Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Character Opinions and Subtext

I'm reading a book now, overall an enjoyable one, a post-apocalyptic story where it's clear that for a long span of time humans lived in isolated communities, giving rise to many visually distinctive ethnic groups. One thing bothers me, though--the main character judges people very much based on how much they resemble her own ethnic group. On the one hand, it makes sense--given the far-future (but not technologically advanced) settings and cultures, things that make the book work on many levels, it's logical that she'd identify immediately with those who look like her. In fact it's probably an honest acknowledgment of something we all do to some extent.

So it isn't that exactly that bothers me...but the fact that the story so far, and I'm nearly done with it, does little to undermine that opinion. There are some kind and trustworthy people from other ethnic groups and some treacherous people from her own, but very few. And those who prove kind are those the main character trusted on first seeing them, while the treacherous prove those she immediately dislikes on seeing them. So the underlying subtext seems to be to trust our prejudices.

Given the author, I'm certain this wasn't an intentional subtext. Yet it seems to be there, pretty prominently. Maybe in the final 75 pages something will seriously undermine it, so no final judgment on it yet. But for now it has me thinking about making genuinely honest and believable characters who don't share your values without making it look like those are your values. As well, it brings to mind all the things an author might unintentionally reveal about their own biases through subtext...except I'm hoping that I'm misinterpreting that in this case.


Eliza said...

I'm actually tempted to say that it makes sense, in the case of world-building. A character on-guard from one ethnic group will be noticed. How many people want to be nice to someone who obviously distrusts them? And if they have the same prejudices... well, there's not much that can be done.

Of course, if the characterization and the viewpoint were done well, the reader should be able to identify that these nice guys aren't nice to everyone, and vice-versa, regardless of what the protagonist thinks. Though contradicting a viewpoint character while in said viewpoint character with subtlety is agonizingly difficult...

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

If the author did it consciously in order to further the story or create some sort of social commentary, that would be one thing. But if the author is writing this tone unconsciously, then it really brings up an ugly question about the author’s own feelings. Hard to know. I hope a reason for the undercurrent becomes apparent before the end.

Eliza said...

Bleh. If it's not clear which is which, it's either dubious or just bad writing. Hope the end gets better. :)

Daniel Ausema said...

This is an author who's generally well-regarded for her awareness of racial issues (apparently), and the book itself is almost 10 years old. So I wonder how much either of those play into things. And I wonder if I'm completely reading something into the text that looking at it closely again would show is not really there.

Your first comment, Eliza, is what I tried to get at in my post--it seems honest to allow the character to act that way, but it should be easy to incorporate some interactions that undermine her assumptions, even if she doesn't recognize them that way. Immediately after I posted this, there was one character she was initially scared of who is becoming strong and likeable...but that still seems very little for how long this book is.

Or perhaps it is a deeper comment intended on the prejudices of everyone here being a sort of self-fulfilling act. So I'm not ready to completely blame the author yet, but it is raising some questions. In many others ways the book is quite good.

Thanks for stopping by.