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?