Language is tricky. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there are some words that can impart far more than a photograph could ever hope to convey. Love is one. I love you. That's nice, isn't it? A picture of a baby in it's mother's arms may paint that same sentiment, but when your loved one says, "I love you," the feeling is much deeper. Hate is another one of these words. I hate you. Ugh, what a terrible thing to hear! You would be hard pressed to capture my hatred for certain folks on the page without drawing the actual word itself.
In regards to this whole idea, I ran into a problem recently with the new novel I'm working on. The story is set in the late 1800's, and one of the characters is a freed slave. When it gets down to the nitty gritty of things, about 25k into it I found one, without warning, of my characters said the N word.
(You know the one.)
I typed the word. I sat and looked at it. And I was shocked. This comes from a woman who writes erotica for fun. I can type the word cock or cunt without thinking twice, but this word forced me into a blush. For some reason when I decided to make the lead male a man of color, the word wasn't something I thought would come up. I think perhaps because it's a word I avoid, even though I hear it on a weekly basis. (I live in the South, folks. People still say it here. Unfortunately.) I didn't know what to do with it. Delete it? Mask it? Pretend it didn't happen? It was a puzzler. I felt not to use it would seem untrue to the time and situations. At the same time, I really, really hate that word! (go on, draw it out ... I dare you ...)
I'm ashamed to say that I even considered changing the character's race. I thought perhaps it wasn't terribly important to the tale that he be black. But then again changing that one point, that one characteristic, would've changed everything about the man and in the end it would have altered the soul of the novel. Theophilus Jackson is a man of color. I couldn't make him not be. It might be untrue to the time period to censor the N word, but it would be even worse to change everything about it, and him, just to avoid the word.
My sister solved the conundrum for me by pointing out that it isn't my voice speaking ... it's the story's voice. It isn't my opinion about race I am expressing, it's the bigoted opinions of a fictional character. I thought about this, putting it into perspective for all of my novels. If I take weight for everything everyone of my characters have ever said, then I would be a devil and an angel, a whore and a virgin, a mother and a murderer, a sadist and a masochist, a bigot and a hippie all at the same time.
And maybe I am.
Perhaps I am a little bit of all of these things, both terrible and wonderful. I'm not proud of my transgressions, and I try very hard not to display my good deeds like a badge of honor. But maybe, just maybe, a little of these things I am, good and bad, leak into the shadows of the characters I create. While they aren't a complete reflection of me, I can see so much of myself in them.
Maybe you do too.
But back to the N word, yes? The trouble with the whole thing is that while the word was standard description for the African American during that time(whether meant in hate or just said in passing) the word has twisted so much now that as soon as a reader sees it they will think RACIST! This is fine for that character because he's not a very nice man, but I really didn't want the word to become a cudgel wielded by the 'bad guys.' Then again, I couldn't see the 'good' characters saying it in our frame of mind. In the end I meditated upon it for a while and decided that minimum usage in this case would obtain maximum effect. I use the word Negro quite often, and colored (both of which were also in large use at the time) and the N word about twice.
I think my point of sharing this with you is this:
Don't speak for your characters.
Let them speak for themselves, and everything will fall into place.