When the message is lost in translation
I’d like to address how we convey our characters’ perspectives, motives, desires, experiences, etc. in our books. I’ve been prompted to do so by two or three horribly inept portrayals in books I came across this week. I’m not going to identify them, because I don’t want to single out authors for negative feedback; in fact, I daresay I’ve been guilty of the same problem in my own writing. Nevertheless, it’s a subject that deserves attention.
It’s very easy for us to become “proprietary” in our approach to our characters. “He’s mine! I invented him! I know how he ticks! Don’t tell me how he’s supposed to react!” I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings internally, and many of us will have voiced them aloud or in print. Nevertheless, in a very real sense, when we release our work to the buying public, they are no longer our characters. The public now owns them (literally, by way of the dollars and cents they spend to buy our books; and figuratively, in the sense that they will interpret them, analyze them, internalize them, and make them their own).
That being the case, it’s important for us to understand how we create characters. For some of us, it’s unconscious. We pick a protagonist, or antagonist, who expresses our own philosophies and/or experiences and/or perspectives, and write that person. Others of us work out our characters beforehand, analyzing why we want them in our book at all, and then trying to “build in” personalities, backgrounds and other characteristics that serve the purpose. However, in every case, our perspective as authors is influenced by who and what we are. I don’t believe we can ever achieve a dispassionate balance in creating characters, because every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, an extension of who we are. For example:
- I don’t think I can “get inside” the mind of a woman, simply because I’m male. I can analyze, study, and dissect patterns of female behavior, and talk to women to get an idea of how they would react to a given situation, or respond to a given stimulus; but I can never experience their reactions with their emotions or internal thought processes. I see this every day in my interactions with my wife. She’s simply different from me, in a profoundly deep and innate way. She doesn’t think as I do, and doesn’t react or respond as I do, and nothing in the world is going to change that. She’s female. I’m male. Cat, meet dog. Dog, meet cat.
- There are some aspects of life that are so ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible for us to see things from any other perspective. Take, for example, lightning striking a tree. You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire. To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped! He may have a degree from a First World university, but deep down inside, he’ll never be able to rid himself of that fundamentally primitive reaction. I know this. I’ve worked with such people for more than half my life. He’ll actually look pityingly at us, because our education has blinded our spirits, preventing us from seeing what’s obvious to any “normal” person.
- Superstitions are ingrained. How many people do we know who take their horoscope seriously? There is absolutely no justification for that whatsoever, but I know Ph.D.’s who read it every day, and act on its advice. Another example: outside the Stock Exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, for years I saw sangomas, witch-doctors, selling muti (“medicine”), herbal concoctions guaranteed to bring good luck to traders on the floor of the Exchange. These traders had degrees (some of them multiple degrees) from top universities… yet they bought their muti every morning, because without it, they knew they would not have a good day at work. Another example: popular superstition in East Africa is that albinos are “touched by the spirits”. They reputedly possess spiritual powers and properties that make them particularly suitable for the production of muti. Therefore, albinos are routinely murdered for their body parts by witch-doctors, or gangs who will sell their body parts to witch-doctors. Can you imagine what it must be like, to live inside a skin that makes you a target for murder? Yet, for thousands of people, this is their normal, everyday existence.
- Cultural norms intersect with religious norms to shape and form, not just a society, but individuals. The hideosity of “honor killings” comes to mind. There are in our midst today, here in American society, individuals who firmly, absolutely believe that it is not only their God-given right, but their duty, to kill their own daughters if they adopt American customs such as dating, choosing their own husband, refusing to permit themselves to be genitally mutilated by so-called “female circumcisions”, etc. This is happening as you read these words. These people have taken the primitive superstitions of their place and culture of origin, and transplanted them into our First World society. When we hold them accountable for their actions, they regard us with contempt, as having no standards at all, and being blind to our duty to God. “Honor killings” are an extreme example, but there are many others we encounter every day. Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun their members who dare to think for themselves, and refuse to conform; Mormon fundamentalists who insist on their right to practice polygamy, regardless of the laws of the land; Catholics who regard it as, not just their right, but their God-given duty, to impose their solutions to moral issues, such as abortion, upon others whose world view is diametrically opposed to theirs; and so on. In their insistence that they have the right to impose their views on others, I submit that all of these groups are different only in degree, not in kind, from those who advocate “honor killing”. We may, of course, believe that such views are right, proper and appropriate… but we’re doing so from inside those perspectives. Others will disagree with us… sometimes violently.
