Delilah Dawson: You Are Not Your Characters. Repeat: YOU ARE NOT YOUR CHARACTERS.

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servantsA confession: There’s a reason the villains of my first two books weren’t human. Looking back, I realize that I was terrified of writing a bad person who did bad things and said worse things, a person who might be somehow connected to (gulp!) me.

Writing an evil god? Sure.

Writing a sociopathic goblin rat? Easy.

But as soon as I described my antagonist as a human being, I worried that readers would look too deeply into the choices I’d made. If he had a mustache, did I hate men with mustaches? If she was overweight, was I making a statement about body types? If the antagonist was of a different race, did it mean I was racist? But there were no evil goblin rats to pick a fight with me or criticize my writing, and so that felt safe.

Now, years later, I’ve come to terms with writing horrible people that do and say horrible things. Which means that, yes, there’s a demon in SERVANTS OF THE STORM based on my father-in-law, but I think he’d be more proud than worried. The fact is that writers, for the most part, are not evil people, murderers, ghosts, or lich kings, but by the grace of creativity, empathy, and a careful study of humanity and history, we’re able to write them. I mean, if Stephen King was as terrifying as some of the villains he’s written, he’d be living on a mound of corpses bigger than the Overlook Hotel.

Just as a writer generally isn’t as magical or powerful as their hero, they’re likewise not as horrible as their villain. But writers are keenly curious, and we read news articles and click on gory headlines and devour media that probes the depths of evil. Just because a writer can put foul, prejudiced, or cruel words in a character’s mouth doesn’t mean the author shares those beliefs; it’s just proof that they have witnessed it, possibly in real life and directed at themselves or someone close to them. We are products of our experiences, of the stories we hear and the books we read and the movies we watch. And, yes, many tidbits of dialog spoken by antagonists in my books are based on things I’ve overhead, things that stood out in my memory because they made me so uncomfortable.

You have to separate yourself from your book, not only so that you can distance yourself from the prose and plot to edit deeply, but also because like it or not, people are going to judge your book. And when they judge your book, you must acknowledge that they are not judging you. You are not your work, and you are not your hero, and you are not your villain. Although it’s necessary to think thoughtfully about the message you send with your story, oftentimes the best messages include an antagonist who represents what’s worst in the world so that your protagonist is fighting a fight that matters.

In Servants of the Storm, my villains are storm demons who want to kill people and claim their souls as servants. Of course, no one thinks I’m literally a storm demon, I hope, but there are certain characters who do and say things that I would never want associated with me. The demon down the street who provokes biracial Dovey with racist remarks, for example, or the mean girl in drama club who downplays the death of Dovey’s best friend. Even people on the street who say hurtful things. Almost every line in the book about prejudice is based on something I actually heard in Savannah, whether in a McDonald’s or at a Thanksgiving dinner. And it made me angry. In putting these words into the mouths of my characters, I’m making a statement about something I perceive as wrong in the world, something that needs to be fixed. And I’m giving Dovey something to fight against, allowing her voice and defiance to speak for me as part of the book’s theme.

If everyone in a book is good and true, then you don’t have a plot. You don’t have something to rail against. You don’t have challenges for the main character to rise above and a theme that will resonate with readers. If you want to be a writer, you must bite the bullet and make your villains as real, as cruel, as thoughtless, as damaged, as actual human beings. And as we know from watching the news, man is the most dangerous animal.

That being said, you must couple your willingness to write bad guys with the knowledge that your words have the power to hurt. If your good guys are all pale, slender elves and your bad guys are all black-skinned orcs, people are going to notice and call you on it. If your muscled, bearded hero is a misogynist and all your female characters are weak damsels or hookers with hearts of gold, your readers will believe you don’t respect women. If you write a serial killer book and blame everything on a mental health issue you haven’t fully researched and don’t really understand, people will accuse you of contributing to the damaging bias against mental illness. Basically, you just need to be thoughtful about whether you’re representing a diverse reality or playing into thoughtless stereotypes and actively damaging someone’s feelings.

You are not your work, true. But you are the person who will be held accountable if your story does more damage than good in the world.

Just like real people, the best characters are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses with room to grow, mistakes to make, and the chance to be redeemed. Perfect characters are boring, and villains without a reason behind their machinations aren’t believable. You must thoughtfully, boldly build your characters, good and bad, in a way that makes a statement about reality and gives a satisfying ending. And that means that sometimes, your characters must say things that you would not say and do things that you would not do, because otherwise, they would be sitting at your kitchen table, drinking your coffee in pajamas, instead of going on a magical adventure with a dragon to reverse a lich king’s dark spell.

delilahauthorpicDelilah S. Dawson’s next release is her YA debut, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, a Southern Gothic Horror about hurricanes and demons in Savannah, GA. She’s also the author of the steampunk fantasy Blud series for Pocket, including Wicked as They Come, Wicked After Midnight, and Wicked as She Wants, which recently won the Steampunk Book of the Year award and the May Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews. Spring 2015 brings her next YA, HIT, a pre-dystopian about teen assassins in a bank-owned America. Delilah loves sassy boots, eating weird animals, painting, having adventures, and cupcakes and lives in the North Georgia mountains with her husband, children, a Tennessee Walking Horse, and a floppy mutt named Merle. If you want her to blush, read her geekrotica e-novellas, The Lumberfox and The Superfox, written under the pseudonym Ava Lovelace.

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4 comments to Delilah Dawson: You Are Not Your Characters. Repeat: YOU ARE NOT YOUR CHARACTERS.

  • But I am my main character! That is, he evolved out of my long-ago primary live-action roleplay character… nonetheless, if he’s not all sweetness and light, well, don’t blame me, he’s been out on his own for over 20 years now, and I have no control over him at all anymore! 😀

    (Yes, out of, not from… like peeling off an ill-fitting costume.)

    But I never mistake author for character, good, bad, or indifferent.

    [Unless, of course, the author has blatantly inserted himself…]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hmmm, I feel like right now I’m still looking at the opposite sentiment. Granted, I have yet shown my work to very few people, but one response I’ve gotten back is a) “I’m surprised at how dark this is,” b) “because you’re such an upbeat person.” This is actually something that I’ve noticed for a while in various contexts, and my husband has commented on it too. Some people seem to think that the definition of a good/happy person is someone without any comprehension or awareness of evil things. Whereas I would contend that having a strong moral compass (however that is going to be defined) requires the admission of grey areas, and therefore some understanding of what drives darker things. So yes, I am not my characters. At the same time, there are some lines that I’m not willing to let even my characters cross…

    However, you definitely bring up a good point that we are well advised to take a look at things like the demographics of our characters to make sure our story is saying what we want it to say and not something else. In fact, studies have shown that people who assert that they definitely *aren’t* biased are actually the ones most likely to commit such offenses, while those who admit the possibility of being biased (and are therefore more likely to run self-assessments) do much better. Hmmm, sounds like I have a new homework assignment for my WIP.

  • Tom G

    I have tried, and failed to put myself into a character. I can’t do it. The character always ends up 2 dimensional and very lame. Boring.

    Does that mean I’m lame, boring, and two-dimensional? Probably.