Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Flannery Factor

“Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.

-Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

I don't pretend to be a top-notch novelist who's got it all down--not even close. However, I whole heartedly agree with Ms. O'Connor. In the few short stories I've written, I've found that it is impossible to accurately portray real life without "getting your hands dirty."

I have standards about how far I will cross the line. It's inappropriate to spell some things out in detail for the reader, and not to detriment of the novel. Gratuitous anything is not how I roll (Some call this pusillanimity. Man, you really can't make everyone happy, huh?).

The moment I embraced this as my writing philosophy: I was plugging away at a short story about a young married couple torn between a life-and-death decision. Their views conflict. Both are convinced their side is right.

Since the story deals with two very difficult topics--abortion and cancer--I didn't want to water down the couple's emotions. As I composed the dialogue of their definitive, all-out fight, I came across a line in which my character would inevitably curse. I mean, really. It was big-time stuff, and my characters aren't southern baptist. Puzzled, I looked up at Chris and said, "Uh, my character needs to cuss, but I'm not sure if I should put it in there. I don't want to make anyone mad." Chris said something simple, along the lines of, "Well, that's real life, isn't it?"

It dawned on me, why, yes, it is. When people sugarcoat life and tell someone everything's going to be hunky-dory, and the truth is that it probably won't be, they become disillusioned, disappointed and bitter.

This real-life approach does not preclude purposeful and hopeful endings, no matter what Thomas Hobbes says. ;) I strive to close all my stories with hope, because I believe that hope always exists in reality.

So, there you have it: my potentially controversial writing philosophy. I'm not a fan of offending people, so I hope no one is offended. However, you can tell I've lived with Chris for eight months because I will not rescind even if someone is.

Anyhoo, dear reader, let me know what you think. If you don't want to leave a comment here, you may send it to me telepathically.

In fact, that might be a lot more fun...


  1. I so wish I could send this to you telepathically.... Alas...

    Not offended. :) It's good to be real.

  2. Did you grimace when you wrote the "cuss"? haha.

  3. I got a little behind on my blog reading.

    Cussing.. I'm all for it!
    Okay, in seriousness...

    Cussing, cursing, swearing, all the like whatever you want to call it, is real. I'd be a liar if I said I have never wanted to swear. Frankly, I'd be a liar if I told you that I have never cussed. (I once heard a comedian say, "Slamming doors is like cussing with inanimate objects.") So, Christians mess it up, too. Yes, it is real.

    I once read a series of books where the main character was a Christian (actually, there weren't many who weren't after a certain point), and they were all sickly sweet, "never a cross word" type. I dealt with a tolerable amount, but somewhere in the 4th book, I simply put it down. To this day, I'm not sure how the crazed bad guy met his cumuppance. And I don't wish to dive back in to find out.

    Because it wasn't real. (Yeah, yeah, fiction isn't real.) It wasn't relatable. Not one page.

    I've also heard stories where main characters were angry at each other and every fourth word was the fbomb. Or, even better, they weren't even angry. More real? Perhaps. Good writing? Eh... I tend not to think so.

    My favorites are characters who have relatable quirks and can banter or even get mad at each other, and swearing is handled one of two ways.

    One, you can believe that the character is not afraid to swear, but they don't see a need to until the tension winds really tight and then they let out a few choice words, the right words for the right effect, and don't go on a long ranting "I'm trying to sound tough" foul word scream fit.

    And two, the character may or may not be prone to cussing, but when they do, it is described in a way that the reader can't actually 'hear' what is being said. I used this one in my own novel. One of my favorite examples is somewhere in the Harry Potter series. It says something like this: "Then he said something that made Hermione say, "Ron!"" Don't know what it was, but it was a doozy.

    Generally I think a good rule of thumb is to use cussing like one would use rationed salt.


Talk to me, or send via telepathy. But don't be rude!

Personal attacks, trolling, spam and anonymous posts will be deleted.