I read The Help earlier this year and there was something really gratifying about getting to hate the evil prejudiced women who treated their Black employees terribly and who hit and neglected their children and backstabbed one another and generally went about life as people with no redeeming qualities. It's always a nice feeling to be able to distance myself from the uglier parts of a character and think how much that isn't me, how much I'm not like that, how different I am. In the world of many stories there are Bad People, and because I don't fit the prototype I can feel pretty confident that I'm not one of them, which would make me, by default, Good, and therefore immune from the character issues that might plague the Bad People.
But I more and more I've been beginning to think those labels are often useless and sometimes even dangerous, because they allow for a sense of complacency and they mean we aren't as careful with ourselves. A writer I admire, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote that
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.He goes on in the article to confront the idea of the "good" racists--the idea of decent people who might harbor some terrible beliefs, but whom we forgive and excuse because they're good people who didn't mean anything by it.
You can substitute just about anything for "racism" there, and I know those people. I am those people. When it's someone we know and love, it's easy to excuse away the things they do and to cling to the idea of them as good, decent people who aren't quite perfect. It's easy to do with ourselves, too.
I thought about this pretty much incessantly when I was writing my forthcoming novel. Actually, it's more accurate to say I fretted over it and was plagued by it, because I was writing about issues about which I felt strongly. And then of course I wrote a first draft that felt too preachy and not complex enough, a draft that reflected my insecurities, so as I was doing a rip-everything-out-and-rebuild round of revisions, I made a rule for myself: I would withhold judgment. I wouldn't label my characters and I wouldn't limit them. I would let them do horrible things and I would let them do beautiful things and I would remain neutral and I would let the reader come to her own judgments and decisions.
So I did. It was hard. I wrote about characters who, at desperate times in their lives, did things they weren't proud of. I wrote about characters in search of redemption. I wrote about characters with a deep need to distinguish good people from bad people, and the lengths they went to to achieve that end. I wrote about characters who crossed lines they always promised themselves they'd never cross.
And in the end I found that I love all my characters, even in their worst moments, because I understand them. Even when I disagree with them, even when they do horrific, inexcusable things, I feel for them and I love them still, because they're mine. Because I spent months of my life walking next to them and learning to know them intimately.
I don't expect readers to feel the same way about my characters (and in some ways, I guess, I hope they don't). Maybe it's just that as a writer I'm drawn to those complexities and contradictions. Or maybe sometimes aggressors' stories resonate more with us because we see a fuller picture of them: we see them at their worst and at their most vulnerable, at times when they seem raw and painfully, sickeningly human.
And I guess that's where I'm scared of going too far. There's obviously a point where you become, say, a rape apologist, or tolerant of racism; there's a point where, because you care about someone, or because something about him moves you, you're tempted to look away from what he's done and declare he's still a Good Person. And I think this is dangerous too--if, for instance, a reader has been sexually assaulted, it could be somewhat traumatic to ask her to sympathize with a character who'd sexually assaulted someone. Humanizing humans is one thing; humanizing evil is another. I was raised in the church, so I grew up hearing occasionally about 'cheap grace'--a theology in which wrongs are swept under the rug in the name of 'forgiveness.'
When I'm writing for younger readers, the fear intensifies. Do we have a responsibility to younger audiences to provide some kind of moral clarity? Is that fiction's job? When we write sympathetic characters who do terrible things, is that a dangerous message to send to a teenage audience?
I'll probably always grapple with these issues--I don't think there are necessarily easy or right answers--but for now, I think, I want my fiction to reflect what I know of life. That maybe you'll be in a position when someone you love and trust does something wrong. That maybe you'll be forced to confront something real and ugly in someone you care about, or perhaps in yourself. That maybe someone who did something evil will remind you that he's human after all and then you'll have to struggle with what that means. That maybe--like my narrator--you'll be seventeen and suddenly everything you knew about the world and about the people who matter to you will change, and you'll have no idea where that leaves you.
Chekhov said this well, I think: "It's not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It's my job to tell you what this horse thief is like."
What are your thoughts about the moral responsibilities of fiction?