Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWSG - Writers Are Not Their Characters

First Wednesday of the month is the Insecure Writers Support Group day, when bloggers around the Web come together for a group cyber hug.


Click on the pic above to get to IWSG HQ and check out the other participants, and/or sign up to join in.

So this topic has come up quite a bit lately--writers feeling bad or guilty about the way they've written their characters. Feeling embarrassed to let family members read sexy scenes, or dirty when characters behave in a way some readers deem as tasteless. I'll admit, I've struggled a bit with knowing some of my family members will be reading Butterman (Time) Travel, Inc. because my characters curse from time to time.

Is that crazy, or what?? I'm a grown woman. Still, I worry about what they think of my filthy mind for allowing my characters to toss around profanity. Personally, I opt for more silly phrases like Holy Canoli, or Holy Smokes ... even Good Grief or Fudge. Using actual profanity doesn't add anything to what I say, and it doesn't do anything for me when I hear it from others. A curse word here and there is no biggie, but excessive use really annoys me.

In writing my previous stories, I let my characters assume my viewpoint on the matter. But this last time around, my characters used some profanity. I tried and tried to write it out of the story, but finally I conceded. I realized I was censoring them--trying like mad to find another way for them to express themselves. Why?

I was inflicting my personal beliefs on them. Yes, they're my creation and ultimately I have the final say, but I didn't like having that censorship. Once I accepted the fact they sometimes used profanity, it really set their characters free in my mind and I let them take control.

Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not suggesting writers make a point to use profanity in their work. I still don't care for it, but let's face it, others out there use it liberally. And the trick is to know who our characters are. Can we still convey our characters a certain way without allowing them to use it? Sure. We can find other ways for them to say what needs to be said. But I chose to write my characters as I heard them, and maybe I'll get the stink eye from some elderly conservative relatives and friends, or maybe they'll understand that just because my characters do something, doesn't mean it's a direct reflection of me as a person.

I am not my characters.

Like I mentioned, I've seen this issue pop up more and more on writer forums. It's definitely an insecurity issue. I even had one reviewer who really enjoyed my book comment on how she didn't care for the language and didn't understand why authors feel the need to drop the F bomb.

Hmm, well I certainly didn't do it just for kicks. If she only knew how tough it was for me to let those bombs fall. LOL

What are your thoughts on the matter? Ever have a reviewer or beta reader question your characters or imply their thoughts or actions were a reflection of you as a person? 

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40 comments:

Annalisa Crawford said...

A lot of my real-life friends now have a copy of my short story collection - after a book signing - and there's one story in there with a lot of sex, and I'm sort of embarrassed that people I know are reading it - including my mum's friends!! But I agree - there's a separation. We are not our characters so we shouldn't have to apologise for them... in theory :-)

Lynda R Young said...

I've been struggling with this too because one of my characters uses profanity but I personally don't. I tried working around it, but like you said, I was censoring. The character swears. I'm dealing with it. And, just as it works for your Butterman characters, I hope it will work for mine too ;)

mooderino said...

People do often assume characters are a reflection of the author (and sometimes they are), but it would be very restrictive if that were always true. Have to allow for some artistic license.

mood
Moody Writing

Kyra Lennon said...

Thank you for writing this!! I definitely have panics when my friends and family read anything of mine that has even the slightest hint of sex, but it's important as a writer to remember that we aren't doing the things our characters are doing.

Natalie Aguirre said...

My new story is YA and I do let my characters swear a bit because I think that's what kids do. And I worry if publishers would be okay with that.

I haven't written anything steamy to worry about and my husband doesn't read fiction. He's too critical in general, so I don't think I want him reading my writing.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Oh, that reviewer would hate my book. Because my book is ebook only, I don't have to worry about too many relatives reading it (especially my mom and MIL). It wasn't the swearing I was worried about. It's the sex scenes. All over I'm not worried about the swearing and sex in the book because that's just the way it is, and most NA readers are used to it.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Oh, that reviewer would hate my book. Because my book is ebook only, I don't have to worry about too many relatives reading it (especially my mom and MIL). It wasn't the swearing I was worried about. It's the sex scenes. All over I'm not worried about the swearing and sex in the book because that's just the way it is, and most NA readers are used to it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I know exactly how you feel! While my characters aren't me, I have a hard time taking them places I would never go. That morality thing gets in the way every time. And in my current manuscript, going where I wouldn't go might just be what it needs.

