Writing bigots as characters

I stumbled across an online conversation about authors creating racist, sexist, or homophobic (etc.) characters, and readers feeling the characters’ views reflect the authors’ views. The argument was that authors should be able to write characters with negative character traits without being labeled as espousing those viewpoints themselves.

First: I absolutely agree with this in principle and in general. Seeing characters like these is one way we work through our feelings on these matters, and it’s a legitimate part of a story to have a character that isn’t perfect (or hell, is downright nasty).

BUT. Sometimes authors forget that there are authors out there who are sexist, homophobic, and/or racist. And when they give those traits to their characters it’s because they do espouse them. It’s understandable that the line can get blurred in a reader’s eyes, and sometimes it’s absolutely right to call out an author for what they’ve put into their work.

The author needs to think to themselves how they can show the distance between themselves and the character. For instance, does anyone challenge the character on their bigotry? Do the character’s viewpoints get them in trouble or have a hand in their downfall? Is the character otherwise portrayed as sympathetic, such that we think we’re supposed to identify with them?

Also, take genre into account. For instance, if a romance protagonist espouses homophobic beliefs and no one calls them on it it’s going to look suspect, because a romance protagonist is expected to be a sympathetic character. In some science fiction on the other hand it might be expected that a story will push the boundaries of what’s comfortable.

So yes, write about characters that have negative beliefs. But if someone tells you that you’re coming off as homophobic, sexist, racist, or otherwise, take that into account. Ask them how and why. Ask them how you can make it clear that it’s the character who holds those viewpoints and not you. Keep in mind that it isn’t their responsibility to educate you. You’re asking them for a favor here. Nor should you, if they can’t give you a good answer, dismiss them out of hand–it’s entirely possible to know that what you’re reading is problematic without knowing why or how to fix it. Be open to learning. Of course there are going to exist some readers who will assume the worst no matter what you do, and if you truly believe this is what’s happening then go ahead and ignore them.

Just remember that they might have a point.

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Short Take: “The Tangled Woods,” Emily Raboteau

Pros: Vivid
Cons: Annoying characters; rambling
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Emily Raboteau’s novella The Tangled Woods (Dark Corners collection) follows a man and his wife and child as they go on vacation together. Reginald is a vicious film critic who wishes he was still young and adventurous, and who is more than unsatisfied at the compromises he’s had to make in his life. He’s sleeping with his teaching assistant, his wife has grown into exactly the kind of person he hates, and his son drives him crazy. He’d rather go vacationing in the wilderness, but his wife has pushed them into going to a lodge where there are lots of activities for their son Thurgood. As he and Thurgood try in vain to solve a wizard’s quest live-action game, Reginald comes into conflict with a few others around him.

The style rambles a bit. A chunk is taken up by a nightmare of Reginald’s, for example, that I felt didn’t contribute that much. All of the characters Reginald encounters are seriously annoying. On the one hand this is partly a case of excellently depicting Reginald’s point of view, but it also makes for a very obnoxious story in a lot of ways. It’s just not much fun reading about all of the most annoying stereotypes of humanity. In particular Reginald is definitely not a likable character, and he isn’t redeemed by anyone else. The writing style is very vivid, which is good–it’s impressive how realistic the annoying people are, but in some ways that just makes reading about them worse.

This is, overall, a well-written story, but it just isn’t what I’m looking for when going for some horror escapism.

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Short Take: “The Remedy,” Adam Haslett

Pros: Almost manages to live up to its high aim
Cons: Doesn’t quite pull it off
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Adam Haslett’s novella The Remedy (Dark Corners collection) is about a young man who can’t seem to find a cure for his physical and mental infirmity. His family is wealthy enough, however, that a friend has referred him to a special clinic and doctor, whose methods he can neither talk about nor explain. The young man visits the new doctor, finds the experience strangely uplifting, and waits to see how the final ‘therapy’ will help him.

The idea that some unique therapy could cure all these people when traditional therapy and medicines has failed is interesting, but it sets up an expectation that the story can’t really live up to. It comes about as close as it can to managing it, leaving some to the imagination, which is really the only way to approach something like this. But of necessity–or we’d have wonderful therapy like this available to us now–the author can’t really convincingly portray the emotional revelations the character goes through, nor the choices he makes along the way. It’s a good story, but it just can’t live up to its high aim.

