Friday, November 9, 2012

Offend No One -- Or Else

by Meredith Cole

Back when I was lowly peon/production assistant on a film set, I remember getting the advice to be careful not to offend anyone. They told me that the intern you might have cursed at for bringing you a bottle of warm water could be your producer/boss tomorrow, and they certainly wouldn't forgive your nasty behavior when they were in charge. I thought this advice was ridiculous. Be nice to everyone is my motto, not because the janitor could be the next CEO but because he is a human being. All human beings (and animals, too) deserve respect and kindness (exception to the rule: the jerk that cut me off in traffic. But I don't think he could hear me cursing at him...)

Attempting to offend no one when you write is a completely different proposition. First of all, it's really difficult to know what someone might find offensive. Hair dye? Someone who curses? Someone who carries a gun? And the attempt to make something unoffensive often makes the work offensively bland. In order to interest people in your story, you have to have a unique voice and point of view. That voice may be too strident for some, but for others it will be intriguing and interesting. So it's a delicate balance.

My sleuth Lydia McKenzie makes no mention of going to church, and says she gets religious only when she loses her keys. So far I have not received any mail about this comment--so perhaps people just accepted it at face value. And probably the reason it's not offensive is that she's not telling anyone else what to think or slamming religion in any way, just stating how she feels. You have to be pretty isolated to have never met anyone that believes something different, so I think most of us get used to hearing other points of view.

I am a strong believer in moderation. I grew up in a political left-leaning household, and I know full well that radical people on the left and right can each be so radical they somehow morph into one another. I don't believe in shoving my politics down anyone's throat, but perhaps I'm just fooling myself. It can seem sometimes that just existing is a political act (a woman who takes a job and does not become a full time wife and mother is for some people offensive--or vice versa).

So what's a poor writer to do? Know your audience for one. As Reece says, writing a political thriller without politics is, um, ridiculous. But so is putting in lots of swear words and sex in a cozy. People are bound to be offended. So know your genre and find a place where your politics and point of view are a good fit. You're probably not the only person who thinks the way you do, so you're sure to find loyal readers who find your voice "refreshing." And if you get a big backlash and lots of hate mail, you can probably ride the controversy to the top of the bestseller list like the Tiger Mother or one of those other "offensive" authors--and then you'll have all that money to console you!


Greg Lilly said...

I had a character who pushed his politics -- of course that was a theme in the book: the gay, outcast son rallys against his conservative family, so it took focus. When it serves the plot or develops the character, I say do it. But just an off-handed remark by a character (or narrator) is a distraction.

Reece said...

Nice post, Meredith. I agree completely that it's impossible to write with the goal of not offending people. Any writer worth reading is going to have a distinctive voice and point of view, and that's inevitably going to rub some readers the wrong way.

Allure of Deceit said...

The United States and most other nations are deeply polarized, so as a reader I find it odd if characters don't have political sensibilities and opinions that contribute to plots. I agree with Greg and Meredith, the descriptions can't be shallow. To be realistic, to reflect this era and our communities, a book's characters should represent both, actually the many, sides of the political divide. Authors and characters alike can have civil disagreement - or not, in the case of some mystery books!

Catriona McPherson said...

All so very very true. I'm not sure I believe people are
"offended" as often as the word is used. Maybe if they said "displeased" we'd get rid of the unspoken follow-up ("and I have a right not to be so could you please re-arrange things".)

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for stopping by y'all! Greg--your point about politics furthering the plot or developing a character is spot on! I think people are a lot more open minded than the media gives them credit for. Perhaps "displeased" is a better word, Catriona!

Meredith Cole said...

You're so right about our country being "polarized" right now. And we may not be able to accommodate every view in a single book, but there's certainly room for all points of view in the genre. That's one of the reason I like mysteries so much!