Saturday, April 16, 2011


I believe we can all agree that racial slurs like the N-word are unacceptable for anyone who considers himself (or herself) to be civilized. (A funeral was held for the N-word by the NAACP a few years ago, but like a zombie it does seem to be deathless.) For anyone who cares about civility, the N-word or any derogatory term used for another person is simply the opposite of what Buddhists call Right Speech. Words do wound.

But what about our fictional characters?

For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, I have to say that you will find the despicable N-word coming now and then from the mouths of fictional characters in some of my novels and stories (a slave hunter, for example, in my story "Soulcatcher"), usually from despicable people I wouldn't want to be around. But fidelity to a character---what he or she would actually do and say---trumps political correctness. Fiction is a mirror held up to the world. Sometimes it is a distorting funhouse mirror.

But always it presents unflinchingly---and uncensored---what a literary artist has seen and heard or found in the historical record. Whether we like it or not, that is a writer's job, and readers with even a smidgen of literary sophistication will avoid the mistake of believing that all the characters in a work of fiction represent the views of their creator.
Yet and still, we as readers have every right to cringe when we encounter the N-word, and as writers to pray we'll be forgiven when the demands of our job in a less than perfect world require us to write something distasteful in order for our stories to present characters with all their warts and wrinkles on display.

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