Sunday, February 26, 2012

ROW80 - Playing With Prejudice, Playing With Fire?

This is the segment of the week that I work mostly on art and layout. I stretched the issue this week by also working on formatting a PD magazine from And I put more energy into blogging than I meant to.

One of the reasons I spent time blogging, though, was because Friday's post about The Scarlet Pimpernel reminded me of a specific issue with a politically incorrect scene. See my thoughts below the update.

A Round Of Words In 80 Days Sunday Update

Wednesday Day 52 - 61 minutes. Working on a conversion of a 1915 copy of The Strand. I think I might publish a story or two on the Daring Adventures blog. The copies they have available at are horribly horribly unedited -- just raw OCR completely uncleaned up. I might start with the story whence came the illustration in my header, just for fun.

Thursday Day 53 - 60 minutes. Finishing up the drawing, for use in Friday's post about Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Friday Day 54 - 80 minutes. Joan Crawford's eyes. They came out looking a little more like Gloria Swanson's eyes, though.

Saturday Day 55 - 34 minutes. Today was migraine day. It took a while to get going, so I wrote in the journal, and also did a little writing on today's post. I realized the subject was a little big for a quick post. May do more work on similar subjects later. I had more energy once the aspirin and tylenol kicked in, but I was still kind of groggy and non-verbal, so I spend most of the afternoon, after errands, sorting through hundreds of my paperbacks. My basement office is a major catastrophe, and I think I need to spend an hour or so a day dealing with it.

It was only late evening when I sat down to start writing again. Though I only did a half hour or so, I did get 750 words done. So preparation can double your writing speed. (We'll see if it holds.)

Stereotypes as Red Herrings

There is one scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel that offends everybody. It involves a dirty old sniveling cowardly Jew. Orczy was annoyed that people were offended, because the character in question turned out to be only playing on the prejudice of the viewpoint character -- the villain, Chauvelin. So that made it okay, right?

The problem is that it wasn't just one character playing on another character's prejudice: it was treated as a twist. Which would work if you don't expect the audience to believe in the reality of the scene. And that implies that the offensive stereotype must be considered ordinary and believable.

It reminds me a little bit of the previews for the movie Shallow Hal. That movie sounded like one with good intentions: it was about a shallow man who judged people by appearances (particularly women) and who was cursed to see only inner beauty. Except he didn't realize what he was seeing, so when he meets a plain, overweight woman, he sees a beautiful thin woman.

The problem was that they didn't cast a plain overweight woman in the part, or treat her with respect. No, they cast Cameron Diaz (correction, make that Gwenyth Paltrow) and then used that as an excuse to dump every rotten offensive "fat girl" pratfall in the book on her. Because, hey, it was okay to make fun of a thin, beautiful woman, right?

If they had cast an overweight actress in the part, it would not have been funny. It would have been cruel. So the result was, even though they supposedly had good intentions, it came off as an excuse to be worse than you could get away with normally.

Playing with expectations is one of the best things we do as writers. We draw the readers in with what they believe, and then delight them with surprises. When you add something which might offend to the mix, it confuses the issue: are you playing with what you think they believe (i.e. playing down to the audience)? Or are you raising tension by making them fear that what they don't believe is true?

It might help uncloud the issue by taking offensiveness out of the picture and just going with unpleasantness:

I'm re-reading a book right now (I shall not tell you the title for fear of spoilers) which has a murderer as one of the main viewpoint characters. Actually, a pair of murderers. And they are sweet and fluffy and you'd like to like them. But the fact that they've plotted this cold blooded murder could be enough to make this book not appeal to cozy readers. I mean, that's a very dark element in an otherwise rather light story, and it makes their likeability seem a little creepy... until the big reveal later on: they hadn't been able to go through with the murder. They were as nice and likeable as one thought.

It's a wonderful source of tension for the story, but I know people who read the first couple of chapters and say "No, I don't like that kind of story." You can tell them it's not that kind of story, but unless you reveal a spoiler, they don't believe you -- because they don't like stories about cold-blooded killers.

