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I'm writing a novel which has alternating point of views; odd chapters are from an angsty, neglected twelve/thirteen-year-old girl who's struggling with belongingness, puberty, and parental confusion/neglect, and even chapters are from the perspective of an academic who's been thrust into his scholarly position at too young of an age (twenty-five), and in general has prematurely aged to the point of wanting to adopt the first POV character.

Naturally, both of these characters are highly flawed, and the girl in particular has a poor attitude to sexuality in both others and herself (calling herself a 'slut' for liking a boy with a girlfriend, blaming her mother's promiscuity for her childhood neglect when in truth it's her mother's hedonism and inability to prioritise her children's wellbeing).

Now, I know this is a flawed perspective, I intend it to be a flawed perspective (I don't think an angry, confused twelve-year-old girl is the epitome of a role model), yet some (not all) readers interpret my work as somehow endorsing 'slut-shaming'.

I have a few ideas of my own regarding how to make these flaws appear to be deliberate, but obviously I'm not fully clued in if readers are still making this mistake, so I want to know you guys' thoughts on the matter.

Edit: I'll elaborate on a few of the ideas I already have.

  • Have reality or another sympathetic character disagree with their view, in the form of consequences or interpersonal conflict.
  • Have the character wrestle with these wrong viewpoints themselves.
  • Incorporate the removal of these misguided views into their character arc.
  • Make sure the character's worldview is regularly challenged by other characters and not taken as gospel (acting closer to a broken clock, right twice a day).

None of these are mutually exclusive. Can you guys think of anything else?

  • I don't think, given the background, it is "wrong" for someone to develop her personality. It certainly is way unhealthy and is going to cause her a lot of trouble if left untreated, but it's not wrong that it came into being and manifests in such a way. She sounds alot like Stephen King's Carrie... sans the psychic powers and the murder and the pigs blood... I don't think your beta-reader is doing you any favors by the assessment because you don't seem to be trying to portray this attitude as healthy. And of course, while 12-13 year olds are aware of sex, she's too obsessed with it. – hszmv Aug 7 '18 at 19:01
  • Her overawareness of sexuality is indeed meant to be a flaw; she's been exposed to the idea at a way younger age than she's supposed to be (due to her mother's promiscuity and callous disregard for her daughter's exposure to her antics). But I'm a little confused at your opening sentence. I don't think I implied that it was 'wrong' to have other characters have a positive influence on her. If I did, sorry for the confusion. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 19:06
  • I meant it's not wrong for this to be a starting personality, given the backstory... It's a personality that probably needs some psychological help, which is why I split the definition of wrong... It's a bit unhealthy. – hszmv Aug 7 '18 at 19:12
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I think to some extent it depends on the point of view. (It might be harder to distinguish in first person narration rather than from third.) Its tricky, because if your story is set in the southern USA in the 1800s, a white protagonist would almost definitely be an extreme racist. Or if your main character lives in Nazi Germany, etc. It can be hard to step into that mindset of problematic beliefs you don't agree with when trying to write a flawed character who has those beliefs.

I think what user32626 said is a good idea, of having those flawed beliefs get in the way of their goals. But I think there are ways to take it further. I think it's possible to have background/supporting characters who have more rounded beliefs, or the polar opposite. These characters of yours have flawed opinions, challenge those opinions, and (over time, of course) force your characters to grow, introduce them to other characters or situations that challenge how they think about the world and about themselves. How is their mindset holding them back? Do they know it's an obstacle? Do they want to change?

I think, overall, it is the message you shape about these beliefs that make all the difference. You, obviously, don't want to promote these ideas, but they are real mindsets that people have. You can demonstrate these mindsets and challenge them and use these flawed mindsets to spread a broader message.

