Thursday, June 4, 2015

Labels and Sexuality in Character Development

After pouring through all the feedback, comments and responses from friends, family and independent readers alike about my book, one of the common complaints I have received is that my characters are underdeveloped. As I work with my copy editor on the book, I have asked her to keep an eye out for character development flaws.

My wife and I had to take a road trip and I became exasperated with a discussion we were having about the criticism.  Yes, there are some things I have purposefully left out of Adam's, my main protagonist, history.  To give certain details of his past away at this point would throw the entire series plot out of the window.  Think of reading Harry Potter and being told Snape was the character that cared the most for him, or that part of Voldemort's soul was trapped within Harry.  This forehand knowledge being revealed too soon would have destroyed an amazing story line.

Now there is the question of why Adam seems more like a support character than the main protagonist.  I promise that this is an intended effect, set to preserve the series storyline. For awhile, the reader has to consider the real possibility of Adam's destiny, but all assumptions are thrown out the window as the truth unfolds.  So the problem in my character development doesn't lie within the plot itself, nor the character's motivations, etc.

If you look at the three main characters in the storyline, Adam, Donadeir and Talia, you can clearly identify their goals, how they choose to interact with one another, their hopes and fears, what they like and do not like.  They also have histories told in varying degrees based on the viewpoints of what the characters know about one another. Adam is an adopted orphan who works on the docks learning a trade who dreams of one day becoming an adventurer. Talia, who lost her mother when she was young, was once best friends with Donadeir and then spent all of her time training to be a warrior to join the Order of The Fates Divined. Donadeir, who was a spoiled, resentful son of a baker enjoys causing mischief as much as he loves to cook and to eat, and relishes the fact that he has experiences of travel very few of the locals have had.

So the way these characters, think, feel, hope and dream, as well as actual information regarding their pasts, is not an issue with the character development. So is the issue in the descriptions of the characters themselves?

My wife reminded me that she had a difficult time understanding the ages of the characters in spite of given the actual number of Summers old each character was because they were too innocent. She sometimes had to remind herself that they were teenagers.  Yes, she knew that Adam had raven black hair, blue eyes, a small nose, thin mouth and was slender.  Talia has almond-shaped green eyes filled with a fierce intensity, long braided golden hair and a maturing body, wearing a belt of pouches with a leather vest over a white blouse and leather pants and boots.  Donadeir is round, heavy set with skinny legs and a brown bowl haircut and a cherub-like face, although he is not so innocent, and his brown robes and nice black boots make him almost look like a priest.

So ok, I seem to have some basic good descriptions, so what can be missing?  Why would these characters seem so innocent and come across as childish, I asked myself and posed the question to my wife.

"Well, Adam doesn't have that muscular torso or that chiseled chin," my wife replied.  "Talia doesn't have a full woman's bosom nor a heart-shaped derriere. Plus Doandeir is said to look so round, it could be hard to tell the difference if he were a plump boy or a heavy set woman in the wrong light settings."

That's when I realized she was right.  You see, as I wrote this story for my children, I went out of my way to remove labels such as beautiful or ugly in the storyline, attractive vs unattractive.  I also made a conscience choice not to sexualize my characters.

Yes, Donadeir thought Talia was beautiful and wanted to marry her.  But he didn't think these things because he objectified her.  He did it because he believed that was what people do when they grow up, get married. He thought she was beautiful because she had been the only one that had ever made him feel loved and was the kindest to him among his peers as he grew up.

Adam doesn't look at Talia and sexually fantasize about her, nor she romanticize the idea of being with Adam.  So if I were to describe Talia admiring Adam's muscled abs, would that develop my characters?  Are we defined by our sexual attractions and is that how we define others?  Are these the labels that we must have placed on one another to make us capable of feeling that people we come across in daily life are real to us?

It was my intention to develop these characters to be defined by the reader based on their thoughts and actions, not a sordid love triangle drama.  There is only one sexualized reference in the entire story and it had to do with the sleazy guard who initial believed he had cornered a vulnerable 14-year-old girl in order to have his way with her.  I was even criticised for having that in a "children's book".

But when you look at our society, where you have 8-year-olds with wireless devices going unmonitored online, by the time that they are 12 or 13, (the earliest ages I recommend for reading my story) young females are especially aware of the idea of what a pervert is.  If not, they should not be online anyway because there are too many predators roaming about.  My daughter who is now 13 loves Japanese anime and fully understands what a pervert is.  She also knows that it is ok to call out a pervert and tell them that they are in the wrong because she has seen fictional perverts shame and embarrass some of her favorite characters.

So I ask myself, if a character has to be labeled or sexualized by either a description or an interaction with another character in order to be considered fully developed, does that mean that the author had failed to convey a believable character or have we become so accustomed to sexuality in our society people don't seem to be real without it?

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