A Character’s/Book’s Views?

The other day I was amused, and somewhat horrified, if not particularly surprised to read that I did not “simply engage in religion-bashing.” but that I was “outright hostile to religion.”  Where did this come from?  From a theological blog that, on the basis of thoughts and acts of one Van Albert, the protagonist of my novel, The Ethos Effect, declared that, “One can presume, however, that his [Modesitt’s] basis of ethics is a strictly humanistic one.”  I did contact the author, and he most graciously and kindly apologized and revised the blog to reflect the fact that my characters [and not me] took stances contrary to what he believed to be the proper religious acts and beliefs… and I have no problem with that.

This sort of thing, however, does raise an issue.  How often do readers jump to conclusions about what an author believes on the basis of a single novel? Or even a single series, when other characters in other books have acted differently and on different ethical bases?

Another author [Poul Anderson, I believe[except I was wrong, apparently, as noted below]]] said that there was a term for readers who equated the views of characters with the views of the author, and that term was “idiot.”  I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, because there’s no doubt that, no matter what we as authors claim, some [if not more] of what we believe seeps into what we write.  Some authors are almost opaque, in that it’s difficult to discern what they truly believe, and with others, their beliefs gush from every page.  But… with still others, while beliefs seem to gush from the page, those beliefs may not be those of the author, or only part of the beliefs of the author.

Human beings face ethical dilemmas all the time, and our actions spark ethical questions on a daily basis, and some of what we write comes close to real-life situations, such as in the recent case of the killing of Osama bin Laden.  One of the larger questions that faces any society is the issue of justice when that society is faced with the issue of preemptive action or reactive action.  What might have happened in Europe in the mid-to-late 1930s if the U.S. and European powers had moved against Hitler before millions of Jews and others were killed?  On the other hand, one could claim that the wars in Iraq or in Vietnam were largely preemptive and disastrous.  The overarching ethical problems in such cases are that preemptive action is arrogant and chancy and could result in more deaths than doing nothing, but often doing nothing leads to greater evils, as in so many cases in human history. 

As an author, I’ve written on both sides of this issue, because, from what I’ve seen, no “absolute” religious or ethical philosophy provides a satisfactory guideline in mitigating human misery.  Oh… philosophers and theologians can claim their positions are the “right” ones, but every “right” position still has times when it multiplies human misery.  So I’ve explored this issue and others… as have many, many other writers.

And, in my books, each character takes a stand.  Sometimes, the stands agree, and sometimes they don’t.  At times, ethically, everyone loses, even when they triumph materially… and, from what I’ve seen, that’s life.  That part – that I’ll admit – reflects what I’ve seen.  But to infer what a writer believes from a single novel… or series…that’s stretching. 

But… in a way, readers do it all the time… and that’s one of the perils of being an author.

10 thoughts on “A Character’s/Book’s Views?”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d almost think one of the biggest flaws with the type of mistake you discuss is not even so much assuming based on the characters but when a reader assumes based purely on the hero of the story.

    I know a few people who, after reading the first three Corean books, are very much set on the Ifrits/Efrans being evil. And while I can grant that some of them individually are, and that their Human as Cattle and lower lifeform ideas are abhorent, I fail to see that they were evil. Even without going into the next three books I could clearly see that they weren’t evil, they were just the opposition. Even Alucius admits this point after he sees Efra and what can be accomplished society wise.

    And I have to say I find it strange that this type of issue was directed at you specifically, since one of the reasons I hold your work in such high regard is that you don’t even stay with one side of the conflict. You bounce back and forth between sides and even your outright villains (Anya and Kharl spring to mind) actually have motivation beyond themselves to some extent.

  2. Bob Howard says:

    Agree. I find your novels intriguing in their nuanced approach to ethical questions. I particularly liked the various viewpoints across the Recluse series.

