Okay, in other words, to what degree should writers concern themselves with the potential to cause offence to others, and thereby the reader? Whether it be other races in other places, or particular social groups who have strong views of how they live their lives, and those with beliefs you just happen not to agree with but want to use for dramatic or comedic effect? After all, the essence of burlesque and dramatic stereotyping/caricature is to focus upon particular know characteristics and exaggerate them for humour or a host of other quite valid literary reasons. So how much should you ‘police’ your work or worry about getting into this kind of trouble?
To give some particular examples, when writing my first novel, On Turtle Beach, I found myself coming up against certain worries when I was creating secondary characters, and since the events of the whole novel takes place in a Turkish resort, I also felt I had to be careful not to cause offence to a potential market for the book. These concerns took me by surprise, and I was forced to seriously think about each one as they cropped up in the narrative, what my personal position was and how I was going to handle it whilst still being able to write freely. (Tricky, to say the least)
I created a married couple, Brian and June, who come from where I used to live in the North East of England. These characters are meddlers in my two main protagonists affairs – two sisters on holiday in Dalyan trying to sort out their differences. I wanted the characters to be portrayed in key humorous ways from their appearance, and idiomatic speech (which I was naturally enough confident about writing). I wanted the reader to loath them like one of the sisters does, while the other sister be taken in by them for a while. So I made them a little Machiavellian in their deceitfulness and conniving ways.
So far, so good, I was enjoying it…but then I was plagued by doubt. Would potential readers from this area of the world be offended? Had I gone too far? After all, even though your book isn’t yet ‘out there’, you still have to write assuming it will be read eventually. I realised this came from a little guilt on my part, maybe I was enjoying it too much? I was in a writers group at the time and asked them what they thought. Verdict was, it’s probably okay if done for humour, which it was, so I let it be. And certainly what comes out of a character’s mouth in dialogue has to be completely theirs alone, their beliefs, their opinions. Of course, they can be made to coincide with your own or they be the completely the opposite, but that’s where the freedom certainly should be and is what makes such great reading as well as writing.
Next up was creating a subplot or two, fixing on June being an amateur psychic, who wants to give my sister, Lucy, a tarot reading. Again, for fun was my first thought, and for my female readers, many of whom may well not be like me and actually go for these readings and even believe in them (my own position being that I’d like to be open minded but choose to stay well clear). But it quickly became complicated.
I asked for opinions from a friend and from the writers group, whether I should do the tarot reading ‘faithfully’ ie . make sure the cards that came up were possibly ones which would relate to the sister’s situation and inner anxieties, as opposed to just random and subject to my whim. After all, I had to select at least five cards for June to interpret. Which were they to be? And would I be insulting psychics and tarot readers by using the manipulative, fag-ash dropping June, to represent their area of expertise, if not them, themselves.
First up was from the writers group – don’t bother with it at all, was the first response. (well, I did ask). Whilst another very helpful person felt it should be weighted towards June being more of a bogus character in this respect. So there was a mixed response and to be expected, but I was worried about portraying June as a charleton. I found myself not wanting to do this and didn’t feel it would serve the plot.
Second was from a good friend, whose opinions I respect. They said, yes, you’d better be careful with this, maybe make the cards relevant, use them to the plot’s advantage somehow. The cards may be being presented by an obnoxious June, but they can none the less have a power of their own. To make this clear in the writing. June just happens to be an unlikeable, and untrustworthy character, but the cards are kosher. So, this is what I chose to do, and then found myself enjoying selecting cards from my time consuming research and applying them to Lucy’s dilemma. But I also had a book which my husband had bought on how psychics use a certain language and key phrases to prompt the sitter and I just couldn’t resist using a few for their stereotypical recognisability: ‘Am I getting there, dear?’, ‘I see a circle closing’. These phrases may well offend, but there just have to be freedoms somewhere, and the card were interpreted by June as realistically as I could manage. So, in the end, a compromise ensued.
Another problem was the character of a Turkish hotel manager, who wants to bed the other sister, the curvaceous blonde, Rhea. My worry here was that I was going once again into the dangerous territory of stereotyping (think of the Greek philanderer lover in Shirley Valentine). Since I was being faithful to Dalyan, the turtles, the holiday excursions, and archaeological sites, for the sake of verisimilitude (which I’m highly motivated by) and a potential market, I didn’t want him to be too predictable in this respect. To solve this, I made him ambiguous – maybe he does takes blonde females who stay at his hotel to bed frequently, or maybe he’s not the stereotype at all, and is being unfairly judged by Rhea. A case of who knows? Which I stick to right through to the end. In all other cases, I was considerate to the Turks, their religion, and true to the area, but did create a dark malevolent ‘woman in black’ cafe owner to menace the sisters – this, I think, was my only transgression.
When it came to the American lady tourist who befriends Rhea, I used stereotypical phrases such as ‘ that’s real cute’, and I just couldn’t face trying to work out whether they talk like that in New York, where she happens to comes from – but I beg forgiveness, as she’s a lovely lady, and a true helper to our sisters.
I’m thinking now, that these problems reflect that writers do have a responsibility in their fiction, to faithfully reflect truths and a diversity of cultural values (for good or ill), and in my current writing I do keep coming across them. I do feel more free now than when writing the first novel, but it may also be because I’m more aware, through some experience, of these responsibilities, and can consciously address them as they come up. But in doing so, I just have to bear in mind what my currently favourite writer, Stephen King, says in On Writing –
‘If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered’.
(I just love the way he puts these issues across!)
So when these issues arise, as they certainly will, then I guess it’s a case of asking oneself – Where do I want to draw the line? And why? And as long as you’ve thought it through and consciously make your decision and justified it for the sake of the quality of your fiction writing, then you are being a responsible writer as well as creative one.
(image courtesy of pixabay)