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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Loathsome Characters Say Despicable Things

Tess Gerritsen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University. Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and was awarded her M.D. in 1979. After completing her internal medicine residency, she worked as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1987, Tess's first novel was published. CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, a romantic thriller, was soon followed by eight more romantic suspense novels. She also wrote a screenplay, "Adrift," which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson. Her thriller, Harvest was released in 1996, and marked Tess's debut on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Film rights were sold to Paramount/Dreamworks, and the book was translated into twenty foreign languages. Now retired from medicine, Tess writes full time and lives in Maine

is the author also despicable?

I’ve recently been taken to task by a reader for a piece of dialogue in THE SILENT GIRL in which a nasty character says in frustration to Jane, “Are you a retard?” The reader wrote to tell me that she has a mentally challenged child and she was furious at me for using such a word. She felt I was insensitive and should never have used it. And the truth is, I myself would never use it. Just as I would never call anyone a chink, a whore, a gook, and any number of things.

But over the years, my characters have used such words. And they were not nice characters. Their choice of words, in fact, helped define the type of people they are, and evoked an emotional response in the reader. Many times, writers get slammed by readers because those words turn up in our books. We are supposed to clean up the language of our characters, however nasty they may be. Our characters — even the murderers, the crime lords, the gang bangers — are supposed to speak in antiseptically sensitive language. They must never speak the way they’d actually speak on the street.

Writers face tough choices with every word we pick. Do we write dialogue that’s realistic, or dialogue that doesn’t offend? Do we sanitize every line of dialogue so that it’s lifeless, stilted, and completely unbelievable?

Instead of saying “Are you a retard?” should that nasty character, a mobster, have said instead “Are you mentally challenged?”

It just doesn’t sound right. Does it?


  1. Amen Tess! We live in a fallen world, and unless we're writing a lollipop-and-balloons fantasy, so do our characters. I, for one, do NOT want my fiction sanitized.

  2. Just read a one star review of my latest novel, Dry as Rain, where the reviewer admittedly didn't actually read the book because right away we show a man who's cheated on his wife. As a Christian author it's a little hard to show redemption without hinting at him actually needing to be redeemed from something. So, I'm sure many of us feel your pain in different ways.

  3. I agree. If we can't show bad characters, we aren't writing reality. There will always be those who refuse to allow - or is it really admit - there's sin among Christians.

  4. Did the Bible sugarcoat reality and the evidence of sin?

  5. "Do we write dialogue that’s realistic, or dialogue that doesn’t offend? Do we sanitize every line of dialogue so that it’s lifeless, stilted, and completely unbelievable?"

    In CBA: yes. I'm one who thinks most foul language can be written around effectively. But some dialogue cannot be "unplugged". In the example given, as hurtful as it was for that mother (and the rest of us with any decency) to read, it gives a quick and accurate snapshot of who voiced those words.

  6. Having recently had a reader ask where the term "e-gads!" came from, I had to admit it was just an archaic phrase my old dad used to pop off with when he was really shocked at something. I only resorted to it because I was trying for a bit of variation between "Oh, my gosh!" or "Good heavens!" in my story. Especially for scruffy old characters who didn't go to church. While I am so thankful to be an inspirational fiction author, I, too, am still struggling with the realistic dialog thing. Especially in comparison to what we are competing with in the secular market these days.

    Oh, and Vonda... I think it was that monk who was working as a Bible translator that first exchanged the word "dung" for whatever Paul used in that phrase where he was describing what he thought about everything he ever lost out on for being a Christian (Phil. 3:8) that might have started the ball rolling for sugarcoating things.

  7. Christians are like Hobbits. Most of them live their overly comfortable lives, in their overly sanitized environments, living in the bliss of ignorance to all those in the world who do not live as they do. Some grew up in Hobbit holes, and others pretend that they had so they can fit in with the ones who did. It would be quite shameful for a Hobbit to be adventuring at all, let alone with the likes of dwarfs and wizards. It's much more comfortable to pretend that evil doesn't really exist, and there's no real reason to ever leave their comfortable holes.