    I also agree that even authors like yourself do inject at least some level of your own beliefs into your writing. Really, it could hardly be otherwise, when you look across an author’s entire body of work. As you said, some are more blatant, and I find those far less attractive, even when the views coincide with my own–a polemic is a polemic, and I really hate preaching by anyone with an ax to grind. By and large, I think your own views come through most clearly in the political realm, and nearly so in dealing with questions of ethics and morality, but here again, your approach is never black and white, good and evil, and always thought-provoking.

    You mentioned the preemption issue and that has always fascinated me. One can easily sympathize with Accord’s philosophy in that regard, but also cringe at real-world usage such as Bush’s ill-conceived adventure in Iraq. Your examples clearly show both the dangers and seductive attraction of such actions–the key of course, is having “perfect” information. In the Accord novels, the Ecolitans enjoyed both excellent intel and insightful analysis that allowed them to confidently make the hard choices. Having worked much of my career in the intelligence field, I know full well how rare are those circumstances. Add to the equation a tendency to allow extraneous political goals to influence the process and you get the invasion of Iraq (I saw all of the “slam dunk” intel, and the case just was not there).

    Anyway, I agree with Ryan that you are a puzzling target for this sort of criticism–seems clear the blogger in question had at most a superficial knowledge of your writing.

  3. MarcusAquinas says:

    I’d tend to take that as a professional compliment. If you can convey a character’s belief/belief system so convincingly that the reader would equate them with your own, you’ve succeeded admirably with that character. If the author’s views and beliefs are obvious, then either they have failed to give the character a unique voice or the author is being “preachy”. I’d also point out that being able to convincingly convey a viewpoint contrary to your own is a good indication of how well you understand the issue under examination. It’s very difficult to convey an idea you cannot get your own head around. Good show, I say.

  4. Robert The Addled says:

    Every one of your books seems to set a character within an existing status quo – and sets them to questioning it, and in the case of the Recluce series – sets them on at least 3 conflicting sides. If I were to TRY to put a message behind everything – it would be an attempt to reference a special kind of ecologist – one focused on the balance between Humanity and the Universe/forces of nature.

  5. Dave Ansell says:

    Just in passing, your quote attributed to Poul Anderson is referred to by S. M. Stirling as “Nivens Law”. He (Stirling) copped considerable flak over his Draka series from readers who regarded them as praise for South Africa & apartheid rather than a dystopia.
    But I do agree with the spirit of the quote – it’s rank stupidity to equate a character’s view with those of the author.

  6. So noted… I wasn’t sure, which is why I phrased it that way.

  7. Mr. Croft says:

    Interesting. I’ve made the frustrated observation to my spouse that based upon what I’ve read; your blogs for the last couple years as well as the bulk of your books (only one series of which I didn’t enjoy for totally unrelated reasons); you seem to have a very solid grasp of religious concepts but from not one of your characters have I ever noted what I would define as understanding of the concepts of faith or the underlying purpose of religion (I am fully aware this is my opinion and subject to my own personality, background, fanaticism etc).

    I mean this not as a criticism, indeed reading your books since adolesence has helped shape my perceptions and personality as a person (positively) without conflicting in any way with my own devout religious beliefs. Indeed, the perspective thus acquired as permitted me greater understanding of my own faith.

    It is unfortunate that there are many who interpret skepticism or lack of overt unquestioning support as hostility in the context of religion (as I believe happened in the blog you mentioned). It begs of me the following question. What is it that has transformed a culture based on freedom of religion, expression and opposing beliefs into one of intolerance in North America? (A question pointed at everyone whether religious or opposed, right wing or left, on both sides of every issue)

  8. Richard Hamilton says:

    It just occurred to me that I might like to see what one might characterize as a thoughtfully traditional character; but some could fit that well enough. And it’s probably pretty hard to use a character like that to challenge ideas and preconceptions, let alone to be interesting or incorporate common difficulties people face, unless perhaps they take a detour, losing their way only to rediscover it with new meaning.

