Staying True To Your Characters—Whether You Like Them or Not

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“Have something to say
and say it as clearly as you can.
That is the only secret.”
~Matthew Arnold

“A writer should create living people;
people, not characters. 
A character is a caricature.”
~Ernest Hemingway

 

The Review

The following is an excerpt from a 1-star review for my romantic comedy The Frog Prince that was posted in June of 2011 on Amazon. Back then, I stalked my review page like it was a Hollywood heartthrob. Since the reviews were generally 4 or 5-star, this 1-star review nearly spun my world off its axis.


“The writers [sic] use of the words retard, retarded, socially retarded and mentally retarded were all used within the first chapter. I have a 3 year old daughter with downs syndrome, [sic] I find her repeated use of these very hurtful words extremely tasteless.”

surprised.2jpg[Note: You can read more about the interaction that followed between me and the reader after her initial review posted— and how we both tried very hard (and succeeded, I think) to engage each other in meaningful dialogue on a topic where we passionately disagreed—here.]

Whoa, wait a minute! I thought.

I used the words ‘retard,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘socially retarded,’ and ‘mentally retarded’—all in the same chapter?

REALLY? Honestly, it seemed to reflect a lack of creativity (or a thesaurus) on my part.

I opened my draft of the manuscript, using the search function to find the offending language. And there it was, right there in Chapter One:

Regret is familiar territory. When it comes to dating and men—hell, even having a coherent conversation with people in general—I am something of a social retard. Funerals are meant to comfort the living? God, I’m like Emily Post crossed with Debbie Downer. I queue up in the coffin line so I can say my final goodbyes to Great Aunt Tina before going home to spend a quiet evening in respectful isolation. Sort of like every other night.

The word makes only two more appearances—both in Chapter Two—in a conversation inside a car between Leigh Fromm and her best friend, Kat. There are no other people with them:

    “I’m worried about his jaw,” I say, cutting her off.

    “His wha’?”

Charles II
Charles II showing off his, er, strong jaw.

    “His jaw,” I snap. “The House of Habsburg-Lorraine was completely inbred. All that inbreeding…some of them had jaws like bulldogs. Charles the Second couldn’t even chew his food because his grandmother was also his aunt. And he was insane, mentally retarded, and impotent.”

    Kat shoots a sideways look at me. “You’re effing weird.”

    Her insult—contracted curse word and all—is said with the greatest affection and I am not offended. I know how much effort she has expended of late to reform her mouth. Time-honored curses like the F-bomb and sonuvabitch have been replaced with laughable substitutes like “holy old leguva bench” and “Jesus tapdancing Christ.”

    “Roman went to law school with Christine at Denver University,” says Kat. “So scratch mentally retarded. He owns some kind of construction company. And I’d be willing to give him a little tumble to check on that impotency thing for you.”

    “Thanks, Kat.”

The reason I use this particular review as a “teaching moment” is two-fold:

1) To highlight the difficulties of writing in first-person
2) To stress the importance of staying true to your characters and your story.

First Person POV: Tricky At Best

2013-01-22 Frog Prince w borderThe Frog Prince is about a Denver sex researcher (Leigh Fromm) who meets the man who would have been the king of Austria—if the monarchy there hadn’t been abolished in 1918. Leigh is a beautiful woman who is generally very ill at ease in social situations. Her internal dialogue—in which she alternately cheers on, berates, and second-guesses herself—make up some of the funniest moments in the book.

The novel is written from Leigh Fromm’s point of view. First person can be a tricky POV to pull off, because readers have to be willing to endure being “in the character’s head” for 300+ pages. When done well, readers may have a hard time distinguishing your novel (fictional) from a memoir (first person, personal account).

In her review, the reader explains: “I have a 3 year old daughter with downs syndrome, I find her repeated use of these very hurtful words extremely tasteless [emphasis mine].”

The word “her” used here gave me pause. Did the reader mean me or did she mean Leigh Fromm? Did readers feel as if we were one and the same? I tried very hard to explain how I felt about my characters in my response:

“…the individuals in my book are like real flesh-and-blood people to me. At the same time it’s important to understand that they are NOT me. They are individuals with their own thoughts and feelings and personalities, their own life experiences, prejudices and self-esteem issues, their own families and taste in clothes and food.’”

From Your Character’s Mouth to the Reader’s Ears

Once thing I can tell you is that readers can sniff out stilted, forced, or “politically correct” dialogue—whether internal or spoken—from two hundred miles away. The example of this that I often give is this: if you were reading a book about a racist sheriff set in the Deep South in 1950, would this dialogue ring true?

“You tell that gosh-darned African American that he’d best be off the property by sundown.”

(Insert eye roll here.)

Perhaps this example is a bit too easy, as “the N-word” has been banned from casual conversation for much longer than “the R word,” but it’s still used in literature and movies when it’s necessary to establish a character’s values or the value system of the time.

