I saw a question about writing without being offensive in a Facebook writer’s group today and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here. I was a lot gentler in the group. The (paraphrased) question was:
“How do you write a character who stands against Christianity without being offensive to readers?”
For the purposes of this discussion, replace the word “Christianity” with any topic you think might be a land mine.
Pro-Tip: You Can’t
If you’re even remotely interested in achieving your full potential as a writer, then you need to get that shit out of your head right now. You need to write as if you don’t give a damn. You need to write as if your story and your characters are the most important thing in the world and that the world needs to hear it.
What, you claim to believe in your story but not enough to actually write it because it might offend someone? Get the hell out of here with that. You don’t believe in anything yet. You certainly don’t have what it takes to inform the world on any significant level. To do that, you have to say or show some pretty uncomfortable truths.
Look, we (mostly) all start there. Writing can be awkward at first, especially if you didn’t start until you were already an adult. But, what you can’t do is write as if your mother/father/pastor/prude friend/teacher/whoever is watching you write. You want to write and not offend someone? You chose the wrong gig. I’ve heard it said, “if you want to write and not offend people, then write greeting cards.” But, I’m not convinced even that is possible, because context is everything. And context is something we humans often screw up, especially those of us who lack a certain social awareness.
Don’t believe me? Send someone a “Congratulations” card on the occasion of the death of someone they love and get back to me.
Writing without being offensive is like meat-free steak (sorry Vegans)
Art isn’t doing its job unless someone is uncomfortable with it. You can’t write drama without deep, believable characters. You can’t write speculative fiction without revealing the flaws intrinsic to society. You can’t write satire without attacking the powerful. You can’t write literary fiction without touching on our struggles with our own humanity. The list goes on, for virtually anything that is recognized as art. You can bet your ass I offended people when I wrote Necromancer Awakening! I know because I heard from them. All of them. Go look at the 1-star reviews if you don’t believe me.
“But what about comedy?”
You only think comedy is the exception until you realize that all comedy is an inside joke. And if you’re not on the inside, you’re on the outside. [<– I guarantee this short paragraph will offend people, and you’ll eventually see the proof in the comments section.]
Get this foolish notion of writing without being offensive out of your minds. Leave it in the past the way you left other bits of childishness in the past.
If you don’t, neither your writing nor your story will ever reach the full capabilities of their potential.
If this topic interested you, I’ve touched on it before. Here and here, at least. There are likely others I’m forgetting.
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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I agree with what you are saying entirely. It’s taken me a while to accept that I’m not going to be able to please everybody. But if I’m writing what I believe is true, then I have nothing to worry about. I think to some degree, being afraid of offending somebody is a sign — as you call out — that maybe the writer things they are wrong. Or maybe, it’s just that they haven’t fully figured out what their trying to write about or stand up for.
My current WIP is about a fantasy world where people get marks on their skin when they sin. Growing up in an organized religion, I originally thought this would be pretty straight forward system to write. HA! What originally started as a journey to try to figure out how to “not offend people” wound up being a very personal journey, delving into and rewiring my own personal belief system. I have pages and pages of free writing, which completely turned everything I thought about sin and morality upside down. Now, I feel equipped with a greater truth than I had before. And I feel like I can write about the subject more confidently and in a way that a larger majority of people can relate to.
That said, there is another side to this coin that I think is worth considering, and that is making content approachable. By writing your values in a story about necromancy, you — like C.S. Lewis in Narnia (and others, I’m suddenly drawing a blank) — are making your content more _approachable_. You are not blatantly shoving a Bible in someone’s face. If you wrote a story specifically about Christianity, then you might be ostracizing the very people you want to share your message with.
Looking at the opposite extreme, I recently read a book by an ex-Christian atheist. Every religious character in his book was presented as a single dimensional stereotype which seemed to be added to the story solely to enable the author to pass their judgement on whether they “accept” or disliked different types of religious people.
