Years ago, I wrote a story that included one character who was crass, uncouth, racist and sexist. He was a minor character, making one brief appearance.
I gave the story to a few friends, and one of them came back to me upset. He said, “Hey, I liked this, and I shared it with a friend at work. She pulled me aside after reading it and said, ‘Your friend who wrote this is a racist, and you should stop hanging out with him immediately. You should never speak to this person again.'”
That really caught me off guard. I never considered that anyone would read the story that way. And just for some background, the character was ignorant and thoroughly unlikable, casually using the N word on one occasion. The friend to whom I gave the story was black, and his coworker who said I was racist was white.
I’ve written stories with characters who are French, characters who are psychotic, and characters who are stupid. But no one has ever inferred from those that I am French, psychotic, or stupid. So why would someone infer that I’m racist simply because one minor character made some racist comments?
Because I didn’t punish the character. That’s why.
There’s a certain temperament, peculiar to the American mind, that cannot tolerate moral ambiguity. You might remember the old Seinfeld episode called The Outing that deals with the characters’ discomfort with the topic of homosexuality. In that episode, every time a character mentions homosexuality, they end their statement with the words “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Why do they keep saying that? Because homosexuality is an uncomfortable issue for them, and if they don’t explicitly reassure each other of their moral stance on the issue, then the topic becomes too uncomfortable.
Mainstream American literature and film often portray characters as being on either the right side or the wrong side of a moral issue. The character on the wrong side is often loaded up with despicable traits just to make sure the audience knows how they should feel about him. For example, if a character is sexist, he might also be a rapist and a child molester and a Klansman, just so the audience can be sure they should hate him.
Then the bad guy gets it in the end, and we all feel vindicated. Think, for example, of the old Dirty Harry movies, where the more we learn about the bad guy, the more despicable he is. The exposition of the bad guy’s moral depravity is just foreplay leading up to the orgy of violence at the end, where the bad guy dies a nasty death, and we can all go home feeling how right we were for rooting against him.
The Dirty Harry films present a cartoonish exaggeration of the American audience’s expectation of moral certainty and vindication. They’re moral porn, enforced with guns, but they play to a psychological need that the American audience brings to almost all narrative art forms.
If I had punished the racist character in my story with a violent death, my friend’s coworker might have been reassured that I disapproved of his beliefs. Or if I couldn’t punish that character, perhaps the reader would have liked me to pause the story after his appearance and state explicitly, a la Seinfeld, “there IS something wrong with that.”
But I didn’t do that. I simply left that unpleasant character as one more person in a world that is full of all types of people. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for my friend’s friend.
The author Dorian Box recently had to deal with this issue, when a reviewer of his book Psycho Tropics complained that the author was trying to justify his character’s criminal act. The book, in fact, describes what’s going through the mind of a normal, caring person when he acts out of character and does something really horrible. This character has a strong conscience, and throughout the rest of the book, he suffers from the consequences of this act. He cannot forgive himself, and he punishes himself relentlessly.
In Psycho Tropics, the author does a really good job of exposing the character’s state of mind when he commits the crime. He allows you to see clearly how a good person can do a horrible thing.
It seems to me that the reader who complained about the author “justifying” the crime was uncomfortable with the main character being a good, likable person before the crime and continuing to be a good, likable person after the crime. American literature and film have trained audiences to believe that if a character does something bad, he must be bad, and that an evil act can only be the product of an evil soul. To see a character do something that is clearly wrong and hurtful, and then to not be encouraged to hate that person is confusing for many readers.
It’s even worse if the character is portrayed as a rich, deep, and sympathetic person. When a character is too complex and nuanced to be contained within the judgment that the reader wants to pass, the reader becomes really uncomfortable. This is the kind of ambiguity that many people can’t tolerate. The easiest way out of this discomfort is for the reader to say, “Well, you didn’t explicitly condemn this character, so you must condone them, and I know that’s bad, so I condemn you.” Now the reader has reached what they’ve been aching for: that oh-so-satisfying point of moral certainty. Damn you for not just handing it to them.