Understanding certain points of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create a believable, three-dimensional character occasionally becomes my greatest challenge in writing fiction. The problem arises when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in complete opposition to my own. I grew up in south Alabama and northwest Florida during the Civil Rights Era. The region’s traditional values were a sad fusion of religion, misogyny, homophobia, and racism. The world was changing rapidly, and rather than internalize those traditional values as my own, I began to question and reject them. Perhaps that’s why now, when creating fictional characters, the most challenging viewpoints for me are those based on so-called traditional values that excuse individuals from questioning their own actions and beliefs. In my story “Dogs,” the protagonist must come to terms with a childhood dominated by a father who ruled with brutal commitment to traditional values.
During the 1960s, southern schools began under federal mandate to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one night the summer before the school I attended integrated, my father, mother, and I came upon a countryside rally a half-hour south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a closed gas station that bordered the field where hundreds of people surrounded a wooden platform, a giant, flaming cross behind it igniting the darkness. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd to listen to a parade of hooded figures spewing racial epithets, claiming god-ordained superiority, and swearing allegiance to traditional values. The day before I entered fourth grade that fall when my school finally integrated, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with African American students. I recalled that night in the field, the rage expressed, the fear I felt. I was young but not stupid. And I soon learned that good old Dad didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. The multi-racial friendships I formed made me not only question the traditional values I’d been taught, but enabled me to discard them as relics of a culture to that I no longer wanted to belong.
I recently saw a headline proclaiming “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The article extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations—the same segregationist logic I’d observed as a child, only now targeting a different group. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Italians to Gypsies to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. As soon as society appears ready to rid itself of one despicable practice, another pops up. As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. Sadly, we’ve experienced a global resurgence of those so-called traditional values in recent years.
One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate and justify everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on other faiths, the forced taking of immigrant children from their parents, and the concerted attack on the civil and human rights of individuals of all groups—to name only a few. These traditional values-oriented movements maintain that governance by a supposedly god-ordained list of rules, such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, is superior to treating each other with dignity and respect despite differences. The Christian commandments are self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence ignore is the punishment prescribed for violation, ranging from genocide for creating graven images to death for violation of most of the other commandments. (For a comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please visit to/.)
Based on personal traditional values, we dictate what’s best for everyone else—that is, until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. Take Dick Cheney for example. He was vehemently against gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. At least Cheney and Brady amended their values. But there are folks like politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen, who made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. They utilized their right to make their own healthcare choices, but they continue to advocate for passage of draconian anti-choice laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.
Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it’s critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts stripped of hyperbole and based solely on facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone who wants to be informed cannot rely on a single source to understand events, especially if the source is a political tool, as many of today’s media outlets have become. I recently debated a relative who utilizes his personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic worldview. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to force others to accept those opinions as their own. Our debate ended in a shouting match as mutual respect disintegrated, permanently damaging the relationship.
That argument, however, drove home a stark realization: I have created and internalized my own traditional values, which explains the challenge I encounter to create three-dimensional characters whose values differ severely from my own. Sometimes, I succeed; sometimes, I fail. The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one golden traditional value most religions and cultures share: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
In other words, live and let live, sadly the most ignored traditional value of all.
C.S. Fuqua is a full-time creative writer. He began his career in the late 1970s as a freelance journalist for trade magazines. He later worked as a newspaper reporter and consumer and trade magazine staff writer before becoming a full-time freelance writer in the 1980s.Since then, his work has appeared widely in publications such as Year’s Best Horror Stories XIX, XX and XXI, Cemetery Dance, Dark Regions, Christian Science Monitor, Slipstream, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Writer, and Honolulu Magazine. His fiction and poetry have earned several “Year’s Best” honors. Chris’s books include Walking after Midnight ~ Collected Stories, the SF novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Hush, Puppy! A Southern Fried Tale (children’s), and Native American Flute Craft, among others. He is also a craftsman of Native American flutes and a recording musician with several albums of Native American flute and world fusion music available.
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