When loathsome characters say despicable things…

…is the author also despicable?

I’ve recently been taken to task by a reader for a piece of dialogue in THE SILENT GIRL in which a nasty character says in frustration to Jane, “Are you a retard?” The reader wrote to tell me that she has a mentally challenged child and she was furious at me for using such a word. She felt I was insensitive and should never have used it. And the truth is, I myself would never use it. Just as I would never call anyone a chink, a whore, a gook, and any number of things.

But over the years, my characters have used such words. And they were not nice characters. Their choice of words, in fact, helped define the type of people they are, and evoked an emotional response in the reader. Many times, writers get slammed by readers because those words turn up in our books. We are supposed to clean up the language of our characters, however nasty they may be. Our characters — even the murderers, the crime lords, the gang bangers — are supposed to speak in antiseptically sensitive language. They must never speak the way they’d actually speak on the street.

Writers face tough choices with every word we pick. Do we write dialogue that’s realistic, or dialogue that doesn’t offend? Do we sanitize every line of dialogue so that it’s lifeless, stilted, and completely unbelievable?

Instead of saying “Are you a retard?” should that nasty character, a mobster, have said instead “Are you mentally challenged?”

It just doesn’t sound right. Does it?

23 replies
  1. DebPiccurelli
    DebPiccurelli says:

    Hi Tess,

    I, myself, have two mentally challenged sons, but I would never take to task a writer who makes reference to that type of thing in one of his/her books. As you say, it shows authenticity. In my latest completed manuscript, I have characters who are little people. I have one of my minor average height characters call one of them a “midget.” That term is considered an insult among the dwarf community, but I knew I had to use it, because, in reality, I hear so many folks saying it, many of whom don’t realize it’s a slur. I say thumbs up to you!

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    If Jane or Maura said it, sure, she’d have a point… but baddies have no filter and need to be true to life, so you did the right thing. I think that people have a tendency to be oversensitive about things like that.

  3. therese
    therese says:

    You’re nicer than I am, I would have responded to the offended reader with a comment like, “then please don’t read this book to your child.”

  4. mochamaker
    mochamaker says:

    I have to agree with your comment on authenticity within dialogue. The stilted language as you put it, gives the characters differing personalities. I certainly do not speak the same slang terms and cadence of speech as my best friend. How boring would I be then? Uh, not that she’s boring..

    As for the offended reader, I don’t think you want to alienate your readers, so perhaps put a disclaimer in the next book.

    ‘May contain possibly offensive language for some readers, but no offense is meant.’ :+)

  5. Tess
    Tess says:

    Deb, “Midget” is exactly what a character might say, and those outside the dwarf community probably wouldn’t realize it’s an insult. What sounds authentic coming from a character’s lips is what needs to go into the dialogue — no matter how distasteful it might be. (And I hear a lot of distasteful language on the streets of Boston!)

  6. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    Tess,

    Knowing you, you’re beating yourself up over this. It was authentic from the mouth of the character. Enough said.

    I know you well enough to know you don’t use words like that yourself, but only in the mouths of bad-guy characters.

  7. DebPiccurelli
    DebPiccurelli says:

    Tess, the Boston streets are probably a lot like Philly or Camden (the most crime-ridden city in the country – located here in Jersey), but I live in the suburbs, and it still sometimes amazes me, what I hear from people in my own neighborhood!

  8. nan
    nan says:

    I support your dialogue choices, Tess. We’re telling a story and our characters have to be real in order to make sense. The disclaimer is a good idea for the overly sensitive, I suppose. I worked for nine years at a not for profit organization for adults with mental retardation and they didn’t like the word “retarded” because they said it wasn’t who they were. They would agree that a mean character would use it.

    Write what you know to be real.

  9. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    People can (and will) be offended by anything and everything, especially if they’re oversensitive to an issue, word or topic.

    However,nasty people (and regular people for that matter), in the real world would use nasty/ non-pc words… As an author trying to create a believable world you have to go with realism, however unpleasant.

    On another note, if someone has the time and energy to write to you complaining about a word in a book that offended them… but has no problem with the murders, attempted rape, vigilantism, guns, etc… Really? If we’re going to get technical about it – rape and murder upset me greatly – but I’m not going to ask you to stop writing about either! 🙂

  10. ricevillage
    ricevillage says:

    You need to make the characters authentic. Period. I’m polishing a novel in which my 14-year-old daughter didn’t want me to even use the words “hell” or “damn”. Considering the material, it was a tough trick, so I had to find other ways to express rage or stomach-twisting violence. I address one appropriate point in the manuscript, and that has to do with showing outrage at a word, yet where is the effort to actually counteract violence itself? I also note that rough language exposes someone for who they are, so there’s someone to keep an eye on, maybe snub, maybe more.

  11. gayle
    gayle says:

    As a special education teacher, I am offended by what I call the r word. I abhor its casual usage. That said, I usually don’t get too offended when a character in a book uses it. For me, a character using any type of language doesn’t bother me as much as when a real person does and its use is usually to show how insensitive the character is. However, I no longer let casual use of the word in real life go on without comment anymore. Someone in my spinning class made a comment about being retarded one day so I mentioned to her that perhaps she didn’t know that I was a special education teacher. She hasn’t spoken to me since and I don’t consider it any great loss. Everyone has something that offends them and usually with good reason so to belittle someone for their feelings isn’t fair. So perhaps the more sensitive response would have been to reply to the person individually and not made them the topic of a blog post since I think you had already decided for yourself that your use of that particular word was necessary for the story.

