Blind Spots - An Author’s Perspective

Characters can be terribly biased. Take the recent bomb attack in Nashville.

The FBI said that a white male US citizen blew up a city block by stuffing his RV with explosives and setting it off while he was inside. Then Facebook began to publish reports of a foreign missile attack with the theory that the RV story was invented to cover it up.

If one doesn't want to believe that homegrown terrorists are the biggest threat these days, one might be drawn to a conspiracy theory that diverts blame elsewhere. Anyone with a strong psychological bias will fail to untangle feelings from facts, even when facts pile up against them.

Bias is amply illustrated by the tweets of our outgoing President, which makes this a good time to consider biases in written characters as well.

Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is judged an adulteress by her Puritan neighbors, but most readers lack their bias and feel deep sympathy for her plight. In John Le Carré’s Cold War espionage novels, the Russian spymaster, Karla, is a fanatic, which makes him ruthlessly effective—but in the end, also proves to be his exploitable weakness.

As an author, I work hard to give depth to my villains. It’s a common challenge. A good way to make them plausible is to imbue them with a strong bias. They are fanatics about some cause that colors their view of everything. Or they are, like our outgoing-we-hope President, so immaturely egotistical that they simply cannot believe they would ever lose.

And of course, racism and other -isms are powerful roots of character bias. It’s fun to imagine writing a story about a series of bombings in which the detectives’ preconceived notions about terrorists blind them to the real suspect. Blind spots are great fun in fiction—but not so helpful in real life.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure

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