Saturday Sound Off – #METO and the difficulty of creating believable characters.

Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.

The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.

The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.

When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?

It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.

I’ll say  no more, but hand you over to Joey at:

8 thoughts on “Saturday Sound Off – #METO and the difficulty of creating believable characters.

  1. Thanks for sharing the article, Frank. Very touching.

    My first novel, yet to be published, was written from the viewpoint of a male protagonist. My male copy-editor allayed my concerns about creating an authentic male character. He went beyond and thanked me for my portrayal. I raised two sons on my own. I worked in a predominantly male profession in international trade. As a writer, I had to learn to trust my instincts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear that your first novel is close to publication, Rosaliene. I look forward to reading it. I’m sure it will be full of insights from your vast experience, both as a mother of sons and of world trade and diplomacy – what a pity you are not available to advise members of the UK government in its present predicament!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Writing fiction is an exercise in empathy, so there’s no reason we can’t, in our work, accurately represent human experiences and perspectives different from our own. That said, it becomes very easy to (unconsciously) rehash stereotypes/archetypes from all the other fiction we’ve consumed, rather than creating dimensional, non-clichéd characters. Artistic creation is as much an intellectual exercise as it is an emotional one, hence the reason truly transformative works of art are so elusive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a sharp observation. I’ve often wondered why art, or “the humanities” in general possess so much less transformative power (and are less attractive to man) than the more brutal expressions such as religion, finance and scientific, technological materialism. Is real attraction and appreciation of art something one is born with or is it more difficult to express oneself through that medium than, say, using tools to build an apartment complex or bake a cake? Is appreciation of the humanities a sign that a person is more mentally evolved? Just wondering…

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  3. Sean and Sha’, thank you for your perceptive comments and queries. I think Sean is absolutely correct in his assertion that it is about empathy; and Sha’, as you have so often reminded us in your own work, not all of humanity is imbued with that ability. Those with a logical mind gravitate towards the subjects Sha has identified whilst those with any tendency to empathy gravitate towards the arts, including the healing “arts”. But those are, I believe, extremes. Most of us are somewhere in between, on a spectrum, torn between logic and empathy. Successful art is transformative for such people to the extent that it teaches them, by example, how to develop their empathic tendency.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sha’Tara. And well said, Frank. Noam Chomsky once observed that we always “learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology,” and I think that is a profound testament to the unique role the novelist plays in fostering both greater understanding of the human condition (intellect) and a deeper sense of empathy (emotion). Yes, novelists and their novels are imperfect — many great literary works espouse ideas we now view as unenlightened (to say the least) — but so are we; art, therefore, is both a lamp to light the way ahead and a measuring stick of how far we’ve come.


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