Do Some Authors Write Their MCs To Be Role Models For Readers?
I was once asked whether Mukti, the heroine in my Soulmates Saga, is a good role model for young British-Asian women. I answered by saying that in some ways, she is, and in some ways, she isn’t. Mukti, who you first meet in Book 1 of this adult contemporary romance series, is resilient, hard-working, and kind. Great! However, she also has insecurities and they sometimes get the better of her. It’s not ideal, but it’s something a lot of us can relate to. It makes her real.
Either way, I never intended for her — or any of my characters, for that matter — to be a role model for readers. I don’t think I’m equipped to take that kind of responsibility for strangers, whose experiences and values I know nothing about, and say, “Hey guys, follow her lead.”
I once watched an interview with Stephenie Meyer (author of the Twilight Saga) in which she was asked how she felt about critics saying her female protagonist Bella isn’t a good role model for young girls. Many felt as though Stephenie intended for Bella to be a role model and to set an example for young readers; when I read the series, however, I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t get any preachy vibes from these books. The only agenda I would say the Cullens seemed to be pushing in that Saga was the whole “don’t kill humans” thing, and that didn’t really offend me LOL. But, as I keep saying, reading is subjective, and we all process words differently.
Stephenie’s response was this:
Readers shouldn’t look to fictional characters to be their role models.
Instead, they should turn to members of their family, friends, colleagues — real people in real life. Those are the people that have a responsibility to lead by example.
I agree with Stephenie. I don’t think authors should only create protagonists that readers can look up to. Writers shouldn’t have to shape their characters in a way that they won’t be criticised or so that they will be adored by the masses.
How can we present a case for what choice strangers should make in a given situation when we don’t know what they’ve been through and what matters to them?
If someone asked me 15 years ago if I thought some authors want their protagonists to be role models, I may have shrugged and said, “Maybe some do. Who knows? I haven’t met every author in the world.” Now however, having observed the indie author and writing community for a decade on Twitter, I would say, “No, I don’t think the majority of writers want readers to see their MCs as role models.”
The problem is, when a character makes a so-called “controversial” decision, or behaves differently to their peers (peers in the book itself and those in the wider reading community), a lot of readers immediately believe it to be the author’s way of promoting said behaviour or action, and it’s usually not the case. I personally have had Mukti do things that felt right to her but I wouldn’t have done the same thing in that situation or advised anyone to do that under those circumstances. But Mukti did those things because she’s Mukti; I won’t do those things or recommend them to people I know because we’re not Mukti.
Why Readers Feel Some MCs Are Framed As Role Models
I will give one of the reasons why I think readers assume an author is framing a protagonist as a role model when it’s not the case. To do this, I’d like to forget about Bella and Mukti for a second and discuss Shell, the female protagonist of my other adult contemporary romance series (Love & Alternatives Duology). Like Bella, I think Shell is one of those characters that some readers will say was written to be a role model for British-Bangladeshi women or used by me, the author, to promote certain behaviours/views and maybe even to judge/rebuke those that made different choices to her. I know a lot of people from my community will not approve of what Shell does in Book 1 (indeed, a lot of readers from outside my culture have shared their disapproval of Shell) but they might approve of her in the conclusion; similarly, a lot of Asian readers might applaud her for her choices in the first book and criticise her in the sequel. They might even feel judged/chastised by me if they did the opposite to what Shell did in this series.
In all honesty, because the majority of the married couples in this Duology had an arranged marriage — as I did — it might look like I’m trying to tell young Bengalis to sacrifice love, independence, and their dreams for family honour and marry the people their parents choose for them. Because that must be what I believe. That isn’t the case, though. I wasn’t even thinking along those lines or wondering what parts of the story would gain approval or praise or elicit criticism.
Those of you that read my article on cultural diversity in fiction will remember I’m one of those writers that gets an idea for a story and just writes it. That’s what I did when Shell came to me with her story. My intention was not to frame her — or any of the characters in this series — as a role model or to promote any of her behaviours/beliefs — personally, I don’t share much of my characters’ thoughts and beliefs, anyway.
Yeah, it is possible to write characters that have really different personalities and motivations to us.