    And it makes me sad because I know those Hobbits are not doing anything against the evil in the world, and are only discouraging those who have any thought to try.

  8. Argh! I hate this. It's not just Christians showing sensitivity. There are people who say "Shakespeare said..." When in fact, one of Shakespeare's characters said it. Whether he believed it or not, we don't know. I HATE when people quote something as being something the author said.

    In my field I ran across this with the Avatar movie. Several disability rights people were upset when the evil military guy refers to Jake Sully getting his "real legs" back. Is it offensive? Yes. But look at the source. It was the bad guy that said it.

    The movie was not coming out with this statement that Jake was broken and in need of fixing. In fact, he chose to stay with the woman he loved instead of going back to Earth where that "fixing" was set up to take place.

  9. Oh, also, using the term "mentally challenged" wouldn't help in this case. The offensive part is more than the word, it's that the word is used to indicate something bad that you wouldn't want to be. No matter what PC term you were to try to use, it would always be offensive because he is using mental disability as something necessarily terrible. So, there's no good solution. You have to let your bad characters be bad guys.

  10. I won't get into what writers should or shouldn't be able to do. Both writers and readers will cover every inch of the spectrum on this one.

    I will say I prefer writers who write authentically, not necessarily politically correct. If it's in the character's POV and it reads as believable for that character, even if I hate the character, I'm okay with it. I can differentiate between the character and the author. Now, if the author inserts his or her POV into the story, which occasionally happens, then that's different. I'm not much for author intrusion.

  11. Gina,
    I am the one who wrote the review you are talking about. I know and understand you have to show where he sinned and how he came to be forgiven. I don't believe in sugar coating anything. The only point I was trying to make was I had a following of a young group of people and I didn't want to promote a book that was that mature in age,that was the only point I was trying to get across. I am sure you are a wonderful writer but this style of reading was not for me. Hope you understand my point of view!

  12. That seems fair to me, Green Grass. I think this was a great opportunity to discuss this issue, because it does seem to happen a lot that readers think everything an author writes is her belief. Authors need disclaimers, I think: "beliefs expressed by characters in this work may or may not be that of the author"!

  13. I totally understand the argument Tess Garritsen makes regarding the offensive word. I know that today's Christian fiction has come a long way in more suitably meeting the needs of its readers, yet I too am the mother of a mentally challenged child, and, I have to say, it would probably offend and hurt (not anger) me as well, and I'll explain why.

    The difference in using the words (as Tess put it) chink, whore, gook is that individuals who would be personally offended by these slurs have the mental capability of defending themselves or at least the ability to choose to consider the source. They have the where-with-all to stand up for their rights, and are then able to stand on their own merit.

    The mentally handicapped community does not have that opportunity or ability. It has actually long been part of an official medical diagnosis for them. So, when the word retarded is included in a work of fiction, it is like a slap in the face of a parent who already lives with daily (figurative) slaps in the face. I'm pretty sure I would find myself wishing the phrase had been omitted if I indeed ran up on it while trying to escape into a world apart from my daily challenges and those of my child. Isn't that why we read fiction? To escape for a while.

    Please, take a moment to look at the following website that is part of a national movement to change people's perception and misconceptions about the "R" word.

    To parents and loved ones of a mentally challenged child or adult child, calling them retarded equals kicking a dog when he's down.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read this.

  14. Of course, I am well aware that since this character said this to someone, it adds another layer to his nastiness. Helps us to really get a grasp on his evil nature. But, I would like to see him say idiot or even a stronger derogatory word that could just as easily show his evil nature, and not use a medical diagnosis.

