I got thinking about this after one of my books (Love Me) was reviewed last week at Dear Author and there was an ensuing debate about cheating.
As a writer, I'm interested in characters who aren't perfect, characters who may do things that seem wrong, sometimes because they make a mistake, or sometimes because of an excruciatingly difficult choice. I’m interested in exploring why they would do such a thing, what they learn from it and how they grow.
We all know that a character who is completely bad is not going to be sympathetic to readers. He or she is not going to be someone readers will be interested in reading about, someone they will be rooting for. A character who steals just because he's too lazy to get a job isn't sympathetic. On the other hand, a character who lost her job in the recession, lost her home in the subprime mortgage meltdown, who is now homeless, whose child is sick and hungry and who has no health insurance, a character who feels humiliated and desperate to keep her family alive—it's entirely possible this character could come across as someone we relate to and root for, even if she steals food for her family.
Most of us would definitely agree that killing is wrong. A character who commits a murder because it gives him a feeling of power and pleasure to take another life, or so he can rob someone, is not going to be sympathetic to readers. But what about a Navy SEAL who raids a top secret compound housing the most wanted terrorist in the world and puts two bullets into that terrorist? Would we understand and sympathize with his motivations? Would we consider him a hero?
And yet both those situations involve taking another life.
Few of us would attempt to write a story with a heroine who is a prostitute, but it’s been done successfully. Lori Foster's When Bruce Met Cyn features a heroine who escaped a childhood of neglect and abuse by running away at age seventeen and who survived the next five years supporting herself the only way she knew how—by selling her body. She ends up meeting and falling in love with a preacher. I think Lori Foster made Cyn understandable and sympathetic.
I enjoyed Toni Blake’s One Reckless Summer because of the questions it raised about right and wrong. The hero is harboring a convicted criminal and the heroine finds out about it. Should she turn them into the police? Or keep his secret? When is breaking the law the right thing to do? When is it right to keep a secret...tell a lie…or betray a trust?
Sandra Brown’s novel Play Dirty also raised a lot of questions about right and wrong, and took risks with potentially unsympathetic characters. The hero, Griff, has just been released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for racketeering. And yet we cheer Griff on and in the end, we understand why he did what he did, and what he learned about himself. Also, the heroine, Laura, is married to another man…and sleeps with Griff just to get pregnant, with her husband’s blessing. Why would Griff agree to such a thing? Why would Laura agree to such a thing?
Some people see these kinds of issues as black and white. Others see shades of grey. I've written a couple of books where the issue of cheating could be a discussion point (Love Me, which was the topic of discussion last week at Dear Author) and Lost and Found.) Most readers have given me positive feedback on Lost and Found, understanding the motivation that would lead these three people to begin a ménage relationship, but one reviewer did feel this was too close to cheating. In Lost and Found, Krissa has powerful motivation— a deep desperate longing for a child of her own, a husband who can't give her that and who won't agree to adoption, and who encourages her to have sex with another man so she can become pregnant. Is that cheating?
Part of it is character. I once had an editor who wanted me to change a character’s reaction to a particular event because that wasn’t what she (the editor) would do in that situation. I had to stay true to the character, though. Someone who is aggressive and confident will react differently in a given situation than someone who is meek and unassertive.
But when characters do things that we would normally consider very wrong, I think much of it has to do with motivation. Why would someone do that? If we can explain a character's motivation in a way that's believable and powerful, I would venture to say that there are very few actions we can have our characters commit that could not be depicted as understandable and sympathetic, even if we might react differently in the same circumstances. Yes, there are times when we read stories where we simply can't accept the motivations of the characters for doing what they do. In some cases, a writer may not have done a good enough job of setting out motivations. But sometimes as readers we need to set aside our own reactions (as in, I would never do that and it is wrong) and accept that for that character, given her past experiences and values and goals and needs, it is understandable that she did that.
As writers, all we can do is stay true to our characters and depict the motivations the best we can, knowing that everyone views things through their own filters of experience and values and because of that there will always be some people who may not get that motivation.