Creating Bad Things

I guess I haven’t written anything about my writing process in a while. Last week was an interesting one, writing wise, so I’m going to talk about an issue that came out of that today. The issue is this: late last week I started work on a part of the book I’m working on that has easily the most unpleasant character I have ever written in it. That’s not to say the ‘most evil’ villain or anything like that, this character is unpleasant in a very different way.

The character is unambiguously, explicitly racist. One thing I found right away is that just writing their dialogue feels terrible. I feel kind of dirty and ashamed that this kind of stuff is coming out of me. I write a little and then need to go pet the cat for a while. I know they aren’t my beliefs or judgements, not exactly. I don’t believe these things. But they are mine on some level, aren’t they? I mean the words didn’t get on the page by themselves. I put them there. So I can’t pretend they aren’t my creation. I wrote this stuff. The voice isn’t mine, it’s one that I created for a person who doesn’t exist in a series of events that didn’t happen. And yet, and yet … it all came out of my imagination. On some level, again, I don’t like that it’s possible for me to do that.

There are bigger issues as well. I have read quite a lot of good opinions on the inclusion of racism in fiction, and basically the thrust of most of these has been that something that hurtful shouldn’t and mustn’t be included gratuitously. You shouldn’t make a character racist just as a way of making it clear that this is a Bad Person or to get your reader to dislike them. It isn’t like deciding to make a character swear a lot, or have a short temper, or even just be violent. There’s so much baggage and real potential to inflict pain on real people in racist ideas. There are lots of other ways to indicate who the antagonist is and to make a character unlikeable without bringing in language ideas that can really hurt and disturb people.

It’s much the same argument as using rape in storytelling – if done simply to shock or to make it clear who the Bad Guys are, it’s cheap and hurtful. If you’re going to use it at all, it needs to be done thoughtfully and for reasons that are essential to the story you’re trying to tell. This, in turn, is connected to the wider phenomenon of ‘Women in Refrigerators’ (that I don’t imagine I need to reiterate here, but if you need to read a thing about it, this thing is pretty good.) pertaining to violence against women in fiction and how it can be, to say the least, problematic.

Essentially, if, as a writer, if you’re using any of these things (and I’m not going to try to put them on any kind of continuum to figure out which is ‘worse’) simply as a way to flag up who a Bad Person is in your story, or to shock your reader, or purely to provide motivation for another character, you probably need to do better. There’s lots of ways to do all those things that don’t perpetuate harmful ideas and ideologies. It’s not to say you can’t ever have any of these things in a story. They just need to be there in a thoughtful way and for a solid reason that goes beyond ‘my villain does villainous things’.

So, in light of all the above, I’ve had a good long Think about whether this character actually needs to be racist. I think, in terms of the story I’m trying to set up, they actually do. I can’t think of a way of changing things around that would still leave me with the same story, and I think and hope the story is a good one. I’ll reevaluate as I write and see if I still feel like this content is necessary. I hope that what I end up with will justify my decision. Obviously this is something I will be paying close attention to once the work is ready for Eager Volunteers.

As a result, I’m keeping the character as-is for now, and proceeding with caution. I don’t like writing them, and on some level I don’t like having created them. Most of my characters, I’m really quite pleased to have them running around in my imagination. Even the villains – villains are usually fun to write and most of the ones I’ve written are ones that I’m pleased to have created; I hope people will enjoy reading about them and I have a kind of backhanded affection for their malevolent ways. This character, although I need them for the story, I’m not really happy to have in my little pantheon of imaginary people.

I guess sometimes that’s the down side of getting to create and populate our own little worlds, as writers. Sometimes we have to create genuinely bad things and then accept that the badness came out of us. I’m less sure whether that happens as much to other types of artists.

We’re in danger of veering off into idle speculation (even more idle than usual) now so perhaps I’ll end here. As ever, I welcome your thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Creating Bad Things

  1. JP says:

    There is a difference between harboring hurtful opinions and understand hurtful opinions. The writing of a evil character only shows your understanding of that behavior, I don’t believe it is a reflection of something you yourself harbor either overtly or subconsciously.
    In my opinion, a great writer is someone who can understand his subject matter and express it well regardless of their personal beliefs. That’s why the first tip for any writer is to write about what you know.
    I think exploring characters with beliefs that are different from our own gives us an opportunity to explore who we are, to question what it is we really believe in and that’s what makes them interesting to read. Considering that you dislike this characters behavior should reassure you that you in fact do not have those same beliefs.
    As far as the character being born of you, I can’t imagine you inventing a new kind of evil that didn’t already exist in the world. So I believe that the character reflects your understanding of the world, of people and of possible combinations of interactions, not a reflection of some hidden within you.
    To add to this, the consequences of the behavior are the message, not the behavior itself. You’re not endorsing racism by having a racist character in your story, you could be denouncing it by having negative consequences for those views for example.

    Now I’m at risk of belaboring the point, so I’ll stop there. But I think you get the point. Understanding something to the point of being able to write about it isn’t the same as agreeing with it.

    • emaymustgo says:

      Thanks for that very thoughtful comment, dude. I think intellectually, I know all of that, but it has still been a little tricky working through it all as I have been writing.

  2. Matt says:

    I’ve actually wondered about this entire concept myself before in an idle way, when reading about some nasty piece of work in a book.

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