A long time ago, way back in the time of August, Malinda Lo tweeted about reading Cuckoo’s Calling. There was a point where the third person narration described someone as a “flat-faced middle-aged oriental woman.” It pulled Malinda Lo right out of the book then and there.*
Some folks reacted to the tweets by saying that maybe the phrase came from the POV character rather than the author. The thing is, that doesn’t actually change the words. Regardless of whether or not that phrasing was in-character, it is both hurtful and unnecessary. If a character says something reprehensible, particularly if it is treated as a normal, everyday word or phrase, the author is responsible. The author chooses what to write, and they choose what aspects of their characters get put out there.
I’m not the first to say this, of course. Here are a couple blog posts you should read:
Shaun David Hutchinson has a post on why casual sexism and homophobia has no place in books, and focuses particularly on world-building that doesn’t question this bigotry.
Karen Healey has a post on why she would cut an instance of casual racism in her own book even though it was addressed in the text, and crossedwires points out the issue of white gaze.
So yes, it was perfectly in character for Healey’s MC to think that. But if the MC hadn’t thought it, readers would have gone on reading, without two words metaphorically slapping them out of the text.
That’s what happens when you use loaded, hurtful, and/or offensive words in your book. You’re giving the reader a slap that takes them out of the text. They’ll stop reading; maybe for a moment, maybe permanently. And yes, sometimes, such words are intended to slap the reader. The words are part of what is going on, are actually addressed, and/or are specifically chosen for that purpose. Whether or not that is done successfully is up to the reader. But when a writer slaps the reader and then goes on as if nothing has happened, what does that convey?
There’s a line of thinking that since certain types of characters would say something in real life, it means they have to do so in your book, even if those words are hurtful. But no character speaks like a real person. If they did, their dialogue would be full of pauses and ums and conversations that abruptly drop off or go nowhere or pop up apropos of nothing else going on in the scene. Moreover, very little of what they said would tie into their plot or character development or themes of the book.
Writers also alter and skip over a lot of unnecessary matter. No one is upset by a book that has a year pass in a paragraph or doesn’t contain an adequate number of scenes of the protagonist going to the bathroom. A writer should handle dialogue and word choice with no less purpose.
None of this is to tell writers what they can and cannot do. The point is to think very carefully about the impact of your words, which is, after all, the writer’s craft. When your character says or does something hurtful and offensive, it’s not enough to say, “It’s just what that character would do!” Instead, you make the decision. You make that choice. You decide if having the character say or do that is worth slapping your reader.
Just don’t act surprised when readers respond.
* I’m going to assume that most know why such a description is offensive and hurtful. If you don’t, here are some blogs that you might do well to read (far from an exhaustive list): Resist Racism, Angry Asian Man, and Yo, Is This Racist?