Bringing Characters to Life by Matt Cost

Should characters in books have political leanings? I mean, most people do. Some people claim that they hate politics, politicians, and never vote because they’re all crooks. But that is a political belief as well. Most of the rest of the population are just as adamant in their beliefs, be it left, right, or somewhere in the middle.

I understand that you don’t want to alienate a segment of the population. But the same can be said for just about any belief that a person has. Religion. Football fan. Soccer fan. Support Immigrants. Oppose Immigrants.  Eat meat. Vegan. The list goes on and on.

It is my belief that creating a character in a book is like taking a store mannequin and bringing it to life. To do so, you have to provide a hairstyle, clothing, and mannerisms But this is still merely scratching the surface. If you want to truly bring this mannequin to life, you have to go deeper and reach the core essence.

What is the backstory of my protagonist? Sure, Clay Wolfe has commitment issues. But why? The writer has to know this, and share it with the reader, sometimes subtly, sometimes bluntly. His parents died in a car crash when he was eight, is the short version, and the longer version continues to leak out over the course of four books now, with a fifth due in December.

Goff Langdon in my Mainely Mystery series votes Independent, sometimes Democrat, and never Republican. Is that wrong? I welcome discourse, of course, on whether his political beliefs are right or wrong. The argument can certainly be made that Republican beliefs are more valid than that of Independents or Democrats. The question is: Is it wrong for him to have an opinion?

There seem to be two major rules of thumb of what not to do in a book. Don’t kill a pet, especially a dog or cat, and don’t allow your protagonist to have a political belief system. I am good with the first but question the second.

When a writer starts writing to not offend, then the creative process has been stymied. I don’t think we should use fiction to get on a high horse and use our novels as a podium to preach our politics, but to omit something as major as political leanings from our characters seems to be taking a step back to become an inanimate and thoughtless mannequin.

Enough of what I think. What do you all think? Should the protagonist of a book have a political belief system?

Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.

Cost has published four books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, due out in August of 2023. He has also published four books in the Clay Wolfe Trap series, with the fifth, Pirate Trap, due out in December of 2023.

For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost will combine his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry.

Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.

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9 Responses to Bringing Characters to Life by Matt Cost

  1. John Clark says:

    I’ve created characters who have strong environmental and/or political beliefs. That’s who I am and my characters reflect that.

    • matthewcost says:

      I agree.I don’t want to dwell on debatable things like the budget but social issues I feel I have to take a stand at least.

  2. jselbo says:

    I love to know all sides of the character – and political beliefs too. A lot of times I think we “suss” them out by the characters’ actions, of course – what they believe in – who they “appreciate” and who they don’t. I also like it when – if the political beliefs of one character are made an issue – that the opposite side and their beliefs are presented too –

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I think this is why I usually write historicals–the reader (and I) can escape from the political climate. While I know that politics certainly plays its part in every decade/century, the immediacy for the contemporary reader is absent. I’m all about the escape, LOL. No literary courage of my convictions.

    • matthewcost says:

      Unfortunately, the current politics of the land chased me into two of my historicals, Velma Gone Awry, set in 1923 Brooklyn, and Love in a Time of Hate, set in Reconstruction New Orleans. It seems that history repeats itself. Again. And again. And again.

  4. Tom Burns says:

    Absolutely, fictional characters should have political and religious beliefs. Whether or how they express them depends on the character. You can take my opinion with a grain of salt though, because I killed the cat, too…

  5. Amber Foxx says:

    I’ve encountered people in the real world who are almost oblivious to politics. I found this out because I was volunteering to get out the vote, and these people said they had no issues of real concern. That said, I have characters with political viewpoints, but I don’t make the person who shares my beliefs the good guy or the one who doesn’t share them the bad guy. Nor is the story about politics, except when my protagonist’s mother-in-law runs for mayor in a very small town ( a subplot.) So far, readers have not been offended.

    • matthewcost says:

      I’d say that most political viewpoints don’t stray too far from each other. It is the extreme points of view that get a lot of media coverage though.

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