  • Seems you caught me just as I edited the question, because I'd already thought of the first two major points you make, but nicely brought up with the last paragraph. I hadn't thought of it that way; the narrative forms a shape around a set of expressed beliefs. It's a good metaphor for how the story works as a whole. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 12:19
  • yeah, lol that was as you edited it. glad you seem to have it (at least partially) figured out, though! – Sarah Stark Aug 7 '18 at 12:24
  • Alas, seems some readers think I'm pro-slutshaming. Part of me wants to demonise them as simply reacting blindly to the word 'slut' without considering context, but you can't improve your craft by demonising critics. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 15:07
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I think the most effective method of showing that a POV character has a sense of reality that is in some way warped is to contrast their beliefs with the concrete events of the narrative, and have them be baffled by the way things don't line up with their expectations.

The issue is that reader interpretations are tricky; clarifying the flawed nature of the main character's perspective is not necessarily going to change readers' perspectives on the message you are sending.

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A good solution is to clearly show how the flaws are an obstacle for the character when they try to achieve their goals.

For example, if the girl in your story manages to seduce the boy who is in a relationship and has great sex with him, it might seem as if you endorse such behavior. But if the boy rejects her and expresses his contempt for her because she tries to have sex with him although she knows that he's in a relationship and others witness her attempt at seduction and she is socially isolated as a "slut", then all this makes it clear to the reader that you do not endorse sluttiness but rather want to show how it is a problem for those who behave in such a way, because it increases the loneliness and leads to further trauma.

  • That was one of the ideas I had, and one I've implemented; reality/other sympathetic characters disagreeing with their worldview. The example I have in mine is that while the girl POV views promiscuity with fear and resentment, the guy POV is extremely accepting of promiscuous women (his love interest is implied to be promiscuous whenever she's single) and outright rejects another woman's claims that her virginity makes her superior. And yes, in terms of the girl's romantic pursuits, he reciprocates, but both of them are fraught with guilt and self-loathing from their illicit behaviour. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 11:44
  • Ultimately, the one kiss they have is unsatisfying and the consequences are fatal for the guy. However, that's besides the point. This was more to do with her internal demonisation of sexual desire at all, not the wrongness of pursuing her crush – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 11:49
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On the one hand, I think it's plain silly for a reader to assume that all the beliefs and actions of characters in a story represent the beliefs of the author. Obviously when I read a murder mystery, I don't assume that because a character in the story murders someone that therefore the author must think that murder is okay. But I've heard plenty of readers say things like this. "Oh, this story is terrible, it condones X!!", when to my reading the story portrayed X as a terrible thing.

To some extent, there's nothing you can do about this. I'd think that if I write a story in which someone commits murder, I don't need to say "murder is a bad thing". That should go without saying. But apparently not.

That said, I think the best thing to do is to make the actions you want to portray as evil or foolish turn out badly. Like the girl tries to seduce a married man ... and he scornfully rejects her and she is humiliated. Or he goes along with it and ultimately they are found out and his marriage is destroyed and we see all the pain and suffering it caused.

You can create a character who is clearly portrayed as the "wise one" who comments on the goings on in a sophisticated way. "You know, you wouldn't have gotten into so much trouble if only you had ..."

Most of all, I'd avoid having evil or foolish actions turn out just fine. Like the character does become a promiscuous slut ... and at the end this results in her being very popular, everyone likes her, it leads to her getting a great job, etc etc. Or the violent killer murders his enemy, and now all his problems are solved, he's never caught, and everything his great. Etc.

Also, it's good to have villains who are believable, that is, who have plausible motives for their evil actions. But don't make them SO sympathetic that the reader is lured into thinking, "Yeah, he was right to beat his wife senseless, she was such an annoying screaming shrew", or "Yeah, the Klan was right to run those negros out of town, they were all trying to rape white women", or whatever.

  • I personally believe being a 'slut' is fine, but getting with people with relationships is wrong not because of sexuality but deception, but your points are valid, but covered in my 'reality disagrees with their flaws' category; their attitudes come back to haunt them. In my case where I believe self-chastising over merely having sexual desires at all, it backfires because instead of accepting her feelings about the boy and moving on, she obsesses over how wrong they are until she kisses him, performing the real 'sin': Deception and lack of integrity. As you can imagine, this backfires. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 20:58
  • I think having sexual desire is a great thing. I literally worship the fellow who invented sex. That's why I think it's such a tragedy when people abuse it. But regardless, the point of the present discussion isn't to debate sexual morality but to discuss writing techniques. – Jay Aug 8 '18 at 18:50
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I'd leave it. As far as a 25 year old male "adopting" a 13 year old girl; my suspension of disbelief is already broken. Without a blood relation, I'd be amazed if any court allowed that, or closet pedophiles would be adopting them daily.

