My characters are not my mouthpiece

Some people get awfully offended by the beliefs a character they read in a book has. And some of them jump from “this is what this made up person believes” to “this is what the author believes and is saying you should too.” This is patently not true as a writer can present many different characters, holding a variety of views, all sincerely held. And those different characters with different views might all be portrayed sympathetically and as people to root for in the story.

But, unless they are deliberately preaching, an author expects the reader to know their own minds and make their own judgements. Even if the author and character agree. Even if the book is in essence a thesis explaining a theme or idea, the good author only hopes to make the reader think and consider that idea, not expect to whack them around the head into having a road to Damascus style conversion. I like to write character who don’t think the way I do. It’s an interesting challenge to get into their mind and figure out how holding those beliefs will make a character behave. And I don’t just mean the bad guys, or secondary characters, but the main characters.

Patient Z cover art by Scott CarpenterI’m going to talk about Patient Z in this context, because the issue has come up on a couple of reviews, some people thinking the sexual politics of that story are a bit blatant. In that story Mitch, one of the leads, and many of the community he lives in, think men in general can’t be trusted and have ended up excluding them almost entirely from their group. The other lead, Cal, thinks men are weak in the face of temptation and desire (a fact he’s exploited to his advantage for years) though he doesn’t go as far as Mitch in his assumptions about them being dangerous in general.

Does this mean I think the same as Mitch? I don’t. I expect the reader to figure out that the group is in part a self-selected group sympathetic to Mitch’s ideas. Many of them have been rescued by Mitch, and his friend Bren, from men holding them captive – because Mitch and Bren chose to seek out the people in those situations. Or some of the women like the group’s attitude because they had reasons to mistrust men before. One of the group was a public prosecutor before the zombie apocalypse and her work made her cynical as Mitch’s work as a cop did. I expect the reader to get that those who don’t like the ethos of the group will have left – including men who didn’t appreciate being treated with possibly unwarranted suspicion. Those who remain are the ones who agree with it, or at least appreciate the safety the group offers, even if they don’t agree with their general anti-men policy. So by the time Cal arrives at the start of the story the group has refined itself in to this rather extreme form.

I also didn’t try to preach that Mitch is right. He’s certainly sincere, made cynical by his background as a cop, made a little paranoid by no longer being able to background check anyone. But his suspicions of other men could have excluded and driven away people (men and women) who would have been useful to the group. It’s also a little self-serving. He’s so traumatised by the events of the apocalypse that he’s afraid to lose another lover. If he’s surrounded only by women, that can’t happen.

I only say that this is what Mitch thinks, not what I think. It’s not what I’m saying the reader should think. I portray Mitch and Bren’s community and how it works, how it’s mostly successful right now. But I don’t preach that it’s either healthy or sustainable. Several people in the book argue that the way the community is now is a temporary thing. The future will be, has to be, different. Mitch just isn’t ready to face that future – until Cal shows up.

I can’t understand why people get offended by a character’s views, barring when the author is overtly preaching that the reader should think the same way. Different people have different beliefs, so naturally characters should too.

Patient Z

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