As someone with a complicated history with Christianity (I know I’m not the only one), I am usually not offended by atheistic views of Christianity; I found this book offensive.
So additional advice I would give to writers: while you can’t write about something that’s important to you without offending someone, there are ways to make your book more approachable to people. I think the most important one is not to judge. If you have a character in your book who represents someone you don’t agree with, don’t have your other characters go into long internal monologues explaining why they are “wrong” or “bad.” Let their actions and words speak for themselves. Let your readers be the judges. Hell, let your readers agree and side with them if they want. Then let your readers wonder and sort out why the character they related to failed in the trials you put in front of them.
Also, try to truly understand and empathize with the character you disagree with. If you find yourself really hating a character in your book, they are likely acting as an effigy for someone you want to burn. If you’re doing this, then you’re casting judgement. You might also find yourself in a one sided argument with that person. It’s offensive, and painful, to read an argument that was clearly written with only one side in mind.
I think the secret to successful writing is to have an understanding of why people do the things they do, and you can’t do that unless you are willing to step into their shoes and try to really understand them. That’s why in some of the best stories we can empathize with the villains, even when we don’t agree with them.
Sure, you’re going to offend somebody, just accept that. But if you truly stand by what you believe, and if you have done your absolute best to represent those that you disagree with as honestly and fairly as possible, you will be able to face that criticism knowing that you did your best not to.
P.S. After writing all this… man, I should just go get my own blog to share my opinions on… >_<
Blogging can be a wonderfully rewarding experience! I encourage you to start one!
Your life sounds much like mine, with regard to growing up in organized religion. I was raised Catholic, which informs much of what I write…in a negative way, unfortunately. Throughout my stories, the subtext tends to be “this is what happens when we let celibate men in fancy robes do our thinking for us.”
Too true, all too true.
I suppose some people’s life plans do involve “get through the day without disagreeing with anyone.” Those aren’t the people that get much done, and their secret is probably staying around people as much like them as possibly anyway.
But to WRITE? To look at anything worth seeing, and tell a story that’s more than one page? We’re guaranteed to disagree with someone, somewhere, even if the story’s some cautious thing that has nothing to say. (“Why does this character prefer roses to violets? I’m sick of people who don’t appreciate the violet!”)
Or all the music stories that get called out for “too much sax.”
And that’s just on the periphery. A story is always, always, taking sides. It might take one side for one scene and then another side to balance it, but it’s built from moments of saying “this thing is a problem” and for a time “this makes it worse” — of course someone is going to be offended. (Or if character makes the problem worse, someone will say you’re taking a serious issue lightly.)
We can’t write that way. Nothing gets done.
Like they say in video games, “When things come out of the underbrush to attack you, it means you’re getting closer to the treasure.”
Spot on, Ken! I simply don’t see how a person can say anything of value without someone somewhere taking offense.
Thanks for the advice, it was appreciated. I am afraid of what people will think of me once I’m published. I fear losing friends that I have now. I sometimes ask the question if I even lose one (genuine) friend from what I have written, then 1) was I the genuine friend to begin with, if I had knowledge this would ruin the friendship, and 2) was it worth writing the book for. Maybe it was. Our stories, after all, are supposed to help a great majority of people. I imagine there will always be outliers. So, do we play the percentages game? I think we can do this if we don’t already know the people. But if those in our local community turn on backs on us cause of what we have written …? Maybe that’s more important. Maybe we have struck a true note and they need to know this. I guess the real fear is not knowing. Are our lives better in our current state, or as published writers with broken friendships? Is it greedy to desire acclaim or money over friendships, if those are two of the reasons we write? Is it more important to earn a living for our family, give to charities with money from our books then be concerned about potential broken friendships? Or do we just write an awesome book like you did and not give a damn, because no one’s life changed (for the better) from not being affected by a book they never read. My greater concern is the anxiety of not knowing. So, we go blindly into the future, with rays of hope emanating from us … but are we indeed walking blindly to a social doom? Lord help all us writers. 🙂