Don’t Shoot Me – I’m Just the Keyboard Man

I was recently taken to task for an opinion expressed in one of my short stories, Yellowbird Diner, available as a PDF on my website, www.levimontgomery.com. There were three tracks I could have pursued in defending myself: 1) that the person who is credited with the opinion in question isn’t even a character in the story, but is the father of a character, and that any connection to me or my opinions is tenuous, at best; 2) that the words chosen to express the viewpoint, given as “Dad’s favorite insults,” are old-fashioned and fairly mild, compared to some of the words that I could have chosen; or 3) that my purpose was to expose some of what the character had had to deal with while growing up, and how that might have affected his development.

I chose a fourth track.

I chose to point out that it is dangerous to presume to ascribe the beliefs, thoughts, opinions, or statements of a character to the author. Taken to its logical extreme, this practice would lead to some strange beliefs, such as that J. K. Rowling is a wizard, Stephenie Meyer is a vampire, and Agatha Christie was a murderous thug.

The reply was “Well, but you have to admit that the thoughts and opinions of the protagonist [well, he said “good guy”], while perhaps not encompassing all of your beliefs, certainly must be compatible with your own, while those of the bad guy [antagonist] must be opposed to your own.” (I edited him for clarity – it was quite a diatribe.)

Well, uh, no. I don’t have to admit any such thing. You simply cannot fall into the fallacy of ascribing the thoughts or statements of fictional characters to the creators of those characters. If you do, then long before you reach the conclusion that an author is a murderer or a wizard or a vampire, you will find yourself in the embarrassing position of having to embrace opposing viewpoints. For instance, if you believe that all of the thoughts of all of my characters are mine, or even those of the protagonists, and if you read my fiction, you will find yourself claiming that I believe that the most important thing on Earth is love, that there is no such thing as love, that we can do no more important thing in life than to care for each other, and that the only thing in life worth pursuing is our own happiness, no matter what the cost to those around us. I hope I don’t have to point out the absurdity of such a claim.

We create characters. We create them from the whole cloth of our psyches, and we create them for specific purposes. While comments abound such as “I don’t tell the stories, I just follow the characters around and take notes,” and while I have been known to say such things as “Jack Uhrig stood up and demanded to be written larger,” I don’t think any of us take such things at face value. They are true, but their truth is deeper and more meaningful than the truth of simple fact.

We create characters to act as foils to one another, to voice opinions we want to shoot down, to believe things we want to disprove, just as often as we create them to reflect our own values. If you know me, and you read my fiction, you will find examples of the father I wish I could be, but you will also find the father in A New Beginning. You will find a young man who says “I just put a gun in a man’s face, and he backed down, and it just doesn’t get any better than that,” but you will also find this young man:

This is easy. This is the easiest thing in the world, this is the most basic of the arts of humanity, this is what separates us from the animals. We hold each other when we cry, and he holds her and lets her cry.

When you know me, then you can try to figure out which beliefs and attitudes are mine, but until then,

Don’t shoot me, I’m just the keyboard man!

By the way:

A female ocean sunfish can produce more eggs than any other fish; 300 million in one spawning.

By the other way:

I forget to point out yesterday that RSVP stands for a French phrase meaning “Please respond,” and that you cannot “Send your RSVP to…” “Fill out the enclosed RSVP,” or “Return your RSVP soon.” And don’t get me started on “ATM machine,” “PIN number,” etc.

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One response to “Don’t Shoot Me – I’m Just the Keyboard Man

  1. My favorite line in the Yellow Bird Diner is “But the universe takes a funny little tilt, sort of shifts over sideways half a tooth…” In fact the line describes what the line does for the story and I always like the moment of shift such as “and suddenly…
    they are there,” in The Back Porch.

    Regarding the confusion of character and author, I find it surprising that anyone who would find his way to your website and then actually read one of your stories would also be one who could miss this fundamental element of story reading/writing. You said it well when you said: “We create characters to act as foils to one another, to voice opinions we want to shoot down, to believe things we want to disprove, just as often as we create them to reflect our own values.”

    In fact the “milk toast” quote from his father is quite appropriate for this character and gives psychological context for his bullying nature. It lends something like harmony does in music. For just a moment you partially visualize his jerk of a father and ‘harmonize’ that image with the son. It has an aesthetic pleasure to it.

    If main characters in stories are always supposed to live up to the morals of the reader we have an impossible and ridiculous situation. And if main characters are supposed to be above reproach (or otherwise their authors can be taken to task for falling short) then what boring stories we would have with no internal struggles with good & evil or strength & weakness or courage & cowardice. The task of an honorable author arguably involves making the story as a whole support and lead towards honorable lifestyles bur surely to do that one needs to picture the ignoble as well as the noble and if we are honest that struggle is also within us and not just between the perfect main character and the corrupt bad guy. Perhaps I extrapolate too far but that’s were my rant takes me.