Villains and writers –The author is *not* the character

Conflict is the lifeblood of any fiction whether it’s between characters, between a character and their conscience, between the character and their environment. Obstacles abound, fate seems inexorable, bad characters never seem to give up.

Character is shown via actions and dialogue which shine a light on their values and motivations. Caius Tellus in my Aurelia books in the Roma Nova strand is selfish, obsessed and wants power. Gérard in Double Identity is selfish, careless and deceitful. Both these act in ways that I really don’t approve of, but it’s my job to fill out their character with words and deeds without telling the reader point blank.

Sometimes, authors have to put words into the mouths of characters that could be offensive, politically incorrect, or plain rude. Although basically ‘good guys’, Lurio from the Carina strand of the Roma Nova thrillers and Jeff McCracken from Double Identity both fall into this category. But for the truly nasty, I have to fall back on Caius Tellus again.

It’s a weird feeling writing harsh, bitter and corrosive words that I’d never utter or putting forward hate-filled, warped views, yet in a way it’s daring. Putting them through a character’s mouth means I keep a distance from them.

Most of my readers know this, but occasionally one takes it the wrong way. A colleague reported receiving hate mail over racist views expressed by a character in her book. She wondered why  (some) readers couldn’t understand that the views held by characters in a novel were not necessarily the views of the author.

Now, she’d obviously made her characters so vivid that that reader was thoroughly in the story. However, for me, this reader’s comment showed an inability or even a refusal to understand nuance.

I’m an optimist, sometimes verging on the Pollyanna, but not at the expense of acknowledging there are some pretty nasty people around. There are also people with a lack of life chances who’ve done well and those with every privilege who’ve made a total selfish mess of everything. Some are opportunistic, others can’t be bothered. Some are calm to the point of cataleptic, others drive their friends and colleagues to distraction with their fussing. As with people, so with fiction characters.

Author photo, Château du Rivaud

Another author reported that her editor was worried about a Nazi in her book and was anxious that his racist views would offend some people. Um, I should hope they would! The editor was concerned readers would think the author held or supported such views and that it would blight the author’s career. (Covers face with hands in disbelief.)

Thinking in black and white is simplistic, a sign of immaturity, and ultimately dangerous. Unfortunately, we see this problem in current politics and the way many express themselves today. We need to have a wide range of views so that we can discuss the good, the bad and the ugly.

I think 95% of readers are canny, curious and perfectly capable of discerning the difference between character and creator. Books are a wonderful way of exploring the darker and distasteful parts of human nature and facing up to them without being touched personally by them. Well, hopefully not touched personally.

My villains will be continue to be horrible – that’s guaranteed – but they will have some kind of motivation or failing that’s taken them to where they are. And the heroines (and their heroes) will be just the same as they are now – tough, fallible, courageous but ultimately trying their best. And no, they’re not me either.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

2 comments to Villains and writers –The author is *not* the character

  • I feel for you, Alison! One of my characters in my Natalie McMasters series is a woman who has been raped repeatedly since childhood. She’s evolved a defense by essentially submitting when she knows she can’t escape, and has coupled that with the mantra, “It’s not rape if I let him do it.” Several readers have chastized me for trying to redefine the meaning of rape, not realizing that the character and me are totally separate. My point is to show how someone in despair can come to accept abuse, sexual or otherwise. And I don’t think intelligent readers should need a disclaimer that my characters’ views are not my own.

    • Alison Morton

      Writing the repeated brutal exertion of power through sexual violence must be fairly traumatising for you. I think as long as we don’t do this gratuitously, we can’t be reproached. It’s painful to think these about these brutal acts, and thank the fates they don’t happen to most of us, but handled sensitively, this can illuminate awareness of such people. Hopefully, there is a recovery from such despair.

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