On Tuesday I wrote a little story about getting my mouth washed out with soap for singing some dirty words. I like that story. It characterizes me pretty clearly in a short scene or two.
It also shows the inefficacy of corporal punishment (at least of the soap-based variety), because I’ve grown up to be quite the foul-mouthed little beggar.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m from Brooklyn. But I can sling around all Bart Simpson’s favorite swear words without so much as blushing. Still, I’m careful to watch my language around Mom (and around my older sister, for that matter…), so maybe the soap bit worked after all.
Making Genuine Characters
Most of you don’t care where exactly I draw the line on obscenities, but I bring it up here because it has much to do with the writing process. I got my undergraduate writing degree from a private Christian university, and I’d say the threat of getting your mouth washed out with soap for saying “damn” was every bit as real there as it was on my mama’s farm.
But at the same time, my Creative Writing professor was reminding us–admonishing us, even–to make genuine characters. She reminded us that genuine characters aren’t us, and their behavior doesn’t reflect (directly) on the morality of the writer.
To tell a good story, you sometimes have to let your characters swear, even if you don’t swear. You sometimes have to let your characters sleep around, even if you don’t sleep around. If you only write what you know, your stories are going to get pretty boring after the first or second.
So she encouraged us to loosen up. Though my professor never used the phrase, a popular way of expressing the sentiment is, “Write like your parents are dead.”
Ellie Kemper (most recently famous as the receptionist on The Office), did an excellent parody on that advice over at McSweeney’s:
Autumn Days Are Fleeting
There was a slight nip in the air, and I pulled my anorak closer. The leaves were beginning to turn. Orange, brown, bright yellow. Autumn, I thought. I inhaled deeply, imagining the crisp air filling my lungs. Oh, God. I miss Mom. Why did you take her from me, God? Why did she have to die? She is gone.
Seven Days, Five of Them Working
I agreed with Cynthia. I did. Four hours would never be enough time to prepare the presentation. There was too much data. There were too many bar graphs. It wasn’t our fault. We were told the meeting would be on Thursday; it got bumped back to Wednesday. Oh, God. Wednesday. My dad’s favorite day. What was it that he used to call it again? Oh, yeah: Hump Day. I miss Dad so much.
I definitely recommend reading the whole bit. It’s hilarious. (And thanks to Heather for sharing it with me.)
Despite my professor’s encouragement, it took me a while to come to terms with that advice. And it wasn’t primarily out of fear of people judging me. Honestly, the circles I run in, I’m already considered the bad boy for saying things like “damn” and “ass.”
No, the problem was that I wanted readers to like my characters. I wanted everyone to like my characters. And since I’ve got firsthand knowledge how some people respond to obscenities, I always shied away from putting those words in my characters’ mouths.
I remember a time when I was writing (and blogging) Sleeping Kings. I got to a point where about 90% of the characters involved in the story were military guys. One of the most active characters (after my protagonist) was a helicopter pilot named Henson.
He’s watching the United States and life-as-we-know-it fall apart before his eyes. He’s engaged in guerilla warfare with American citizens (to be clear, they’re the ones doing the engaging). He’s following a Marine grunt on a suicide mission to save civilization. He comes up over a hill and sees that, rather than a ragtag resistance, the terrorists have a full-blown army waiting for him. With tanks.
In my head, Henson shouted something foul. On the page, I wrote:
I frowned at it, added an inadequate adverb (“strongly,” or “viciously,” or something of the sort), and I went on. I spent the rest of the day feeling uneasy.
A month later I finished the book and went back through rereading it. Everything was playing out in my head in vivid detail. I got to that scene, and read those words, and I just groaned.
It was wrong. It would have been one thing if I were writing a book for kids, or maybe aimed at the Christian Fiction market. (Maybe.) But this was a thriller. These were military guys. I had bloodied corpses left and right. And that description just didn’t do the story justice.
I left it, though. That was the first time I really understood what my professor had been talking about, my first real opportunity to go against my own squeamishness and let a character be genuine. I didn’t have the courage to follow through.
I’ve grown quite a bit sense then. My characters loosened up considerably, mainly because I came to understand that it was the authenticity of my characters that made people like them. By holding them back, I wasn’t making them easier to like, I was just washing them out.
Sure, some readers will hate a character who curses, but I really oughtn’t to be courting those readers in the first place. Not with a military thriller, anyway!
The next time I really had to encounter the issue came about a year later when I first started in on Gods Tomorrow. Katie Pratt (as most of you should know) shows up late for her first day at a new job with the FBI Ghost Targets team, and right off the bat she runs into the head of the department, her new boss.
And he’s a big character. Physically imposing, boisterous, no-nonsense, and totally un-self-conscious. He also has a habit of calling people out on their bullshit. Literally. In dialogue.
That’s not a word I’m super fond of. I don’t like the aesthetic of it. But, man, Goodall loved it. If I’d let him, he would’ve been dropping it in every other sentence. I toned that down–not to sanitize the character, but just for the sake of effective communication–but he still managed to litter my book with bullshits.
And I let him do it. It went a long way to characterize him, too. Since I published it, both of my parents have read it. It’s been given as gifts to rather conservative extended family. I think there’s a copy in one of the Central Arkansas Christian Academy libraries. Every time I heard about someone new (in that crowd) getting a copy, I widened my eyes a little and thought, “Hmm. Hope they don’t mind.”
Then my grandma picked up a copy. That was about a year ago. She tells me she keeps trying to read it, but she just can’t make it through. She blames the sci-fi, but I find myself wondering.
Still, I wouldn’t do it any other way. The most valuable thing you can do for your storytelling is learn to make genuine characters. If you don’t want cursing in your stories, you don’t have to write about the kind of characters who curse (but, y’know, stay away from the military and the Burroughs).
But eventually you’ll get good enough that your characters start to take on lives of their own. When that happens, you’ve got to let speak, no matter what your mother might think.