Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#44: I Don't Gotta Like You To Love You

by Seanan McGuire


Context is also love. Bearing that in mind, here's today's expanded thought:

You don't have to like your characters. You just have to stay true to your characters. I may not appreciate the fact that Shaun insults Mahir's wife on a daily basis, but it's what the character would do, and I'm not going to change him just because I don't approve of his behavior. Some people will assume you approve of everything your characters do. Try to learn tolerance. Also, don't punch them.

In the course of writing a story or book, authors will very often need to write about people they don't particularly like. Sometimes those people will be the heroes, sometimes they'll be the villains, and sometimes they'll just be spear-carriers, but they're going to exist. So how do we handle it? More, how do we handle the real people who assume that, just because we wrote about something, we must believe it/agree with it/support it in real life? It's time to talk about the times we clash with the people in our heads, and how we deal with all the consequences that come after.

Ready? Good. Let's begin.

Being Real Means Being Stubborn.

The goal of every good author is to create characters so real that they feel like people, not just words on paper. We want our readers to feel like the people they're reading about do stuff in the space between chapters (which also avoids awkward questions like "when does he go to the bathroom, anyway?"). This means that they're going to have likes and dislikes, quirks and habits, which may or may not match up with your own. And therein lies the problem.

A lot of people assume that when a writer tells a story, we're actually writing thinly-veiled self-insertion fanfic about ourselves. That, at the end of the day, we really want to be our characters. I'm sorry to be the one to say this, but, well...bullshit. I do not want to be any of my characters. Most of my characters, given the opportunity, would happily slaughter me, and leave my body as a warning to other authors who might be considering the sort of shit I like to pull. Seriously. These are not my "alter egos." They're my fictional murderers, and they'd love the opportunity to reduce me to my component parts. Also, I don't want to live in the worlds I've created for the vast majority of them. Just no.

So no, I don't like all the things my characters like, or want all the things my characters want, or believe all the things my characters believe. There's a little bit of me in each of them, because that gives me a hook into their behavior—and, I admit, because the process of creating a believable person often involves a lot of research, and I always fall in love with the things I research. So by the time I finished writing Chasing St. Margaret, I was very much in love with the London Underground, even though I'd previously been fairly neutral, and the more time I spend writing Alice Price-Healy, the more I consider getting a tattoo. But I do not share Margery's love of tea, or Alice's belief that a shotgun makes a good teddy bear. I am thankful for both these things.

Not sharing all their likes and loves means not sharing all their dislikes, either. Verity hates public transit with a passion. I do not. Toby is not a fan of horror movies. I am. And so it goes.

So We're Not Our Characters. Why Does This Matter?

The fact that we are not our characters matters because, if you have a character do something unpleasant, you will eventually be asked to explain why they did the unpleasant thing...and the odds are very good that you'll be asked to explain it as if you condoned it by writing it down. There will always be readers who believe that, by committing words to paper, you have said "yes, yes, this is good and true, and as things should be."

Thankfully, this is not the case, or the vast majority of us would be sociopathic killers, but the idea persists all the same. As writers, we need to keep in mind that a) people will assume that we are our characters, and b) we will agree with everything our characters say. Especially the offensive parts. The offensive parts are key.

Be tolerant. Be graceful. And remember, committing assault never got anybody a movie deal.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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