out of hand; even slightly derailing the thread.

The OP has several subtle points I agree with but I don't know how to dovetail an account of how I concur with them all, (in anything but broad/clumsy strokes).

After all, inquiring into 'morality in art' is an enormous topic; one which has been discussed fruitlessly for centuries. Its a gigantic debate.

Moving the scope of that debate onto modern electronic media? Another massive watershed of opinions can only flood down on us.

So. What else does that leave. Profanity? Limiting myself then only to this:

In general, profanity is preposterously over-used and also mis-used in today's movie scripts. I put the blame on Quentin Tarantino for making unnecessary expletives 'stylish' and 'cool' when it is anything but. Its a cop-out for the lazy or the un-inventive writer.

Profanity is simply so redundant in everyday life that it weakens the power of any product containing too much of it. For, we already hear it all the time. It is thus, only padding; only 'dead weight'.

The shock value of it is gone; and ideally never should have been pursued in the first place by any writer or any director. Its just too easy to 'get it wrong'; or overdue it; or to over-rely on it as a prop. You need to use vulgarity judiciously to be effective.

The OP is correct (I feel) when he reminds us that fiction is not responsible for scientifically accurate representations of daily life. He's basically reiterating the well-known truism that "film is realistic but not real". It is 'heightened' reality. It is a distillation.

This is eminently correct. Theatrical products are not scientifically photographed or sound-recorded and it is not their onus to bear some agenda of 'transforming language, by example'. Nor should it over-conform to everyday language. These trends are outside its duties, (the first of which is to entertain us).

Remember, even if an audience is titillated at the sound of cuss-words one year, they may be jaded to it in another year. It's not the responsibility of cinema to reform slang or promote more slang in American media. In the same way, film is not ideal when it is censoring language. These are both ugly extremes.

Dialogue is always inherently false because it is acted. Now, as it unrolls to our ears; the actors can either pretend not to acknowledge their effort to be more natural, or they can admit that they are speaking slightly-modified-away-from-natural speech. This is the director's choice.

He may be seeking out a raw, gritty style for his production. That happens. But its dangerous. Traditionally the best dialog is dialog which is not noticed at all.

And so all this is what I add to what the OP stated; and I suggest that it all comes into play, long before any consideration of whether a movie is 'making us better citizens or not'.





__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Jole Yesterday at 03:57  
i feel like we're all talking about different things already, but i just want to add i don't understand where any anger comes from towards the author. he's writing from a point of view and he's allowed to have it, just like you're allowed to have yours. there is no one is better than the other, and it's not fair to say his memories are bullshit or inferior — their his memories. who knows where or when the author grew up. besides, all memories are flawed. it's human nature and a moot point; we're all guilty of it, whatever.

if we're talking about 'good' versus 'bad' characters, well personally, i never judge characters when i read: i always judge the writing, the difference might be that i'm conscious of it. also, when people say they like Breaking Bad or The Wire or anything to do with Shonda Rhimes, they're not talking about a list of character traits. character traits are worthless if the writing is poor. likewise, swear words are pointless, boring or irritating if you don't know how to use them.

i can't think of any 'good' characters right now, but i suspect they're worse people than we actually realise. and even though we like 'evil' characters, we still prefer a 'good' ending. justice always wins; i think it has to, otherwise we're left feeling unsatisfied or on a cliffhanger waiting for the justice part to happen. (but if anyone can think of a story where justice doesn't win, i'm certainly all ears.)
Bentletter Yesterday at 12:09  
A pair of handcuffs is a pair of handcuffs. They restrict freedom. That's what handcuffs do.

The nature of the OP's argument is to ask other writer's to slap on a pair of handcuffs for "the good of the audience." Yet, beyond personal tastes and opinions, did the OP provide any factual evidence of someone being harmed by watching Breaking Bad or the Battlestar Galactica reboot?

I rest my case.
Paulpowell Yesterday at 12:54  
Bentletter
A pair of handcuffs is a pair of handcuffs. They restrict freedom. That's what handcuffs do. The nature of the OP's argument is to ask other writer's to slap on a pair of handcuffs for "the good of the audience." Yet, beyond personal tastes and opinions, did the OP provide any factual evidence of someone being harmed by watching Breaking Bad or the Battlestar Galactica reboot? I rest my case.
Well if he did not do so, I reckon that it's because he didn't think he had to. But if that's what you insist on—yeah, I'd probably able to muster up some evidence. I follow the topic of modern-media fairly avidly.

But is it really warranted? As far as this thread is concerned, I can't quite feel (as you do) that it is a case which is decided either way by 'evidence'. So my data-gathering would be idle and half-hearted, were I to go about any.



And another thing, I suspect that whatever evidence might be scrounged together... you probably wouldn't agree with anyway. We'd either hear cries of "hey, that's way too small a sample size" or 'hey, your cause is not tied tightly enough to your effect'.

(these are both valid defences in many debates, by the way, and I have nothing against them per se)

But I mean here in this chat, if I dug up some criminal prosecution of a violent teen somewhere in Ohio somewhere, and it just so happens that the extenuating circumstance is that 'harmful effects of a particular television show or a particular computer game' was advanced by the defence counsel and this was accepted by the court as a valid legal defence?

Even if this has happened somewhere (remote possibility at best) you might just as well respond with 'well, that's just one case you found'.

On the other hand, if I drum up a slew of medical and university studies and lab results which scientifically do tie changes in human psychology to prolonged exposure to media violence, sure—but you might just as well respond with, 'okay but that's not conclusive, its all just done in a lab somewhere, show me a court case instead'.

So I repeat what I state above: it doesn't come down to evidence; it comes down to common sense, values, culture, history, and tradition. The OP was expressing his admiration for literature which 'improves'. Maybe he stated his preference in too-definite terms; but there's nothing wrong with his sentiment. This style of literature he praises, used to be longstanding normal practice.

Styles have changed; but he's not wrong for leaning the way he leans.

__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Li1991 Yesterday at 13:13  
Paulpowell

On the other hand, if I drum up a slew of medical and university studies and lab results which scientifically do tie changes in human psychology to prolonged exposure to media violence, sure—but you might just as well respond with, 'okay but that's not conclusive, its all just done in a lab somewhere, show me a court case instead'.
Just FYI, the studies claiming violent video games cause violence have been challenged. The most modern research suggests that those already prone to violence are drawn to violence in media, but for a non-violent person, no amount of playing a violent video game will cause them to become violent.
__________________
Writer of YA fantasy because I never grew up. See my author page on Amazon here.

Paulpowell Yesterday at 17:02  
Just FYI, the studies claiming violent video games cause violence have been challenged.
Maybe some studies have been challenged, that's normal and expected in academia. Peer-review makes better science when it occurs; what happens as a result of a challenge is that more studies are done and the case is even further solidified.

But I'm aware of quite a lot of evidence from numerous different quarters, from a wide variety of disciplines; and its of too long a standing to be brushed aside by one refutation.

Especially when—these days—'challenges' can often emerge from 'private think-tanks' or 'independent labs' which (when you trace their funding), suspiciously leads right back to the video gaming industry or the advertising industry itself.

It happens in every major controversy: smoking; climate-change. Follow the money. Not casting immediate aspersions on whatever report you saw, but chicanery does happen when big money is involved.

__________________
Paul Powell, Pool Player

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