  12. meandersfit
    meandersfit says:

    I agree with you, Tess. Despicable characters used despicable language. That’s a distinguishing part of their persona.

  13. vicklea
    vicklea says:

    It’s called realism and literary license! Tess, I think that your use of the word “retard” would only be offensive if you were in public and called someone that. And, as you stated, you never would. The mobster asking that question is obviously mentally challenged, or he wouldn’t be a mobster, so it makes perfect sense to use the word in that context!

  14. bseppy
    bseppy says:

    As an upper elementary teacher (and human being), I am opposed to the “R” word. When I read aloud to my class, there are sometimes words used by authors that cause a sudden intake of breath and/or snickers due to the fact that it is an “inappropriate” word to use. I use these times as teachable moments. We discuss the character that said the offending word(s) and whether or not it would seem realistic for he or she to have used a more polite or appropriate word. We discuss the fact that words in books, movies, or on TV are used to make characters realistic and believable. It does not make it appropriate for us to use them in our speech. After all, do we want people to think we are like the despicable characters who use those words? It’s important for authors to create believable characters, and to remember that no one can please everyone all the time. I have read every Rizzoli and Isles book you’ve written so far and I urge you keep writing the way you do – and do it without reservations!!

  15. PALADIN
    PALADIN says:

    OH FOR THE LOVE OF HOLY JESUS. You write crime fiction. That means you are going to have people saying unpleasant things in your books. Once my mother told me one of the things she hated about the movies when she was young was those big tough cowboys she saw on the screen would get shot and fall off thier horses then say things like darn, shucks and gee. You don’t like some of the things said in the books, DON’T READ THEM.

  16. Iona
    Iona says:

    I think a lot of people – when they read books, think that the characters are the writer’s responsibility and that writer should be held accountable for them, their words and their actions.
    Honestly, if that were the case, a book would be a lot more boring and way more carefully written. Also, the characters in the books would never really become 3D if the writer has to watch every word that comes out of their mouths. 🙂

  17. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    This complaint is the same Huckleberry Finn nonsense that is threatening authenticity in literature.
    When I was 13,I read my first “grown up” novel that wasn’t assigned reading-Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell-it had words like “kike”,”sheeny”,”nigger” and other assorted epithets.
    Farrell was anything but a bigot-he was writing about a time and place where that was the vernacular.
    If it was a political opinion blog,then those words would be racist garbage,but not in the context of a novel meant to explore a milieu.
    Cormac McCarthy uses the word”nigger”in a few of his novels-in “Suttree”the locale is 1950’s Knoxville,Tennessee-they didn’t say “Afro-American”back then.
    One has to look at his treatment of the major Black character in that book to get McCarthy’s point of view-he is far and away the most admirable person in the story.
    In “Blood Meridian”,set in the 1850’s Southwest and Mexico,there are NO admirable characters,but a bloodthirsty member of a murderous gang kills a man for making a derogatory comment about the only Black member of the band.
    In any event,Oprah Winfrey has promoted McCarthy’s last novel on ehr show and I doubt she’d do it for a person who she considered racist.
    People need to grow up and differentiate between rank bigotry and literature.
    BTW “whore”is perfectly acceptable when applied to politicians,regardless of gender.

  18. Marbles
    Marbles says:

    Like anything in this world there are people who will be critical. I get so mad when people say that there is too much violence, sex and nudity on TV and they want it censored. To them I say turn off your TV or change the channel. To readers I say quit reading the book if it offends you. I read to escape the every day world and would not want you to change anything about your writing.

  19. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I grew up in the sixties and seventies, where nobody was PC,and it seems like the world has gotten a lot more uptight since then.I think that people who are uptight about you using words that they consider un PC, shouldn’t be reading books that have murder as a main theme.I mean, common. Is that not a tremendous oxymoron? I personally am crazy about your writing;does that mean that I want to kill someone? No,it does not.If I call my husband a “retard” when he pisses me off, does that mean that I am being derogatory towards an entire community of mentally challenged individuals? No, it does not.Relax people!

  20. bob414
    bob414 says:

    Please don’t sanitize your novels to placate the politically correct types among us. Stay true to your craft and don’t try to please everybody.

  21. sueandnicky
    sueandnicky says:

    you do what you do best Tess, some times life is to serious, thats why i read to get awat from it all, don’t change a thing. don’t go on book tours, just stay at home writing…

  22. Warrior
    Warrior says:

    Hello Tess, hello everybody,
    i wonder if what can happen if this person see “Rainman”, or some other movie with “retarded” people (recently a famous italian actor have shot a movie just with down guys). What’s that? Now a writer cannot write what he/she want because MAYBE some reader can be offended?
    If they don’t like a character then don’t read the books, there is a bunch of other people who like Maura, Jane & co, their way to talk, their way to behave, and so on…
    Please Tess, don’t even think to change your written language just because of someone…
    I suppose that here, your fans, your readers, will be able to build some constructive critics when it will be the case…
    Greetings.

  23. MendozaEva23
    MendozaEva23 says:

    Some time ago, I did need to buy a car for my firm but I did not earn enough cash and could not order something. Thank God my sister adviced to try to get the loans from creditors. Thence, I did that and was happy with my consolidation loan.

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