Are You Responsible For What Your Characters Say?

Guest Blogger: Mike Duran

Writers love to go on about the autonomy of their characters. You know, these make-believe people who start acting in unexpected ways and change the course of their story.

Well, it’s a buncha bunk.

Several years ago, Director Ron Howard found himself in the crosshairs of controversy, not because of something he said, but because of something a character in his forthcoming movie said. L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein wrote about it in Ron Howard on “The Dilemma’s” gay joke: It stays in the movie. Universal Pictures decided to pull a trailer for the movie when they learned that a gay joke had rankled a lot of feathers. Apparently, the character played by Vince Vaughn made fun of an electric car by saying, “It’s gay.” However, the joke hit a raw nerve.

Goldstein states the obvious point:

“Just because a character in a film says or does something wildly inappropriate doesn’t necessarily mean that the filmmaker agrees with it.”

Writers talk a lot about their characters being autonomous. Which means, at times, your characters will say or do “something wildly inappropriate.” In fact, remaining true to your characters means letting them act in ways you don’t personally agree with.

However, the truth is… You shut your character up all the time!

In speaking about character dialog, Stephen King, in his book On Writing says:

“As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic. In the majority of cases what my correspondents are hot under the collar about relates to something in the dialogue… ” (pgs. 185-186 emphasis mine)

Maybe this is why so many authors sanitize their characters — we’re just trying to avoid “criticism.” We don’t want to appear “foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic,” etc., so we censor our characters. Besides, if we’re aiming for a specific market, every expletive, every gay joke, every wandering gaze, every covetous thought, every hangover, every sexist taunt, incriminates US and takes us one step closer to the rejection pile.

In his letter to Goldstein, Howard thoughtfully pondered the controversy and its implications for art and freedom of speech:

“I believe in sensitivity but not censorship. I feel that our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative characterizations and language. It is a slight moment in THE DILEMMA meant to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character’s personality, and we never expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or those of us who made it.

… Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It’s what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought.” (emphasis mine)

It’s ironic that someone as ideologically liberal as Ron Howard is now forced to defend free speech against his own compatriots. But such is the collision of art and ideology.

Goldstein summarizes:

“I’m not sure that I’m all that comfortable with most of the gay jokes I’ve heard, but once you start trying to make value judgments about one joke over another, you’re on a slippery slope to the arid wasteland of political correctness.”

I can’t help but feel that many publishers and writers need to take note of this incident and its “slippery slope.” Are we demanding characters that fit into our worldview, or the worldview they actually inhabit? Are we constructing characters who are truly autonomous, or just puppets for our own opinions and values? And do we have the courage to let our characters speak their mind, without interjecting our own?

Or is all this talk about autonomous characters just blather?

* * *

Mike Duran writes supernatural suspense. His upcoming novel, “The Telling,” is about a disfigured modern-day prophet who must overcome his own despair in time to seal one of nine mythical gates of hell. You can learn more about him and his upcoming projects at

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. Laura W. on May 2, 2012 at 12:29 AM

    “The arid wasteland of political correctness.” I love that. 🙂

    I hada similar discussion with someone on another blog. I think that writers should, when drafting, write whatever they want. If an editor wants it out later for being offensive, etc., then the writer can make the value judgment then and decide whether to fight to keep it in or not. But please, please don’t think about it while actually writing, because it causes all sorts of brain backups and insecurities.

  4. Around the Web: April 30, 2012 | paper heroes on April 30, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    […] Rachelle Gardner: is a writer responsible for what their characters say? […]

  5. Catherine Hudson on April 29, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Excellent post. In a report on my novel’s manuscript I was told that one of my characters is the type ‘every reader loves to hate.’

    So, will some come to feel that way about me for even thinking that character’s actions/thoughts, let alone writing it down? I don’t know. The whole thing is a risk to bring our message regardless.

    We have to show the shadow and the light. What’s a painting with no shadow? Flat with no depth or reflection of reality.

  6. Lyle Blake Smythers on April 27, 2012 at 11:18 PM

    I am a gay man who wandered into this discussion because of a link from another site on writing. There are a lot of interesting and perceptive observations in this discussion. However, I had to stop reading before the end because of the number of anti-gay sentiments expressed and the suggestion, in more than one post, that there is something somehow wrong with homosexuality. Please rethink your attitudes if you fall into this camp.

    Oh, and by the way, there is no such thing as an “ex-gay.” The American Psychiatric Association states that attempts to change sexual orientation are misguided and do much more harm than good.

    I appreciate the opportunity to express another opinion.

  7. Patti Mallett on April 27, 2012 at 7:49 PM

    Very interesting post and comments on a subject we all struggle with.

    The Challenge is on. Thanks so much.

  8. ChrisM on April 27, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    I have written novels in which some characters are Christian, but I want them to be real or the world around them to be real.

    All Christians have things in their past they aren’t proud of, or else they wouldn’t need a Savior. I let some of those events into my novels. If I write a pretty squeaky clean Christian character, I put him or her into a real world where other people drop numerous f-bombs and talk, well, like real people. I like that realism, and I think there is a strong readership group that believes the same thing.

    I also know there will be critics, but I don’t think anyone can put out a work that isn’t going to draw some criticism.

  9. Sam on April 27, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Free speech means you can write whatever you want. Capitalism means that if the audience doesn’t want it, they don’t have to pay for it.

    So, write what you like. Be as honest/daring/offensive as you like. But also don’t act surprised if this alienates some readers.

    This is another area of compromise between art and commerce.

  10. Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    This post got me thinking about further, wondering how I know if my character has gone too far. Here’s the blog post I wrote about it:

    My characters tell me what to write. They dictate if the story will follow the outline I put forth before writing it. If that’s the case, then should I be reining them in if it’s their story and I’m just writing what they’re telling me? Thank you for this post and all of the compelling arguments/discussions that sprang out of it. Kept me up late, but that’s okay. I love losing sleep over stuff like this. It’s what keeps me passionate about it (kind of like when you first fall in love and you’d rather stay up all night with that person; sleep seems trivial)!

    • Jo Michaels on April 27, 2012 at 8:57 AM

      Bingo. If you slam them in a cage and take away their right to run amok, your story will no doubt fall flat. Well said!

      • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 12:44 PM

        I agree. I presented that argument as well but I was talking to somebody that thought their opinion was much elevated above my own because they have years more experience in this field than I do. So what? I think of writers that get slammed all of the time for writing something shocking. One of my favorite science fiction books is a Brave New World. It seems like it still raises eyebrows as questionable, lewd material. I loved that book because it dared to ask questions about humanity and if it could be tainted if science went too far. Amidst those questions being raised was a very flawed individual (and I adored him for it!) that struggled with his own inner demons, never mind the ones society was imposing on him. Man, I love that stuff like that! It can speak to a reader on so many levels. Why would I ever want to dumb that down?

        • Jo Michaels on April 27, 2012 at 1:06 PM

          I do too. I have a character in my book, Yassa, that asserted himself. He was never intended to be IN the story but once he was there, I couldn’t get him out. He kept coming back so I let him stay. He turned out to be one of the most endearing and daring (not to mention hilarious) characters in the book. He is very controversial and had I stuffed him back into his cell because I was worried that I would lose a reader or two, the story would have suffered. Why do we care? Some people will read an author’s book just BECAUSE it has controversy. I prefer those readers. My character’s name is Kutula and he is a male concubine. Read: GAY.

          • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 8:33 PM

            I prefer those reader too. Do you have a website so I can check your stuff out? You sound like my kind of writer. I’d love to follow you on Twitter too and/or facebook. If you don’t want to post here, then email me if you want: Or find me on Twitter: @CLeeAuthor or facebook: Crystal Lee Author.

            I love hearing about your character you never intended to be in your story. That’s exactly what happened to me with my series! There was a side character that simply jumped off the page for me, and as the series progressed they became the central figure that the story actually wound up being about. Sounds crazy I know, but trust me, it works! 😀

        • Jo Michaels on April 27, 2012 at 8:37 PM

          I do have a webpage!! I can be found at I will give you a follow on twitter and a like on Facebook as well! Looking forward to talking with you, I am!!

          • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 8:45 PM

            Thanks. I got the facebook one. I’m heading over to your website now. I really enjoy chatting with other authors.

  11. Rachel on April 27, 2012 at 3:20 AM

    Great post, Mike!

    But as you know, my characters are total heathens who say very inappropriate things 😉

  12. Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 3:16 AM

    I am so glad you wrote this! Just a month ago I had a family member edit the very first chapter of one of the books in a scifi series I’m almost done writing. That family member was completely appalled at what I wrote because I am a devout christian and very spiritual in my life. They sent me nasty emails for over a week telling me it was horrible stuff and they thought I’d be ashamed down the road; that my children would be mortified by it.

    I tried to explain the story was basically about that characters redemption. It really drained me; almost made me want to give up. Thankfully, at the time I was taking an online writing class and was able to turn to them for support.

    Their help and this post has given me courage to stand up for my characters. Yes, they do things I would never do, say things I would never say, but they also go on amazing life-altering journeys I will probably never experience.

    Isn’t that why we read and write? To get away and experience something different from our own lives?

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It has spurred some ideas for my own blog post on what my experience has been on this heated issue with my own story. I appreciate the nudge… I will keep reading the comments to this thread and post my own blog post on here too so I can share what happened to me in more detail with my story.

