Where Does the Writer End and the Person Begin?

I used to write serial crime fiction for a site owned by America Online. When I was first hired for the gig, I was told my employers wanted something like Armistead Maupin’s serialized Tales of the City which ran as installments in the San Francisco Chronicle in the Seventies. One of the ongoing storylines in my series, NoHo Noir, involved a character who was a homophobic cop with sexual identity issues. About two months into the gig—I wrote two short stories a week—I wrote a story in which the cop beats up a gay character he has pulled over for a minor traffic violation. In the course of that beat-down, the cop calls his victim a “faggot.”

The usual procedure with the stories was that I self-edited them and then posted them in the CMS myself. My editor was very happy with what I was doing and his bosses were happy because my stories were drawing traffic to the struggling site. As it happened, though, my editor was out of town the weekend this particular story went live and his position was being covered by the editor of a sister site. And when that editor saw the story, he reacted, very strongly, to the use of the “f-word.”

And by “very strongly,” I meant he went totally nonlinear.

He not only removed the word entirely, he sent me an email lecturing me on the use of hurtful epithets and suggesting that I get some sensitivity training because the “f-word” just isn’t used by nice people. And still not satisfied, he took the matter all the way up the chain to the editor-in-chief. He wanted me fired and he wanted to end the series.

Now this editor had never met me, nor had he ever read any of the stories that led up to the one containing the offensive word.

While I’d been told early on that I couldn’t really use “frank language” (nobody could use profanity stronger than “hell” or “damn”), I’d otherwise been given free rein. I hadn’t abused that trust. In fact, I think a lot of writers get lazy with expletives—yes, Quentin Tarantino, I’m looking at you—and use profanity as a crutch. So to say I was … taken aback … by the intensity of this editor’s reaction was to put it mildly.

Because here’s the thing. It was my character speaking and not me. My homophobic, rage-a-holic cop was addressing a man who embodied every single thing he hated. His victim was handsome, well-dressed, successful enough to be driving a luxury car, and gay. So while venting his self-loathing on the guy, my character called him a “faggot.”

That offended my substitute editor so much he was ready to get me fired. Never mind that right there on the column each week was the bio of my friend and collaborator Mark, who provided the NoHo Noir illustrations week to week. Mark references his partner by name in his bio so there’s no mistaking that his partner is male.

And never mind that my younger sister was gay. Never mind that, as they say, “Some of my best friends are gay.” This editor who’d never met me, decided that I was a terrible person because I had had a character use a homophobic slur in the context of a story in a series called “NoHo Noir.” The series wasn’t called “NoHo Nice,” and it was specifically intended to be a series of interrelated stories about crime in Los Angeles. And here in L.A., shocking as it may seem, the cops aren’t always “nice people.”

If the editor had simply removed the word, I would have shaken my head and moved on to the next story. But he’d made it personal and he’d gone after me in a vindictive way that threatened my livelihood. (I wasn’t getting paid that much for the stories, but I was getting paid.) So I wrote a few emails of my own. In the end, after an increasingly surreal exchange of communications up and down the line, we all reached a compromise. The word “homo” was inserted into the story, my editor returned, and I went on to complete an entire year’s cycle of fiction.

I’m not sure my readers ever even noticed the kerfuffle, but the experience left me shaken. It had never occurred to me that I might have to preface a story with a disclaimer—This is a work of fiction; the attitudes of the characters do not necessarily reflect the writer’s personal opinions. If you don’t know the difference between fiction and real life, the writer is not responsible.

I’m curious; has anyone had a similar experience? Does anyone self-censor because a character is making them uncomfortable? Do you think a writer has a duty to create characters that behave in politically correct ways even though doing so will destroy the reality of the story? Where do we draw the line?