How Far is Too Far?

I have opinions!

I have strong opinions. That must come as a complete shock to those who know me, but I do.

I also feel torn sometimes between what I believe and what I used to believe. We’re human and our opinions can change based on life experience. As we grow older, sometimes those thoughts mellow and soften or they harden us to other people’s views.

As writers, do you have characters with strong beliefs and opinions or do you end up deleting them so as not to offend half of your readership? And if you do that, are you being true to your characters? Shouldn’t they have views on religion and politics? Shouldn’t they have enough depth of character to feel things strongly?

I’m torn here. I write YA (Young Adult), and I hesitate sometimes to put in a comment about race, religion or politics. I hesitate because I don’t want to put my own views out there to be criticized. I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to brainwash teens. I don’t want to be censored.

Yet, isn’t that what I really want? Down deep? To make people think and feel? To make them question?

I went to a Christian high school that taught creation over evolution, and this made my grandfather furious. He talked to me about the history of the world and the age of fossils and bones that clearly proved evolution, but when I asked questions in class I was considered rebellious.

When I went to a Reformed Presbyterian college, I ended up flunking my papers in Bible class because I dared to oppose the teacher’s ideas on modern topics. The first F was on a paper about abortion where I argued against Operation Rescue.  But I had a friend who just had an abortion, and I couldn’t in good conscience approve calling her a murderer–or anyone else, for that matter. He didn’t much appreciate my stance on just about anything. And he didn’t particularly like calling on me in discussion group either. Go figure.

But, I was young and curious and shouldn’t we want that of everybody? Isn’t questioning how we learn?

I’m in a bit of a quandary with my latest manuscript. Religion and gay rights play powerful roles, but I think that’s part of my problem with writing this. I don’t want to offend anyone, but how can I not? How can I not write what I feel? How can I not be in support of allowing people to be who they are? Whether they are conservative or liberal or moderate? And why do we feel that need to label?

I’ve lived life from both views. I’ve gone to Pro-Life rallies as a teen before I barely kissed a boy, before I could identify with the topic in any form. I’ve worn the little baby feet on my shirt that shows the life of a baby at months old. I’ve also made the case that abortion was murder. Until I met people who have had them. My own mom, for one. Friends in college. And you soften. Your heart softens to other people who have led a different life than yours.

That’s what I want. For people to soften their hearts. To not stand in judgment. Let that be for God. For whatever God you choose. Or no God, if that’s also your choice.

I’ve decided to write my teenage characters and their parents as I believe they should be written, and if people don’t appreciate that, it’s fine. But I think that to do otherwise makes them cardboard characters with no depth. They wouldn’t be true, and wouldn’t that be just as bad? To not be true to the characters? When their voice is silenced, when we censor them before they even get on the page, are we being true to the story? To ourselves?  To our own voice?

What about you? What do you think? How far is too far?

38 thoughts on “How Far is Too Far?

  1. Ooohhh tough one! I think one of the hardest things in life for me to accept is that there are some people who no matter what you do, say or prove with substantial evidence, will NEVER, EVER change their opinions. You have to accept that and move on. But it’s damn frustrating! Ultimately, I think you should let your characters be true to who they are. Big smoochies! 😉

    1. I think being true to the characters is most important. I’m not about changing people’s viewpoints as I am about softening them. 🙂

  2. My book that’s coming out in Spring of 2015 is about the imagined effects of long-term sex-selective abortion. Is it going to make some people angry? Hell yes. Is it going to make some people question my own politics? Absolutely. Is it going to make teenagers (and grown-up readers) think about both sides of this issue? I certainly hope so.

    I understand why writers want to please everyone, but I think that would be a disservice to your readers, your story and yourself. We put our names on our books for a reason: they are OUR stories.

    1. Hellooooo, Holly! 🙂
      I actually thought about you when I wrote this post this morning. I’m so excited to read your book. I think it’s great to get a discussion going about any issue. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t. That’s human nature. We should think about life in someone else’s shoes.

  3. Great topic!

    For the record, no, I don’t shy away from politics in my own writing, although the extent to which I get into it will vary from book to book. I take a very light touch with my younger teen mysteries (although I did manage to enrage one reviewer who thought I was saying that all police are racist when really all I was doing was spoofing Sheriff Joe Arpaio — the crazy Arizona sheriff who is infamous for his controversial actions and viewpoints), and get more into it with my books for older teens and adults.

