By Becky Tuch
In fiction, as in life, people make choices. Sometimes a fictional character’s choices appear self-evident. It’s a given that Jane will want to leave a bad situation or that Sally will struggle to improve her lot. Such actions hardly need defending as it is obvious why someone (Sally or Jane) would yearn to do these things.
Often, though, a character makes choices that are not quite morally neat. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is an obvious example, a man who chooses again and again to pursue power and financial gain at risk to those around him. In an early episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath steals twenty dollars from a hotel housekeeper, a move that is at once hilarious and fairly uncool—Really? Stealing from someone who makes little more than minimum wage?
While watching these morally dubious choices play out can be great fun for the viewer, creating them as writers is a whole other story. In my own novel-in-progress, in which a teenage girl makes one terrible decision after another, the fear of alienating readers has stopped me cold. Among the more general writerly anxieties about the quality of my prose, the snappiness of my dialogue, etc., I worry frequently about offending those readers whose values and views tend to overlap with my own. Will I alienate feminists? Am I betraying certain kinds of leftists? Does my storyline give voice to a worldview that I, in my daily life, do not uphold?
It is an interesting conundrum to be worried about alienating the very people with whom one sympathizes. “Censorship,” writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a 2013 review of The Butler, “– even, or especially, self-censorship — is to art as lynching is to justice. It aborts creative genius; it aborts the quest to find a language, …to tell the truth about one aspect of the human experience, in its fullest complexity.”
I could not agree with this statement more, and am particularly grateful for Gates’ inclusion of “self-censorship” here, as this is a place where so many of us get into trouble. We question our motives before the pen is even set to the page. We wonder how the chorus of readers will receive our views before they are even fully articulated. We envision our own ostracization and thus in turn ostracize ourselves, most painfully, from the universe of our writing.
I know I’m not alone in this. In a novel workshop I taught recently, a student looked utterly bereft after a writing prompt I assigned. When I questioned her about her work, she sighed, put down her pencil and said, “I worry about the end of my book. My character makes a decision that is not PC. I don’t want to offend my readers.”
It would be easy to offer a knee-jerk response here, to proclaim, “Fiction is no place for political correctness!” or “You mustn’t worry about the feelings of others when you write!” or “You must say what needs to be said, no matter what!”
While true, these oft-repeated declarations are hardly a comfort to a writer legitimately concerned with socio-political issues and the problem of how to do justice to these issues on the page. For such a writer, the proscription to not worry about being “PC” in her fiction is too pat, too reductive of the problem’s real complexity. It’s advice I myself have heard on numerous occasions and I can tell you, it doesn’t help.
In another instance, I recently spent time with an anthropologist friend. He just returned from Brazil, where he was working with the MST, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Portuguese). The MST is a powerful and effective movement through which hundreds of families have gained access to land and which continues to fight for schools, health care, access to credit and other needs.
Still, like all social movements or any place where human beings are gathered, conflicts do exist. There are rare small-scale thefts, incidental displays of sexism, occasionally less-than-honorable leaders. My friend, who is a great supporter of the MST, struggled with the question of whether he should he even mention these small and infrequent infractions in his dissertation. Would it undermine the movement to mention such behavior? Would citing certain conflicts provide ammo for those all too quick to say I told you so, throwing up their hands in regards to social change?
Telling my friend to simply not worry about it would be ludicrous. For the politically conscious writer, issues of how various social groups are represented, how individual choices are depicted, what motivates human behavior and where lines of morality are drawn matter very much.
How, then, do we overcome the hurdle of self-censorship? How do we avoid pat advice like “Don’t worry about it!” and “You can’t be PC in your writing!” and actually offer concrete solutions to writers struggling with these problems?
One method I have found is to let one’s own psychic drama play itself out on the page. Let’s say, for example, your story is about a woman who is being abused by her husband. She is tormented and wants to leave. Given who she is and her set of circumstances, however, you the writer know that she, in fact, would never leave. You must be true to your character. Yet perhaps you are anxious about how the story might be received, what people might think you are saying about women’s empowerment, domestic violence and so on.
One solution might be to create a character who plays the role of the social critic in your story. In The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah’s bestselling novel of a young woman struggling to survive after losing everything, Souljah quite brilliantly writes in a foil to the protagonist, a woman by the name Sister Souljah. Where heroine Winter Santiaga is vain, deceptive, and obsessed with her own personal gain, the character of Sister Souljah steps in to offer a counterview, to try to lead the heroine onto a path of self-empowerment. Winter doesn’t see the light and rejects Sister Souljah’s wisdom, ultimately following her own path toward its implosive end. By introducing this foil to Winter, the author has stayed true to her protagonist, while not appearing to necessarily condone that character’s behavior.
If the problem you are experiencing is one of your character making a decision that you worry is not aligned with certain political causes, then you may want to show the social conditions that make such a choice inevitable for your character. In the case of the woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband, why doesn’t she feel she’s able to leave? Sure, there might be some flaw in her character. But undoubtedly there are environmental circumstances that shape her decision. Have you explored this in your own story? Have you fully looked at the society in which your character operates?
One of the best examples of this is Richard Wright’s Native Son. Here, young protagonist Bigger Thomas commits two murders, both excruciatingly brutal. While Bigger is clearly making bad choices, Wright demonstrates how Bigger is both influenced and constrained by his social world. Bigger is a perpetrator but he is also a victim. In his 1952 essay L’Experience Vecue du Noir, or “The Fact of Blackness” Frantz Fanon observed, “Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” In other words, Bigger’s behavior may be read as the inevitable outcome of the social world that created him.
Finally, it is worthwhile considering the ways in which your work seeks to address the complexities of a particular worldview and, in doing so, hopefully strengthen it. If feminist writers only wrote about women who heroically leave their abusive husbands or Marxist writers only wrote about workers who joined forces and overcame the ruling classes, or if any group wrote about its members as being unfailingly loyal, honest, industrious, virtuous and empowered, not only would it make for terrible reading but it would also be a betrayal of the lived experience of the people within that group. In the case of the fictional woman who does not leave her abusive husband, telling her story could be hugely important. Far from being a betrayal of the feminist cause, relating what she experiences and why she experiences it is a necessary aspect of grappling with the reality of women’s lives.
When I asked my anthropologist friend how he hoped to reconcile his dilemma in writing his dissertation, he responded thusly: “An ideology that doesn’t work with the complexity of people’s lives betrays both the people and itself.” His responsibility, he said, was to represent the truth of people’s lives within the social movement. No causes could ever benefit from rose-colored renderings.
Showing characters whose choices do not align with a perceived notion of social or political correctness is, in other words, a good thing to do. If a particular worldview cannot account for and encompass the full range of behaviors of the people within its group, then is it really such a strong worldview to begin with?
It just may be that your story, which asks questions, poses challenges, and seeks out moral and political gray zones will, if handled with care, ultimately strengthen the cause with which you are most aligned. Your character’s inability to do what’s right in some respects may reveal, in other respects, what is truly necessary.