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Monday, August 23, 2010

How Much Bitch is Too Much Bitch?

If I'm completely honest and immodest, I can be hysterically funny when I let my inner bitch out of her cage for a stroll. At least, my sister thinks I'm funny. And my dear friend, Mary.

I often wonder why I don't let her loose in a book, but then I remember a promise I made to myself. I would valiently try to avoid hurting people, even if it's really, really funny.

The first version of this blog is in the trash because it crossed that self-imposed line. (Many, many times over.) But there is a way to do that kind of humor without being a jerk. I know there is. I've read examples.

I just finished a hysterical book, "The Alto Wore Tweed" by Mark Schweizer. In it, he manages to scewer just about every Christian religion out there. (His protagonist, aside from being a detective, is the church chior leader and organist.)

When I asked the author how he managed to poke fun at so many organizations without being mean, his response was "Ah, you've got to love them."

I took this to mean that gentle ridicule comes from a place of understanding and actual fondness for the subject.  But what if you want to take a poke at something you can't stand?

Right now, I'm struggling to find that balance in my own protagonist. Pet Psychic Frankie Chandler doesn't like people. I want to show it in a way that is funny, but never mean. Face it. The last time you read something really mean, didn't it turn you off?

Another book that does nasty well without crossing the line is L.C. Tyler's Elsie and Ethelred series, including "Ten Little Herrings". Ethelred Tressidor is a mystery writer who has lost interest in his career. His literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, is a kick. She's also abrasive and blunt (she refers to her own parents as a couple of tossers), but you never think she's a shrew. How does he do that?? So I asked Mr. Len Tyler, and here is his response:

"Abrasive leading characters are relatively rare in cosy crime - Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion are all very polite. The attraction of an abrasive narrator however (for the reader and the author) is that they can say all of the things you don't quite dare to say in real life. As somebody at a conference once said to me: "your writing is clearly very therapeutic!" There is a risk though of the abrasiveness getting a little off-putting. In Elsie's case I guess she gets away with it because the reader sees that she also has a softer side - she may frequently remind Ethelred that he is (at the best) only a second rate author, but she does genuinely care about him. And she has weaknesses - chocolate especially - that hopefully make her easy to identify with. Finally I think there is usually a self-awareness in what Elsie says - she knows that many of her criticisms of other people also apply to her - even if she'd rather not admit it to Ethelred."

If you think chocolate sounds like a silly weakness, you should find out what hysterically horrible situations Elsie winds up in because of her cravings.

These authors make it sound so simple, and they do it so well, but I assure you that it's a precise art form to write snarky characters that don't turn the reader off.

I highly recommend both series, and you can learn more about Mark Schweizer's Liturgical Mysteies and L.C. Tyler's humorous novels by clicking on the links.

What cranky characters have you read that manage to keep from crossing the line into offensive? How do you think the author accomplished this? How do you accomplish this? I'd love to know.


  1. Hi Jackie,

    I am extremely wary of self-censoring while I'm writing (as such, I'm dying to read the version of this blog you threw away). I think writers should write what they'd like to read and not worry about the audience (at least until after the first draft).

    That being said, I recognize that to sustain my writing I've got to sell books and would like to appeal to readers beyond my genre, which is hardboiled noir. One tactic I use in pursuit of this goal is my writers group. I am the only noir writer in a group that is heavy with cozy writers. I let them tell me when I've crossed the line. Not that I necessarily heed their notes -- as novelist Mark Haskell Smith says about writing groups, "Don't be a workshop bitch." But I recognize that their notes can point me to areas that might turn off certain readers, and I examine these places to see whether a change can be made that would solve the issue yet still be true to my characters and style. In so doing, I believe my protagonist has become more sensitive and compassionate than is typical of the genre, which may be a problem for hardcore genre fans, but may also expand my readership to the general mystery audience and perhaps even to adverturous cozy lovers.

    Overall, when given the choice, I still tend to err on the side of incaution. After all, risk is the uterus of art.


    Craig Faustus Buck

  2. I had to laugh when you said most of your writer's group wrote cozies, because I was just thinking "At least your not writing for a cozy audience." I have visions (stereotypes, I know) of wide-eyed women clutching their kitties close while you read aloud from your pages.