Putting the Bully in Your Novel Without Being the Bully

Putting the Bully in Your Novel Without Being the Bully

Putting the Bully in Your Novel Without Being the Bully
Photo by Nathan Rupert

Putting the Bully in Your Novel Without Being the Bully

Creating realistic stories, settings, and characters is important to building rapport with your readers. Why? If we write about glorified characters and ideals, we'll lose our readers.

Readers want to read about characters who make mistakes, ones who don't always follow the rules, ones who don't have perfect lives, because (most, if not all) readers, themselves, don't have those qualities. Readers are human and we all make mistakes.

We all want that perfect life but don't always have it (for any number of reasons). We want to read about characters who struggle with worldly things, experience problems in their jobs, in their home lives, and within themselves. We're not perfect. Why would we want to read about someone who is?

Writing about realistic things can mean writing on controversial topics. Things we don't want to discuss or things that should be put behind us. While sweeping things under the rug is one solution, it isn't always the realistic one. Whether we like it or not, certain things do exist. One of those things is prejudice. This includes everything from racism and sexism to ageism and prejudice against the mentally challenged.

There's a delicate balance that is required in managing prejudice appropriately in a story. If our characters are prejudice, does it mean we, as the writers, are? Not always. But prejudice needs to be handled with care so that the narrative, meaning us, doesn't come off as being prejudice.

So, how can we make sure that we don't come across as prejudice in our stories?

It depends on the type of narrative we're using. If you're using the omniscient narrative, more care needs to be used. As the narrator, you are the one making all the judgments if you say it openly in your story even when you intend for it to come from your character.

The way we can handle this issue is by giving the characters the backgrounds they need to have the prejudices you want them to have.

If, for instance, you want Character A to be sexist, you must back up the sexism with a reason from that character, otherwise a comment made through the narrative (meaning you) will label you as sexist, even though you intended for those comments to come from Character A. So, instead of describing Character B through the narrative, describe her through the actions and words of Character A.

Here are some questions to ask about Character A:

  • How does he (or she) treat those of the opposite gender? How does he speak to them? What are his mannerisms when he's around them?

  • What's his background?

  • What makes him think women are inferior?

  • What gives him the knowledge or perceptions to be prejudice against Character B?

The same goes for female characters.

If you simply speak for the character, the narrative comes across as prejudice because the narrative is the one speaking and putting words into the readers' minds.

Other narratives can have an easier time at this, especially the 1st person narrative where the main character is the one speaking. With 3rd person, you need to remember that you're speaking about the prejudice character, so any prejudice comments made will fall on the narrative if not handled properly.

Handling prejudice and other controversial topics with care will lead to a realistic story that portrays the characters appropriately while keeping the narrative out of hot water.

Realistic stories give us something to validate our own experience and trials. They let us know that we're not alone and that others share similar struggles. And if the story offers a viable solution to handling these issues, then we can learn something valuable in how to deal with them.

Controversial novels, including Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, have been shot down by critics, but the main characters went through what some people (young girls in the case of Speak) are going through today in our own home towns. Don't be fooled by ideals. Books like Speak help readers to find a way past their struggles, to move on and get back to a normal life again (if one even exists). No one is perfect and our characters shouldn't be either.

Do you have critics chastising you for writing about controversial topics? How do you handle the criticism?

Jody Calkins
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