But because Shell and I — and Mukti, too — share a lot of common traits, and because of the direction my personal life took — as per one of my #Storytime posts — it’s fair to assume that some readers from my community will accuse me of trying to send Bengali women a certain message with Shell’s story, of trying to push a certain agenda. Indeed, one reader asked me if my husband was a white man (Shell’s love interest in this series is a white man).
Sometimes, readers do think you’re writing about your life and beliefs in your fiction.
Here’s the thing: Shell’s story is not my story; my story is not her story. Her story could be my story and is the story of many Bengalis of my generation, but she wasn’t based on me. She’s a character that came to me and I wrote her without any agenda of my own to promote. Yet, I won’t be surprised if anyone in my community thinks otherwise. Why? Because of the way this series is written. Let me explain.
Around 99% of my readers are non-Asian; well, they’re mainly white Americans, a lot of whom are not familiar with my culture and community. I knew that would be the case from the beginning. In one of my tweets a while ago, I jokingly asked myself if I’m a traitor for writing this Duology, knowing it might not interest or entertain Bengalis — my people: We’re so familiar with that story and the themes in it and we’ve seen them so many times in Bollywood. I would jokingly say the answer is yes LOL.
If I’d aimed to write a story for a Bengali audience in mind, this Duology wouldn’t have been the story I wrote and published.
But I did write and publish it — for readers of contemporary wedding romance, thinking that the Bengali twist might be new and refreshing for them. For that, for staying true to the story idea that came to me, I might be a traitor LOL. Knowing my audience would be mainly non-Asian, I had to write this series so they would understand the Bengali characters and their decisions as well as possible, picture them in their head. That meant lots of details and background information scattered about, details which my own sisters and cousins would label as “too much information”. Personally, as I said in this tweet, I think that if my sisters and cousins read this series, they would be bored stiff because of the familiarity of it (but I think my friends wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about the stuff they saw at my wedding, the first Bengali wedding any of them ever attended).
Every time Shell makes a decision influenced by her culture and upbringing, she has to explain every single thought process behind it, otherwise my audience won’t understand why she acted that way; it won’t make sense to them — hardly any of my readers would act similarly, you see (to be honest, they wouldn’t find themselves in most of those situations in the first place). As such, Shell’s detailed reasoning can be interpreted by Asian readers as preaching — or judging them for doing the opposite — rather than me trying to explain to the uninitiated. These sorts of “controversial” decisions are very sensitive issues in our culture.
If a protagonist is in a unique situation, like Bella was in the Twilight Saga — and as Shell’s story is very different from the majority of the people that read this Duology, you could say she was in a unique situation, too — the characters have to explain quite thoroughly why they’re doing what they’re doing in these extraordinary circumstances. This is a way to help readers understand the characters’ decisions, so they think it makes sense for the characters (even if it’s something they wouldn’t do — or especially if it’s something they wouldn’t do because they’re of a different demographic). Sometimes the protagonists are simply talking themselves into making that difficult decision or reminding themselves why they’re doing it, but the author is not trying convince readers to make the same choice. Well, I definitely wasn’t via Shell or Mukti.
The reasoning/explaining portion of the narrative, I believe, is often interpreted by some of the audience as the author’s way of trying to promote that action/belief and presenting the MC as a person whose lead you should follow.
Now, some would argue it’s the writing that’s the deal breaker here. “It’s a fine line, don’t overstep it. Careful how you word it.” It is a fine line, but reading is also subjective. Different people process information differently; some people need more cues or more information than others. One reader might say there’s not enough detail or reasoning and so they didn’t understand the protagonist’s actions; another could say the author went on and on about it, to promote their personal agenda. At the end of the day, authors will do the best they can but the reader will absorb those words in their own way. I guess every book could come with a disclaimer saying:
This is a work of fiction and the beliefs and actions of the characters are not necessarily the author’s beliefs, nor is the author hoping to promote these beliefs and choices.
But it’s 2021, y’all; do we really need to tell readers of adult fiction what fiction is?
