There’s this Thing.
It’s an irritating Thing. A far-too-prevalent Thing. I’d all but forgotten about it until recently, when I came across it again in one of the books from my TBR pile.
It sounded like a good book, so I was reasonably anticipatory as I flipped to the first chapter. It was a solid first chapter, fluffy and bright and quite a bit of fun. There were glimmerings of decent characterisation, and the setting was an interesting one with some fun ideas I hadn’t seen before.
I actually quite enjoyed it until I started seeing the Thing in chapter two. At first, it was just a touch or two of the Thing. Nothing too obvious. Just an edging here or there that could have just been a character being different. Then I got to chapter four and the Thing burst onto the scene in all its warty annoyance, unmistakable and unavoidable.
First, one of the MCs was introduced. She was a politically loud, rebellious, environmentally proactive MC, trying hard to do the right thing by sourcing ethically produced products for her store. She had a habit of talking down to anyone and about anyone who didn’t align exactly with her politics.
Okay, I thought. She’s kinda annoying, but she’s also really energetic and even if she’s a bit preachy and self-righteous, people tend to grow up. Besides which, I’m the kind of reader that can appreciate an MC that isn’t perfect. And even if I didn’t agree with the way she put across her opinions, I agreed with and could appreciate quite a few of them.
Then the main bad guy was introduced. How did I know he was the main bad guy? He was introduced as ‘ranting’ about Trump, illegal immigrants, and one or two other hot-button topics of today’s world.
I groaned. I mean, I seriously, literally groaned. Not the Thing. Please, not the Thing!
But it was the Thing. The author was introducing all the ‘evil’ or ‘unpleasant’ characters as those who held to a certain set of political views and/or ethical beliefs, while introducing all the ‘good’ or ‘right’ characters as those of (I assume) the author’s own preferred beliefs. It didn’t stop with one or two characters, and it didn’t get any better from there on in.
I haven’t seen a more egregious example of the Thing since re-reading Louise Lawrence’s Chronicles of Llandor. I loved those books as a kid. There are some books that give more with age, but those books unfortunately only gave annoyance. You knew a character was bad simply because they advocated eating meat. And you knew when a ‘good’ character was going to the bad because they would start to think eating meat wasn’t quite so bad, or that perhaps killing an enemy who was trying kill their friends wasn’t so bad.
It wasn’t so much a case of politics being included in the storyline so much as a bit of story being included in the politics. And, just as with the first book I mentioned, it was being used as a shorthand form of characterisation.
I’m not a person who thinks politics and religion and Stuff That Matters should be kept out of books. My own books are hardly free from threads and themes (though not overt ones) that tie directly back to my heritage and growth as a Christian. Of course, the odds are, if you have a differing political/religious/Thing opinion than me, I will enjoy your books less–especially if you choose to use your books to low-key preach at me. It will not, however, stop me reading your books.
What will stop me reading your books is the use of political/religious/Thing as character development or characterisation. If your character is a bad guy just because he supports Trump/supports free immigration/opposes abortion/supports gay marriage/whatever, or if you use any of these as shorthand for what a horrible person s/he is, I will stop reading. Because that’s not characterisation. That’s laziness.
Also, newsflash: people aren’t the sum of their opinions. People are a mix of good and bad, and just because someone supports the death penalty, it doesn’t mean they’re out murdering puppies in the street. Characterisation means drawing people who have a mix of good and bad in them: things they struggle with, stupid ideas they support until they know better/because they’re too stubborn to change.
Characterisation is one of the most amazing things about Lloyd Alexander’s The Kestrel. (It’s the 2nd book in the Westmark trilogy–yes, I read it first, I’m an idiot; no, I haven’t read the 1st or 3rd yet, I’m not yet ready for the emotional damage that I know is coming). The characters, each on their side of the war–at times uneasy allies, at times enemies, at all times spectacularly human–are all such a mix of good and bad. The good make bad decisions, do wrong things, experience the fallout of their wrong decisions. The bad have both good and bad parts: their opinions are sometimes morally evil and sometimes morally good. Not all the bad guys believe the same thing. The good guys aren’t all united under the same umbrella. They each have their own motivations, and it is, in the end, their actions that define how they are seen.
Please. Please. Authors. Don’t do the Thing. The Thing is lazy. It’s irritating. It’s Bad Writing.
It needs to die.