You'd have a better chance with same-gender professor that IS a blood relation, like an aunt or older cousin. The courts are sympathetic to keeping blood relations together, and the "pedophile danger" is far lower for two females than for any other combination.

As for slut-shaming: What's wrong with an immature character, just beginning to think about sex, that engages in slut shaming, or has all kinds of immature misconceptions about sex, what is moral and what is not? (particularly in the age of Internet porn). I see nothing wrong with that dynamic, or her having the notion (gathered from porn) that girls are expected to be promiscuous, or forward, and deciding she can "belong to the club" by being promiscuous and forward.

One of the dynamics you can play on with two MC that are supposed to get together is complementary characters. Give both of them strengths and weaknesses, so together they really are stronger than they are independently. And like friends, you can give them similar interests in entertainment and activities, so they bond over shared experiences.

I wouldn't worry about slut-shaming, you probably want that to be a lesson she learns somewhere in the book, what is and is not "slutty", and in general to avoid self-denigration and self-devaluation over sexual feelings. But to start, she's 13, she's got ten or twelve years before we can expect her to be thinking like a fully functional adult (same for guys, btw).

  • Perhaps I should have clarified; the country/nation they're in is a pretty dysfunctional fantastical feudal society, so regulations aren't something the twenty-five-year-old has to worry about. He is, however, rushing into something as serious as adopting a child way too early. Funnily, though, your attitude towards it is a thing that pops up in-universe; numerous people accuse the guy of being a paedophile in denial. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 19:13
  • Feudal as in our middle-ages? As late as the 1800s, it was acceptable for 12 and 13 year olds to be married, sexually active, and if orphans often prostitutes; we have paintings by Masters of barely pubescent prostitutes. I'm not sure the attitudes you describe are "feudal." In any case, less education allows my case too, a thirteen year old is even more immature with zero education, she probably isn't even literate! And morality would likely be quite high, the church and everybody else is slut-shaming all day long; she'd consider it natural. So still plausible. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 7 '18 at 19:24
  • It's a fantasy society with its own cultural moorings, but if you really want the ins and outs, all right. Arkhera is around 1700s tech, and the girl is an illegitimate child of a noble (and is partially literate) noted for being a woman and promiscuous, and yes, out of her lands, she's widely slut-shamed for her attitude (when the more pressing issue of her being a distant parent is ignored as that's sadly expected). And as for my concerns with slut-shaming, yes, it makes sense in-universe, my question was about how to let the reader know I'm not endorsing it. Seems you didn't get the memo. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 19:28
  • When I say 'feudal', I mean 'run by numerous land-owning lords and ladies that pass their title down in a hereditary manner with little to no unified legislature', rather than being analogous to a particular age/culture. – Matthew Dave Aug 7 '18 at 19:29
  • I get the memo, I don't understand the concern. I can write about vigilantes that hunt rich criminals and always believe they are righteous because the criminal justice system is corrupt, it doesn't mean I endorse either murder or vigilantism. If your characters are only allowed to do things the author actually "endorses" then they are all one-note, boring, and unmarketable. She's just a character, invented with attitudes to support a story. Get that memo. Of course, if her attitude does not have consequences within the story, then you could leave it out without consequences, couldn't you? – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 7 '18 at 22:36
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One solution is to make the POV character's perspectives absurdly strong.

If the girl (figuratively) flagellates herself for falling for the boy, calling herself all sorts of names and imagining her punishments in hell, it will be obvious to the reader that her views are out of proportion. Obviously, you don't want this to go on long, but a few sentences along this route can go a long way.

You can also contrast this with the behavior of others around her. If, during this self-flagellation, a maidservant sighs about falling in love with yet another boy, the protagonist might accept this blithely. This would further show that the protagonist has unrealistic personal expectations.

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