    If that offends readers, so be it. I think its a real disservice if you try to make your stories so bland that they are completely devoid of controversy.

    1. Thank you, Amanda! I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve read books where I disagree with the stance, but it’s so well-written and with such passion that I can see that point of view even though I don’t personally agree.

  4. Wow. Great topic Kim. It’s a tough choice, not even with controversial subjects, but nuanced ones. Do you write within the lines, in hopes of getting published, or do you take a chance, understanding it may be harder to get a book out. Sometimes, brigher colors are better than beige. So go forth and offend. At least you’ll get people talking. And then again, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.. 🙂

    1. Too true, Masha. Even coloring inside the lines can be boring for kids. That’s why they start creating their own pictures. 🙂
      I think we should all take chances in life–whether it’s career, personal or artistic. Especially when it’s a combination of all three. Like writers.

  5. Great post, Kim! I absolutely agree with everything that’s been said. Knowledge should never be offensive, and the best way to learn about an unfamiliar view is through story — whether it is through a novel or an anecdote. I read recently that people’s eyes glaze over when presented with a statistic, no matter how horrific. But turn the statistic into the story of an individual, and you have people’s attention. So I absolutely support your decision to be true to your characters. Even if some of your readers may not share your characters’ viewpoints, if they can relate to the character, they will relate to the plight. And then, maybe some of that softening you talk about will occur.

    This sounds like a story that needs to be written! 🙂

    1. Pintip,
      Thanks for your continued support on this subject. I know you think it’s a story that needs to be written. You’re missing your sprinting partner. Lol.
      That’s too true about statistics and a personal story. People connect with people, not numbers or facts.

    1. It is scary how much they know, Mary Jo.
      That’s fun to have your secondary characters voice their opinions. The only problem with my story is that it’s told in first person present, and the issue directly affects her. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Thanks, Kim, for a thoughtful article on an emotional topic. You definitely need to write your characters’ opinions. If you enrage people, so be it. Be sure, though, that your characters are *honest* in their opinions, and the opinions support the story. If you can achieve that – an honest story with honest characters who are true to themselves, not necessarily to *you* – you will have achieved the best in your writing.

    Good luck!

    1. It’s separating my views from my character’s views that’s the problem. Lol. Seriously though…I think it is an honest representation of views that many teenagers would have. They are way more honest and open-minded than adults anyway. At least I’ve found that to be true. 🙂

  7. You know I wrote a completely different response and just deleted it – why? I wasn’t answering your question. I have only one story (so far) where I am diving into topics of race, politics and social stereotyping (but oddly, it’s a post-apocalyptic vampire story:). So although my other stories include R-rated attitudes on promiscuity and sex in general, I also pair characters of different races, etc., but my stories are not ABOUT those subjects. I also don’t believe any one writer can please every reader – that’s impossible. But as long as the story and the characters are researched (I believe in authenticity – and have learned its importance the hard way – a rejection letter that pointed to that as the reason the story didn’t work for that agent:)…Okay, I’m starting to ramble. I could go on and on about on the questions you present here – but bottom line…I am thrilled you plan on writing the book you want to write and when it sells argue with your editor to keep every word you’ve written! Excellent post, Kimberly. Excellent.

    1. Let’s hope it gets in front of an editor. 🙂 Many types of books have dealt with controversial issues, and you always have some readers that love it and some that hate it, but I guess if you’ve made someone feel something that strongly, you’re doing something right. 🙂

  8. You really got me thinking this morning, Kim, about what makes or breaks a controversial story. For me, it’s not so much the subject matter as the presentation. I’ve found that even if I agree with an author 100%, I can’t stand being preached to. It is a talent for the writer to show a story, and then let the reader decide how to take it, rather than be told what they should think — like an automaton — love this character, hate that character, get this message, agree with this POV. I get so annoyed with stereotypical characters or ideologies, and the sacrificing of one character or ideology to build up another. People are very complex and rarely fit in neat little boxes, no matter how much we may want them to. Neither are they entirely good or bad, regardless of their belief system. I love stumbling onto a character that I find repulsive only to be shown another piece that makes me rethink my first assumption. Great post!

