Don’t Blame me, They said it!

When I first began writing I was really concerned about what my characters said, in the sense that I didn’t want one of them to say something that might offend the reader, or something the reader might find controversial. Now, of course I’m not writing anything political or that sort of thing where I’ll be sent death threats. However, if one of my characters made a racial stereotype, (be it an actual race or a fey race), I didn’t want to upset my readers. I didn’t want to get blamed for what my characters were saying.

But, not until fairly recently–about a year ago, roughly–did I realize that, in a way, I don’t have a lot of control over what my characters say. I learned through writing their developments, and through letting them make the story happen, that their personalities will show up and make them say the things they do. Whether they hate women, men, gnomes, birds, cars, trees, anything; eventually it will surface, and we, as writers, need to make them say those things that can potentially offend. Because if we don’t, then these characters won’t be real. No one says appropriate things all the time. People’s personalities shape who they are, and what they say. Characters in our stories are no different.

I mean, in the end it seems as if, more often than not, when a character says something inappropriate or offensive, another character is there to counter it, whether it be by another piece of dialogue, or an action. So, there is always someone in the story that will appeal to the reader. Whether the reader agrees with the inappropriate statement, or the counter-statement/action, they can relate to either of the characters, and that can make them relate to the story better.

Also, a character’s back story can do a lot to shape their dialogue. One particular event I tend to turn to–more often than I like–is that a character’s family was murdered by a particular people. Be it bandits, pirates, a rival tribe, an invading country, whatever. That event can shape how the character feels and acts. It will develop a hatred for that specific group or people, and therefore they are much more likely to say negative things about them. Now, of course, to turn that into an interesting story, a writer may end up having that person team up with a person from the invading force, or a person related to them, but not part of actual force. This will force them to overcome their hatred in the end. But, the writer cannot be held responsible for what the hate-feeling character says.

Have you ever been blamed for what your characters say? Do you ever feel like you can’t let a character say something because you think it will offend someone?

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13 thoughts on “Don’t Blame me, They said it!

  1. I worry about this a lot actually. Both in what my characters might say, or the situations I might put them in. I as the writer do not wish to give offense, but on the other hand I cannot in good conscience gag my characters. And situations I create may raise the ire of the reader. I submit that as writers that is at the heart of what we do. If we evoke a reaction then we did something powerful with the written word.

    And isn’t that the goal of a writer? To do something powerful, moving, tangible?

    How would we have villains if they did nothing villainous? How could we create tension or fear or revulsion if we worried too much about offending the reader?

    That being said, I do not think we should strive to offend just for offense’s sake, that would be putting words in the character’s mouth (I know, I know, we do that anyway.) It would be taking the character’s TRUE voice and corrupting it for sensationalism.

    Ask yourself this: Is it really the character saying this, or is it something merely to provoke without moving the story forward. If it does not serve a clear purpose, it can probably be cut without any real loss.

  2. I’m running into this problem right now – but in a slightly different format. My editor is doing a final round of editing for my soon-to-be-published novel, and I feel like she is constantly toning the characters down – especially the lead male. He’s supposed to be this hardened, space pirate mercenary figure (it’s a sci-fi book, lol), but I keep getting emails from my editor telling me that I need to make him less violent, less offensive, less cruel. Her rationale is that, because he is the love interest (and because the book is intended for teenagers, not adults), I need to make sure that he doesn’t do anything that will offend or put off the readers. I get her point, but I can’t decide whether or not I agree with her. Thoughts?

    • That is an interesting problem. Because you’re writing for a slighty younger audience you have to make sure you’re not terrifying them. However, the YA genre is changing. Many YA books are becoming more violent and graphic. Also, you have to remember that it is YOUR book, and they are YOUR characters. You shed blood, sweat, and tears over them. Make them who you want them to be.

      • Good point. But at the same time, I wonder if I’m not looking at things with enough outside perspective. I’ve read books where a character does something totally insane, and I can’t figure out what was going on in the author’s mind… which leads me to second-guessing myself. But I definitely agree with you. In the end, I will make the final call. It’s just getting to that final call stage that is frustrating 🙂

  3. I’ve often thought about this but so far I have not had a character put me into this posistion. But I have written things which I persononally found hard to write so i am sure that others would find it hard to read, but i agree it has to be real. Other wise the characters and the story will fall flat because the reader will always see through falseness.

  4. That’s a difficult thing to come to grips with. When has a writer crossed the line with how characters speak? I find myself toning some things down here and there. I don’t feel so passionately about my characters reality that I think I can get away with them saying, not things others may be offended by (who can control that?) but things I feel uncomfortable with. I give my characters an infinite amount of leeway in rough drafts, but in the end, I’m the editor–I’m the boss!

  5. I still have that with subject matter, sometimes. I enjoy horror and dark fantasy. Sometimes, I wonder if something isn’t going to land me in some kind of institution when I write it. As for dialogue itself, I think context comes into play a lot there.

  6. Ultimately everything is an expression of what the author wants to say – the issue is controlling it and getting the underlying message across. Also accepting that discussion – which, in effect, is what this dialogue becomes – does not equate to personal advocacy. Done right, it can be a very powerful tool for expression.

  7. This rings true for me in an ‘after the fact’ sort of way – as in, it was never something I worried about until I was indeed approached about something in one of my works that ‘could be taken offensively’. The instance involved the main character washing up on an island and, in the first-person narrative of the story, detailing encounters with the ‘savages’ that were the natives there. Obviously, the issue taken here was ‘she’s putting a savage label on a people just because of their unexplored culture’, but I had never given it a second thought because I’d crafted the main character to be a pessimist, and labeling a people ‘savage’ just followed the pattern of her negative, judgmental tendencies. I always felt as though she was perfectly entitled to say and do what she pleased inside of the patterns that rang true with her personality, because it was a tribute to her character – but suddenly I found myself accountable for her thoughts and actions. Getting a critique that suggested I make things more politically correct made me stop and think, and wonder if I truly should stress over being that careful, but in the end I think I maintain that these quirks of character are perfectly fine, and often crucial (or at least very helpful) where characterization is concerned. After all, it’s true: we all think and say and do things we perhaps shouldn’t at one time or another (or often). What is good about stopping and thinking about something like this is that it showcases an area you could perhaps use for character GROWTH, if such is your desire (or becomes your desire) for this character. 🙂

  8. That was a hard one for me too. I had to remember that everything, everywhere has conflict on some level. When it comes to personality types – there’s ALWAYS conflict. If you write a novel where everyone gets along, the good guy is all good, and the bad guy all bad, no one is going to want to read it. Not because that wouldn’t be a nice thing if it were true, but because of just that; it’s not true – it would be fake.

  9. I am catching up on some blogs that I have missed and wanted to add a late comment because this is such a worthy topic.

    As a person with a disability, I always want the public to see positive role models. As a writer, I need to be true to characters and let them have their flaws. I can see both sides of this now that I know what it is like to be seen with a disability. When you become disabled, you become a spokesperson for everyone with your disability, and this includes your bad days when ignorant people get on your nerves.

    The compromise that I am making with my writing is that I try to add a character that will show the opposite of the prejudice or some form of reality against the prejudice. In the comment above regarding calling an unexplored culture savages, your main character has this judgmental attitude and that is okay for that character. If it were my story, I would try to find a character that is struggling with growing up in that prejudice but discovering that things might be as they were perceived.

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