Politics and Fiction III: Let the Characters Alone

Not related to the episode referenced below--still,
the Numb3rs basketball episode totally amuses me.
Back to writing about politics! Not only is it a good idea to give the characters grounded wants and needs, it is also a good idea to limit a character's beliefs and understanding to what that  character actually believes and understands.

What makes fictional politics difficult is that politics is messy, the opposite of seamless and monolithic. Dive into any part of history and what immediately strikes one is how complicated people can get about anything. The First Nicean Council wasn't about whether or not to believe in God but what type of God to believe in; the possibilities under discussion ranged from orthodox to utterly bizarre. The latter is why serious historians get so miffed about The Da Vinci Code--the historical discussion was way more complex than hippie flower-power versus authoritarianism.

And everybody involved thought, "I'm right!"

Daria would roll her eyes.
This type of complexity can bog a fiction writer down. On the other hand, if the fiction writer is too simplistic, the problem looks stupid and the characters look dumb. I got tired of the "big, bad corporation versus the little guy" plot before I left high school. (Dumber "teen" novels use this approach: now the triumphant teen will dazzle the hardened CEO with her "everybody matters!" speech, and he'll break into tears!! Insert extreme rolling of eyes.)

In comparison, I refer to a discussion in Numb3rs' "Take Out," where Amita protests CalSci offering its services to a pharmaceutical company that is known to sell AIDS drugs at exorbitant prices to less developed countries; Millie counters by pointing out that no corporation has a spotless record--how else is CalSci supposed to get its name and influence out there? And Charlie's father points out--in a different episode--that these companies conduct pricey research that could lead to important cures.

In "Take Out," Millie comes up with a fairly intelligent, political solution that involves CalSci performing all tests in-house and donating half the proceeds to AIDS charities. My writerly point is that the script writers never indicate exactly how they feel. The characters speak as each of them would be expected to speak.

Another good example of each character speaking from
within his perspective--creates good tension!
Likewise, in his commentary on Avengers, Joss Whedon (very kindly) points out that when Captain America says, "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that," Captain America is speaking from within his own perspective. Just because Whedon is an atheist, doesn't mean his character would be. This type of confusion is so irritating that I praise Whedon for being so level and gentle with the idiot audience members.

It is amazing to me how many readers are convinced that a character can only and forever be a reflection of the author; yes, authors draw from themselves into order to create characters; that doesn't mean that King Lear, Hamlet, and Julius Cesar are all direct autobiographical accounts of Shakespeare's life any more than Jane Austen was the spitting image of every one of her female characters.

Mansfield Park characters by Blue Sky Inking
I've read commentary about Austen--by female critics who should know better--who blather on about how odd it is that Austen would criticize putting on plays in Mansfield Park even though her family put on plays when she was growing up. As if Austen couldn't put herself into a mindset and context that wasn't a direct reflection of her past! (She could.) Or use elements of her past for entirely different effect! (She could also do that.) Fanny may not be that endearing a character-- she is a fully realized one. And Austen made that happen.

Austen made it happen because as a good writer, she knew that she didn't have to have Fanny reflect every mood, idea, personality trait, thought process, and belief system that currently existed in the nineteenth century. She simply had to have Fanny be herself.

1 comment:

FreeLiverFree said...

I tend to think that critics that don't understand the author is capable of having different opinions than themselves are usually the type of people that can't understand other people having different opinions of themselves.