    1. Kim, this is such an important post. I so admire you for being open to and curious about big issues like abortion, politics and religion from a young age. Characters should be true to themselves, to lay out their opinions (and be fluid in forming those opinions), free to question what they’ve been told. We don’t live in a black-and-white world, and our stories are richer if we allow our characters to fully explore all the shades of this world. And that extends to real life too!

      Fabulous post! I can’t wait to read the book that sparked it.

      1. Love that we should have our characters “fully explore all the shades of this world.” So, so great! Thanks for taking time out to visit. 🙂

    2. Kari,
      I agree 100%. There’s a fine line between making a point and preaching to someone. I hope I never across as preachy. I hate that! Partly because being preached to always ruffled my feathers. And I apparently had lots of feathers. Lol.
      People don’t fit into neat boxes. That’s so, so true!

  9. This is a terrific topic. I think as writers we have a duty to be true to ourselves. In my book Last Chance Christmas I decided to tackle the topics of bullying and prejudice. I was worried when I turned in the manuscript that my editor and publisher were going to give me a hard time about these topics because I write stories that are supposed to be heart warming.

    My editor said not one word about the topics I chose for this book. And I think it was because I made the topics part of the story I was trying to tell.

    It was not easy to tackle these issues. I worked very hard not to be preachy. Some of the characters in this book are extremely bigoted. Others are fence sitters. And others are very passionate about injustice. This puts these characters into conflict and isn’t that what makes a story? I don’t write YA, but in this particular story I had a teenager who teaches her elders the meaning of tolerance.

    So I say you should go with your heart on this, but be careful to make sure that the issues you tackle really are part of the story you’re telling.

    1. Hope,
      I actually love when teenagers or kids teach adults the meaning of tolerance. Sort of like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. We all have much to learn about life and love and acceptance. The issues in my book ARE the story. Just have to finish telling it now…

  10. I agree with everyone, I’m afraid, because this is a really important topic, Kim. You can’t shy away from difficult subjects. What kind of lesson would be we be teaching our children if we did? I’ve always had the difficult discussions with my kids — sex, drinking, drugs and religion (we have slightly differing views within my own home and definitely among our friends — not something to shy away from, but something beautiful to explore and discuss, or so I’ve taught my kids). I’ve been open with me and I expect them to be open with me.
    Likewise, I’m open in my writing. I thought long and hard before I wrote my short story on Lilith, Adam’s first wife. I deal with that myth as it is a part of Judaism (my personal faith) because I find it absolutely fascinating. And I pose an odd concept at the end of the story — is this the first and only world Gd created? I want to not only entertain my readers, but make them think as well — just as my rabbi did when he posed the concept to me and my congregation.
    I say go for it!
    And if you’re interested in Lilith, my short story “In A Beginning” is available everywhere. 🙂

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Meredith! I agree completely with everything you’ve said. I also have a very open relationship with both my mom and my kids, and I hope that it will make a difference with how all of us view the world and issues. I don’t necessarily want to shy away from the difficult issues, but I want to make sure I’m being true to the characters.
      I would love to read your short story. It sounds fabulous!

  11. Kim, you wrote a really honest post here which is so brave and I really appreciate that. Remember last Saturday when Alma told us not to protect our characters from the pitfalls in our stories? I think that’s because they have to go through those things in order to be changed. The same thing applies to us as readers. I don’t think we should try and protect our readers from real issues either. Was it Janet Evanovich who Alma quoted as saying, “When writing, don’t hold anything back for the next book.” Don’t go easy on us, we want your story in its entirety. Thank you for this post 🙂

    1. Thanks, Carlene! I do think that it’s important to see that characters can change. And sometimes those changes occur IN SPITE of our upbringing. Many times the hardest thing to do is to oppose members of your family and your own views. But, that’s what life is all about. Learning and growing and being willing to see another side of life.

  12. Regardless of your social/political/religious stances, you will find an audience. Some will come to ridicule, some to applaud, some to champion, and some will be ambivalent. You have to be true to your own view of your characters and the world they live in. Not everyone will (or should be expected to) agree or be moved by your depictions and narrative.

    When people are exploring awful depravities of humanity (sex trafficking, torture, rape, pedophilia, bestiality, etc.) in literature how can exploring social/political/religious nuances of life be going too far?

    1. I agree. And I think our literature for teens today has taken many gigantic steps towards teens accepting themselves and others in a world that isn’t usually so forgiving. As they are the next generation, I find some comfort in that.