    Crystal Lee

    • marion on April 27, 2012 at 8:27 AM

      For your family member to invest all that time and effort in communicating about this–there must be something going on in their own life, and you pushed that button. [Sorry about that very awkward sentence. Hope it makes sense.]
      Like the editor someone mentioned who turned down books that came too close to concerns in her personal life.
      Just keep pushing those buttons and showing redemption of the irredeemable.

      • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 12:47 PM

        For your family member to invest all that time and effort in communicating about this–there must be something going on in their own life, and you pushed that button. [Sorry about that very awkward sentence. Hope it makes sense.]

        Makes perfect sense to me. You’re probably right and I should have seen that at the time, but when somebody’s yelling in your face (or through email) it’s hard to think clearly. So, thank you for bringing this to light. Bravo! This will help me even more to get over the final aftershocks of it all. Can I send you a cyber muffing or something as way of thanks? Or maybe just a smile? You made my day! 😀

        • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 12:49 PM

          What a muffing? Sounds like a tribble.

          Ooops! Meant muffin. You can eat it. I promise. It won’t eat you.

          • marion on April 27, 2012 at 4:42 PM

            That’s a good kind of muffin. Doesn’t expand your wasteline!
            Perhaps I’m being too psychoanalytic about all this. The family member might just be being overprotective. Especially if they’re older.
            Keep on telling your strong tale about a flawed human being. Aren’t we all?

          • Crystal Lee on April 27, 2012 at 8:38 PM

            Yep, they’re older, and my husband pointed out this person likes a very cut and dried story. Almost the classic western type where the hero wears white, the bad guy wears black, and there’s no gray in between.

            This relative was definitely trying to protect me but their way of going about it was very harsh. Since we both write I was frustrated they would try to squash my creativity in such a cruel way, instead of stating their concerns and explaining how they think it might turn off readers. I would never attack another author on a personal level, never. I guess I expected an equal amount of respect from them and didn’t get it. Learned my lesson the hard way.

  13. Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 10:31 PM

    I hope Rachelle goes lighter tomorrow. Maybe a post on Revelation or Leviticus. Or how about politics?

    • Rachelle Gardner on April 26, 2012 at 10:46 PM

      If you want “light” – you’re gonna love tomorrow’s post!

      • Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 10:48 PM

        YES! Evolution!! Woohoo! You knew my birthday was coming, didn’t you?

        • Josh C. on April 27, 2012 at 12:50 PM

          Whoa…heading into some dangerous territory there 😉

  14. Gary on April 26, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    Thanks Mike for winding us up a bit on this topic. Good dialogue!
    My car drinks, smokes, and hacks a lot.
    I named the foul-mouthed sweet little red thing “SATAN”

  15. Flower Patch Farmgirl on April 26, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    I recently read some Amazon customer reviews of a new release, authored by an accomplished CBA author. This time around, coming out from under the CBA, one of her characters dared to swear a time or two. People were outraged, offended, aghast. They gave her book 1 star, for this reason alone. (They were quite proud to make that clear, from atop the soapbox.)

    I am a Christian, and once in a while, I say a “bad” word. But more often, the people around me do, people who may or may not serve God. Why must everything be so sanitized? Could a bad word really blister our virgin eyes? If we really feel this way, it can only mean that we are spending far too much time under a bubble and it’s time to bust out and into the real world happening around us.

    • Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 9:02 PM

      Spot on!!

      The real world lives right outside our door, and every once in a while it moves in. When I found out my dad had cancer, I used a applicable curse word. Really, he had ***CANCER***, I am allowed to rage and vent my fury. The man grew up in a war zone, has had 2 open heart surgeries, 2 hip replacements etc…I have earned the right to swear about yet another problem.

      Will I use off color language in a book? Maybe. Should perfect people care? Find me one and we’ll see.

      I just loathe soap box hypocrites, they remind me of Christians who harp at others for their failings but tip the waitress with a tract.

      CS Lewis like cigars and ale. Think about it.

      • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 11:54 PM

        Not only did C S Lewis like that ale, he met regularly with friends in a pub. **GASP**

        He had children drink alcohol in the Narnia tales. **GASP GASP GAG**

        He has a wizard in one Narnian tale. **HORRORS!**

        Martin Luther wrote “hymns” — he wrote the words. The music? He stole it right out of the pubs he liked to visit. Might as well make the songs easy to sing, using tunes just about everyone already knew. **Double Horrors!**

        Years ago one of the radio preachers had a book out, “The Mary Miracle.” In it he described how making Mary celibate all her life makes usefulness to God out of reach of the everyday person. If we acknowledge that Mary and Joseph were really married and had children of their own, being useful to God becomes something anyone can do.

        Making our characters sanitized modern “saints” (of the canonized type) who never fail or sin (or like our fairy tale folk, like little Cinderella who never complained or felt despair — get real, she just could not have been human if she never did those things) — makes the “message” of the story implausible and basically impossible. No one can be as perfect as it seems they should be (based on what I’ve read here in all the comments about what characters can and can’t do or should and shouldn’t do) … I can’t learn anything from them because I can’t relate to them as a human.

        And last, if the message is about God’s forgiveness or anything like that — shouldn’t the intended audience be the non-believer not “the choir” who already supposedly agrees with the message?

        The original question, the title of the article, is “Are we responsible for what our characters say {or do}?”
        Ultimately, yes. In the first draft, they say and do whatever “they” want. In the editing, we exert a shaping force. How we decide to use that “power” over the characters and story is the harder part of the job …

    • Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 9:21 PM

      Did I sufficiently get across that I agree with you? I hope so.

  16. Nicky Smith on April 26, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    I am totally fine with a character saying something I don’t agree with. Most of the time, when they are doing this, I am using it as a means to express an opinion or talk about an issue I wish to challenge or explore. I think the distinction people are missing is whether the author agrees with what the character says and supports their world view. We could not write a convincing villain if they never said something rude, vulgar, cruel, or just plain unpolitically correct. I think a good book challenges people. It has interesting, complex characters who may, at times, express ideas that some readers don’t agree to or take offence at. That may have been the point, and I believe most readers (and viewers) recognize this.

    • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 8:11 PM

      Now that I think about it a bit more, I realize that in those “best fiction” books I’ve encountered — not once have I questioned whether the author believed what a character said. What was said was so true to the character, so much in the authentic voice of the character, that the question just wasn’t important.

      Putting “It’s gay” into the trailer of a movie, and out of context of knowing the speaker of the line — it was meant to be provocative. Any media coverage of that event would be free marketing and advertising for the movie.

      I haven’t seen the movie, but inside the context of the movie, the line probably does not generate the same reaction. If the line comes from the personality of the character, it should not even raise an eyebrow (except as one commenter wrote — maybe upset the car manufacturer).

      Maybe writers need to spend the time developing the character’s personality and voice so well that s/he is so “real” that the author disappears.

      In one series of books that I love, I often feel like I am walking down the street behind the characters, eavesdropping on them. I don’t feel like I am reading a work of fiction, but I am in the middle of the action too.

      I stopped reading books written for the Christian market about 15 years ago. Books were (and are even more so now) too expensive to spend my book budget one books that would not satisfy me. Partly, at that time, things I was interested in just were not available. There had been one publisher I trusted — to the point that when I went into the Christian bookstore I looked for anything with their logo on it and would buy it just because I knew I could trust that publisher to produce books I would like. But when that publisher disappeared, I found fewer and fewer books that caught my interest. So, I began writing, just for myself, in the hours I would have spent reading.

      There are lots more books out now, but I live too far away from a Christian bookstore to go there. It is about an hour and half away. The books that are available on the spinner in the local grocery store don’t interest me. Themes I’m not interested in. That’s not to say, there isn’t something out there I would love. I just haven’t found it. I did buy a few books and gave up after they all proved to be too heavy-handed and not subtle enough in their “message.”

      But, I’m still prepared to say that even if the bookstore was closer, I would prefer books written for a non-Christian audience. Why?

      One commenter says she does not like having “the moral of the story” pushed in her face. Authentic characters and stories carry that moral in subtle ways.

      A Harlequin romance carries a “moral of the story” (I’m thinking of the “sweet” ones — I don’t even know if such a thing exists in today’s market, yet I bet the sexier ones on the shelves now still do the same thing …)
      There is generally a man with two women — the one who gets him and the one who loses him. The one who wins is one personality type, the one who loses is another. The moral is, act like this and lose or act like that and win.

      It is subtle but it is there.

      This discussion about being responsible for what characters say (and by extension, do) has many of the comments referring to morality and the message of their story. Bad behavior and speech is okay if it makes a point and gets redeemed or has the possibility of redemption that may or may not be accepted by the character. But to allow bad behavior and language to go unpunished or unchallenged or un-anything is bad …
      Sorry, if you are writing under your own names (that you use here) — I know already I don’t want to read your works of fiction. I’m not trying to be mean or cruel — I’m just stating, I don’t like “the moral of the story” flung in my face, either. I prefer subtlety and being treated like an intelligent reader who can make up my own mind about the issues.

      As to the responsibility of the author to the audience’s sensibilities … that is the debate that has raged for as long as anyone has created art for pay — is the artist’s responsibility to the art or to the patron?

