May 29, 2012

Values Dissonance

There are times when a writer has to portray a set of values that differ from their own. Whether writing in an historical setting, or another culture, authors must sometimes show the sides to people we would often like to forget. There are times that the worst of people has to come through on the pages. And worse, the characters have to believe it's the right way to behave.

It's a challenge for any author to stomach the things that make their blood boil. Even more to do it in a way that keeps the reader able to keep going. Racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, class segregation.

It's also important that these things be shown and laid bare. The dark things must be exposed to the light.

But it's easy to make the bad guy a racist or a chauvinist pig. You know your hero will overcome them in the end, so you can make them as bad as you like, safe in the knowledge that your reader is meant to hate them and they'll get their comeuppance.

The really hard stuff is presenting a character with morals and ideals so counter to your own that you couldn't stand to be in the same room as them, and still make them into a likeable character who your reader will root for. If you'd ask me a few years ago whether it could be done, I'd have said no. I may have even said it shouldn't be done. The younger me would have insisted that such awful values should be kept to the villains.

These days I'm not so sure. I think showing a reader a character they're drawn to, someone they feel for and root for, but who is burdened with traits that don't just make them flawed, but downright horrible by our standards, can have a purpose. As a society, we're very quick to judge, and decide we're better than the people who don't agree with us. I think it's important to see things from the perspective of other cultures, whether contemporary or in other historical periods. It's through that understanding that we gain a broader understanding of who we are.

I've mentioned it before, but one of the greatest recent examples I've seen is HBO's series Rome. From the start, we are introduced to characters who own slaves, commit adultery, torture people, and kill without mercy. But as the series goes on, we're exposed to the kinder, more noble sides of these characters, as well as their harder, darker sides. We see honour on a more personal level than duty to a flag or a nation. And through that honour, that decency within certain circles, despite the brutality, we see kindness, a way to empathise. And before you know it, you're rooting for a man who'll bash in another man's head over a woman, or cheering when a woman who has ordered another woman's rape and torture stands her ground against someone with the potential to be worse than her.

I'm not saying this behaviour is immediately forgiveable, rather that it's important for an audience to be willing to take the dark and noble sides of a character together, and face those desires in themselves. Likewise, it's important for an author to have the strength to take such a risk. One day, I hope to be good enough to manage something like that.