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Short Take: “Oak Avenue,” Brandi Reeds

Pros: Dark and threatening
Cons: Hard to read; cuts off a bit early
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Brandi Reeds’s Oak Avenue (Dark Corners collection) is a horror novella about a young family that moves into a historical house in the country. Unexplained things start happening to Anastasia, and her husband Eddie not only doesn’t believe her, but starts acting strange and threatening himself. The only person who’s being friendly to Anastasia–who isn’t from that town–is someone Eddie doesn’t trust from high school, and soon Eddie even begins to believe Ana is sleeping with his old acquaintance. Ana’s just concerned about keeping her baby safe, but the local nosy old woman believes leaving the house won’t be enough to make things better.

The oddities happening in the old house Ana and Eddie have moved into build up very quickly and feel a little sudden. That said, they’re believably dark and sinister once they get started.

I found part of this story depressing and hard to read. Ana’s alone in this new town, no one likes her except for a man it’ll ruin her reputation to be seen with, her in-laws have no interest in her, and even the guy digging up the dead trees on the property insists he’ll only take direction from her husband. Right now, in the current climate with misogyny taking up so much of the news, I found this difficult to read about. It was a little too ‘real.’ I’m sure for some this will make the horror deeper and easier to relate to–it’s a matter of taste, I believe, and I think it’s good to know about before you decide whether to read the story.

While the story ends at a suitably chilling place, I still would have liked to see more. There are some assertions made that never really get a chance to be tested or played with.

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NaNoWriMo Storybundle

For you writers out there, there’s a new NaNoWriMo Storybundle. It offers up twelve writing books to help you on your way. I’m tempted to get it just because I used to do a lot of reviews of writing books, and they’re fun to read. But I have so many other books to read too, and it’s been a long time since I reviewed any writing books.

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Review: “Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy,” Kevin J. Anderson

Pros: Some gripping stories
Cons: Breaks in mood
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy is definitely good, but I preferred his Selected Stories: Science Fiction Volume 1. There’s a handful of stories in here that are humorous, and while I definitely agree with Anderson’s assertion in the introductions to these stories that horror can also be funny, some of them were just so silly that they disrupted the feel of the book. When I settle in to read something described as horror and dark fantasy, I’m definitely looking for a certain feel. Humor can leaven that, but I prefer that it not get too silly. There are also a few stories that are a little cartoonish or ham-handed in one way or another, such as the opening story set in Tucker’s Grove (Anderson has a number of dark stories set in this fictional town). That said, there’s plenty of delightful, spine-tingling, downright chilling material in here as well, so the book as a whole is well worth the read. Just a content warning for you: there is one brief, frank rape scene in here. It’s handled well (i.e. it isn’t lurid or prurient), but it might be a tough scene for some readers.

I enjoy the Tucker’s Grove stories, but some are definitely better than others. There’s a humor piece about a man who goes to great lengths to track down Dracula for entertaining reasons. There are several werewolf stories, including a nicely chilling one set in the middle of nowhere and a rather silly one set in Hollywood. The humorous story about resurrecting a one-hit wonder metal singer starts out well but gets over-the-top goofy at the end. There’s a fabulous story about an antique camera inhabited by an incubus, which delightfully manages to include the phrase “psychic moebius strip.” There’s a Dan Shamble, P.I. story set at a cosplay convention that is just a bit of silly fun.

I think my favorite stories were some of Anderson’s very short flash fictions. “Age Rings” was the first story in this book to truly make my jaw drop. It’s short enough that I can’t really say anything about it without giving too much away. The same can be said about a chilling Christmas story later in the book.

There’s a delightful piece that explores the origins of the pieces of Frankenstein’s monster, deftly interweaving the tales. There’s also a story about a drummer who bikes through Africa, only to discover a mysterious little town that is the source of some truly unusual drums. A few chilling ghost stories round things out, mostly set in various historical periods.

On the whole I recommend Anderson’s collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. Maybe if you’re expecting the bits of silliness they won’t break the mood for you quite as much as they did for me, and there’s plenty of good, chilling material in here.

They were like ghosts from his past who had come–not to haunt the General–but to let him haunt himself.