      Gratuitous sex, violence, bad language, etc. — are insulting to any reader (unless that is all the reader wants and there is a particular market for “that” **shudder**) whether in the Christian market or any other market. Yet, how graphically portrayed, when such actions are necessary (and therefore not “gratuitous”) to the personality of the character or the forward movement of the story, does depend on the audience. I prefer a “cozy” mystery to a P D James (never read one but heard they are “graphic” so don’t interest me …)

      I like the idea, as a few have commented, to put it all down in its base form in the first draft then tailor it to the audience in future drafts. Maybe there is a way to sanitize it and maybe there is necessity to use the present tense of “shat” in the tale … it all depends on the “truth” of and not the “moral” of the story.

      Which brings me to a question for a future blog post (unless it has been covered before — I’m relatively new to following this blog) —
      which comes first? The story or its message? Where do most of the readers of this blog start? Do they start with the message they want to convey (for instance, God forgives) and look for the story to illustrate that? Or do they start with the situation that wants to be explored, the characters who want to understand a relationship, the story that wants to be told and let the message show up out of that? Or is it some combination?

      I know that for myself, I don’t start with the message and once the story uncovers the “message” I have a very hard time not picking it up like an old-time fire and brimstone preacher and get too heavy-handed with the message; the story and characters have a very hard time after that getting “heard.”

  17. Peter DeHaan on April 26, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    Gee, it’s frightening enough to be criticized for what I say, but to worry about being criticized for what my fictional characters say is something I never considered. Maybe I’ll stick with writing non-fiction.

  18. sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 5:54 PM

    WOW! I must admit, this is one of the few blogs where I am as eager to read the comments as the posts. However, today there are so many comments, I’ll have to come back to read them all when I have a little more time.

    I know the gist of the guest post is “political correctness” and censoring our characters. And, yes, I find I sometimes try to do that because — well, even if I don’t agree with it, I know someone somewhere will wonder how “that” idea came out of “my” head … Do I actually agree with the character? (For instance, a character in a book I read recently, said something very insensitive, and I began to wonder about the author — though, in the end I just “held it against” the character …) And if I don’t agree with the character, where did I even hear such a thing for it to pop out here?
    But the imagination can come us with things that we may or may not have heard before, that echo ideas others have expressed that we may not have heard but readers may have.
    In another case, I have two characters discussing religion versus faith — and when they finished and I had an opportunity to go back and read what they had said to one another — I found myself saying “I didn’t know I knew that.” A concept that was totally new to me — something I had not consciously thought about before nor had heard anyone else express an opinion about — was there on the paper.
    So, can our characters think, act and speak autonomously? I think they can.

  19. Debbie Moorhouse on April 26, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    Of course we’re responsible. Even if our characters were squawking in our ears demanding we write something, we still chose to write then keep the words they say.

    Do we deny responsibility for the bits readers love? Do we heck.

    That doesn’t mean we have to defend the characters or ourselves. We can let the work speak for itself and accept that other people won’t always react to it the way we’d like. We can shrug our shoulders at people who think our characters are us and their views are ours.

    But people self-censor all the time. It’s one of the ways in which we get along with others: not saying exactly what we’re thinking all the time. Just as we don’t always hit the people we want to hit or always steal the things we want to have. It’s social behaviour.

    Equally, people love to wield power over and control others. Sometimes, that control is generally acceptable to society. Sometimes, it’s not.

    If I start reading a book and it’s full of invective against women, I can put the book down. I can recycle it. I can refuse ever to read anything by that author again. I can go on the internet and rant and rave. If you choose to allow that to control what you put in the next book you write…well, that’s up to you :). In my capacity as a reader, I only have power over your writing if you cede it to me.

  20. Jo Michaels on April 26, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I tend to believe that it’s not so much about what we write or the characters we create as authors, but the fact that a little bit of ourselves shows up in EVERY character we pull from our heads. In that way, we are exposing ourselves to critique of, not only the character on the page, but our own multiple personalities. All authors have them and they are like our children. When they are beaten down or shown in a harsh light for the way they think or the way they act, it’s our natural instinct to react in a protective way. After all, each character is a part of the author that brought them to life, if that author tells the truth. Many authors are terrified to produce true to life characters for that reason. Until critics no longer exist, that fear will hold true. Stephen King was right on the money. You MUST be willing to throw your baby to the wolves in the hope that it will be accepted to the teat and not torn to shreds. It’s terrifying.

  21. Lanny on April 26, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    Totally agree with Mike Duran’s post. And Ron Howard’s reply, too.

  22. Kristin Laughtin on April 26, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    I think there’s a delicate balance between being authentic and being offensive here that can be difficult for authors to find.

    Authors should be free to let their characters express themselves as genuinely as real people would. Not all characters are going to be PC, especially villains and antagonists. (It’ll be tougher to sell a hateful protagonist.) At the same time, authors need to consider the way their words, even the ones uttered through characters’ mouths, will be perceived and consider whether that effect is really what they want. Of course, it’s likely any author will write something that will offend someone at some point, given the huge range of opinions and viewpoints out there. Nobody is going to manage a whole career without criticism, unless they write the safest words ever–and then they’ll probably be criticized for that.

    At the same time, readers and critics do need to look at the author’s words in context. If a character says something racist, sexist, or homophobic, is it to show something negative about the character? How do other characters react or view that character? Does that character change or grow throughout the story? Is it going to sound ridiculous, perhaps given the historical era and setting for the story, for that character to have a modern attitude? Of course, there might be other, lesser-used, and more original ways to convey that information about the character.

    Readers also shouldn’t assume the opinions of the character reflect those of the author (although again, it’s a little harder to do this if the protagonist is the one spewing unsavory opinions, but not impossible). If you’ve got two characters on different sides of an issue, it’s automatic that at least one of them won’t reflect the author’s personal viewpoint.

    Of course, asking this of readers is asking for an ideal world, so ultimately it’s up to authors to decide how important it is to include potentially offensive language and whether they want to deal with the fallout.

    • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 7:17 PM

      “Authors should be free to let their characters express themselves as genuinely as real people would.”

      Now that I am almost finished reading all of the {current} comments — I have to ask this of everyone: are you finding your characters’ voice or putting your voice into the characters’ mouths? The best fiction I’ve read allows each character to have his or her own “voice” — thoughts, feelings, view point and vocabulary.

      “If a character says something racist, sexist, or homophobic, is it to show something negative about the character?”

      Next question, must everything contain a value-judgment? Does the opinion of the character have to come with a judgment about that character? These are push-button issues but like the commenter who used the N-word in a play — use of that word carries a value-judgment today but in the era the play is portraying, such use was commonplace and acceptable. Do we HAVE to turn our writing into instant Aesop’s morality tales?

  23. Isaiah J. Campbell on April 26, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    After a lot of thought on this, I wrote up a (sort-of) response over at my blog.
    I think a writer is of course responsible for what his characters say. That’s why they’re called “writers”. The real question is, does a writer have an ethical responsibility to censor the story and characters?

  24. WG May on April 26, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    All of my characters have free will – they are free to say what I will.

    • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 3:14 PM

      Well, obviously, since they are not real, they can only say and do what you put on the page for them to say and do. The question is whether you should have them say and do what is true to the character, or whether you should sanitize it in the name of not offending anyone.

  25. Reba on April 26, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    Very interesting and thought provoking post Mr. Duran.
    While reading your post I wondered about my own characters. Here’s what I came up with:
    Yes, as a writer I am responsible for what my characters say and do. After all, I am the one typing on the key board, and my name listed as the author. I don’t see how I could not be responsible?
    Yes, as my character develops I feel that character would say a ‘certain’ thing,and maybe say it a ‘certain’ way that I as a person would not…..but
    No, that does not give me permission to be foul mouthed or down right offensive, etc. We never know who will pick up our books and read them. We need to remember the next generation is only going to take what this one does a step farther, this generation is proof of that.

  26. Cherry Odelberg on April 26, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    It has been the dilemma of actors and writers for thousands of years; follow the directions of the director, or sanitize it for the desired audience?
    Consider the prophet turned actor, Ezekiel in chapter 4. 4:14…Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself…. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth. “Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.”
    Or, were biblical writers supposed to tidy up the lust and violence to set a good example for future generations?
    Here is the writer Samuel, “From the roof, he (David) saw a woman bathing…he slept with her (2 Sam 11:2-4). David wrote a letter…Put Uriah in the front line…he will be struck down and die (11:14).”

    As for my opinion? Perhaps I would do well to ask, “What would Shakespeare do?”

    But all in all, I will stand by the practice of making sure that evil gets its just due and righteousness is rewarded by happy endings.

    • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 7:06 PM

      but … life is NOT a fairy tale or a movie from the 1930s. Evil, read the Psalms, does not always get punished and good does not always get a great reward (visibly, in this life) …

      • Cherry Odelberg on April 26, 2012 at 11:26 PM

        Very true, Sue. I think what I had in mind is that evil should be shown to be evil. The happy endings are just my own preference, as I like to read a book that ends upbeat rather than on a downer; yet, I agree with you there are no guarantees in this life – and I would not want to infer to readers that if they just do everything right, they will be rewarded in this life.

        With regard to evil and not rewarding it, I am thinking of the musical Carousel. The stage script is written such that a woman who has been hit by her husband later tells her teenage daughter, “When you love someone enough, it doesn’t hurt.” That is a false and evil message. You do not want to leave readers with such an unhealthy way of thinking.

