When Loathsome Characters Say Despicable Things

Tess Gerritsen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University. Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and was awarded her M.D. in 1979. After completing her internal medicine residency, she worked as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1987, Tess’s first novel was published. CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, a romantic thriller, was soon followed by eight more romantic suspense novels. She also wrote a screenplay, “Adrift,” which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson. Her thriller, Harvest was released in 1996, and marked Tess’s debut on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Film rights were sold to Paramount/Dreamworks, and the book was translated into twenty foreign languages. Now retired from medicine, Tess writes full time and lives in Maine
is the author also despicable?

I’ve recently been taken to task by a reader for a piece of dialogue in THE SILENT GIRL in which a nasty character says in frustration to Jane, “Are you a retard?” The reader wrote to tell me that she has a mentally challenged child and she was furious at me for using such a word. She felt I was insensitive and should never have used it. And the truth is, I myself would never use it. Just as I would never call anyone a chink, a whore, a gook, and any number of things.

But over the years, my characters have used such words. And they were not nice characters. Their choice of words, in fact, helped define the type of people they are, and evoked an emotional response in the reader. Many times, writers get slammed by readers because those words turn up in our books. We are supposed to clean up the language of our characters, however nasty they may be. Our characters — even the murderers, the crime lords, the gang bangers — are supposed to speak in antiseptically sensitive language. They must never speak the way they’d actually speak on the street.

Writers face tough choices with every word we pick. Do we write dialogue that’s realistic, or dialogue that doesn’t offend? Do we sanitize every line of dialogue so that it’s lifeless, stilted, and completely unbelievable?

Instead of saying “Are you a retard?” should that nasty character, a mobster, have said instead “Are you mentally challenged?”

It just doesn’t sound right. Does it?