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Review: “Residue,” Steve Diamond

Pros: Interesting premise
Cons: Main character lacks agency; doesn’t make me want to read more
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Steve Diamond’s Residue (Jack Bishop) (Volume 1) follows Jack Bishop, a teenager in high school whose father disappears under mysterious circumstances while working for a company called Helix. He ends up working with Alex (Alexandra), another teen who is way deep into Helix’s business. He discovers she can read minds, and he starts developing the ability to pick up on psychic “residue”. It seems that something(s) escaped on the night that his father went missing, and the pair of teenagers is going to have to work fast to stop the body count from piling up.

I think this is meant to be a horror novel, but it never gave me that shiver that I look for in horror. There are some dark things that happen, sure, but they didn’t feel visceral to me. I never really believed that the main characters were in true danger. That disappointed me. I wanted to feel what was at stake.

The characters are interesting, but aren’t given a whole lot of depth. Alex’s main character traits are “reads minds” and “likes guns a LOT”. Jake… uh… is a nice guy, I guess. We know he’s supposed to grow into some funky powers, but that doesn’t go all that far in this volume. We never get to see what these two are like under “normal” circumstances, so we have nothing to compare to when they’re under fire.

It would be nice if Jake had any real agency in his own story. Instead, he spends nearly the whole time being told what to do by Alex or by a mysterious man they call merely “the Insider”. He doesn’t particularly go off and do anything on his own. He doesn’t instigate much. When he isn’t being told what to do, he mostly waits to be told what to do. Also, the Insider is pretty much a full-time deus ex machina. He sees all, knows all, can accomplish all.

If there’s anything in here that might hold my interest, it’s either the budding relationship between Alex and Jake or the mysterious “Sentinel program” of which Jake is an unknowing part. However, both are barely hinted at here, and it isn’t enough to make me want to seek out and read the next volume.

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Keeping up, oddly enough

I’m a little surprised I’m managing to read and review a bunch of books and keep my grades up, at least so far. Grades obviously come first, but I’m hopeful I’ll be able to keep this up! I may not be taking many Spring classes as I’m already taking the last of the courses needed for my major that I can take before applying for the program itself. Anyway, that means I might be able to read a bunch of books in the Spring, although after that things will probably get a bit busy. The program is supposed to be roughly equivalent to at least a full-time job. Lately I’ve been having fun reading Storybundles, and the Amazon Dark Corners collection, and a handful of things by favorite authors like Ilona Andrews. Reviews to come soon–I have a bunch queued up so even with two exams this week I’m keeping up!

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Short Take: “Miao Dao,” Joyce Carol Oates

Pros: Utterly engrossing
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joyce Carol Oates’s novella Miao Dao (Dark Corners collection) is a surreal story about an adolescent girl who’s having a hard time with her blossoming figure. She tries her best to hide in plain sight–a trick she learned from the feral cats who live next door to her–by wearing baggy clothes and hunching forward. She flees from the boys who tease her. Her father divorces her mother and leaves the two of them and Mia’s two younger brothers, and soon another man comes into her mother’s life–a man who, over time, starts displaying too much interest in Mia. When someone calls Animal Control and clears out the feral colony, Mia takes in a tiny white kitten she calls Miao Dao.

I have almost no idea what to say about Miao Dao. It’s a surreal, smooth narrative that’s hard to describe. It has an unearthly, dream-like quality to it, and sometimes reality seems a bit fluid. It’s hard to say much without giving things away; I’ll just say that while the ending is a bit hard to totally make sense of, it’s muddled in a way that seems to add to the story (in my opinion) rather than subtracting from it. If you need all your details spelled out for you, this isn’t a story for you. But if you don’t mind feeling a little strange and disjointed by the end of your horror fiction, then give this a read. Certainly if you’re a Joyce Carol Oates fan you’ll have much to look forward to here.

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Short Take: “There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed,” Edgar Cantero

Pros: Hilarious, terrifying, and uniquely imaginative all at the same time
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Edgar Cantero’s There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed (Dark Corners collection) is a remarkably short read (took me maybe a half-hour all told), but it was definitely worth the time. In it four children having a sleepover share a ‘game’. There’s a giant trapdoor spider under the bed. The shadows are antimatter. The mirror people want revenge. How will they survive until morning as the rules get more and more complex?

I enjoyed this story so much. The kids are so careful and creative in how they follow the rules, and once each one comes up with a scenario, “It’s a fact now.” You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the kids navigate the power going out, a flashlight that doesn’t always work, and the fact that they left their wands outside the house. There are some entertaining Harry Potter references that sell the story. All in all, this is a seriously fun short story!

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