I Don’t Need Every Character to Be a Role Model and I Don’t Need Every Story to Have a Moral

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Three years ago, I wrote a post asking whether YA characters should be role models. I still feel there are gray areas in the answer to this question. I love reading in large part precisely because I believe in the power of books to change lives, move hearts, mold people. I believe the books we put into the world matter, especially those we give to young readers.

And yet…I also don’t want every story to become didactic. I recognize there are things in life that happen that I don’t like; there are people who make decisions of which I don’t approve. Literature is more than fairy tales. Not everyone who does something bad can be punished. Not everyone who is mainly good can be rewarded. People do all sorts of crazy things, and they face all types of consequences–or sometimes no consequences at all. If I want art to be true to life (at least sometimes, if I’m not looking for blissful escapism), I have to recognize that every type of life experience or choice has a right to be portrayed in a book. And the author doesn’t need to make a moral statement about whether they approve or disapprove of the material they present.

The issue of diversity in literature is complex one. Yet my most basic stance on diverse books is that every type of person and everyone’s life experience deserves a chance of representation. Though these things are important, this means more than making space on our shelves for characters of varied ethnicities, religions, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, etc. It means making space for characters who have different perspectives on the world than we do–even if they are ones we don’t like. Anything from a character who is a serial adulterer to one who thinks she needs to lose weight to be loved to one we think is dating the wrong person should be allowed in a book because there are real people in the world who have done these things or thought these things.

And I don’t always need the author to tell me whether these characters are right or wrong. In the first place, there is a subtlety to judging whether an author is advocating or encouraging something just because he or she is portraying it (a topic I may save for a different post). In the second, part of being a thoughtful reader is learning to make your own judgments of the ideas a character espouses or the actions they take. Part of being a really thoughtful reader is trying to see things from the character’s perspective for just a moment before you pass that judgment, before you leave the book with the exact same opinion you started with. The point isn’t to finish the story thinking adultery is good idea, but have a more nuanced understanding of why someone might do it, even if you still think it’s wrong.

Some of the best books put me outside my comfort zone. They show me things I may not want to see and ask me to think about things that I may believe I already have all the answers to. They remind me that the choices I make in life are not the choices everyone else would make given the same situation. I value variety in books, even when the content makes me shake my head and wonder. And I am grateful to authors who respect me enough to show me something in a book and let me decide what I think of it, rather than hitting me over the head with a correct moral interpretation. There are books I disapprove of, certainly, and even ones of which I have voiced my shocked disgust, but I appreciate the variety of opinions and viewpoints that are expressed in books (even if they’re, you know…wrong).

3 thoughts on “I Don’t Need Every Character to Be a Role Model and I Don’t Need Every Story to Have a Moral

  1. saraletourneau says:

    Agreed. Characters are meant to reflect people, and people aren’t always role models. We made mistakes, say things that offend people, or do things that leave others scratching their heads. Fictional characters should have that same… not “vulnerability,” but you know what I mean, right?

    As for the part about an author “advocating” that a character is right or wrong… Yeah. It’s weird when that happens, because not only does it seem like the author is implying what readers should think, but it yanks you out of the story. It’s different when the character expresses whether she thinks something is right or wrong, or whether she applauds or criticizes her own thoughts or actions in hindsight. You’re still with the character when it’s done that way. But when the author sort of inserts their belief or viewpoint in the narrative, then it can be distracting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate @ Midnight Book Girl says:

    I sometimes like books when the character has no role model cred. I like when the subject makes me uncomfortable. When I read the book Tease, I was amazed at how well the author pulled off the book from a bully’s perspective- because she didn’t really see herself as the bad guy. Most people don’t, and that is what can make a compelling story. Although, at least in Tease there is character development, but it’s meant to make the reader think about our actions, and how our actions impact others.

    I much prefer when the author makes me think rather than doing all the thinking for me. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Small Review says:

    What good timing on this post. I agree with you, I don’t need every main character to be one I agree with. Lolita is a great example. I’m also reading the Saxon Series by Bernard Cornwell right now and the main character is definitely not a moral role model! He’s a viking and he’s reveling in pillaging villages and killing innocents. It’s a strange perspective to read from because the author does such a good job at getting me into the story that I find myself rooting for the main character and then pulling back and thinking wait, what, I want him to do what?!

    Liked by 1 person

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