The internal dialogue Leigh has with herself in Chapter One (in which she calls herself “a social retard”), or the conversation between Leigh and Kat in Chapter Two, illustrate this point nicely. In the case of the former, Leigh is speaking to herself, in her head. She is not calling another person a “social retard.” I’m not saying that there isn’t a fictional character in my head somewhere who would do such a thing (and perhaps I’ll write that character one day), but Leigh isn’t that kind of person.

gear-headThat being said, I think if you placed an embargo on words that one thinks to oneself, we’d all be in prison or committed to psychiatric institutions! Extrapolate that restriction to fictional characters, and you’re really tying the hands of writers to create rich, complex, fragile (and yes, sometimes horrible, reviling) people.

Real people behave in different ways, depending on who is around us, where we are, and what capacity we are acting in at that moment. Are we in mixed company at a movie theater? At dinner with siblings? In a car with our best friend? In a meeting with our boss? Friend, daughter, employee, car, workplace, dinner…these are all very different roles and settings that would change how we act and what we say.

In the confines of a car with one’s best friend who one has known for a decade or more, it’s not outlandish to think that Leigh would say: “And he was insane, mentally retarded, and impotent.”

Of course, Leigh could sanitize every word so that it describes nothing and offends nobody: “He was mentally ill, and also suffered from intellectual disabilities, mandibular prognathism, and sexual dysfunction as a result of increased homozygosity due to consanguineous coupling.”

I mean, let’s face it, “increased homozygosity due to consanguineous coupling” isn’t exactly a catchphrase that’s sweeping the nation. If you uttered that to your best friend in a car, she’d probably stop the car and make you get out and walk the rest of the way. I’m not even sure she’d stop the car, now that I think about it, maybe just slow down a little.

A writer staying true to her characters must accept them however they come to life in her head, the good, the bad, and the ugly–especially the ugly–because flesh and blood human beings are all of these things, all at the same time.

 

5 Comments

  • Robert Gregory Browne Reply

    Isn’t “mental retardation” the proper medical term? Your overall point notwithstanding, I can understand the sensitivity to a word like “retard,” but the medically proper term should offend no one, I think.

    That said, some people use such terms, and if we start thinking about offending readers because we’re staying true to a character’s thoughts and expressions, then we might as well hang up our word processors. People think and say offensive things. If we candy coat it, we’re not doing our jobs.

    • Elle Lothlorien Reply

      Sorry, Rob, your comment got caught in my spam filter. Stop spamming me! :)

      “Mental retardation” isn’t really the term that’s used anymore in scientific and hospital settings. It’s not that you NEVER hear it, it’s just that the term isn’t really that helpful when it comes to a medical diagnosis. “Significant developmental and intellectual delays as a result of Baby Doe’s Goldenhar Syndrome” is what you’re more likely to hear. Also, “retarded” or “mentally retarded” is often used interchangeably with “Down’s Syndrome” when, in fact, a child’s developmental or intellectual delays may have nothing at all to do with trisomy-21.

      “People think and say offensive things. If we candy coat it, we’re not doing our jobs.”
      You just summed up my post in about 2,000 fewer words. ♥

  • Daniel Berenson Reply

    Elle,
    What if you had written a crime novel about the Sicilian mob and had used derogatory (and well-known) epithets for Italians in the gangsters’ conversations? Do you believe this woman would have written you to complain (assuming she’s not Italian) about the hurtful language? Your logic is impeccable in this regard. In her case, it was a personal affront, but it was due to her family situation. Your first person point of view lets you off the hook. You are creating a character. Now if were a combined third person view with the narrator sticking in snide comments of her own, you might be more open to attack. Even then, the narrator is not the author. If the author were telling the story, I believe it would be called a memoir or autobiography.

    • Elle Lothlorien Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Daniel. You’re right in that people tend to differ in what they are offended by based on their personal situations–ethnicity, socioeconomic class, health, etc.–which often makes it very hard as a writer to create real characters instead of vanilla cardboard cutouts.

      I am very much opposed to censorship of fictional works in any form. Authors should be able to write whatever comes into their head and if an individual reader is offended by the content, they are free to get a refund and/or leave their thoughts in a review (as Amber did). Fortunately, today’s digital age allows an author to reach out to an unhappy reader and enter into a dialogue. I am pleased with the way the matter with Amber concluded on a positive note!

  • Daniel Berenson Reply

    Elle, After having a nap, I think I’ll ask you to not respond to (and certainly not to post) that long previous letter. I’d attribute it to menopause, but I don’t really think that was it. And going back over a few of your longer posts, I see that you’ve done close to the same things already, so my experiences wouldn’t be that unique.
    Sorry for the bother.
    Daniel

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