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!