Political Correctness and the Internal Editor

This fine early morning, I was poking through my assorted social media when I stumbled upon this blog; while there was some interesting info there, and the author’s voice was interesting to me (I was particularly amused by the story of meeting Konrath, and the concept of adding character lists, which reminded me of the giant appendix in my copy of The Return of the King), I saw one post that quirked my “Say wha?” genes. It’s not too far down; it’s the one about being politically correct in your writing. Now, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and everyone has their own style and method, and that’s all fine and well. But it led to opening a search window, and going out into the untamed wilderness of the interwebs to see what else was being said on the subject, and the whole expedition has left me feeling a little off.

Perhaps it’s because I myself am far too politically incorrect for most people. Maybe I just have backward ideas on too many subjects to really grasp it. But, to use an example by Ms. Madison, I find it difficult to imagine that someone might, just as a f’rex, actually be upset if a character is referred to as “an albino,” rather than stating he “suffered from albinism.” Admittedly, that’s a lot smaller potentially-offended population than saying something racial or religious, but it serves as a decent enough illustration (and perhaps I just like it because I actually have had albino characters individuals who suffer from albinism in some of my work). Further, the general consensus seems to be that if there’s a character who has politically incorrect views, mannerisms or habits, that one should endeavor to make them as unsympathetic as possible, so as to make sure that your potential readers don’t like him and won’t think you liked him, either, and thus save yourself the embarrassment of being thought of as being a backwards misanthrope who has no sympathy, compassion or understanding. My personal favorite was to make characters who smoke either be trying to quit (if you want them to be sympathetic, and finish by having them give up the habit) or have them be chain smoking fiends, to reinforce that they’re bad, bad people, then give them some more unsavory traits to go with it. Similar comparisons were given for individuals with weight problems, general cases of misanthropy, or illegal career choices.

Yes, this is probably going way too far into the extremists’ camp. But still, the idea that this is out there – and common enough thinking that one can turn it up in all of about five minutes without making Google think too hard – just rubs me the wrong way. Primarily because I keep picturing someone swinging it the other way. “What, an overweight smoker with a bad childhood that led him to despise the trappings of religion can’t be your protagonist (at least, not without significant revision and removal of his ‘badness level’)?”

Yes, I am now totally imagining readers out there making designs like this for each of my characters. Thank you, Lilo.

I suppose, and this is almost entirely due to the manner in which I write and conceive of my characters, there’s also the part that says “but if you change something about the character to suit whatever the whim of the moment is, you’ve compromised the character and the story.” I’ve mentioned before that most of my characters come to me, essentially full formed, and start telling me their stories. Yes, it’s crazy – hey, I’m certifiable! – but to contemplate arguing with my characters – “Yes, I know you like to smoke. Yes, I know you would refer to that gentleman over there with the pallid skin, white hair and pink eyes as an albino. Yes, I know you curse and are occasionally derogatory towards teenagers. But I’m afraid if you want to go out and kill the demon overlord, you’re going to have to change, and that’s all there is to it!” just strikes me as wrong. I dunno. Maybe I am crazier than I initially appear. Oh, and tacked on afterthought, I thought the idea was to make every character sympathetic, at least to some degree… even the villains should have something about them that makes them interesting and likable – even if it’s just a “love to hate them” sort of way – or did I miss a memo somewhere?

Anyway, what’s your take, folks? Should we endeavor to strip anything politically incorrect from our work – or make sure to paint the PI Brigade with such a heavy brush that they all but become mustached Snidely Whiplashes of bad social habits – for worry about offending some reader, somewhere? Should we go the other direction, and make everyone have a touch of badness level? Or should we pursue the middle ground and just let our characters – and stories – be what they are, and speak for themselves? Drop your thoughts in the magic box!

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2 responses to “Political Correctness and the Internal Editor

  1. The reading that I am doing at the end of the month is a short story in which the character who does most of the talking is an 86 year old retired B-movie director. In the course of discussing the making of the film that the story is about, he mentions that his wife was having an affair with another actress.

    He explains that the marriage was simply for appearances and says, “She never lied to me. I knew she was a dyke when I married her.” I have him go on to say that he knows he’s not supposed to say that anymore, but given the character’s age and background, that’s the first word he would use.

    The story is about a film that makes everyone who watches it go violently insane, and I describe scenes of murder and cannibalism. But I’m not worried about offending anyone with that, I’m worried about offending people because I have an old man say “dyke”. I am actually considering changing that one line for the reading.

    • It’s a bizarre world we live in, eh? Aside from being interested in the story itself – psychosis-inducing films? I’m sold! XD – I’m honestly intrigued by the narrator. Mainly because his usage of the word – both as a product of his time and environment, and the implied “no real offense meant, it just is the way it is” delivery that seems to come through in your description. He sounds like an interesting fellow with a unique voice.

      Were it me, I wouldn’t want to take that away with the omission of the word. Of course, I’ve never been one for making friends, and am well aware of the bloody crazy levels some folks will go to when they’ve been “offended” somehow; but the word and it’s usage seems central to understanding certain aspects of the character and how he thinks, and if there’s blood, guts and gore ahead, your potential readers should be strong enough to survive one (not-quite) expletive without completely losing their minds. But I’d suggest talking it over with the managers for your chosen venue; let them know your concerns and see what they think. They’d know their clientele fairly well – or should, anyway – and would probably know best if it needs to be censored for that audience or not. Just my two cents. Either way, good luck!

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