Brandon Ax said...

It is funny how much this comes up. I think in the end you have to look at it as an artist and know that to get the finished product the way you want it, it may come out messy in spots. I mean to me I try in my personal life to find other words to use, but at the end of the day profanity is just words, they were given meaning by people just like any other word.

Cathrina Constantine said...

Ah, you hit on a subject that had me in binds just yesterday. My first ya ms had profanity due to the teen voice. My agent said to get rid of it because editors don't like it. I did. But, Have you ever read 'Looking for Alaska?' Now in my new ya ms, it's too flowery, agent said, not ya voice. I need to add gritty. Personally, I don't use profanity, although, a few choice words in a book doesn't alarm me, sometimes it's needed for the right voice.

Mark K said...

I think it is an aspect virtually every writer must overcome at some point or other.

It's difficult when writing about a moral situation where you know full well how you, the writer, would like to deal with it in an 'ideal world'. But, as with every skill, you must learn to iron out the kinks that potentially hinder your progress to refining your skill.

As an aside, making a comparison with writers unable to separate themselves from their characters, in my many years of running traditional role playing games (D&D, etc) I had to remind players they were not their characters, and as such, could not use real life knowledge to get around a problem when their characters wouldn't even have a clue.

It's a very difficult thing to do. You almost have to become a multiple schizophrenic when writing and dealing with characters.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

My characters often say and do things I never would, but I have to let them be themselves on the page. If they're the type who would curse a blue streak, then I'll let them, but I wouldn't make them do it just because. It has to be part of who they are and relevant to the story.

Chrys Fey said...

Characters in my stories may say a small curse here or there, but in my series where the characters deal with criminals on a day-to-day-basis and are put in extreme situations, I do find them using curses more often. Not excessively, but the curses are there. I thought about cutting them out. Except when I do, their dialogue doesn't sound right or convey their anger/situation. So the big curse words stay. lol It's better to just let our characters be who they are and that includes being a potty mouth. haha

Isis Rushdan said...

Yes, this has been an issue for me. I've simply decided to be authentic with my characters. If someone doesn't understand or wants to mistakenly believe it's some aspect of my personality on the page I CAN'T make it my problem.

shelly said...

Cussing doesn't bother me. But sex scenes in my opinion should be handled with great care.

Hugs and chocolate!

Norma Beishir said...

We dinosaurs who have been publishing for a long time can testify: it does get easier. Eventually.

cleemckenzie said...

I've gotten a few questions about my book on cutting, like did I cut myself? No. Did I consider suicide? No. I'm not my characters, people.

Thanks for this one PK

Carrie-Anne said...

I've realised that some of my characters, in my older drafts, cursed and used slurs WAY too often. Even if it were meant to be satirical of people who really do talk and think that way, it just embarrasses me now. A little goes a long way, like spices in food. One book in particular was gut-loaded with shocking behaviour, anti-Semitic slurs, controversial storylines, etc., just for the sake of pushing the envelope, being as controversial as possible, and sticking it to my future censors. At least my excuse was that I was only 15 when I wrote that particular first draft.

Now, characters just speak and act the way that comes naturally, that makes sense for their personalities as well as their given eras. For a long time I couldn't even bring myself to use the word Negro outside of dialogue, but I came to realise that if it's a historical, no one should hold it against me for not using the modern term African-American when the characters themselves wouldn't think that way.

Barbara Watson said...

Love this! I do think it's hard for non-writers to understand that we writers are not our characters.

Robin said...

I think we all struggle with this one. In fact, isn't it hard to write truly dimensional characters who are just Not Nice People? We have to accept that they are their own selves. We wouldn't behave this way, but They Are Not Us. I think that the writers who can separate themselves from all of their characters are on top of their game. Good for you on letting those characters loose!!!

Andrew Leon said...

Yeah... I don't have a good answer for this, nor do I think there is a good answer for this. You have to do what you're comfortable with to make your characters as authentic as possible.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I've never had anyone ask if my characters reflected me but I would laugh if they did. My husband does ask me if all my heroes are actually based on him.

Johanna Garth said...

