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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 2018 at 00:36
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