  13. Hi, Kim. Great post!
    For me as a reader it’s all about the emotion. So I say, challenge me to the max to think and feel. The best books are the ones that made me laugh and cry and say, Wow I’ve never thought about that.
    And as long as you haven’t as you said “stood in judgement” of a topic then I’ll be a happy reader.

    1. Jacqui,
      Thanks so much for visiting! I think it’s important to get people thinking and to actually reserve judgment. Just feel and identify–even with the people we never thought we could understand. That’s the key.

  14. Hey Kim!
    Wonderful post as always. I think the old saying, “Walk a mile in his shoes….” Is so true. Life is about choices and people make them for different reasons based on their past experiences, or lack thereof. I think almost any subject can be addressed as long as the reader is allowed to take the journey along with the character. In the end the reader might not agree with the character’s views entirely, but might become more empathetic because they were allowed to see and feel what life is like from that character’s viewpoint.

    I find people fascinating, even the mean ones. Especially the mean ones. I always want to know what has happened in their past to make them that way. So I’m always game to read a POV different from mine, as long as I’m allowed to know the whole truth about a character.

    Looking forward to reading this new story. Do I have to wait for the Brenda Novak auction again to get the chance? ;0) (It’d be cheaper to just send it to me. Just sayin’)

    1. Tammy! Tammy! 🙂
      I think walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is very important. Sorta like my last character, huh? 🙂 No, you don’t have to wait until the next Brenda Novak auction, but you do have to wait until I actually WRITE the thing. 🙂 I’m planning to get back to the book today since it’s rainy and gloomy and dreary.
      When are you coming to DC???

  15. I really think as an author you are always going to offend someone. You’ll name your dog and a reader will be offended because that’s the name of the SOB who ruined their life. If you’re going to offend anyway, pick something you believe in. Write what life has taught you. Because one way or the other, someone, somewhere is going to take offense. Period.

    Your voice will be authentic if you write what you believe in, what you know, what you have experience with.

    1. Thanks, Maureen! I appreciate that comment. You’re so right. I think that if you write what you believe in strongly, it will usually resonate with your characters, and through them, to the reader. At least I hope so. 🙂

  16. If you have a character reflecting on her beliefs and wrestling with what she thinks is right, that gives her a lot of depth. What I object to is when an author makes snide remarks about opposing political views, no doubt assuming that anyone with any sense will surely agree with her. I find that both offensive and puzzling. Doesn’t the author want people with opposing political views to read her work? Why would she want to limit her audience? I’ve stopped reading well known authors after they have made remarks like that. My point is that it all depends on how you present it. A character grappling with her conscience is good. Just be sensitive to all sides and show that there could be merit in differing views.

    1. I agree completely. I also find that annoying! It’s like going to a concert to enjoy the music only to hear them spout their political views to a captive audience. Even though many times I might agree with their view, having it shoved down my throat is just too much. I think everyone should wrestle with their beliefs because that shows thought. It shows that you know that there are two sides to a story, and you can be sympathetic to someone who may not be in your exact shoes.
      Thanks for dropping by!

  17. Let’s face it–even if you write a book that has no controversy in it, some people will love it and some will hate it and both may be very vocal about it. So even if you aim to put out a book that offends no one, you will offend someone! It won’t be to their liking.
    What on earth are our books for if not to challenge people’s thinking–about ourselves, the decisions we make, our views of ourselves and others. A world with more tolerance and kindness is a better world and I as a writer want a part in making it that way.
    I just listened to Meg Cabot’s Teen Idol on audio. What a great book. In it the heroine, a high school girl we can all relate to, learns she is great at smoothing things over with everyone and allows injustices to pass by so she doesn’t offend anyone. By the end of the book she gets the courage to stand up for several people being persecuted–she really shakes it up!
    Kristin Higgins in The Best Man has got a major character who is gay and you cannot help but adore this man. Tracy Brogan does too in Crazy Little Thing.
    I say be bold and change the world!
    Thanks for a great topic, Kim!

    1. Thanks so much, Miranda! I agree that writers offend just by writing. Some people like the story and some people don’t. I love when someone–especially a teen–takes a stand for someone whose views may be different but they can be sympathetic and supportive anyway. I’ve read both of the books you mentioned, and I loved them both. Hopefully people can become a little less judgmental with time and a little more understanding.
      Thanks for stopping by! 😉

Comments are closed.