By now some readers may be shaking their heads, and asking themselves, “What has this got to do with me? I don’t fall into any of those extremes. This has no bearing at all on how I develop the characters in my books!” Well, actually, yes, it does. Let’s apply the fundamental incompatibilities of such perspectives with others, to a more typical everyday encounter in our own worlds.
How many of you are aware of the number of criminals – convicts, ex-convicts, and those who’ve never been convicted, but have gotten away with their crimes – that surround us? I’ve worked for years as a prison chaplain. I can assure you, the numbers are daunting. A 2010 study found:
About 8.6% of the adult population has a felony conviction.
. . .
About 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.
Note, those numbers are for 2010. Looking at the growth rate trajectory, we are probably up to around 24 million people today in 2014 with a felony conviction. This means we are probably pushing 10% of the adult population today. Of course, these aggregate percentages include women, which as we all know account for a small portion of all felony convictions.
One other thing to consider is that a large number of would-be felonies are plead down to misdemeanors, so the actual total number of people who were caught committing a felonious act is undoubtedly much higher than these numbers portray.
Think about that. One in ten people you meet, statistically speaking, has a felony conviction (i.e. for serious, as opposed to minor, offenses). In some geographic areas or segments of society, that number may fall to less than one in a hundred. In others, it may approach one in two. As real estate agents will reiterate ad nauseam, it often boils down to “location, location, location!” There’s a whole science involved in understanding the criminal mind, and how it differs from normal attitudes and perspectives. I’ve written about it in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, and recommended some other sources there.
Unless we’ve taken the time and trouble to understand the criminal mind, we cannot and will not write convincingly about them. We’ll write only our perspective on them – a perspective that will be uninformed, inaccurate, and misleading.
That’s where the headline of this article comes from. When we write, we’re “translating” images, perspectives, inner realities, from our heads to the printed page. (Whether it’s printed in ink on paper, or in electrons on screens, is irrelevant.) The process of translation involves understanding and interpreting the people and situations we write, both as broadly and as deeply as possible. If we don’t, their motivations won’t make sense to at least some of our readers, and their actions won’t square with their (supposed) motivations. I’ve read far too many books where this problem is so great that I can’t continue. The author requires me to suspend my disbelief, but proceeds to write so ineptly and so inaccurately about a subject that I simply can’t do that. I revolt against his words.
A classic example is anything involving military combat. I know military combat. I’ve been there. I know what it is to be shot, and to shoot others. I know what explosions sound like – more than sound: they pound in the core of your being, like a physical punch, not just a noise. I know what a battlefield smells like. All these things are innate to me, so real that I no longer have to think about them. They’re at a visceral level. However, many authors purporting to write military fiction (whether SF, or historical, or whatever) have no idea whatsoever about those realities. Sure, some of them have taken the time and trouble to research those issues, but that can only substitute for experience to a certain degree. If they are conscious of, and write within, those limitations, their fiction usually works. If they presume a visceral level of knowledge that they do not possess, and write as if they do, their books fail. (An example I’ve used before is to ask someone whether they’d like their daughter to receive sex education, or sex training. They understand immediately what I mean. One’s theory. The other… isn’t.)
Therefore, when we seek to portray a reality that our characters experience, or from which they come, or which influences the outcome of our plot, we need to be very careful to write it, as far as possible, to take into account the unconscious assumptions that we inevitably make. Those assumptions exclude a large proportion of the human race that doesn’t share them, and can make our work unapproachable to many potential readers. We can, of course, limit our intended audience in that way (“Well, I’m not writing for people from that background!”) – but once our book is out there, it’s no longer our own property. “Our baby” has now become the baby of whoever buys it. We’d like them to cherish it, rather than abandon it in the gutter!
We need to write so that what the reader receives is what we intended to send, and what the reader understands is what we intended to say. We need to communicate between dogs and cats. That’s a tall order. If we succeed, I think we’ll do well. If we fail… then the message is lost in translation.