Here are two things that a writer should think about, if you want to use something disagreeable as a red herring so you can spring a pleasant surprise on the reader:

1.) Consider letting the reader in on it. That way it doesn't feel creepy, like you expect the audience to like what you're doing. The surprise can be in how you pull it off, it can be on another character. You can even have the effort backfire on the character in the story.

2.) If you feel you must keep your audience in the dark, imagine the scene were real, and there was no twist waiting behind it. Imagine handing just that scene, by itself, to a Jewish actor, or to an overweight actress - no explanation, no context - and imagine how they would react to being asked to play that part.

In the case of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the filmmakers cut that scene altogether, and inserted another scene where Sir Percy is cheering on a boxer with a Jewish name.

Attitudes of a century or more ago were often offensive, especially in popular fiction. I'm reading a lot of works of the era at the moment. Often they seem quaint or silly -- especially with some elements of the sexism -- but sometimes it's downright shocking. And it's hard to tell if you're getting the same read on a story; was it meant to be shocking? If a character uses the N-word, is it meant to say something about the character, or does it just say something about the author?

I'll talk about this more in a later post. (Haven't got it written, so I don't know when.) In the meantime....

See you in the funny papers.


Audrey Tomorrow said...

Gwenyth Paltrow was the "fat chick"...

God, I wish I could draw... then at least if I wasn't writing I could be contributing to my novel... harassing an artsy-friend to donate her talents to my characters :P

Gene Lempp said...

Good steady progress is the key and you are doing well on that front. Your comment about your office made me look around mine - and now I realize I haven't cleaned in a few, um, months. Happy cleaning, you'll have company with that task today.

Have a great week :)

Ali Dent said...

You said, " And it's hard to tell if you're getting the same read on a story; was it meant to be shocking? If a character uses the N-word, is it meant to say something about the character, or does it just say something about the author?"

Our literature club of high school students asks this kind of question very often. There are so many reasons an author might include shocking things. I like to consider what the story would be without the shocker? Would we be brought into the world of the story without it? I think shocking things are on purpose. Maybe there are writers who include it for the shock value only, I'm not sure, but many are purposefully leading us some where and they are doing it with good intentions. That's my take on it any way.

Your goals are admirable and I really like the way you think through things in your posts. Good week to you!

The Daring Novelist said...

Audrey: thanks for the correction. Oh, and even when you can draw, the hardest thing of all is drawing what's in your head. It can drive you nuts when it comes out not looking right.

Gene: yeah, I've got my work cut out for me with that office. It's a junk storage room too. But one of the reasons I'm doing this is that cleaning and rearranging is good physical activity, and I don't get enough of that.

Ali: yes, that's true of most _literature_ you'd read, but when you're reading popular fiction, very often they didn't mean to make the audience react the way people would now. And that's the reason why so much of it is practically lost.

In a lot of cases, if a story did make it out of the popular magazine into an anthology, the writer and editor would clean it up, even. I do want to talk more about this later on. It's interesting, and since I'm thinking about bringing some of these old stories to light.

Morgan Dragonwillow said...

Good luck cleaning your office, I seriously need to clean my work area as well. I think it is time I did another purge of stuff.

Good Job with your goals, love your drawing and I do see Joan Crawford in those eyes.


Sarah McCabe said...

So, these two characters seriously planned out a cold blooded murder but failed to carry it out and so they are sweet and likeable? I'm sorry, but just the planning of a murder is enough to make a character repulsive to me.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Morgan!

Sarah: then it doesn't matter how they handle it -- surprise or not.

You know, though, cozies used to be much more sophisticated than they are now. They used to have stories of redemption in them, stories where characters might have their backs against the wall, or be foolish or deluded, but when the time comes to commit to their choices, they realize what's wrong, and grow.

Usually, though, such stories show us characters who have not committed to their wrong choices yet -- at least not the worst of them. The problem with the story in question is that it hides the redemption story.

In many ways the story in question works, because it appears to be a little darker than it is. However, if you can't get past that, you can't get to the buried story of character growth.