    So I don’t see a problem here. About the only conclusion I’d draw, both from the characters and this blog, is that you like to pose big moral (and logistical) challenges, and often to show multiple perspectives sympathetically, or to challenge assumptions people often make. I think that most fair-minded people would be ok with that as long as they feel that a position reasonably close to theirs also gets a fair shake from time to time; it’d be boring to have stories where the hero _always_ did what I wish I would do under similar circumstances.

    Let me toss out an example of another’s work that I generally like on the issue of religion: the creator of the Babylon 5 series, JMS (no way I can spell out his last name without looking it up). While an avowed atheist, he doesn’t seem to be one of the militant sort; to the contrary, almost every portrayal of religion that appeared in B5, whether one of a variety of actual or fictional human religions, or alien ones, was quite respectful and acknowledged that they at least brought with them perspectives of value. No way I’d be able to conclude what his personal views are from B5, save that I suspect that some of the questions that it’s usually religion that asks (or answers) are of interest to him.

    I remember a high school history teacher that made the point of saying that beyond the facts and dates that are well attested to, history is always someone’s interpretation. He made it clear that he would present a particular interpretation, not necessarily either his personal views or the interpretation that the textbooks presented. One could get a “B” by having the facts down and a good grasp of one of the interpretations given. But getting an “A” would require coming up with a different interpretation that fit the facts at least as well. I was contentious enough, but generally far too lazy to go for the “A” (and never much good at memorization, so even the “B” was a challenge). But I’ve always appreciated that he drew a line between facts and opinions or interpretations, and encouraged people not to accept blindly anyone else’s opinions or interpretations.

    Doing something similar with fiction just about necessitates an iconoclastic approach. However, it can leave those with traditional beliefs (but no wish to inflict them by force or coercion on anyone else) feeling as if they were being stereotyped (as they often are in shallower fiction than we’re talking about here) as being inherently intolerant. But at least that’s better than actually being stereotyped, nor is it necessarily the worst stereotype out there (think of all the movies where some overtly religious character was really a particularly loathsome villain).

  9. Sam says:

    One thing that most of your protagonists seem to have in common is that they tend to put pragmatism before principle for the most part. Or perhaps that their principles tend to align with pragmatism for the most part.

    As an outside example of a fictional character who places principle before pragmatism take a look at Superman. There have been stories where the only way to save a life or lives would require Superman to kill. He refuses to do so. Because of the way most of these stories are crafted he always finds an alternative or an alternative presents itself. But it’s a cornerstone of the characters’ principles that killing is wrong. Therefore his choices and actions are not alway outcome driven.

    I’m not religious and I don’t believe life is sacred but I can see a rationale for having such a principle. The world is full of people who are willing to kill for the “greater good”. It has been for thousands of years yet the killing has never come to an end. The “greater good” has never been realised – not fully at least. A person seeing that might decide that the only way to end the killing is to set an example by not killing even if the cost torments them at times.

    Batman as he is written in the comics also has a do no kill policy which is also principle driven. Unlike Superman though he is far more pragmatic and killing is the one line he won’t cross. In a lot of ways I’ve often thought that minus the halloween costume and the bizarre villains the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman has a lot in common with some of your protagonists. In the movie Batman Begins Bruce Wayne lived in a city where corruption was rife and just about everyone in law enforcement was on the take. He found allies – people who were fed up with corruption – and fought to take the city back. In some ways I founds parrallels with his story and Mykella’s from Lady-Protector.

  10. Rick says:

    I have to say that even after enjoying your work for almost 30 years, I don’t know your actual relationship with religion. I do know you question authority, dogma, and moral concepts in some way in all of your work that I am familiar with.

    That you are a moral man, with strong beliefs I do believe. I simply feel you are enough of an accomplished and gifted story teller and writer, to not have permitted your personal religious beliefs to take center stage in your work.

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