This might be one of my first controversial posts. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love discussion, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may be aware that I’m currently amidst my first foray into Paradise Lost. I stumbled on a channel that does a breakdown by book that I’ve found very interesting (the other videos on the channel are pretty great, too), and I’ve been reading a PDF version online.* Published in 1667, Milton’s epic poem is wildly accepted as one of the first presentations of a sympathetic villain; in this case, Satan.
I’m a huge fan of these stories. Personally, I love a relatable bad guy as much as I love a morally gray good guy. I think the best stories are ones where you can at least understand why someone makes the decisions they do, even if you do not agree. This builds empathy in our day-to-day lives, as well. It makes the experience more tangible, more real for us as an audience.
Representation matters. I like to think it was an intentional point made in the John Wick series that the action hero was enraged and incited to his hero’s journey, not because they stole or murdered the woman he loved, but because they stole his car and murdered his dog. A funny reprieve from the typical plot, yes, but also a note about the way we value women in these stories. They are something of particular value to the protagonist, something he loves and cares for, and something that is taken from him.
Women want to be more in stories than things to be murdered, won, or fought for. Black men want to be more in stories than comedic relief, an over-sized prison character, a gang member, or the first person to die in a horror film. The LGBTQIA* community would like to be more than the villain, or the butt of the joke. I imagine Germans and Russians are tired of always being the bad guy in American cinema, too (I’m speculating).
But in an era of sensitivity, we run dangerously close to losing nuance because you must come down on a side. Portrayal of anyone (who isn’t a white male**), must be clean, empowered, and only struggle with the issues facing the story. Don’t get me wrong; there is extreme VALUE in these stories, but you run the risk of alienating an audience whom you might want to reach.
I’m a pretty empowered woman (at least, philosophically speaking, as far as I can tell). My peer group of males respect and encourage their female counterparts. But the empowered female narrative is, in my opinion, for women. I watched the battle scene in Wonder Woman, looked at my husband and said, “Is this how you feel watching action movies?! This is awesome!” There’s power in these stories.
But we also need room for stories that do not start with a female protagonist as a warrior princess. Most of us aren’t, by rights, Diana. Most of us (at least here in the American south, where I was raised), dance a nuanced jive that balances cultural submission and empowerment. Most of us are beholden to social standards (either real or perceived), and familial or religious expectations. A story that begins with a woman in this state might be more well-received by not only a woman in this state, but by male audiences who perceive women this way. There’s an advantage to meeting an audience where they are, in their comfort zone, and then bring to light the universal human experience through the eyes of someone who is unlike them. This is how we build empathy.
Long and short, a politicized message has a place… but like those of us shouting into the void of our own echo chamber, it can only be heard by those open to such a message.
Delivery of personal message can be difficult, for writers today. I’ve seen comments and concerns about writing characters who are in some way different from the author. I’d argue that any fantasy includes characters *different* from their creator; at least, I do not believe Lovecraft was, himself, Cthulhu.*** It’s mandatory, even, lest I write only books with late-twenties Filipino-American females with overactive imaginations as every. single. character.
It’s my opinion that characters do not have to be likable. They do not have to be wholly good. They can be abusive, or manipulative, and still kind, or friendly, or helpful. They can be all of these things and also be white, a person of color, LGBTQIA, a woman, a victim, or disabled. In real life, we are complex; characters should be as well.
As long as you avoid caricature, you should be able to explore the stereotypes a character would face. This should not be an excuse to lean into stereotypes and tropes; if you write a character who is different from you, you should also want to do your research. Do your best to make it real, to get it right, and then let it be. Human experience is vast. A single character does not represent the whole. If there’s any message I want to portray, it’s that one single story should not become the voice of all stories.
Art is, in my opinion, not meant to tell someone what to think. It’s meant to be received and translated based on each person’s perspective and lens. It’s meant to paint a neutral image of what is, so that the audience can speculate as to how things ought to be.
So what are your thoughts? Readers, writers, preachers, politicos, I’d love to hear your opinions!
* I plan to get a physical copy so that I can annotate it. Open to recommendations.
** Historically, ‘white male’ characters have had the privilege of nuance in art. However, I worry that in today’s modern era, ‘white men’ have become the only ‘safe’ bad guy.
*** This might not actually be true.