I want to send this post to my mother. Every time I write a book she reads it and analyzes it from the mother/daughter viewpoint. As in, "I liked it, but I felt like the relationship between the mother and daughter needed to be fleshed out." It makes me want to scream!!! I'm not sure how to convince her everything I write isn't about our relationship.

Johanna Garth said...

I want to send this post to my mother. Every time I write a book she reads it and analyzes it from the mother/daughter viewpoint. As in, "I liked it, but I felt like the relationship between the mother and daughter needed to be fleshed out." It makes me want to scream!!! I'm not sure how to convince her everything I write isn't about our relationship.

sydneyaaliyah.com said...

Hey PK,

I hear people say how much of themselves they put into their story and their characters, but unless your writing a memoir in first person, as a writer (someone who's job is to make stuff up) why limit yourself to only what you believe. It's so much fun to write characters outside of your comfort zone. Making them do and say and behave in ways you wouldn't. And, it helps you grow as a writer.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

It also boils down to authenticity. If someone stubs a toe, he/she isn't nearly as likely to shout "sugar" as another, slightly shorter, word. Characters' word choices are just as much a part of them as anything else.

Lexa Cain said...

I remember my mother getting a magazine with one of my pubbed stories in it that she was going to hold for me. I hoped she wouldn't read it because it was about child abuse. So I understand. I can be a bit of a prude too. I stopped watching "Dexter" because the sister cop character couldn't manage a sentence without cussing. To me, she made working women look bad. We all have our lines in the sand.

Tammy Theriault said...

you DO realize I imagined you wearing lingerie while typing all that right? I'm teasing!!!! just checking to see if you're really okay with the openness. man I love ya!!

S.K. Anthony said...

Oh my goodness, I feel the same way. I conceded to some use of profanity as well, because it seemed more realistic with what was going on and the age group and all of that. I did worry with knowing some (very few people) that know me in real life would read it, but ah well. I think and hope most people understand that we really are not our characters. Great post!

Cynthia said...

When a character of mine behaves in a questionable manner, I remind myself I'd only created this character. I'm not their parent. Their background is different from mine.

I find that female writers are more often accused of being autobiographical in their fiction writing than male writers. So perhaps your concerns about being thought of as your character might stem from that.

jamieayres.com said...

I really struggled with the cursing thing too. There is one character who I felt would drop some f-bombs, but b/c I want my books available in middle schools too, I ultimately left any true swear words out. But I have had my close friends and family view my MC as me, even though there are few similarities.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Better late than never! My characters are me, my thoughts, experiences, and I write most of my books as a ten year old.... Mmmm....

Julie Flanders said...

One of my characters in Polar Night curses a lot and I felt like it was only appropriate for his character since he's a burned-out and very cynical cop. But a reader mentioned that he sounded like me and that gave me pause as I don't think I curse that much! LOL, maybe I need to pay more attention to what is coming out of my mouth. :D

Morgan said...

I better not be my characters!!!!! I think a lot of the time I tap into who I'd like to be or who I fear being...

William Kendall said...

I use cursing with my characters, but when appropriate to the situation, and it's to be expected given the genre.

Carole Anne Carr said...

PK, thanks so much for the encouragement.

Kittie Howard said...

When I started blogging, about six years ago, so many bloggers liberally dropped the F-bomb in posts and thought nothing of it. But, as a certain wave of conservatism spreads, an undefinable fear of offending has censored bloggers and, more recently, authors. But the larger truth is that people who curse exist -- in larger numbers than most think. An author should be true to the character invented. If not, hang up the computer and do something else.

readfaced said...

For some reason this post reminded me of when I taught 2nd grade. Every now and then one of the 7 yr olds would use a curse word. My instinct was to tell them that they should never say that again. It is wrong and lazy to curse. The truth is, they heard it somewhere. Most likely from their parents. If I lay my personal views on them, what does that say about their parents? Are they supposed to think their parents are wrong? I don't have that right. In the end I would let them know it wasn't appropriate for school.

People curse. It is plain and simple. If our characters are going to seem real, then every now and then there will need to be a person that curses.

Thanks for the post.

Leanne ( http://read.wordpress.com )

Elizabeth Seckman said...

In my second book, I had a character who was street wise and a bit jaded, so her attitude and speech reflected it (though still very tame) and my poor mother in law was like, why did I make her so unsweet? I don't know. It's just what the character was...my first attempt at blaming the character for their actions...lol.

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