        • sue berg on April 27, 2012 at 12:43 AM

          Rodgers and Hammerstein liked to include controversy in their works … not sure why they put that line in Carousel. Back to “did the author believe it” or is it the character saying that?
          (Unfortunately, that way of thinking was far too common in the time the musical portrays.)

          I’m a picky reader. Very picky.

          There are literally tons of books out there. And limited time and money to “invest” in them.
          I look for a good story premise and quality writing.

          Happy endings are nice to come across.

          Yet … one book, Fatherland, that I encountered in the past year — did not have a happy ending. I wanted it to have one. I think I may have even yearned for it to end happily. As I read the final pages and final paragraphs I wanted it to end happily. I knew it could not. AND I knew that if it did end happily I would be angry at the writer for being dishonest. It would have been a crime against the story and the characters to have that happy ending.

          In my own current writing, I have a problem. A character who is evil in all ways. Yet … the question arises — in the end, is he redeemable? Can he do the about-face and change? I know everyone is redeemable in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of readers? In reality, do they choose that?

          I’ll have to let the story determine the end, instead of me determining the end beforehand. Part of me WANTS him to be redeemed. But part of me wants him to be destroyed before he gets the chance.

          I’m human. I can feel emotions against or for a fictional character just like I would if that person really did live down the road from me. And to be honest, I’m not sure what I would decide/want (redemption / destruction) if that person really did exist.
          My Christian upbringing and beliefs say I SHOULD want redemption. But my humanity sometimes is louder than the moral proctor inside …

  27. Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Come to think of it, on the “gay” comment that everybody is focusing on, my current new series work in progress has a Mississippi teenage girl talking quite often to an elf king. I would think that the two of them could talk about something being “gay” and meaning two entirely different things, neither of which refers to homosexuality.

    • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:58 PM

      Don we now our “gay” apparel?

      • Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 3:11 PM

        Elf kings are known for their stylish, gender neutral attire…

        • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 3:24 PM

          Yes, I almost commented on the elf king, but decided to it was best not to…

          • Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 3:49 PM

            Too many times my “best not to” translates into “yes, definitely gonna…”

      • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 3:24 PM

        …fa-la-la, fa-la-la-la-la…

  28. Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    I’ve concluded that a book that is not at least potentially controversial is a book that didn’t need to be written.

    Which means that if I haven’t offended someone then I probably wasted my time writing it.

    That doesn’t mean I set out to offend people. Quite the opposite, I work hard at trying to communicate well in a manner that people will be receptive to.

    However, I am also seeking to challenge readers’ viewpoints…asking them to look at things from a different perspective at least for the moment. Almost by definition that means my writing is potentially controversial at which someone will take offense.

    • Joseph Jerome on April 27, 2012 at 1:02 AM

      Joe – agreed. A writer who offends a few readers is more than likely challenging his entire audience, to laugh, cry, pay attention, whatever.

      Ever read Bloom County, by Berkeley Breathed. He called it “offensensitivity.”

      • Joe Pote on April 27, 2012 at 8:03 AM

        “offensitivity,” I like that!

  29. Glenn on April 26, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    In regard to the “gay” comment, I can remember using that phrase as a kid for anything that was “lightweight” or “not worthy”. It was slang and IIRC didn’t have any sexual connotation. Perhaps VV was using it the same way. Perhaps it was an old joke in the wrong era.

    Anyway, isn’t that what fiction is all about – a medium to take us to places we wouldn’t normally go.

    If you are getting feedback then at least somebody is reading your work.

    • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 12:00 PM

      It’s still a current term used exactly as you used it. I hear high school kids use it all the time as the same slang usage.

      I’m not saying that is necessarily a good thing…just that it is.

      • Glenn on April 26, 2012 at 2:48 PM

        Now I’ve been sent down memory lane – another term we used (and this may be regional, or really local) for something geeky (nerdy – goofy) was “Howard” – as in “that is so Howard.”

        I hope I’m not offending any Howard’s out there.

        • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 3:22 PM

          Hah! I haven’t heard that one, before. Poor Howard…

  30. marion on April 26, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    One of my characters (a boy) says another boy is fat. The boy’s upset, and maybe the other boy is fat. (Who knows? It doesn’t matter.)
    To balance this, I have a more important, sympathetic character who’s fat. OK, a cook, so that’s a stereotype. Just doing my best!

  31. Philip Heckman on April 26, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    An important and complicated subject. I’ve got a stage play making the rounds that takes place shortly after the Civil War. One character, the governor of an unnamed Southern state, uses “the N-word,” as was, let’s face it, common at the time. One reader told me this was unacceptable because “audiences wouldn’t stand for it.” At the very least, I had to “punish” the character in some way for being an avowed racist. Yet the story required an open ending, in which that particular issue was unresolved. Is it wrong to use a socially condemned word for dramatic honesty? (Try writing period dialogue with a synonym.) In this case, does my race matter–in other words, would it make a difference if I were black?

    • Mike Duran on April 26, 2012 at 12:16 PM

      Philip, that’s a good example of the dilemma we face. Especially troubling is the suggestion that you should have a character correct the offender. This leaves no room for the reader to have to interpret anything.

    • Cherry Odelberg on April 26, 2012 at 1:35 PM

      Questions worth grappling with, Philip.
      I wish you a strong hide and a soft heart.
      I hate it when people get after me for being meticulous about the details.

    • Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 3:08 PM

      For my part…I would “err” on the side of writing reality, Phil. If people are offended by reality (re: history) you can either let it roll off or attempt to show them the hypocrisy of their position (usually pointless). In the end you have to find the right mix of “I’m writing this for an audience” and “I’m committed to reality.”

      There will always be people lining up to burn Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses…but they probably wouldn’t enjoy your play anyway. So why write for them?

      • marion on April 27, 2012 at 8:13 AM

        Huck Finn. Exactly.

  32. Daniel F. Case on April 26, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    Excellent post, Mike. Thought provoking.

    I must admit that I’m one of those guys with autonomous characters that tend to speak their minds and occasionally cross the line. I’m a fan of honesty balanced with sensitivity and good taste when necessary. Since I’m writing for Middle Grades, I usually let my characters say what they want on first draft, then on rewrite I help them learn better ways to express themselves without compromising their honesty. The rewrite almost always makes them stronger, and since they’re still young they’re still easy to teach.

    If, however, I find a character that simply will not cooperate, I use the writer’s secret weapon: Kill them off. 🙂


  33. Janelle on April 26, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    I see so many new writers on forums asking “Is this too offensive?” or “Can my character say this?” or other such “I don’t want to offend anyone” questions. Your characters can do anything, say anything. They’re characters in a book. Yes, their words and actions come from your mind – but writing about a serial killer doesn’t mean I’ve been a serial killer, so why would anyone think other stuff I write is a reflection of what I believe?

    Writers need to put their story first, and the characters need to act and speak to make sense in the story. Forget who it might offend. People get offended if you sneeze at the wrong time.

    • marion on April 27, 2012 at 8:11 AM

      In The Possessed, Dostoyevsky told of the sexual abuse of a 12-year old girl. We wouldn’t consider this graphic at all–a very oblique account. But people of Dostoyevsky’s day were shocked. They said Dostoyevsky must have done it himself, to be able to write about it. But, like all Dostoyevsky’s novels, it isn’t about the abuse and evil in the world, it’s about redemption and forgiveness.

  34. Stephanie M. on April 26, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    Just like people, I think characters have an “inner radar” with regard to their societal behavior even if it differs wildly from character to character. I think if characters are well-written it’s recognizable in some form. I guess what I’m saying is cliche, that we’re all human, but it’s that recognizable humanity that makes characters acceptable to their creator even if you don’t agree with them.

  35. Jessica A. Kent on April 26, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Oh, I have thought about this a lot! Do we stay true to the way real people would speak, and risk getting flak from our audience? I say it’s a risk we have to take. We cannot make all the characters sound like us. We also can’t falsify what our “real people” characters would say in order to please an audience. This is where I think Christian fiction lacks: Dialogue, and real struggles, are censored in order to not offend the reader. Reality is misrepresented. I’ve been guilty of it, and had to make a choice. I want to present reality and humanity, even if it means unsettling the reader.

    Thanks for this!

    • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 12:10 PM

      Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of Christian fiction, and this is exactly why.

      If I want inspirational reading, I would rather read biographies of real people telling how my real God worked in their lives.

      If I want entertainment, then I would rather read stories with believable characters in bizarre situations, not censored characters in censored situations.

      Some Christian fiction authors do a good job of keeping it real, but many do not.

  36. Ruth Coe Chambers on April 26, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Excellent post by Mike Duran. I’m with Stephen King on the integrity of honesty in a character’s dialogue. When we create characters, they come with a set of morals and beliefs that are evident in their speech and actions. If a writer is not true to those, you’ve created a flawed character. The writer isn’t this character and doesn’t necessarily share his/her beliefs and motivations. I feel legally responsible for what a character says but not necessarily emotionally responsible.

  37. Alex Washoe on April 26, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    What a boring literary world it would be if writers wrote only characters they agreed with and characters who speak in politically correct ways. It would mean we could never depict prejudice (for instance) with any kind of depth — and we would lose one of the more powerful effects of fiction, the ability to put us into the hearts and minds of people we never thought we could empathize with. People who object to that misunderstand the nature and purpose of literature entirely.

