A few days after Christmas, the 1969 version of True Grit was on TV. I watched it with my mom. About five minutes into the move, right before Mattie’s pa goes off with the shifty Tom Chaney, Mattie’s mother looks at her daughter and says, “You can still throw a cat through the south wall.” She was trying to illustrate the sorry state of Chaney’s living quarters, and also hoping to get her daughter to feel a little sympathy for poor old Chaney, which turns out to be a bad judgment call on the mother’s part.
Right after the mom spoke, I turned to my mom and said, “I bet they cut that line from the movie. Can you imagine the backlash if that line was still in? The Cohen Brothers would be attacked by the SPCA every other Cat Lovers MeetUp group from Los Angeles to New York.”
Well, not that I am even sure the Cohen Brothers would actually care, but that first part of the story was cut out all together. Mattie gets the audience up to date with a thirty, and cat-throwing-free, retell of the beginning of the story. The movie opens with Mattie and her servant viewing father in his casket.
One of the first lessons we get as fiction writers is to “write freely” and to not censor ourselves. But what if we create a character who says, quite naturally, “You could throw a cat through the south wall”? What if our character can’t help but refer to that strange man in her building as “retarded”? What about all those teenage characters who still use “gay” as a negative?
I know that my fingers have halted over the keyboard whenever I sense a character going into non PC territory. I stop. I ruminate. I worry.
But then I remember something Flannery O’Connor (my hero) said. After a book review editor accused her of “scandalizing the ‘little ones,’ Flannery, a devout Catholic, sought advice from her priest. After musing over it a bit, she comes to this conclusion:
When you write a novel, if you have been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business . . .
I’m not Catholic, so I tend to substitute “Universe” for “God.” But the meaning is still the same. When we write honestly, we have no need to censor, to worry. Let the Universe handle it.
By writing honestly I mean writing without an agenda. A few years ago I read the fiction submissions for an online journal. I often came across stories that had the writer’s personal beliefs all over it: this writer hates men; this writer is a card-carrying member of the NRA; this writer thinks global warming is a myth; this writer is pro-choice. It comes out in the characters, which are typically presented as one-dimensional. And the plots usually conclude with these characters either happily learning from their mistakes, or suffering because they failed to learn their lesson.
Another lesson we learn in fiction writing is to make our characters “real.” Real people are never one-dimensional. Real people are contradictory, possessing both positive and negative qualities.
Understanding the complete picture by fleshing out your characters and discovering their past, helps to create a ‘whole view of things.’ “The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.” (O’Connor)
Here’s how to get a whole view of things:
- Follow your characters around all day and take notes about what they do and how they do it.
- Interview your character’s family members, their coworkers and neighbors.
- Make a list of their vital statistics: birthdate, address, income level, education, etc.
- Fill out a job application for you character, or an E-Harmony or Match. Com profile. (Don’t actually do this–make a real page for a fictional person – they frown on that.)
Whenever I go through this list with students, I usually hear a few groans. Yes, it is a lot of work but if you care about the people you are writing about, it should be enjoyable, not a chore. And please don’t expect to use everything you discover in your final draft. The key is to make the reader believe that you, the writer, know more about this person than you are revealing on the page.
So, getting back to the woman in the building and her strange neighbor, she may call him “retarded,” but she also volunteers at the homeless shelter three times a week, and spends the other four days delivering library books to the homebound. Or she was raised in a family where the term was used with endearment: “Come here you cute little re-tard!”
Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn because he has “true grit.” She wants someone who will hunt down her father’s killer with a fearless vengeance. As writers, we need to have the same sort of fearlessness when we explore our characters. What we discover will surprise, shock and delight us, and our readers too.
Quotes from, Flannery O’Connor; Spiritual Writings. Edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.