I met with my writing group last night after submitting a particularly…colorful part of my manuscript. I introduced a certain character who embodies all the things I strive not to be. He’s rude, he’s racist, a sexist, and a sailor would ask him to watch his language. He’s a character that makes me nervous when people read him, because I fear that they will hold his numerous flaws against me.
So what was the reaction, you may ask? Well, out of a group of 5 reviewers, 4 of them thought that the character was extremely unlikeable, but that it worked within the context of the story and was done well. So far so good, right? Well, if you know anything about numbers (i.e., learned to count of a kid), you’ll notice that there was one person who didn’t fit in this category of approval. She said that the character’s language was juvenile and had a feeling of ‘trying too hard’ about it. I couldn’t tell if she was referring to the actual character or the author (me) exemplifying these characteristics, and, frankly, I was afraid to ask.
It should be noted that this lady was celebrating her 61st birthday. Why should it be noted? Well, because she brought it up herself. She said that the writing style might turn off older readers and be more suitable for those who are younger (more juvenile, I suppose). There was dissent in the room to this comment, as another member is 54 and she said that the language didn’t bother her at all. ‘There are people in the world who actually talk like this,’ she said. ‘It’s sad, but it’s reality.’
And, as a horror writer, that’s what I see my job as: to recreate reality within extraordinary spaces. And that means including the parts of our culture that we’d rather stuff under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist. But where is the line drawn? Is there a line? Certainly, if the goal is merely to create a piece of work that you, the author, can relate to and are proud of, then you would be the sole judge on the answer to that question. But what if part of your goal is to appeal to an audience?
People read for different reasons. Some to escape. Others to be enlightened. And then there’s just raw entertainment. Clearly people have different tastes and different levels of sensitivity. As writers, how much of it is our responsibility to take those sensitivities in to consideration?
One factor that makes these questions easier is certainly genre/intended audience. If you’re writing a children’s book, it’s obvious that you shouldn’t have profanity, explicit sexual scenes, or glorified drug use. There could be discussion/consideration on where the line is drawn for more toned-down topics. For example, violence. Any child author knows that describing a man beaten to death and not failing to include every drop of blood and piece of flesh that’s torn away is unacceptable. But certainly children books do contain murder (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) and while a certain degree of description is deemed okay, there must be some point where it crosses over in to the inappropriate.
We adults are much easier. We can be given then censorship which is mandatory for children or shown the world as it is and no one will (hopefully) ban our books from their stores. This where genre comes in to play. The 61-year-old in my group does not read horror, so some could say it’s irrelevant that she would ‘stop reading my book due to the language’ because it wasn’t really meant for her anyway. It still makes me wary, though, because I don’t want to be put in a box where only certain types of people will be able to reach me. No matter your literary preference, I want you to be able to take something from my work and not be driven away because of elements that, honestly, could be toned down.
Or is that the wrong mindset to have? Is pleasing everyone just too hard a task? Is it unfair to ourselves as writers to limit ourselves? What are your thoughts?