  38. sally apokedak on April 26, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    I love reading books with characters who are different from me. I love characters who feel real. If they all speak and act like the author they aren’t going to feel real. Instead they’ll make the book feel preachy (whether it has a liberal agenda or a conservative one). The characters will feel like cardboard cutouts whose only purpose is to speak for the author.

    Just because a character says a car is gay doesn’t mean Ron Howard would speak that way. And if my characters curse or commit adultery or engage in gossip, that doesn’t mean I do those things. It simply means that people in the real world do those things.

    If every character in my books thought, spoke, and acted like me, what a boring book that would. They’d all sit around in their sweats all day, commenting on blog posts. 🙂 Thrilling stuff.

    • Joan Cimyotte on April 26, 2012 at 11:04 AM

      That’s exactly it. People are not all squeaky clean and only say nice things. I really hate political correctness.

    • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 6:57 PM

      i want to be a devil’s advocate here …

      “… that doesn’t mean I do those things. It simply means that people in the real world do those things.”

      Are you saying you are not in the real world?

      In fact, so many of the comments I’ve read so far declare that the writer would never think or say certain things … I begin to wonder if they are human at all. I am a Christian, but to say I have never acted in an “un-Christian” way is to declare an untruth …

      Not only does the unbeliever need redemption, so does the believer. What sets us apart from the world? We want to believe it is our righteous behavior, but in the end, it is whether we believe in the work of Jesus to redeem and forgive us. In all other ways, we are the same — flawed and frail, in need of grace.

  39. Katie Ganshert on April 26, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    Wow….this is a thought-provoking post. I have to let this sink and settle for a day or two.

    I know I let fear get in the way sometimes when I write. Is that fear preventing me from having truly autonomous, living-breathing characters?

    Great thought-fodder, Mike.

  40. Connie Almony on April 26, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    I do think it is a delicate balance. I want my characters to live and breathe and allow the reader to experience the world as they see and feel it. Not just because I want the reader to be engaged, but I also want them to understand why God calls us not to judge someone whose experiences are so different from our own. As a counselor, I’ve worked with individuals who have done things I’d never consider doing. But if I were in the shoes they wore over an abused and neglected lifetime, would I have made the same decision? I want my readers to ask that question of themselves, so though they may judge the action as wrong, they will think twice before judging the person for succumbing to it. At the same time, it’s important not to immerse the reader too much in decadence, making if feel more commonplace and acceptable. Always the balance!

    • Cherry Odelberg on April 26, 2012 at 1:43 PM

      Yes, Connie, I think that is key: “not to immerse the reader too much in decadence, making if feel more commonplace and acceptable.”

    • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 3:01 PM

      Yes! You put this very eloquently.

  41. Meghan Carver on April 26, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    Sometimes characters say things that we would never say or hold beliefs with which we disagree because that is what drives the conflict in the story. That is what can cause the protagonist to develop and grow.

    However, profanity is never acceptable — especially in the Christian market.

    • Josh C. on April 26, 2012 at 12:02 PM

      Not to be antagonistic, but why is it unacceptable in the Christian market?

      • Meghan Carver on April 26, 2012 at 1:30 PM

        Why is profanity unacceptable in the Christian market?

        1. For many Christian readers, profanity would be a stopping point, a distraction which would cause them to put down the book and never buy from that author again.

        2. We are creative, aren’t we? We write because we love words. Come up with something that expresses the emotion better. I learned as a child that the use of profanity demonstrates a lack of something substantive to say.

        3. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers.” Ephesians 4:29

        4. “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Colossians 3:8

        Thanks for making me think about why!

        What do you think?

        • WG May on April 26, 2012 at 1:48 PM

          Excellent post Meghan!

        • Josh C. on April 26, 2012 at 2:17 PM

          What do I think…well, honestly I have some mixed feelings. On one hand, I do write things that the Christian market would find offensive, although, because I am a Christian, everything I write reflects that point of view, implicitly if not explicitly. The characters that fill my works are often rough people, undereducated, anti-social, etc. For me, and this is merely a matter of taste and opinion, it rings untrue if these types of characters are written as speaking words that do not ring true to to their culture. So on that side, it seems like there’s a sacrifice made in order to appease sensibilities. For me, writing that illustrate the ugliness of the world in full and the struggle to overcome it is the most powerful. The Bible itself is filled with violent imagery, deplorable and disgusting acts, yet the message is clear throughout all of it.

          On the other hand, you make good points. If one wants to write for the Christian market, they would be well-advised to write what the market wants.

          Onto the morality issue, I tend to thing perhaps some allow their personal preference to cloud their perception of morality. It’s one thing to illustrate a vile person in full, realistic detail. It’s another thing to say, “It’s okay to do this.” That’s just my 2 cents worth. You need any change back? 😉

          • Meghan Carver on April 26, 2012 at 5:37 PM

            Just one last thought (and, btw, love the debate!) — you said that the Bible is “filled with violent imagery, deplorable and disgusting acts, yet the message is clear throughout all of it.” God does all that without profanity.

          • Josh C. on April 27, 2012 at 3:00 PM

            I think it’s interesting to point out that the acts aren’t what offends. If one writes a rape or murder scene, does it really matter what language was used in the dialogue?

        • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 2:21 PM

          I agree with you for the most part, but you could use Colossians 3:8 as an excuse to cut all kinds of things from your writing that may indeed be necessary. Paul was talking about real people doing real things that are unbecoming of a Christian. Telling a story about someone doing those things is different, if the point of your story is to show that it is evil, and it’s not gratuitous. Your first point about making the reader pause and put the book down is right on. For most Christians, profanity is a deal-breaker.

    • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:55 PM

      Precisely put! Words can create the necessary tension, but are not necessarily our view. My antagonist probably doesn’t hold my beliefs.

    • Jo Michaels on April 26, 2012 at 5:21 PM

      If you’re creating Christian characters, chances are, the profanity likely won’t exist in the first place, right? So it becomes a bit of a moot point. However, if you’re creating a character that is a psycho that is not the least bit Christian and murders 20 people or a beaten down mother of six that is bitter and angry and no longer cares, you’re doing your story an injustice to “filter” their mouths or their thoughts. Are you not? Just my $1.20 worth 🙂

  42. Emily Wenstrom on April 26, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    This is a great topic. My personal feeling is, yes, absolutely an author is responsible for his/her characters. However, characters are only a piece, and a single line an even smaller piece, of the message of a piece of art. Characters often do and say awful things as a device to build a point … Often point to the contrary of those actions. Silence of the Lamps didn’t advocate murder just because a character was a serial killer. Tess of the D’Urbervilles did not advocate the victimization of of women. I could go on forever I haven’t seen The Dilemma so I don’t know if that applies in this example. However, I think the kind of thinking that leads to fingerprinting and scandal over a single line taken out of context is the same kind of thinking that leads to the censorship and banning of great works of art with a legitimate message. Authors are responsible for what their characters say, but that doesn’t mean your characters don’t say awful things.

  43. Josh C. on April 26, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    Writing politically correct characters is just bad writing, imho. No one is PC, and we all have views that someone can and will take issue with.

    I write mostly crime fiction, so there are characters who say and do things I don’t condone and would never say or do. Some people may be offended at some of the content and language, but these things happen. Drugs, prostitution, rape, suicide, abuse, these are things I hear about on a daily basis from people who have experienced them and struggle to pick up whatever they have left and find some semblance of a normal life because “happiness” is a pipe dream they’ve long ago given up on. It’s a tough ol’ world out there, and some people have it much tougher than others. Carrying chips on our shoulders before we see how bad it can be does nothing to help.

    • Josh C. on April 26, 2012 at 10:24 AM

      All that soap boxing aside, I think somehow, someway, our characters (and perhaps just as importantly, what happens to those characters) are a reflection of our worldviews.

  44. Maggie Lyons on April 26, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    I have to believe most authors have been criticized at one time or another for dialogue that has provoked negative reactions in readers. As a children’s author I have allowed a young character to offer a non-PC comment or two. Children can be cruel, after all. It caused concern in my critique group and perhaps it will prompt some agent or editor to reject the manuscript. In the same vein, not many children are eloquent, and I have reflected that in my writing to the horror of an editor. As Patricia says, if you sanitize dialogue you get “milquetoast.” And as she rightly points out, great novels are most likely to contain controversial content.

  45. Jeanne T on April 26, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    This is a very interesting topic. You brought up good points on both sides of the issues of character autonomy. You woke my brain up this morning, and got it thinking.

  46. Else on April 26, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    Oh, we liberal compatriots :p. (I thought compatriots were people who shared the same nationality, not the same political views?)

    Here’s my .02: it’s unwise to offend one’s readers, because offended readers can go elsewhere. And there’s an endless expanse of elsewhere.

    If a writer really *needs* his or her characters to use trigger-words, then the writer’s more or less admitting that s/he can’t be bothered to find a way for the characters to express who they are without using emotional shortcuts. Playground insults are easy as pie. Showing-not-telling takes work.

    • Mike Duran on April 26, 2012 at 10:16 AM

      Else, thanks for commenting. If I’m not mistaken, being true to your characters IS about showing not telling. “Showing” a character who is evil, racist, or foul is what gets an author into trouble (potentially). Just “telling” the reader that a character is evil, racist or foul IS the easy out, not vice-versa.

