It’s not possible to please everyone. This is a universal truth most of us acknowledge, and yet we strive to do so in certain situations. Beginning writers are often plagued by this desire to please, to be loved by all. The writer tries to incorporate every piece of feedback received from contest judges or critique partners until she no longer recognizes her work. Her voice fades. But wanting to please isn’t unique to new writers. Who doesn’t want her work admired and appreciated by the masses? I do, but I know it’s part of a fantasy. As most rejection letters state, writing is a subjective business.
Still, for the past week, I’ve struggled with whether or not to be true to a character I’m writing. I type the words as he speaks them, knowing the process is honest, but later worry about offending certain people by his vulgar language and attitude toward women. Believe me, I’m offended by him! But that is the point. His purpose is to create conflict and stir emotions. His actions build empathy for the heroine.
I’ve been engaging in an internal debate about being authentic versus protecting the sensibilities of others. I’m not sure if I would give the argument more than a passing thought if not for a few readers’ loops I’ve read lately or conversations with some of the older people I see in my work as a social worker. One of the lovely ladies I see through my hospice work said she doesn’t see the need for bad language in a book. Stories can be told just as well without curse words. She feels some authors are trying to show how many bad words they know and all the creative combinations they can make.
She may have a point, but I don’t agree that every story can be told just as well without the inclusion of vulgar language. A drug dealer isn’t likely to say, “Oh, heavens!” or participate in a quilting circle, unless he’s in witness protection. And even then, I bet he would let a bad word slip if he stubbed his toe.
Well, Saturday evening I found some peace while browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble in Stephen King’s book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. I always open a book in the middle and read a little to see if it grabs me. I happened to open to page 185 and read, “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism.” Mr. King said he regularly receives angry letters from readers who accuse him of being vulgar and/or bigoted, and most often their letters reference the dialogue by one of his characters. Overall, his take is that being inauthentic is breaking a promise between writer and readers. If nothing else, the writer owes it to readers to be honest, knowing some people don’t want to hear the truth.
I’d like to hear other opinions on this topic. As a reader are you willing to sacrifice honesty in dialogue so you or others are not exposed to offensive language, or are you willing to tolerate offensiveness for the story remaining true to life?