ASK AUNTIE MJ: THE HARD QUESTIONS

Dear Auntie MJ, I am concerned that if I discuss religion and the faults in certain denominations in my NaNoWriMo novel that I will be seen as disrespectful towards religion just because my character is. How do I do my characters’ views justice even though people will think of me as judgmental and horrid?

My dear alinatheduck,

You do not make things easy on Auntie MJ. That is okay. What is the point in asking easy questions? 

I can only answer this question in general, because I don’t actually know what’s in your story, what specific religions and specific views and specific arguments. And that’s fine. Let’s look at it generally. And let’s take the sentence I have italicized above: what is the point in asking easy questions?  Novels, at their heart, ask questions about why we live the way we do. Why we make the choices we make. Even novels you think of as “trashy” might pose some very serious questions about love, sacrifice, loyalty, family…

Also, novels both deviate from and mirror reality in a way to shed some light on our general situation, this wonderful predicament we call life. Now, if every character in your novel had exactly the same views, the views of the author, some prescribed message … that would not be much of a novel. Because everyone would be the same. It would just be a creepy group of people who went around agreeing with each other. This would not be ideal, unless you were trying to draw a picture of a creepy society, and even then, you’d really need a contrasting character to highlight how creepy that is.

Because difference is good. Can you imagine how freaked out we would be if everyone said the same things, or looked exactly the same? This is the stuff of nightmares. This is some uncanny valley, Stepford Wives, the robots are taking over, 1984 stuff.

It is also important to remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR CHARACTERS and that NOVELS ARE NOT LITERAL INSTRUCTION MANUALS. They aren’t cookbooks. You don’t just read straight down the line and follow everything on the page.* Novels aren’t just WORD LISTS. They are documents to be taken AS A WHOLE. So if people decide to be offended because of something your characters do, then they are missing the point of reading. And there is nothing you can do about that. 

If someone has a problem with what you write, let them talk to you about it. But you can’t scrub your story of something difficult to avoid potential complaints. Trust me, those people will find something to complain about no matter WHAT you do. You’d be amazed at the passages people will pull out and scream about. There is no predicting it. 

The story is a story, which means that it contains difficulties and characters with different personalities and opinions. People write about characters that are NOTHING LIKE THEMSELVES. JK Rowling is not like Voldemort. Stephen King is unlikely to chase you around a remote resort with a hatchet. Harper Lee was not promoting racism. 

The fact is, we have a lot of things inside of us, a lot of conflicting, weird stuff. Writing is a way of accessing it. And that’s good. It’s a way of understanding each other, even the stuff we don’t like.

So while I do not know exactly what is going on in your book, I cannot advise avoiding these difficult things. Is it hard to write some scenes? Yes. Might people react strangely? Yes. But they also might not. And people change. And that is the point.

Good luck out there,

Auntie MJ

* In my experience with book banners, this is a common problem. Book banners tend to read with a weird and selective eye and a highlighter in hand. They aren’t reading the story-they are scanning for words they don’t like. They highlight these words to make their complaint. And they do so not because they want to help, but because they want to be seen in the local news or in the town meeting or even on the big morning television show being “righteous.” When in fact they have failed the primary reading test: the comprehension test. This is one of the many reasons it is dangerous to give in to them: you can’t let people who don’t know how to read control access to books. This is truly giving the inmates the keys to the asylum.