      • Else on April 26, 2012 at 10:44 AM

        I don’t know. It seems like in the “It’s gay” example, there’s very little work for the writer. Ditto what Mr. King’s talking about– his characters do use very insulting language IIRC (don’t read him much).

        I have had characters express offensive viewpoints, especially in my historical novels where inoffensive viewpoints would be ahistorical.

        But it does take more work to do this while refraining from having the characters use words that may have been yelled at the reader on the playground and may still have the power to cause pain and draw him or her out of the story.

  47. Patricia Zick on April 26, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks for raising this interesting topic. A character’s dialogue is one way to show the reader the personality of that particular character. Are all characters supposed to be politically correct and milquetoasty? I think not. However, if I have a character who says or does things considered cruel or harmful, I usually attempt to bring redemption or revenge to that character by the end of the book. (I believe most people who censor have never read the book being censored in its entirety but take one sentence or phrase or word out of context.)

    I also had an agent tell me that it was unrealistic for my male protagonist to have an affair with a woman 20 years younger than him. Later I heard this same agent speak at a writer’s conference, and she mentioned turning down work based on the events of her life at the time.

    If we want to write so we don’t cause controversy, are we really doing what writing should do? I don’t think so. The greatest novels are based in something that is “politically incorrect” and controversial. Those works are the ones that make us think and then perhaps change simply through the power of language.

  48. Lori on April 26, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    I daresay if the comment in Ron Howard’s movie were of a conservative slant ie making fun of Christians or anything on the conservative agenda, it would have held and people would laugh. Sad that freedom of speech is so biased these days. Sad that we feel we must be politically correct even in our novels for fear of offending someone.

    • Else on April 26, 2012 at 9:57 AM

      I’m racking my brains to come up with a movie line that gets a laugh by making fun of Christians, and I’m not coming up with anything.

      • Lori on April 26, 2012 at 10:03 AM

        You probably do not watch these types of movies then. I can think of many shows (which was first written by a writer, right?) that pokes fun at anything conservative and Christian. Family Guy is one that comes to mind. I don’t tend to watch those types of shows, but I realize they have the freedom to express themselves, but you don’t see people being riled up by it like you do by the ones that go against anything the least bit liberal. Just an observation. Had Vince Vaughn said “That car is just Christian” it probably would not have been given a second thought. But say something against a hot topic for today and watch out.

        • Else on April 26, 2012 at 10:29 AM

          Mm, it’s true I’ve never watched “Family Guy” –life’s too short– but some of my Liberal Compatriots have and they say the show is very offensive. So my guess is the show is just out to offend everybody and one notices what one notices.

          It sounds like the show is symptomatic of the decline of civility. Surely there are better ways to entertain and inform than to insult any reader/viewer, of any political, religious, or genetic bent. Making a joke out of these things is probably easy work for a lazy writer who doesn’t care where the chips fall.

          I sometimes see my books reviewed favorably on conservative blogs, and I’m always surprised. But hopefully it means my books haven’t offended, despite containing views quite likely different from the reviewers’.

          And I’m not sure what a Christian car would look like :).

          • Lori on April 26, 2012 at 10:34 AM

            Haha – true that. I’m picturing a Christian vehicle that is a big ole gas guzzling SUV. (tongue in cheek here) please don’t be offended. 😉
            I drive an SUV by the way. We need to get back to basics, write what is true in our hearts and bring back the old lessons of being civil, giving room for differences of opinion and stop being so offended at every little thing. Happy writing!

    • Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 10:18 AM

      I have to say, based on my own observations, that freedom of speech isn’t biased at all these days. There are an awful lot of conservatives saying rather vile things about liberals, and vice versa. Some Muslim friends of mine would seriously disagree with your assertion that Christianity is bearing the brunt of our freedom.

      That said, your comment makes an interesting point. We all filter the messages we receive through our attitudes and beliefs that we’ve developed over the years of personal experience, right? That’s one of the cornerstones of communication theory. You filter the anti-Christian commentary in a certain way that I do not. Followers of the Muslim faith do the same with their religion. I’ve noticed my friends do the same with political (or even not-intended-to-be political) messages. Ferinstance, I posted a picture of the President making what I thought was a great statement regarding women, and my more right-leaning friends took it completely opposite to what I had. That’s our filters at work.

      So, then–assume you’re a hugely successful author and sell ten million copies of your book (good assumption, ya?). That’s ten million different filters your communication has to go through. Is it really your fault if things in the dialog trigger a small group of them? How about a large group of them?

      Such is the frailty of human communication, I guess.

      • Lori on April 26, 2012 at 10:23 AM

        Good observation Stephen! If only I had that problem of having to “filter” my dialogs through millions of readers. What a problem to have! 🙂 I think a writer needs to have a thick skin and allow their characters to be “real” meaning they spout whatever they believe and feel. If it causes such controversy then it must be good and thought provoking, right?

  49. CG Blake on April 26, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    Mike, thanks for raising this issue. It is indeed a slippery slope when a writer starts to censor the characters in his work. The writer can end up with a politically correct but bland set of characters. The fact is we are drawing human characters and real people are imperfect. They don’t always say the right things. The one area where writers do need to proceed with caution is in using humor. It must be funny not only to the writer, but to other readers and it must relate to the story.

  50. Diane Yuhas on April 26, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    Political correctness. Tell it like it is. Sensitivity, but not censorship. Two sides of the same coin and its rim.

  51. WG May on April 26, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    If the writer is not responsible for what their characters say, who is?

    • Else on April 26, 2012 at 9:51 AM


    • Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 10:06 AM


    • Mike Duran on April 26, 2012 at 12:23 PM

      WG, then we should stop acting like our characters are autonomous. They’re puppets.

      • WG May on April 26, 2012 at 1:38 PM

        When a writer gets paid for a book, does he split the money with the characters?

        • Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 2:02 PM

          What bank account would we place the funds in if we did so?

    • Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 2:00 PM

      They are.

      Am I the only writer here who feels like my characters take on a life of their own as I write down their exploits? I mean, sure, I know the story is made up, but I’m the teller, not the doer. Frankly, I don’t see how you can create believable characters with honest dialog if you yourself don’t believe in them.

      • Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 2:56 PM

        I agree. Unless I am intentionally penning cardboard caricatures just to argue a predetermined point, my characters are “alive.” Sure, their content can only include actions, words and attitudes that I am familiar with…but familiarity does not always mean consent. Should we be guilty be association with our fictional characters? That depends, I believe, on the intellectual maturity of the reader.

      • Stacy A on April 26, 2012 at 4:17 PM

        My characters are real to me, and I hope they are real to my readers, too. But my characters are not me. Often my main characters have big chunks of me in them, but they are not based on me or meant to be my carbon copy.

        To me this whole argument is a little weird — how can every character in a story reflect the opinions, morals, worldview of the author? What about the antagonist? The villian? By nature they’re going to be the opposite of who we are, at least in some major way. And even the protagonist(s) may start out with flaws in thinking that we don’t share with them. If it’s a character who needs redemption then they may be quite different than their author. I might write about a person who lusts after her neighbor’s husband, but I haven’t done that, nor do I condone it.

        So what I think we’re responsible for is the message of the book. The story and characters do what they must to make the message work. I’m not saying there should be graphic sex and violence, nor should the dialogue be full of foul language. There are creative ways to handle that stuff without smashing it in people’s faces. But you can’t have redemption without the character being fallen in some way in the first place.

        At least that’s how I see it!

        • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 6:17 PM

          “To me this whole argument is a little weird — how can every character in a story reflect the opinions, morals, worldview of the author? What about the antagonist? The villian? By nature they’re going to be the opposite of who we are, at least in some major way. And even the protagonist(s) may start out with flaws in thinking that we don’t share with them. If it’s a character who needs redemption then they may be quite different than their author. I might write about a person who lusts after her neighbor’s husband, but I haven’t done that, nor do I condone it.”

          I’ve actually decided to not include a character or two in stories — because, I did not want to get “inside their head.” I did not want to try to think the way that character would think.

          Not because I was censoring their way or thinking, I just didn’t want to think too deeply the way that character might think. Does that make sense?

          • Stacy A on April 26, 2012 at 10:51 PM

            I think it makes sense, definitely. We do have to get into the heads of our characters, at least to a point, and there are some people I would NOT want to have to think like, even for a short while. I couldn’t do a pedophile or a porn star, for example.

            So we do a little “censoring” by not choosing to write about certain types of characters. But the ones we DO choose to write about don’t necessarily speak our own minds and values. In this sense they have their own lives.

      • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 6:32 PM

        You are not the only one. Madeleine L’Engle wrote that story and/or character comes to the author and says “enflesh me” and it is the job and duty of the author to say “yes.” I think she meant that some of that story and character come from somewhere other than our own conscious mind … not necessarily from completely outside of ourselves but from someplace we don’t know the depths of inside ourselves.

  52. Timothy Fish on April 26, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    There are several issues here. First, while we are not responsible for the words and actions of our characters, we are responsible choosing which of those words and actions we include in our story. Our characters do and say many things that we do not include in our books.

    Second, when dealing with polarized issues, we can’t make everyone happy. If I were to record that one of my characters called a car gay, most of my readers would think nothing of it. But I’m sure the car company wouldn’t be too pleased with that assessment.

