The Author Is Not The Character
I saw something today asserting that you could tell J. K. Rowling’s real political beliefs by something Harry Potter does several times in the series. This is utter motherfucking nonsense.
Yes, you can sometimes glean an author’s politics from their works, but not from the actions of one character, even if that character is the viewpoint character! You see — and I know this confuses the fuck out of some people, but I swear it’s true — what fiction writers do is ~gasp~ make shit up. Just because Harry is never punished or made to realize one particular action is wrong doesn’t mean it’s one Rowling would endorse in real life. It means that it’s what she thinks Harry Potter — this dude she made up — would do.
I don’t get it. The story I started earlier this week opens with a girl shooting the ground between her ex-fiancé’s feet and telling him that if doesn’t leave her family’s ranch immediately, she’ll shoot him next. Does this mean that I’m a gun loving conservative who thinks everyone should go armed at all times and shoot people who piss them off? No. It means that it was the accurate action for the character to take at that time and place.
What would I have done in her place? Given that he did keep approaching her after she’d told him to leave repeatedly, I could see hitting him, or, at the very, absolute least, calling the cops. But I’m not on a ranch in the year 2274 in another galaxy. She’s not me, and I’m not her. Our circumstances are very different; the societies we live in are drastically different as well. Our reactions to things should be different.
But, I can hear you saying, Rowling was writing a story set in the modern day! Yes, but she was still writing about someone who wasn’t her. Now, if she’d written lots and lots of stories any they all had viewpoint characters with the same attitude as Harry, then maybe there’s a case for that being how she really feels.
Or it could just mean that she thinks characters who feel that way are interesting to write about.
I’ve written a whole novel and a short story from the perspective of someone that I think needs a good slap upside the head. Do I think like him? In some ways that were uncomfortable for me to realize, yes, actually . . . the difference is, I went “Shit. That’s a horrible attitude; I should work on changing it” and he went “So what?” Do my stories show that his attitudes are wrong? Sometimes. Not as much as they would if I were trying to write some kind of moral thing, but I’m not.
Yes, I know, I know: I created the character and world. I chose to put or not put certain things into it, and by those choices you can see what I think is important. Not really. You can tell what I thought needed to be there. Or what was there when the character sprung into my mind, talking. If I had complete control over what I wrote, I’d be writing Tolkien-esque fantasy, not things about a ninja/assassin/comic book geek with attitude problems falling in love with a woman who happens to live on the planet he grew up on, or what seems to be a series about his father: an orphaned ranch hand turned spacer turned heavily decorated and respected military officer.
I don’t know why it surprised me to see people lobbing this accusation at Rowling though. I’ve seen people seriously saying that obviously GRRM thinks monarchy is the correct form of government, otherwise why would it be such a big deal in his series? Hell, I once saw a science fiction author saying that all fantasy authors were conservative just because they write about stuff that was in the past . . . because, clearly, you can’t write about horses and knights and castles and elves and believe in things like socialism and LGBT+ rights and other such stuff, right?
I just don’t fucking get it. I’m not my characters. They’re not me. I’m an author in rural Massachusetts in 2018. The viewpoint characters of my current works-in-progress include:
- a “perfectly honest merchant captain” who looks like a bipedal wolf, from somewhere in another galaxy that I haven’t named yet, in 2330
- his first mate, a middle-aged Human man who’s been a spacer since he was 14, who was from Earth, but left it when he was 7
- his chief pilot, a Human woman in her early 30’s, from a world that was pretty much founded to be an attempt at a directly democratic utopia and is so far doing fairly well at it
- an asexual teen male with superstrength in 1998 in rural Massachusetts in a reality where superheroes have been a thing long enough there’s legislation about them
These characters do share some attitudes and beliefs with me, but not all. And, as I said before, if there’s anything that all of them believe . . . and there probably is . . . then it’s a pretty good bet that it’s something I believe too. But, even if I write seven books about just one of them, you can’t look at just that one character and go “Ah ha! I knew Shannon wasn’t really a <whatever>!” All you know is how I wrote that character.
And I’m getting obnoxiously repetitive, so I’m going to stop there and go write about a teen male spacer in a distant galaxy 200 years from now getting in a bar fight.
How do we know you’re NOT actually a bipedal wolf yourself? 🙂
“I’ve seen people seriously saying that obviously GRRM thinks monarchy is the correct form of government, otherwise why would it be such a big deal in his series?” I suppose they’d also insist that GRRM’s friend RZ must have come from a large family, because how else could he have written a series of novels in which sibling rivalry was a major motivation for some of the characters? *shakes head*
“Hell, I once saw a science fiction author saying that all fantasy authors were conservative just because they write about stuff that was in the past . . . because, clearly, you can’t write about horses and knights and castles and elves and believe in things like socialism and LGBT+ rights and other such stuff, right?” Fun fact: The elves in my stories believe in LGBT+ rights and other such stuff. Someday, some reader is gonna have a conniption fit, trying to figure out what that says about the author.