On tiptoe

On July 20, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, quoting, but I no longer know where the quote came from: “Are there parts that might offend someone? Did you tiptoe around those aspects of the story even without realizing it?”
    How do you handle this situation? It’s something I worry about often enough. The story might need the element, but is it worth the risk of offending someone?

And along similar lines, welliewalks wrote, My question has something to do with Jenna R’s. Most of my characters, especially my MCs(!), are like me, in their skin color and build (white and really thin). I’m afraid that I’ll end up insulting someone- like what if they read my stuff and think “She obviously doesn’t like people of other races or overweight people, because none of her characters are ever those.” Because it’s NOT true (my sister is adopted and 50% of my friends are of different race, from Indian to Chinese). I just use those characteristics because it comes naturally to me and I feel so comfortable with these. Do I need to change things up and use different races and builds? Oh, and I never write anything against the characteristics of build and race.

If you are lucky enough to be widely read, you will offend someone, guaranteed, no matter how hard you try not to. Someone may even be annoyed that your work is too bland, that you seem to take too much trouble not to offend. Some people – I’ll bet you know one or two – look for reasons to be affronted, aren’t satisfied until they find a cause for righteous anger. You will never escape their fault-finding no matter how hard you try.

In Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, Sonora, who talks in sentences soon after she’s born, tells her mother she doesn’t want to be breast fed and calls the practice cannibalism. I got into trouble with a few people for that. In fact, I favor breast feeding or whatever is best for a particular baby, but my character opposed it for herself. In another instance, somebody was mad at me for making Hattie and Olive plump and for giving Hattie thin hair, which surprised me because I have thin hair and I struggled with my weight all through my childhood and into my twenties.

It’s worthy to provoke thought. Ideas change, and you can be the instrument of that change. Some beliefs that are accepted today were on the fringe or even despised in the past. The arts are at the forefront of the growth of a society. Impressionist paintings, beloved today, were derided in the beginning. Same thing for rock music. My husband’s grandfather used to say, “When I’m hearing rock and roll I’m being annoyed.”

Think of racial equality and women’s rights. Important books helped change opinion in both cases. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, showed women (sometimes) as more independent than was widely accepted in her day. Her ideas about education were also very new. Through Black Beauty, Anna Sewell ended the use of the bearing rein or checkrein on horses that had been widespread – and painful. Even the notion in Ella Enchanted that obedience is a curse goes against some people’s and some culture’s convictions.

If you do tiptoe around everything that might be the slightest bit controversial, you risk your originality, and originality is one of the pillars of art (I’m not sure what the other pillars are!). And you may inhibit your voice and even your ability to keep going. So I think you should push through your worries and write what you want or what your story demands. In fact, I think the inner voice of censorship  may just be part of the internal chorus of self-criticism that most of us hear (I do) sometimes when we’re creating.
In general, I’m not crazy about preachy books, books that push a point of view, even if it’s a point of view I endorse. I don’t go to fiction to be lectured to. I want a good story. But if, wound into that good story, are snippets of history or surprising facts or an exploration of complex ideas, or all three, I’m triply entertained.

I don’t mean writers should push buttons just to push them. I think I’ve written on the blog that I put the “N-word” in the original manuscript of Dave at Night. The usage was in dialogue and was appropriate for the situation, but I took it out. The book didn’t hinge on the word; I didn’t need it, and it’s hurtful, so it went. I had a little queasy feeling that I was censoring myself, but I think I made the right decision.

welliwalks, I’ve thought about your question in my fairy tale books, which come out of a European tradition. Originally, in the classics like “Snow White” and “Cinderella” the characters would have been white and the readers or listeners would have been too. But in my adaptations there is no Europe. The kingdoms are invented, so I decided people can be light-skinned and dark, and there needn’t be racial disharmony. Some of my characters are light, some dark, but without the usual connotations of race. Skin color is merely a characteristic, like height or hair color and no more significant. One reason for including dark-skinned characters is that I want to be inclusive. I don’t want to raise obstacles that will keep readers from feeling they can enter my stories.

More challenging for me than skin color is height. I’m very short. I like to imagine being tall, so I enjoy writing tall characters, but it’s a stretch (hah!). I suggest you take the challenge of inventing characters whose body type is different from your own. You’ve said you’re thin. You could deliberately write an overweight character and you could decide what attitude your character has about his weight, from untroubled to very troubled. Think about how being thin has affected you and speculate on what the effects would be of being fat. You can decide how heavy this character is, could be a little or a lot. To make yourself comfortable, you could try making this a kind character, someone who won’t mind how you portray him. Or make him female and just like you in every way except for this one thing. It’s often good to push out of the comfort zone.

Here are two prompts:

∙    Take one or more of these widely held ideas–
        talking is good for a relationship;
        people should think before acting;
        selfishness is bad;
        dogs love people–
and examine it from every angle. Then base a story on the opposite of the idea or on a new interpretation of it.