    Third, we cannot be held responsible for the reader taking statements taken in isolation. Imagine if one of my characters said, “Of course God thinks it is okay to be homosexual; he made them that way.” My readers would be greatly offended at that statement, and rightly so. But if that were part of a conversation in which another character responded, “How can you say that? Every scientific study out there indicates it is caused by environmental factors,” it would be the homosexuals who would be offended and most of my readers would be saying “amen.” And yet, without the full context, there would be no way of knowing whether the rest of the book came down in favor of homosexuality or against it.

    Fourth, if we’re going to deal with an issue, let’s do it right. I’ve avoided writing about homosexuality, but not because I was afraid of offending someone. I don’t feel qualified to deal with the issue. That may seem ironic, since I’ve never felt unqualified to deal with the issue of adultery. Anyone can make jokes about homosexuality, but that only polarizes the issue even more. The right way to handle such a story would involve showing both sides of the issue and why people do what they do. That would be very hard for me to write, since my family situation was very different from those that have been shown to lead to homosexuality. I would much rather see a former homosexual write about the topic.

    Fifth, though we shouldn’t put words in our characters mouths that they wouldn’t use, we choose our characters. Some of the best villains aren’t seen until late in a story. The authors show us the results of their actions and how other characters respond to their actions, but we don’t see their action or hear the words they use. There are plenty of ways to get the point across without using words and actions that are not well pleasing to God.

    • Ed on April 26, 2012 at 2:53 PM

      I find it interesting that so much of this conversation has centered around homosexuality. Would you be interested to learn that your supposed “facts” that should not offend were actually offensive? Studies have routinely shown that homosexuality both in humans and other mammals is more often nature rather than nurture. Since the outing of the “color code” at BJU, the prejudices of conservative Christian culture have refocused on gays. It is an interesting transition. A generation ago, people were teaching that blacks were “cursed” that they had fewer ribs and were genetically and culturally inferior. Fundamental churches did not allow blacks to join and, if they did, they could not serve as deacons. Then, it was completely culturally acceptable to disparage blacks. Today, it is completely culturally acceptable to disparage gays.

      My point is a question. When will Christians stop cherry picking scripture to fit their current worldview…and when will we just learn to love our neighbors. Period.

  53. Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 8:49 AM

    An interesting post on a topic about which I’m still trying to decide whether or not to care. I’ll have to go back and re-read On Writing to confirm (it’s about due anyway) but I recall King’s discussion on dialog mostly focusing on the need for the author to be honest to the character and his spot in the story, not to himself. The overall purpose, after all, is to tell a story, and the characters’ dialog should support their positions in the story more than any set of beliefs the author has.

    My first book, the main character’s husband’s words offended a few people, including one dear old friend who’d spent hours with me climbing the circular stairway into the bell tower of the cadet chapel at West Point two evenings a week and every Sunday morning to bring joyful music into the world through the ringing of a bunch of really big, loud bells. “I can’t believe you attacked Christianity,” he said. “Dude,” I said, “it’s fiction. He’s a Greek god. The Greek god of war, for that matter. I can’t see any reason he’d be a Christian.”

    There will always be people in the world who take fiction too seriously, who burn copies of Harry Potter or protest The Hunger Games. King admitted he’s run into his share of those people as well. I’d suggest that every writer or authorpreneur is going to run into them. The question is, do you want to tell a story, or not?

    • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:47 PM

      “it’s fiction. He’s a Greek god. The Greek god of war, for that matter. I can’t see any reason he’d be a Christian.” — love that!

  54. Lesa Stember on April 26, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    In both of my novels, two characters had opposing ideas and fundamental beliefs (the first regarding alcoholism and the second regarding quality of life). To make the characters authentic, I had to write dialogue that I didn’t agree with or believe. It wasn’t about excavating something within me that I would censor in real life. It was about authenticity. Major kudos to Mr. Howard for defending his work.

  55. Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    This is quite thought provoking and very timely. The cult of political correctness has taken its own worth to ridiculous levels. I know someone who cut all the guns off her son’s little plastic soldiers so the toys wouldn’t look aggressive. And yet she sent her son buffalo hunting for the experience. Hmm.

    Fiction is an excellent tool to educate and enlighten the many wrongs of society in a manner that leaves no actual victims, only the emotions felt for the injustice brought upon the characters who we have created. We can use cold and heartless words to bring about a reaction that may or may not be over when the book is closed. It is up to the reader to care.

    Non-fiction is so much more visceral because it happened, and we are left with the response of either doing something about the issue, or doing something to prevent the repetition of that issue. Any words said by anyone involved are freely used as quotes and we are left to react how ever we choose. At the end of a non-fiction work, the reader is expected to care.

    Ron Howard knew that anyone who didn’t care about a gay car could simply walk away. But anyone watching the nightly news should care of a young man is beaten senseless for having an orientation this is not accepted by 3 or 4 drunk men.

    But either way, the offensive words in question had everyone talking. You can hang a cloud in the air and it will blow away. You hang some words in the air and they will follow you around, so you’d better be ready to answer for them.

  56. henya on April 26, 2012 at 8:22 AM

    I’m so glad I read your post this morning. One of my characters is not politically aligned with what are widely acceptable beliefs. His language fits his view of the world around him, and, closely positioned with his personal experience. But I have been criticized for being too liberal and forgiving of him, was told to “back off”, “tone it down”. I didn’t. I’m willing to take chances and so are my characters.

    • marion on April 27, 2012 at 7:58 AM

      Stick to your guns! The best fiction is about forgiving, maybe even understanding, the unforgivable. If some people can’t handle that, that’s their problem.

  57. Janet on April 26, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    I once had a fellow writer tell me that she had to start her novel over because someone told her it was inappropriate for one of her characters to have an extra-marital affair. I was a bit puzzled by the concept. How can a writer demonstrate the negative consequences of infidelity if her character must be pure and virtuous? The issue wasn’t that the book contained graphic sex scenes. It didn’t. It was tastefully written and explored the negative impact the character’s immoral behavior had on her life and family.

    I wonder if Charles Dickes would be critiziced by today’s political correctness activists for portraying children as thieves in Oliver Twist.

    • Jennifer Major on April 26, 2012 at 8:18 AM

      Oh that makes me mad. I am related to a “character” who had an extra-marital affair and destroyed the lives of almost everyone around him. And I mean **destroyed**.

      If a person cannot at least read about the consequences of his or her actions, then whatever is done according to his or her will is acceptable, since no one has publicly condemned that action and laid out the perils of such self absorbed behavior.

    • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:42 PM

      The fellow author was writing a Christian book, I’m sure. “Desperate Housewives” and such clearly demonstrate that there is no hang-up about anything on mainstream media about morality.
      You made a good point. Negative illustrations are powerful and shouldn’t be censored.

    • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      In my opinion, so many Christians are too easily offended. And I can say this as a Christian. If something is gratuitous, fine, be offended. But if something is just reality, and is there to make a point, it shouldn’t need to be overly sanitized. The bible doesn’t tell us the play by play of David sleeping with Bathsheba, but it does tell us about how he lusted after her, and took her to his bed, and caused her husband to be killed. And then it tells us how it destroyed him. Should God have left that story out?

    • sue berg on April 26, 2012 at 6:08 PM

      You might find Dickens’ handling of the do-gooders versus some of life’s “reprobates”, in BLEAK HOUSE, quite an eye-opener.

  58. Ike L. Obidike on April 26, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    This is one of the most touching posts I’ve read here. For those who haven’t confronted this dilemma, it might not mean much.

    A friend recently published a book which he categorized as fiction but actually it was a true life story. As I read it, I kept asking him why he should be ‘too’ honest with some of his revelations but he told me that he had to be truthful and bold.

    I had to alter a part in my latest book, Shifting Sands because it would have offended the gays whilst the view their was totally against my personal belief. But after reading this, I should have realized that it wasn’t me but my character acting out his part.

  59. carol brill on April 26, 2012 at 7:37 AM

    There are all kinds of people who say and believe all kinds of things in real life. For characters to come across as authentic, sometimes they say or do unpolitically correct things.
    for me it is about finding that line that distiquishes authenticity to the character and story, rather than shock value, or worse, a motive to offend.

  60. Kate Larkindale on April 26, 2012 at 6:26 AM

    I love the fact that my characters can say all the things I might be too scared to say myself. And a lot of things I’d never say at all, but I’ve heard other people say.

    The world is made up of tons of very different people with very different views and opinions. If we’re going to write honest reflections of that world, we need our characters to be able to say what they need to say to be true to themselves.

  61. Marina Sofia on April 26, 2012 at 6:15 AM

    I’m so glad you (and Ron Howard) are raising this issue. Characters need to live according to their world and worldview, not according to our own. We all have evil, murderous, self-destructive, negative, foul etc. instincts within us. In our day-to-day lives most of us can usually control those instincts and think about the consequences, the effect on others and so on. But if we were all able to do that, this world would be paradise. And we know it’s not.

