This week’s writing prompt comes from a recent episode of Writing Excuses about Character Perception vs. Narrative.

Your writing prompt:

Take something that you believe to be false, that you completely understand to be false, and write a character who has the absolute opposite belief. Do it in such a way that you take actual umbrage at the idiocy of your character and now find ways to hang flags on that so that you’re not mad at yourself as an author.

The podcast was an interesting discussion about how to write characters that hold opinions or beliefs that are contrary to those of the author. For example, authors writing scientifically or technically wrong opinions intentionally, and doing it in a way which isn’t distracting. Personally, nothing will kill my ability to get into a book like an author confusing concrete and cement. To me, it’s as glaring as a typo. Yes, I am a special kind of bad person.

Now it might seem silly, but if instead of a character using the wrong technical or scientific terms they were espousing ignorant or discriminatory opinions that’s entirely different. The guest speaker Nancy Fulda talks a little bit about her experience writing historical fiction involving, but not centered around, racism. She says that she relies on subtle clues about peoples response to racism to point out that the opinions are ignorant. In this case, the modern reader will also see the racism for what it is because of where they’re approaching the novel from. This is totally reasonable, but what if it’s too subtle?

I say this because some discrimination isn’t so obvious. In stories where the discrimination is allegorical or isn’t well recognized, it may reinforce certain behaviours in the reader, intentionally or not. While a modern reader might be able to point to racism in a story because, obviously, the bad guy used a racist epithet. It’s harder to recognize when a sympathetic character used homophobic language or espoused transphobic opinions, despite being basically the same thing. The only difference is that in this case the already poorly recognized bigotry is hidden because of who said it. The best example that I ever saw, was in Harry Potter when Hermione was challenging people’s exploitation of House Elves and everyone dismisses her. The readers may have let it go because it’s an allegorical kind of racism in a kids novel set in a fantasy world. However it illustrates that good people like Ron or Harry, who repeatedly expressed disgust at the term Mudblood, were unmoved by other forms of discrimination in their world.

While it might be easy to defend these behaviours in your character as being authentic or true to their characters, authors aren’t powerless over their work. They can employ little hints from other characters to help editorialize the point. The panel in the podcast call it, hanging a flag on it (or Lampshade Hanging on TvTropes).  Now, it might not always be easy to do this artfully, but I have faith in you. Unless of course you mix up cement and concrete, they we’re through.

1 Comment

  1. Your comment about “Harry Potter” was interesting. I have not read the books in too long, but from what I remember, Hermione’s obsession with elf rights becomes almost irritating. Harry’s freeing Dobby with the sock definitely advocates for equality between races, but the series also seems to be saying that there is a limit to how much you can fight for equality–either you are going overboard, or you are just doing so in others’ eyes and are thus equally useless.

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