Disclaimers & Young Adult Fiction
I also write for readers of YA fiction (the majority of those readers are not teens or young adults, though) so I have to touch upon this: Including a disclaimer or an author’s note would definitely be beneficial in certain types of YA books. Especially those dealing with serious issues that affect young people: drugs, alcoholism, mental health, abuse, bullying, etc. However, if readers genuinely believe the author is framing a character as a role model and promoting/normalising their behaviours, they won’t believe the disclaimer. “They’re probably just saying that so the critics back off. It definitely read like they were trying to push their agenda to me!” We know some people will see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe.
Writers of YA do have to be more careful with how they treat their young characters, though, but I don’t think they have to write protagonists that are thought to be role model material.
More importantly, we need to help young people understand that fictional characters aren’t the people they should look to as role models.
3 Main Reasons Readers Shouldn’t Seek Role Models in Fictional Characters
1> More often than not, the hero or heroine will be the ultimate over-achiever (a really powerful assassin/witch/werewolf, the best in the world) or the ultimate under-achiever. The super-clever, super-successful, and outrageously fantastic protagonists set the bar so high that readers will be disappointed if they can’t meet those unrealistic standards. It will be particularly difficult for younger readers to digest, if they can’t do the things their favourite characters can.
And of course, you shouldn’t look to become an under-achiever, either, should you?
2> Fictional characters take huge risks, which luckily pay-off (because they’re in a book and have to save the day). This doesn’t mean we’ll be just as fortunate if we do something similar. In a book, a woman might quit her steady, well-paid job to fulfil her lifelong dream of… say, opening a coffee shop, and plough all her savings into it. If it’s a romance novel, a rich, handsome guy might fall for her and invest in her new business (without her knowing about it, of course) and help it take off. What are the chances of something like that happening to you and me?
Things will ultimately turn out well for our favourite characters but we don’t have the same safety nets when we do anything risky or reckless in real life.
3> Protagonists in fiction need to make difficult decisions, and also make mistakes, to drive the story forward, grow as a character, and to pull other characters/sub-plots into play. Writers will sometimes bring out the darkest side of a character and have them hurt their loved ones to serve a higher purpose. For high stakes, you know? To entertain the reader, the author will make their protagonists do and say things that we shouldn’t in real life. In the majority of cases, everything will work out fine for the hero in the end, and they will have a happy ever after. All will be forgiven.
Us humans, we have long memories, we hold grudges, and we live beyond The End; it’s better to be kind and honest no matter what we want to achieve for the greater good than to cause suffering and bear the consequences of our cruelty.
Cruelty should never be a solution to any problem, nor should it be excused.
It’s also good to note that even if you write a character that you want readers to admire and aspire to, not everyone will see it that way; you might alienate a lot of readers. Not only are we all different and value different things, but reading is subjective. Our words are absorbed by readers in their own way, depending on their experiences and expectations. Some readers might even criticise the character for being unrealistic or too perfect for them to relate to.
I’ve seen a couple of high profile BookTubers criticise certain characters for being unrealistic because they always do the right thing and don’t have enough flaws. Those same people also criticise characters that are flawed and, in their opinion, don’t set a good example for readers.
You won’t please everyone.
Personally, I’ve never turned to works of fiction for advice on how to behave or live my life. I’ve always seen fiction as primarily a form of entertainment, non-fiction books as texts I should learn from, and I don’t expect fiction to teach me anything, though if it does (like about art, history, etc.), that’s a bonus. But I don’t expect the characters to always act in a socially desirable way or be a guide for how to behave under certain circumstances. It might be due to the way the terms ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ were explained to me by the teacher that introduced these terms to me or because I read mainly fantasy growing up; I knew the actions of characters in a make-believe world couldn’t transfer to real life so there was no point in using their behaviour as a guide.
Therefore, I concentrate on writing a good story with well-developed, realistic characters. I, on the other hand, will do my best to behave professionally and set a good example for readers and writers alike.
Thank you for reading this story. Learn more about me below.
I’m a British-Bangladeshi author of fantasy and contemporary fiction. I blog about writing, publishing, and life. Say hi if you’re on Twitter (@NehaYazmin) or Instagram. My books are available at all retailers, including Apple Books (where I’m bit of a thing) and Amazon (where I’m nothing, haha). More on my website.