Writing Reflections: The Invisible Man

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Characters as Representations

As I was saying in last week’s Reflection, in message fiction there is often a tendency for readers (and to some extent, the writers themselves) to treat individual characters less as individuals and more as representatives of their entire gender, race, or sexual orientation. While a case could be made for the characters of message fiction being constructed this way by sheer definition, its when that kind of approach to characters (and authors) extends to other types of fiction that it starts becoming untenable.

There is a particular logical fallacy which illustrates what I mean. Take, for example, the statement that atoms are invisible to the naked eye. Knowing this to be true, we might therefore reason as follows:

1. Atoms are invisible to the naked eye.
2. Human beings are made up of atoms.
3. Therefore, human beings are invisible to the naked eye.

It’s clear that something has gone wrong here, isn’t it? The problem is, we are committing the Fallacy of Composition: assuming that the properties of one part of a human being (an individual atom) necessarily apply to the whole. Similarly, it often seems to me that people assume the properties of one character necessarily reflect either the properties of all similar people that character represents, or the direct opinion of the author of whom they are a part. One might also call this a fallacy of conflation.

In my opinion, a character is a character is a character, and must be addressed first on his or her own terms as an individual, not as a commentary on anyone or anything else. In the first place, if we start assuming that writing a negative portrayal of someone necessarily means the author is prejudiced against them, we might as well give up on fiction altogether. The unfortunate fact of life is that there are people of all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds and sexual interests who are not altogether nice or good people. It is a writer’s job to reflect this reality, in any number of different ways. If we consider each character as an atom and an author writes about an invisible atom, we should not therefore assume the rest of the man is invisible, or even that the author believes this to be the case.

In a sense, all characters can be considered representations, insofar as the atom we just discussed represents my opinion (we’ll call it an opinion) that some atoms can be invisible and that this is how those invisible atoms might act. But that’s as far as it should go. Ideally, it will be fairly obvious that the author’s opinions are well removed from the novel, since the characters’ actions and attributes will be believable and comprehensible within the story’s universe. But sometimes they’re not, and this is where things can get confusing. How do you know if character x is intended as a commentary on a certain type of person, either consciously or subconsciously, or whether they’re just an individual, invisible atom in a thoroughly visible human being?

Personally, I’d say it boils down to motivation – the character’s, that is. Those characters whose attitudes and expressions reflect authorial prejudices have a tendency to act in certain ways because they’re female/black/gay/Catholic or whatever. That is, whatever negative (or positive) traits they possess can usually be traced back to a single source, the one about which the author is making an implicit or explicit statement. There’s a difference between character x being, say, scared of spiders because she’s female, and being scared for other (presumably understandable, if not necessarily valid) reasons. Of course, this can be tricky, because sometimes the authorial assumptions are one step removed; for example, perhaps in her backstory said woman’s brother once put a spider down her shirt, which is what turned her into an arachnophobe in the first place. Okay, this is conceivable – people react to that kind of thing in different ways. But it also strikes me as having an element of, if not cliche, then perhaps stereotype: the assumption that she would necessarily react to this with a lifelong fear of spiders rather than, say, getting him back by pretending to die of a spider bite. And once we start veering into stereotype territory the waters get murky, since you can’t be sure that the character is not part of an invisible man. However. I think the discerning reader will be able to tell, if only because those authors who use stereotypical elements to tell a truly individual character’s story usually have the ability to make you forget it’s a stereotype, until you look back later and thing, “…hang on, I didn’t even realise but that is kind of cliche. Huh.”

It is entirely possible for writers to write convincing characters who are entirely different from – even opposite to – themselves. As readers, we need to remember that characters frequently take on a life of their own, and while they may or may not agree with their creator, they should not be taken as indicative of a writer’s opinion unless there is good reason to believe this is the case. As writers, we need to be careful that our own assumptions don’t trip us up and mess up the dynamics we’re trying to portray. All too often have I read books wherein the female lead was repeatedly described as “independent” and “liberated” only to have her revert to stereotypical weakness and dependence the moment the hero was introduced to the narrative, not because this was characteristic of her as a person but because that’s what the author thought a woman would do. There’s a fine line between keeping a character visible, and having them turn into the invisible man – a representation (positive or negative) of a whole rather than an individual human being. Personally, I prefer mine visible. It’s the only way I can keep tabs on what they’re doing!

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