  62. P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 3:13 AM

    This is an interesting post considering the dialog on which I’m currently working. Everything that is said is not necessarily what I think is morally correct. Sometimes, it is a counter thought to give the book more polarity.
    When I write dialog, I think much like a method actor. Once I put myself in the character’s shoes, the ensuing words are what I think they would say. Am I responsible for the character’s words? Only in the sense that I should not let any pontification or slam go unchallenged.
    “That car is gay” would have been fine if another person called him on it.
    Vaughn- “That car is gay.”
    Depp(?)- “Do cars have sexual orientation or is that just wishful thinking on your part?”
    See? No harm no foul.
    Preacher- “AIDS is God’s wrath on homosexuals!”
    Bystander- “So the babies with AIDS in Africa are what? Collateral damage?”
    No harm no foul, or? O:-)

    • Timothy Fish on April 26, 2012 at 9:13 AM

      I think I see where you’re going with this, but I can’t imagine I would want a character who would take issue with the statement “that car is gay” unless I wanted to take issue with people who take issues with statements that are engrained into our language. I’ve seen a few cars that made me think “that car is gay.” If I mentioned that to someone and they responded as your character did here, I would find it just as irritating as I do when someone says, “and don’t call me Shirley,” after someone has used the word “surely” in a sentence.

      As for the second example, I could see that working as long as the preacher has the opportunity to come back and explain his views on sin resulting in the death of people who didn’t commit the sin and the bystander being able to respond, until there is some form of resolution or one of them steps out of the argument. But since it is your story, it will ultimately support your point of view. That being the case, someone will disagree with you and will be offended.

      • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:20 PM

        Yeah, Tim, the ultimate point of view is perhaps the place where culpability lies. Of course, that doesn’t mean the dialog can’t be a good smack down with both sides looking strong (i.e. no straw men). When I taught ethics in Bible college, I had all my students create dialectical dialog to prove they understood both sides. It’s an exercise that might do the media some good on both sides.

    • Else on April 26, 2012 at 9:54 AM

      That’s some good dialog.

    • Isaiah J. Campbell on April 26, 2012 at 10:54 AM

      “Am I responsible for the character’s words? Only in the sense that I should not let any pontification or slam go unchallenged.”
      I see what you’re saying, but I think you aren’t giving your readers enough credit. Sometimes it’s OK to leave statements unchallenged by characters in your book so that they beg to be challenged by your reader. Force your reader to think and feel, engage with your character, and come out of the challenge fully scathed. That’s effective writing.

      • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 12:29 PM

        Absolutely, but then I am responsible. Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher build straw men that they knocked down, but they willingly own it. Thought provocation is fair, but I shouldn’t call foul if someone takes me for a fool.

      • Cherry Odelberg on April 26, 2012 at 1:59 PM

        I have always hated it when someone found it necessary to explain the moral of the story to me. However; in writing my blog, I have frequently come across readers who were concrete where I was abstract, and others who took my prose for evasive and obtuse when I thought I had been deliciously acute.

        Some folks will forever wait for you to give the answer to a rhetorical question.

        • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 5:53 PM

          Yep, yep. It reminds me of the story of Hiney the Mule.

          An old farmer and his grandson owned a mule called Hiney.
          Things weren’t going very well on the farm and the bills were mounting.
          They decided it would be best to take Hiney to the city to be sold.
          The old farmer and his grandson started to walk Hiney down the road.
          A woman saw them and shouted, “You foolish people!
          Why are you walking when you have a mule you could ride?”
          They decided she had a point and climbed on the mule.
          Down the road a ways another woman called to them,
          “What fools you are! With both of you riding that mule,
          he will become exhausted and drop dead!” So the old man climbed off.
          A little farther down the road a farmer shouted. “you foolish lad,
          making your old grandfather walk while you ride! Aren’t you ashamed?”
          The boy climbed off and urged the grandfather to get back on.
          A short time later an old woman called out.” You foolish man!
          That poor mule looks as if he is going to drop dead.
          Get off and carry him for a while!”
          Thinking that she had a point, the grandfather dismounted,
          hoisted the mule on his back and headed toward the city.
          When he came to a bridge he lost his footing and dropped the mule into the river.
          Of course the poor animal drowned.
          The moral of this story is this:
          If you try to please everyone, you will lose your Hiney!!!!!

          (From Mike Warnke)

    • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 1:42 PM

      I understand what you are trying to do, but to me it seems forced.

      • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 5:48 PM

        Yeah, it could be at that. 😉

    • Stephen H. King on April 26, 2012 at 1:57 PM

      I’m not sure how I feel on the “as long as someone calls them on it” requirement. As a third party narrator, our job is to tell the story as it happened. If nobody called the speaker on his off-color comment, then that’s what happened. I don’t think we should handicap our story that way. But I’m not 100% on that.

      • P. J. Casselman on April 26, 2012 at 5:47 PM

        Stephen, I’m not saying it’s an either/or situation. The author is responsible for what is said, but the less a statement is challenged in the text, the more the audience will believe it’s the author’s opinion. This is just my opinion and not all that solidly so.

  63. Dale Harcombe on April 26, 2012 at 2:43 AM

    But often our characters are braver and say the things we think but censor ourselves from saying in real life.

  64. Natalie Sharpston on April 26, 2012 at 2:36 AM

    What a breath of fresh air to read Ron Howard’s statement—”Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It’s what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film.”—and I enjoy the irony that he is “forced to defend free speech against his own compatriots.” Amen. I work in higher ed — a climate riddled with political correctness. It’s a silly, childish game, trying to never hurt anyone’s feelings or offend anyone. If we try to make everyone happy, we won’t make anyone happy, and we certainly won’t get anything done. We will have no impact.

    I agree with Mr. Howard here, too: “I believe in sensitivity but not censorship.” It’s a critical filter we must apply to our writing. Likewise, if our stories come across as “preachy,” then we lose credibility as we expose our hidden agendas.

    Great post. Lots to think about…

  65. Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 2:36 AM

    IMO, all characters are constructs, whether they are autonomous or opinions made (imaginary) flesh. Sometimes my characters channel my personal viewpoints. Sometimes not. Either way, those characters are generally constructs or exaggerated caricatures based on real people and points of view. (not necessarily those of the author 😉

    That being said, one of the major reasons I decided, some years ago, to pursue fiction writing outside of the exclusively “Christian” market is that I wanted my characters to feel and be real…not the sanitized Sunday morning “real” or weekly small group “real” we can read in Christian lit, but the real “real.”

    • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 1:30 PM

      That’s a good point. But, I’m desperate to see more writers tackling overtly Christian material in a way that is real “real.” I’m convinced there is a way to do it. I’ve been thinking we might need to change our ideas about what a “Christian” audience is. I am okay with encountering dialogue and behavior that is completely against my values, as long as there is a reason for it. But I have friends that would not be comfortable with those things. In reality, we are two different audiences, even though we are both “Christian.”

      • Adam (@AtlasProWriter) on April 26, 2012 at 2:29 PM

        Exactly. Two different audiences. One is comfortable with these content issues and another is not. You and I would read “general fiction” while some of our friends intentionally read only stories filtered through an “acceptable content” filter. Strictly “Christian” publishers know this and generally won’t publish books with certain verbiage or scene content (sex or violence).

        Of course this leads into conversations that often spin round without going anywhere. I recently had one with a friend who is offended and “aghast” at the wizards in Harry Potter, but enthusiastically promotes both the Narnia and Tolkien books. I have no issue with either and cannot fathom where to split that particular hair. This same person is okay with sex and violence in the Bible but not with sex and violence in contemporary fiction…how, then, do you change this mindset in order to open up the Christian fiction market? Because I can’t answer that question, I write for an audience with different expectations.

  66. Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 1:55 AM

    This is a great post. I’ve been grappling with this issue in the novel I’m currently writing. My desire for my writing is to show the redeeming power of God’s love for messed up people. I’m struggling to stay true to the characters who need redeeming, but not offend my target audience with their behavior. I’m on my first draft, and I’ve decided to just let them “be who they are,” uncensored. Then I’ll reevaluate on revision. I’m afraid that the balance will be hard to find.

    • Robin on April 26, 2012 at 10:54 AM

      I’m in a similar position; however, I’ve come to realize that there are parts of my characters’ lives that I can leave implied without ever having to go into too much offensive detail. That also means, though, that there are going to be sections in my novel that WILL be painful for my target audience to read, but I’m leaving in the necessary pain to point out each character’s need for divine help.

      • marion on April 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

        Rachelle, shouldn’t an author wait and work with the publisher on this? Wouldn’t the publisher know their readership, and know how far the author–or the characters–can go?
        But there may be moments where the author has to pull a Ron Howard and go to bat for realism.

        • Christine Myers on April 26, 2012 at 1:16 PM

          I’m not sure what you mean by “wait for the publisher,” when a publisher can’t be approached without a finished manuscript.

          • marion on April 27, 2012 at 7:50 AM

            But couldn’t you present a version that is finished, not bowdlerized? And let the publisher worry about the sensitivities of the readership.

  67. Jessica Snell on April 26, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    Love this post. I think it neatly touches on both sides of the dilemma: yes, my characters say things I don’t agree with, but on the other hand, my characters can’t say anything I’m unable to think.

    In other words: if they say it, I thought it.

    Which means our characters tell people what thoughts we’re willing to entertain, if not which ones we’re willing to defend. So our characters’ faults are telling, just not in the way people might assume.

    • Joe Pote on April 26, 2012 at 10:50 AM

      “my characters can’t say anything I’m unable to think.”

      True, but sometimes we have learned to think the unthinkable by having observed others.