AD: Evil in Fiction
There's been much debate in print and among my author friends about profanity recently. As a novelist, I see this in terms of the distinction between describing evil and indulging it. Although striking the balance is not always easy, for me the lines are pretty clear when it comes to profane words. In print profane words are not descriptions, but the actual profanity itself. When showing evil actions, where the profane thing imagined is distinct from the words used to describe it, one can temper the language to avoid making the reader feel polluted and to avoid being so descriptive it tempts the reader to commit the sin described. But written profane words cannot be nuanced. They are the profanity itself right there on the page, not a description of it, but it.
Of course there are much worse things than naughty words. Pornography, for example. Yet profane words and pornographic photographs have this in common: they require very little imagination. And when it comes to striking a proper balance between describing evil and indulging in it, understanding the written word's effect upon a reader's imagination is everything.
For example, is it necessary to write profanity when creating the kind of character who curses in real life? Will unbelievers dismiss the work as irrelevant or unrealistic otherwise?
I doubt this for several reasons.
We must decide what we mean by "relevant." One thing I know for sure: nothing is more irrelevant than a believer trying to reach an unbelieving culture on the basis of things that symbolize unbelief. Talk about mixed messages. To be sure, Jesus ate with "tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes," but he did not emulate the activities that earned them those descriptions, not even just a little, just to make a point. On the contrary, Jesus' difference attracted them, and nothing is more relevant to unbeliever's hearts than that same difference in our stories.
Also, we must decide what we mean by "realistic" fiction. Here we move into the practice of good writing. The job of a serious novelist is to show truth, not true-life, which is a different thing. True-life lies on the surface, but the truth lies deeper down, beneath superficial preconceptions. As a reader, what makes me believe a gangster or a longshoreman is a living human being? Not his profanity, that's for sure. Too obvious. In fact, if you must use profanity to show someone "realistically," at least let it come from the lips of a preacher or a nun, just once, at a moment of overwhelming rage or desperation. Then it might mean something real. Similarly, show a gangster who always speaks politely, and I'll begin to see a real person in your story.
Most importantly, writers should consider the role of imagination (or the lack of it) in defending ourselves from the effects of evil. We disengage our minds from evil. The more we are exposed to evil, the more callous we become. Everyone knows this. So it follows that the way to keep a reader cognizant of real evil is to show it only slightly, or obliquely, lest they tune it out. We show the truth of evil best by shining light most brightly on what is good, while never letting readers forget what waits within the shadows.
This is not only because of the numbing effect of evil, but also because all evil is an abuse of something good, which is not the case in reverse. In other words, the truth about evil is best understood in terms of the good it ought to be, not in terms of evil itself. Consider the Gospel of John, where it says, "They crucified him." That basic statement of fact is the only reference to the evil act, but after all the beautiful things Jesus just finished saying in the upper room and in the garden, those three words are exactly enough. Our sense of the evil done on the cross would be less true if John had "realistically" described the spikes going in, because we would be thinking of pitiless iron and gory flesh instead of the most realistic evil happening there: the fact that Jesus was the personification of all the love that ever was or ever will be, yet they( and I) still crucified him.
Another example: Adolph Hitler loved dogs, so they say. Only a fact like that can hope to make evil on the scale of the holocaust "realistic." Hitler's love of dogs brings the gas chambers to life, because I also love dogs and if a man could do such things while loving dogs, might I? To merely give escapism to a reader, to shut down deeper thinking, by all means give them bodies piled like cords of wood in gruesome detail. But to create some sense of the true evil in those camps, to explore the real horror, it is best to mention it in passing, while focusing on Adolph's love of animals.
Here's the thing: genocidal maniacs are nothing to me. I cannot comprehend them, and the more technical realism you give, the less I want to try. But a man who pets his dog with bloody hands? That I must receive.
Note that none of this has anything to do with appeasing prudish readers. I'm not saying our fiction should never include profanity. I meant what I wrote about the preacher or the nun, and I used the N-word with deliberate precision in a recent novel because a tiny dose of actual evil at the perfect moment is sometimes just the contrast needed to bring God's love to life. But those who sup with the devil should use a very long spoon, as the saying goes. I think that's practical advice both for living, and for writing.
Athol Dickson, author of River Rising and The Gospel According to Moses.