∙    Give a character in a new story or in one already in progress a prominent physical characteristic you’ve never tried before. Let that characteristic affect the character’s behavior. A fabulous example of this is the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. The modern movie adaptation, Roxanne with Steve Martin, is also great.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. The way I've always felt about it… Even if we don't have the particular characteristic we give our character, we all of us have something that we feel is different about ourselves, and we all have definite opinions on how it feels to live with that. I have a character who is sensitive about her bad eyesight and glasses; I had the same problem when I was younger, though not quite to that extent. I have characters who struggle with knowing that the look different from the other people around them; I have at times felt as though I were standing out of the crowd in an uncomfortable way. Even if we haven't experienced precisely the situation our character's in, we probably have been in similar ones and felt similar ways…

    And, as Ms. Levine says, one of the advantages of fantasy novels is that we can explore ideas of race and culture without alienating any particular real culture.

    Hope this makes sense.

  2. Great post! I especially love your last prompt. My last book, actually, was about siblings with highly unusual physical characteristics, the complications of which propelled the entire book. It was neat, because I got to experience what it would be like to be "weird" even though I myself am about as average as they come! I highly suggest pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, in every way, just to stretch yourself. My favorite story so far was a modern-day action/romance even though my previous books and my favorite reading materials are fairytales. Who knew?!

  3. Writing out of your comfort zone is also an excellent way to hone your observation skills. You suddenly start paying attention to things you took for granted so that you can write better.

  4. Gail:
    You visited Provo Utah some years ago. My little daughter would only read "Ella Enchanted" over and over again and I asked you how I could get her to read something else. It was so fun. You signed her book and were so cute with her. Maybe your remember? I am the Children's Librarian at Provo City Library and our Mother Daughter Book Club is reading "Tale of Two Catles" Anything you would like to say to our group? An idea for a lively discussion question? Thanks so much

  5. Carla Morris–Nice to hear from you! I'm delighted you're using A TALE OF TWO CASTLES in a book club! I don't know about a question. I'm just the author! But when the readers discover who the villain is, there could be a discussion about whether or not this character is evil and a comparison between his or her behavior and that of the other less-than-admirable characters.

  6. Thank you soo much for posting on my question! You've helped a lot!
    Especially the part about applying how I feel about being thin to being bigger. That's really interesting because the truth is, I'm TOO thin. Like I've gotten comments. Bad ones. But I like it to for certain reasons. Ooh, good ideas are coming up. Cause I'd like to be bigger. Thanks!
    I need to write things out of my comfort zone. Something a dance teacher said to me has stuck with me: Reach excellence through failure. I guess it applys to writing too. And anyway, it's not like anyone has to read it!
    Carla Morris- I'm a teenager and I have to say this- I'm jealous of your Mother Daughter book club! Keep it up, for as long as you can with your daughter! I read the Mother-Daughter Book Club books by Heather Vogel Frederick and they were amazing. Your group might like them too. 😉

  7. From the website:

    (Huge Fan! I love that you answer our questions! Some writers have long-ignored websites and practically cut themselves off from their readers. I'm forever grateful that you aren't like that!)

    This is very interesting and thought-provoking post.
    I love The Guardians of Ga'Hoole books by Kathryn Lasky, and one of the reasons I keep coming back is because of the historical connections and philosophical ideas used in the series.
    I, too, worry about making all my characters too much alike and an unrealistic amount of one race. I don't tend to notice race when I'm reading, though. Perhaps because I hardly ever picture characters the way they are described.
    If race isn't an important theme, I say don't give it a second thought. Just let your story and the personalities of the characters guide you when choosing color and build.
    You're never going to be able to please everyone. Someone WILL be offended by your work. Look at Writing Magic, being banned for giving good advice. Heck, look at Harry Potter, being condemned for encouraging witchcraft! Some people are crazy, others are overly touchy, and still others are sore from other insults.
    So don't worry. Just write what you want to write, and if you feel you must censor something, ask an editor or a member of your writing group for their take on it.

  8. Thank you so much for answering my question! This post really helped. I have a lingering fear that I might offend someone, but I guess it's unavoidable – I'm just going to have to take the plunge and write what I want to say. 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Also, does anybody have any thoughts on writing characters that you never meet? My MC's friend is always telling her about his siblings, and I want them to be vivid and realistic. But my MC never actually meets them. Or, if your MC corresponds with someone by letters, but you never actually bring this character into the book, how can you make them seem like real people?

  9. Jenna Royal- Have you read Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster? That's a great example of a character who is never actually IN the book.
    My advice to you is to think about real life and your story. 1) are these characters so essential to your story that they must be really vivid? 2) in real life, when someone tells you about someone, how do they do so?
    hope this helps!

  10. @ Jenna Royal – I would say that you should just try to think up some good strong quirks to give the siblings. Take Linus from the Peanuts comics – if his sister were telling your MC about him, she could always throw his blanket into what she was saying about him, and whenever she quoted him, it would be distinctly Linus. I had a similar problem in my book right now, but so far this method has worked.

  11. Jenna Royal–Interesting question. I don't remember ever introducing significant characters who don't make a physical appearance, so I'm interested in all the comments, and, mmm, this has potential for a future prompt.

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