By Wendy Lawton
I was reading a fiction manuscript last week that quickly described a character as a cripple. I winced when I read the word and stopped to think about why I had such an immediate revulsion. After all, it was historical fiction and the word was appropriate for the era and for the culture. As I processed my reaction, I settled on several reasons why we need to avoid labels, even commonly used labels.
Labels distract and pull us out of the story.
Case in point, I was reading along, caught up in the story, but when the label appeared, I stopped, stepped out of the story and began to consider the device of using a quick character label. Not a good experience for a reader. John Gardner wrote in an essay, titled Crafting Fiction: In Theory, In Practice: “If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind… By detail, the writer achieves vividness; to make the scene continuous, he takes pains to avoid anything that might distract the reader…”.
A quick character label is often lazy writing.
We’ve heard “show, don’t tell” ever since we first started writing. A character label, instead of an appealing character description, cheats the reader of that “rich and vivid play in the mind.” While a writer’s goal should be to create a fully developed character, giving that character a quick label, especially a long-abandoned label, cements a picture in the reader’s mind that grows out of his own, sometimes subconscious notions. Even if the writer develops the character more fully as the book progresses, those prejudices remain.
We are all more complex than a label.
I have a longtime friend who has Bipolar Disorder. I asked her how long she had been successfully dealing with the disorder. Rather than answer, she thanked me for understanding that it was a disorder, apart from her. She said so many people will simply say, “She is bipolar.” How sad, to sum up a wonderfully complex person in a single limiting label and wrap it in a bow. We are all so much more than the labels people may put on us. Your characters are as well.
Of course, labels can be effective coming out of the mouth of a character.
Some of your characters will label people with cringe-worthy words, and that is necessary to show their character, so I’m not saying labels should not be used in dialogue. One of the antagonists may say of the boy walking with a crutch, “He’s just a cripple.” That is not the writer saying it, and by the time it is said, the reader probably has already seen the whole character and realizes how little the label fits. There are some words, however, that are so loaded with pain they can never be used, even by a character, even if historically correct, without bringing censure on the writer.
Reject the labels that come with baggage.
There are so many labels that come with baggage. We could go on listing them ad infinitum. But labels that have been used as slurs immediately come to mind. Each ethnic group has suffered derogatory names– it’s easy to avoid these. But there are also cultural tropes that have become ugly cliches: Irishmen and drinking, Jewish people and money, Southern folk and prejudice. . . sweeping generalizations that add nothing to the creation of unique, fully-developed characters.
Is this just infusing “political correctness” into our writing?
No. That is a whole other discussion. This is about creatively drawing our characters and avoiding the easy label. But even more it reminds me of what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “Be kind and compassionate to one another. . .” (Ephesians 4:32). Even to characters who walk through our books.
So, what do you think?
If you know me by my trope
why bother to know me?
Why take the time to see the scope
of all that I might be?
You can Photoshop my face
to closer fit the label,
and you can put me in my place
to keep your worldview stable.
If you pigeonhole a man
and further clip his wings
he surely won’t upset your plan
with dire and wondrous things.
And the only thing you’ll have sacrificed
is another view of Christ.
Oh, Andrew. How appropriate and how sensitive. When we learn to see the image (no matter how fuzzy) of Christ in others, we enrich our own lives enormously. Praying for a good day today.
Excellent post, Wendy. I juggle this all the time. I write Roman-era, where the three broad classes were Roman citizen, non-Roman free people, and slaves for whom the legal term was “mortal thing.” Slaves were considered “talking tools” and often treated as nothing more than work animals with voices. It’s impossible to write with historical accuracy while avoiding the negative attitudes of that kind of world. But I still try to capture the full humanity of every character, even the secondary ones, and to show that nobility is a matter of personal choices, not assigned place in the social system.
Great post, Wendy. I need to be more intentional about stopping to figure out why something pulls me out of the story when that happens.
When I was a teacher, I attended a class that was to help learn how to better interact with people who have special needs. One of the things that was shared was what you did…mentioning the person apart from the disability/disorder they deal with. I’ve tried to think about people as individuals rather than as being defined by a disability. I like how you pointed out the do’s and don’t’s of using certain labels (i.e. in dialogue), and in never using other labels/stereotypes.
You’ve got me thinking. Thank you!
Thank you, Wendy, for this warning about shortcuts. We need to beware of taking the lazy man’s way out.
We should show rather than tell, right? Isn’t character labeling a gross violation of this Prime Directive? I allow the paranoia, psychopathy, or narcissism of any characters so-affected to emerge as part of the narrative, as we would experience such things “in real life.”
Sarah Loudin Thomas
A dear friend of mine taught me an important lesson about labels. Her missionary parents served a leper colony. One day in Sunday School we talked about Jesus healing a leper. She jumped in and said it would be much better to say Jesus healed a man with leprosy so that we put the human being first and the disease second. I try to remember that–a boy who is crippled–a woman with a disability–a friend suffering from mental illness . . . It certainly shifted my way of thinking and I hope infuses my writing.
I write a humorous series set during WWII about an eccentric, elderly woman who sees herself as self-appointed sleuth and exposer of conspiracies and Nazi spies. She uses slang to describe the enemy in terms that would not be acceptable today, but to portray her personality and the slang of the time, it completes her character. To not use time-era terms would detract from the story and become PC. I would never do that in a story during current times, but I think in historical fiction, it is appropriate if it depicts the terms of the time.
Thanks, Wendy. This is excellent advice for writing and life!
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! If we take the time to give characters the subtlety and complexity of the real people around us, then we can be confident that our writing will shine true rather than be demeaning or trite.