  15. I am a little stunned that anyone would give a bad rating to a book they haven't read. I don't care what your reasoning- that just seems very wrong. You don't want people who respect your opinions to read it? Then don't rate it at all. You aren't doing anyone any favors by giving a 1 star rating to a book you haven't read regardless of the content. I've started books that were so poorly written that I couldn't get through the first chapter. I don't rate those books. I just assume it wasn't for me to read and move on to the next on my list. 1 star isn't for "mature content" it's for "I didn't like this book", and you can't honestly say that if you didn't read it.

  16. To anonymous,
    I did read some of it and could not get into it,nothing was drawing me in. Plus I didn't like what it was saying when I was reading it and yes that gives me every right to post the review and opinion I want to post. Im sure she is a wonderful writer,but I have my convictions and I'm tired of seeing the world always just talk about sex and stuff. I have a right to an opinion just as you do. Never meant for the review to make anyone mad but I just wanted to make it clear my position to my readers. God bless.

  17. Just a couple small add-ons here. Where the Green Grass Grows: you are certainly entitled to express your opinion, but I'm curious why you attempted to read the novel when the copy clearly states what's going to happen.

    The world is the source for sexual issues in writing. How about Christian writers taking the lead for a change and delving into its power and influence? And for those who are opposed to reading any confrontations regarding sexual issues, they need not read said novels. I write novels (love stories) which contrast the world's view of sex, love, romance to God's view. As you can imagine, portraying the world as it is can get down and dirty (without graphics), but it's a very important (and needed) contrast since mostly all readers get is the secular viewpoint in novels.

    And P.J.M. you sound like you've never known real Christians. Your generalizations really don't mesh with true Christianity.

  18. Yes I did know what the book was going to be about,but I didn't think it would have talk about wrapped in sheets. I think the sin can be talked about without using certain things. It's all just catering to the world and their way of talk but I feel as Christians we need to be different. I am just saying that when I pick up what is suppose to be christian fiction I would expect a little modesty in it. Im just tired of seeing everyone conform to the world. You can write a book without using some words or things.

  19. WtGRG, this statement: "It's all just catering to the world and their way of talk but I feel as Christians we need to be different." is only half true. Yes, I agree we need to be different. But in that difference, we need to depict the underlying truths of our nature and expose the contrasts. As an author you probably wouldn't choose to read, I can tell you my writing has nothing to do with "catering to the world and their way of talk". It has everything to do with honesty. Now of course it's your preference not to address that reality portrayed in fiction, but that doesn't make it any less truthful in its depiction, and it doesn't make it wrong or sinful to tackle a story in this manner. The "difference" we as Christians offer is the resolution, the need for forgiveness, the confrontation of sinful acts/conduct. If sin wasn't pleasurable, no one would do it. Christians need to address that truthfully. However,that doesn't mean you have to like it, but I think it's a matter of preference rather than a writer either succumbing or "catering to" or "conforming to" the way of the world. It's a bit hard for me personally to mention "modesty" associated with an honest portrayal of adultery. I hope you can see the point I'm trying to make here. I mean no offense.

  20. Where the Green Grass Grows, anonymous isn't me in case you were wondering. I totally understand the point you were making and have no hard feelings. I'm glad you spoke up regarding your convictions. I appreciate your honesty and the review that you kept your promise to write. It is always commendable for someone to say what's on their heart, especially when their heart is toward God. Mine is too. I always say, we in the Christian community, are iron sharpening iron. Sometimes we do go too far with what we right, that, of course, is subjective, sometimes we don't go far enough to reach out honestly. Thanks for all the comments and for keeping it cordial as always. I love that about this blog and audience.

  21. oops, that was write, not right, but you know what I meant :)

  22. Writing needs personality as well. So it is therefore natural to show bad characters in writing to show them the real you. Amen
    children with disabilities

  23. The greatest beauty is not found among the pristine. It is found in the ugly, dirty, foul places of the world where it thrives despite the odds against it. There's simply nothing graceful about Superman yet the unsung penitent alcoholic makes for stories to wrench your heart.

    Then again, if you write fantasy you can sidestep the whole issue and invent your own colorful phrases.


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