I’m not sure how I feel about the way dads are often portrayed in books and movies. On one hand, I think the most important thing about stories is that they tell a good story. I hate the impulse we have developed as a society to tear stories apart because of how they did or did not portray some sort of issue or group. I believe the most important thing for a story to do is tell a story that people can connect with and hopefully learn from. What the readers learn is between the reader and the author, not the reader, the author, and everyone on Twitter.
On the other hand, as a dad, I have a hard time with the barrage of negative portrayals of dads in media. I understand that a bad dad is a powerful plot device for many stories. I just hope that it doesn’t color my daughters’ or anyone else’s perception of what dads are like.
Of course, the most disappointing possibility is that authors are just writing what they know about dads, and that dads may have earned the representation they’ve been given.
I have a hard time with the idea that the usefulness or the value of stories is that they should teach readers some sort of well-defined, right-answer lesson. I think the value of storytelling goes so far beyond and so much deeper than the idea of teaching lessons. As a teacher, I sometimes encounter the idea that we teach certain books in school because we want students to learn a specific lesson from a specific book, and I think there is probably some truth to that, but that’s not why I teach the books I do. I want my students to encounter ideas that trouble and challenge them, that they will have to wrestle with before they are can tell people what they were reading and what they learned. Reading, to me, is one of the many instances where the process of getting to the destination may be more important than getting to the destination itself. For that reason, I agree with the monster. There is not always a good guy. There is not always a lesson. I good author presents problems to his or her readers, but does not tell them what to think.
One of my favorite characters is Arthur in The Once and Future King, by TH White. This is the same book that the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone is based on, although that story is only a small part of the book. The book follows King Arthur from his days as an awkward adopted orphan called “Wart,” through his experiences of pulling the sword from the stone and becoming King. He then goes on to unite small scattered kingdoms that become England. This story was not new when TH White wrote it. He was collecting 1000 years worth of legends and tales and turning them into a single story. His characterization of Arthur, Guinevere, the other knights, and the villains Morgan le Fey and Mordred were what made this story great. Instead of being the stiff, one-dimensional character Arthur usually turns out to be in these stories, White made Arthur relatable by showing some of his experiences as an orphaned child, his feeling of conflict and inadequacy upon becoming king, and the pain of being betrayed by his best friend and his wife.
Characters shape our experiences with books by giving us a way to experience the ideas the author is writing about. When we identify with the characters, we begin to care what happens to them and then we internalize the ideas of the story. We respond as though we were a part of the story.