How politically correct should you be?

When writing fiction, typically I try not to offend, but I also try not to go overboard on the politically correct side. If the situation calls for it, then I use the word or phrase that the character in question would use. Likewise, “my” characters take on their own personality as I write about them, and they surprise me sometimes with what they tell me about themselves. So if a character is a “minority” – that’s just the way they are, and it was almost certainly not a conscious decision on my part.

So, as far as offensive and non-PC language is concerned, in my Balance of Powers, I have an African-American protagonist (former USMC officer). At one point, he gets called out by a white bigot, who uses the N___ word (spelled out in full in the book) and calls him “boy”. You will be happy to know that she learns her lesson. He, by the way, isn’t shy about using obscentities when he feels the situation calls for it.  For example, in another scene:

He went out of the office, and as he was about to close the door, his frustration boiled over. “And f___ you too, you cold-hearted b_____! F___ you up the a__!” he shouted at her in his loudest Marine parade-ground tones, before slamming the door shut as hard as he could. The other workers in the open-plan office leading to Allenby’s private office appeared above their cubicle dividers, like gophers popping out of their holes, with what looked like smirks on their faces. He heard a few giggles. [all obscenities spelled out in full in the book]

In Beneath Gray Skies, I had a similar problem when referring to people of colour. US Senators and Congressmen from the southern states, right up to the middle of the 20th century, used the N____ word, even when speaking on the floor of Congress. How was the Congressional Record going to record this racism? It got round it by recording the word as “Nigra”, and that’s what I ended up doing. The word is used a lot by the Southerners in the story, the Brits use the term “colored chappie” or similar (this book was written using US spelling, hence the British using “color” rather than “colour”).

Moriarty grabs hat
Moriarty Magpie snatches his hat back from Watson Mouse.

The problems can be even more subtle. When Andy Boerger and I were developing the children’s series of Sherlock Ferret books, we had to come up with a villain. Someone who was smart, and pretty nasty. Our first thoughts were of ravens and crows, and then we started to pull back a bit. These birds are all black – by creating an all-black villain here, are we demonising black people? Possibly… But then Moriarty Magpie swum into our consciousness, and we had a black and white villain, who had an alliterative name, and magpies are, after all, renowned as thieves.

PiggybackSloth
Here’s Lestrade, who is a rhinoceros (though not a very big one) giving a piggy-back ride to Doctor Solomon Sloth,

Once more in Sherlock Ferret, we had a character called Doctor Solomon Sloth. All our characters wear hats, and with the name Solomon, we seriously considered giving the good doctor a hat of the type often worn by Hasidic Jews. However, Solomon is a sloth, and spends much of his time asleep.

“It’s been a very long and exhausting day. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I will leave you and take a nap before I turn in for the night.”

If we made him obviously Jewish, would we be giving the impression that we thought Jews were lazy? Quite possibly, we thought, and changed the hat to something a little less identifiable.

But it’s not just racial PC that an author must consider – there are sexual and gender-preferential matters to be considered. Again, in Beneath Gray Skies, I use the term “queer” to describe homosexuality, that term being period-authentic. However, Balance of Powers has one (female) protagonist who is gay, and my Untime series, although related by a man, features a female character who is stronger and more intelligent than any of the male characters. But these weren’t conscious decisions – these were just the way that the characters presented themselves to me.

And as far as “bad” language is concerned, some of my characters, like some people in real life, use it a lot, and others, like others in real life, don’t.

And in the end, this is what you as an author must do, I feel – be true to the characters that you create, whether or not you like what they are or what they represent to you.

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