Yeah, bring on the controversy! Just be polite about it! Anyways, today we’re discussing “problematic” characters.
But what exactly do people mean when they say problematic?
There isn’t really a dictionary definition for problematic in the modern context of literature so I’m winging it and stating on the record that when people refer to problematic characters, what they really mean are characters who break the moral law and are romanticized for it.
Now, I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial but eh who cares. Jude and Cardan from The Cruel Prince are not problematic.
Jude and Cardan demonstrate toxic qualities, yes. They attempt to kill each other on multiple occasions, and are generally cunning and cruel. However, what everyone misses when they accuse these two of being “problematic” is context. The world of The Folk of the Air is based on fae lore, which means that fae are generally not very nice people. Jude, having grown up in this world, would naturally feel inspired to take after them. Just because they both are toxic according to our real-life standards doesn’t make them problematic.
Of course, an issue would arise if someone were using The Cruel Prince as a guidebook on conscience but I’m pretty sure everyone who reads it knows that this is a fictionalized relationship, between fictionalized characters, with fictionalized backstories. It wouldn’t fly in real life as any sort of actual romance. Anyone who reads the type of fanfic with The Mafia Plotline (y’all know what I’m talking about) knows that everything in the story has been romanticized to fit a certain narrative. And if you think that it would be excusable in real life…then you’re not old enough to read it.
but that begs the question: are there problematic characters?
In my opinion…it would be a rare case. More often I would say that there are problematic authors, such as Rainbow Rowell. It’s not so much that her characters are biased than it is that her entire book is biased because of her prejudice against Asians. An issue can certainly arise when an author’s biases are reflected in their characters. However, in almost every fictional story, you are working with an author’s bias. It’s not romantic if someone kills for you in reality but in a fantasy world where enemies-to-lovers is the most popular trope in a romanticized scenario? Yeah, okay, I can see it. Makes sense.
I’m arguing that awful actions are excusable. What I’m saying is that too often I hear that a character is problematic when they are either meant to be problematic, or the reader is missing context. Or perhaps they are mixing up plot devices with character arcs. After all, sometimes a character does something horrible because the plot requires them too. You don’t have to like every main character. Some main characters in fiction are woefully unlikable, and do horrible things. They’re just following the character arc the author has laid out for them. That’s the biggest point I’m trying to get at here: when we call a character problematic, do we really mean unlikable? Do we mean toxic by realistic standards? Or do we genuinely mean that the character is being terrible for no good reason, the behavior is being excused, and it’s not meant to be some sort of weird self-insert romance?
I hope that this discussion makes sense! In summary, I’m not excusing terrible actions. But a villain is going to act like a villain and a morally grey character is going to act like a morally grey character. You cannot watch them act in the way that their backgrounds, personalities, and fictionalized ideologies have dictated and insist that they are problematic. An author can be problematic, and therefore that author’s own ideologies can take over the entire book, and that’s where I would agree that a character can be “problematic”. Anyways, I’d love to hear any opposing, agreeing, or just general thoughts on this debate! And remember to keep it polite (not that I’m worried about that because y’all are the SWEETEST lol). Feel free to discuss below!