Morality and Character Development

How authentic should your characters be?

The world is changing, becoming more aware and sensitive to the messages they are being fed through television, radio, movies, and the media. Although there are not as many readers today as there were, say twenty-years ago, the content of books are still a major concern for many people. So keeping in line with that thinking, how authentic ought we to be when creating and describing the characters we grow to love by the completion of our novels?

If you ask a hundred writers, I’m sure you would receive just as many varying answers to this perplexing question. On the surface, it appears to be just another decision that an author must make in the early stage of writing a book; but if you look closer, you’ll find that it is actually a case of morality. It is not your morality in question, but rather the readers’, and when you publish a book and release it into the world, as world-renowned author, Stephen King, has wisely stated, it is no longer your creation, but a gift to the world. Mr. King relates a book launch to sending your child off into the world when they’ve reached that age of maturity. 

So having said that, we can see how important it is to define parameters or boundaries, early on, that limit how much freedom we will allow our characters to have. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself before you write your first sentence: 

Who is my audience?

This is, by far, the most important question of all. Knowing who your audience is at the start of your book will make your daily writing sessions flow much faster and smoother because you’ll know what to include and what to exclude. You will also have a better understanding of how to write, for example: Are the majority of my readers male or female? What is the average age range? How about their education level? Do they identify with a particular religion? Once you have answered these basic questions, you will be a leap ahead of many of your peers even before you write you begin writing your book.

The second question you need to ask yourself is this:

Will my characters’ behavior shock and offend readers?

When it comes to potentially offensive material in literature, I am of the opinion that offended readers fall into one of two categories: Hypocrites and Fanatics. The percentage of your following that make up these two categories varies greatly depending on how large your fan base is, what type of readers you are attracting, and how far you are actually taking the realism of your characters. Those readers who are wise enough to understand what goes on in a writer’s brain whilst creating and shaping our characters, and their individual personalities, make up the remaining percentage of our fan base.We’ll call them Intellectual Bibliophiles.

Now let me briefly take a moment to explain two things. The definitions of fanatics and hypocrites are obviously quite different. A fanatic is someone who zealously values and defends something, such as religion, morality,and ethics. The problem with that, however, is that many are so focused on their mission at hand that they completely lose sight of the rights of others and soon turn into tantrum-throwing, extremist zealots. The second group may closely resemble the first, however, there are a few traits that clearly separate them from the zealots.

Unlike the first group, a hypocrite is described as someone who“wears a mask”. In fact, the actors in Shakespeare’s day weren’t called actors at all, but rather hypocrites for that very reason. In modern times, you can’t necessarily walk down the street, see someone wearing a mask, and shout, “Hey there, hypocrite!” I’m sure we know a couple of people that we would like to do that to, but you simply can not do that. However, we can easily detect a hypocrite by his or her actions and words.

In the case I’m presenting in this article, a hypocrite is someone who decries a book because of its supposedly excessive violence,profanity, or perhaps it contains lewd scenes of marital infidelity; pretty much, the same content you find on your evening television lineup.

The difference between them and the zealots, however, is that hypocrites have no moral or ethical background behind their outcry whatsoever. Like the zealots, they claim it may put bad ideas in good peoples’ head, however, they themselves are acting the same way behind closed doors.

So, there you have the differences between two groups of people who may stir up trouble should you inject too much realism into your characters. And yes, I know the whole thing is pretty ridiculous, namely because I am a writer myself. You see, the Intellectual Bibliophiles understand that when an author sits down and begins to write a story, it is not necessarily he or she that determines what our characters will say or do, but rather the characters themselves. Our imagination and creativity gave them life and we, the authors, just happen to be hanging around, documenting whatever we see or hear.

Here’s the third and final question you should ask yourself before creating your characters and beginning your novel:

Do I Care?

Alright, so I know how that sounds. Asking a question like that may make others think we’re a bit arrogant or flippant, right? But before you head over to your email and spam my inbox with angry, profanity-laced comments, allow me to explain.

While I’m sure the majority of us would never actually say something like this to one of our readers, I’m confident that one or two of you might consider it. There are a few of you who are probably in the habit of uttering anything and everything that pops into your creative, demented minds. I am confident of that.

But here are two examples of what I am NOT talking about here, for your personal amusement, from the 1989 motion picture “Uncle Buck” starring the late John Candy:

Buck Russell: I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a silly-heart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re all good kids, until dried-out,brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good. You so much as scowl at my niece, or any other kid in this school, and I hear about it, and I’m coming looking for you!

[of Anita’s mole]

Buck Russell: Take this quarter, go downtown, and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face! Good day to you, madam.

Buck: What, did you have a few drinks this morning? Huh? Yeah, I think you did.

Pooter-the-Clown: What are you? Mother Cabrini? You never touch the stuff?

Buck: No, no. It’s just that I wouldn’t be drinking if I was going to entertain some kids. You know?

Pooter-the-Clown: I don’t have to take this ****from you. You know who I am? In the field of local-live-home entertainment, I’m a god!

Buck: Get in your mouse, and get out of here.

Pooter-the-Clown: Hey you, let me tell you something, you low-life-lying-four-flushing-sack-of-****.

I’m sure that none of us would ever say any of those things aloud in real life, correct? (Ahem…) But our novels do not necessarily follow the same rules as reality. Honestly, if we wrote our characters to accurately mirror those around us, would anyone ever pick up another one of our books? Absolutely not! That’s why soap operas or daytime dramas such as “As the World Turns” and “The Young & the Restless” have survived as long as they have.

Nobody wants to read how Jim Smith went to the supermarket to buy a pound of hamburger, some cheese, and a head of lettuce, only to return home, make his dinner, and vegetate to “America’s Got Talent”. I believe they would rather hear that Jim Smith (a.k.a Doctor Nightmare) felt the cravings again. He twitched and convulsed, foaming at the corner of his mouth, which drew upwards into a sinister smile. Yes, he thought, yes, I believe it is time for the world to once again experience the horror and pain that can only come from knowing that the very thing they have feared for so long is actually alive and thriving. People of Silver Creek, prepare to look into the eyes of the Silverback Sea Folk!”

Okay, a bit lame, I’ll admit; but it serves its purpose, you get the drift. So the question still remains of whether you really care if your audience is offended or not? By injecting realism and freewill into your characters, you are adding depth and authenticity, but you may also turn off certain readers. This question is a double-edge sword, and one that only you, the author, can truly answer. In short, asking if you care whether your characters’ speech and behavior offends and turns away some readers is a test of whether it is absolutely necessary to allow your characters complete freewill.