Friday, September 22, 2006

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.


At 8:29 AM, Blogger Angela said...

Athol, your post is so well put I'm simply . . . speechless. Thank you.


At 8:52 AM, Blogger Carol Umberger said...

Amen. What a beuatifully written post, Athol. Much food for thought.

It is our job as writers to engage the reader's imagination. Our words shouldn't flash through their minds like a teleprompter--rather the images our words create should flow through their mind as if on a movie screen. The words themselves must evoke emotional response--that is how we engage their imagination--by evoking their emotional response to characters and events. If you do it well, then you will be mindful of just what response you are evoking and how it will affect your reader.

Thus Athol's example of having a nun or priest utter a profanity creates exactly the emotional reaction in the reader that he wants--shock and the realization that the character has been shaken to his or her core.

If you still feel your writing lacks something and the use of profane words is necessary, perhaps you should take a closer look at at how well you are handling point of view. Poor POV leads to telling rather than showing which is not the way to engage your reader's imagination.

Yikes, I got a bit carried away. Can you tell this is a subject I feel strongly about? In my first novel my hero used a mild cuss word. Repeatedly. My editor strongly recommended I get rid of that word. And I found that using "damn" was the easy, lazy way out. It meant I didn't have to figure out how the character actually felt. When I removed that word I had to decide if he was angry? frustrated? awed? In doing so the character took on whole new dimensions.

Well, Athol, as you can see, your post provoked quite a few thoughts early this morning. :)


At 2:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AD: "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."

There's nothing to say to the insight in this post and the truth you articulate so clearly...except Amen.


At 4:21 PM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...


The problem here comes out in your second sentence. Not all evil is described. Some of it is spoken.

Suppose you're writing a story that deals with the effects of pornography on normal sexual relationships. Certainly a loaded topic, but when handled deftly, a potentially profound one.

There is no credible way to dance around the degradation here. If you have a scene where an evil character is begging someone to have sex with her, she's going to drop the old effenheimer in the course of conversation if she's going to be true to contemporary language and culture. That word exists at the limit of what is said, and if the entire story is built around the idea of limitations, then the limits must be plumbed.

I wrote such a short story. I did NOT drop the F-bomb. That word, and all the other ones like it, give me the creeps. But truthfully, the character suffers (and the story along with it) because I avoid having the character say it at the point that she must. And she MUST to be true to the direction and moral of the story.

Whenever I read Christian fiction that deals with that kind of degradation, the imposed softening is just that. It steals something away from what can be said. I don't want to see increasingly evil and vulgar acts in Christian fiction. But in the same way, if we were honest, our fiction will ALWAYS suffer--at least a little bit--because we can't fully explore the depths. We'll always be dancing. Trying to pretend that we're not does as big a disservice as does crossing the line just to cross it.

At 8:06 PM, Blogger Rachel Starr Thomson said...

Thanks for this post... excellent thoughts, well-put. I'm going to link here from my blog.

At 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Athol, I'll be the lone dissenting voice.

First, I think we give swear words more power than they actually have. The Scriptures speak often and poignantly about gossip, sowing discord, lying, and other sins of the tongue. Swearing is given brief stage time. And yet, as Christians, we've flipped this all around and accepted gossip as "prayer requests." The funny thing is, I've been around nonbelieving friends who let out a word here or there, and I feel like I'm only an observer, not a partaker, in their "sin." On the other hand, when articles or novels use blanks or asterisks to avoid swearing, I feel forced to become a participant because my mind jumps to fill in the gaps.

Second, fiction is about portraying truth, yes. But it does require some level of realism. Tricia Goyer speaks of WWII vets who love her writing, yet feel the dialogue is unbelievable because they were actually swearing a lot down in those trenches. Jesus was also down in the trenches, so to speak. I don't think He batted an eye at the foul language which was doubtlessly a part of those gatherings. He was focused on the matters of the heart. Whereas we, in American Christianity, seem to have become more like the Pharisees in picking on certain sins and creating our own lists of socially acceptable do's and don'ts. In a church foyer, we won't even think of pointing a finger if someone says that they've gone through a divorce or that they struggle with gluttony ("weight loss"). If, however, someone let fly with a minor cuss word, we would act shocked or surprised--like little kids pointing at the kid who said "poop." There's something about it all that becomes so juvenile.

I know these are my own opinions. I've avoided the controversy in creative ways in my own fiction, and yet I struggle with the idea that art must only hint at the darkness. If we didn't know the absolute true horror of the death camps, we wouldn't be as horrified by Hitler's love for his dogs. At some point, we had to face the truth.

And, in my opinion, we still do. Until then, the subculture of Christianity will continue to function in a vacuum that has already lost the majority of the generation I grew up going to church with. I don't think we need to compromise the truth of Scripture, but I do think we need to focus on the heart--and let the change happen from within. As long as I write fiction, I want to portray some of those who haven't started, or are just taking their first steps on that journey of transformation. I'd like to show all the steps, instead of jumping to the easy 1-2-3s that we see exalted in countless Christian books.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Stephen Dean said...

Interesting post. A lot of food for thought. As an aspiring novelist I struggle with this whole thing of showing evil in my stories. I have one in particular that will probably never see the light of day in the CBA and yet it's Christian themes will most likely prevent it from being acceptable for the ABA.

I can say this, in reading the recent novel, Waking Lazarus by T. L. Hines I jumped for enjoy when I came across his protagonist, Jude Allman, using an expletive. It was a mild one by anyone's standard. You hear it every night on any given TV show, but here it was in a novel written by a Christian, published by a Christian publisher.
The thing is, the character's use of the word was completely real. Anyone of us would've probably said the same thing in that situation. To have whitewashed it wouldn't have been honest.

I will continue to struggle with how to present evil while shining the light stronger. Hopefully, there are editors and writers out there who'll be able to help me find the place I'm looking for in this regard.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Shane Deal said...

Maybe I'm not understanding the article correctly, but to me the simplest solution for reaching realism without profanity (as far as language goes.) is to simply say: "He swore." (Or she, or it, or whatever.) for example. Rather then the actual word. I've encountered that in books I've read before and have always mentally "thanked the author." when they do it that way. I get the point that the character is upset, and I don't have to get mad at the author either.


Post a Comment

<< Home