How to Ruin Beloved Characters

Did you all read Steve’s post about Edgy Christian Fiction? An excellent post, and one that addressed vitally important issues for us as Christian who write. So why am I writing about it when Steve dealt with it so well. Because last night I experienced the ugly effects of edginess on characters I have enjoyed and loved.

First, let me say that I know my experience has nothing to do with entertainment written from a Christian perspective. It has everything to do with making established characters meet audience expectations.

True confessions: I’ve loved the whole X-Men franchise. Have all the movies. Love to watch them, in order, on those rare occasions I have a free day. Shoot, I read and collected comics as a kid. (Thor was my favorite, and when I sold my collection my senior year in high school, it financed my first year of college! But I digress…) I’ve enjoyed the action and wit, the good-against-evil, the community of heroes in the X-Men movies. And the fact that they’ve been PG-13. Yay! No language!

Th other night I decided to watch the most recent incarnation of one of my favorite X-Men, Wolverine. I checked the info on Logan, and was (not pleasantly) surprised to see it was R-rated. Hoping against hope that this rating didn’t mean what I feared it did, I started the movie. And bam! There were my beloved characters, including Charles Xavier, spouting the foulest obscenities in almost every sentence. And NONE of it was necessary! It didn’t add anything to the plot or the characters. My reaction?




Not just because they were swearing, but because, in the name of edginess and, I can only suppose, gaining a new audience, characters I loved, characters who I knew were flawed and emotionally tortured but whose flaws were always shown rather than “told” through gratuitous language and violence, were ruined. They’d become caricatures, not characters. It was like listening to a teenager spout f-bombs to seem more adult, but all it does is show just how immature they are. I turned the movie off after 10 minutes of foulness and ugliness.

So what’s my point? Simply this: using graphic language, violence, sexuality, religion—anything that you just stick in there in the name of making characters more “real,” is not craftsmanship. It’s giving in to what the world says is real. But I’m here to tell you that evil, true evil, is far more devious. Far more…dark.

Friends, forget being edgy. Instead, be a student of real people, real behaviors, yes, even real language. But get past what’s on the surface and dig deep. Look beyond the obscenities to see what’s burrowed into the soul. We’re all human. We’re all flawed in some way. And even those who long to follow God all too often fail. Show the failures. Show the faith. But do it by understanding what’s deep within.

And remember, characters who are so real they come off the page aren’t created through edginess. They’re crafted by letting us see inside them, showing us who they are through their actions, thoughts, expressions, body language, and so much more. Such characters will live and breathe. And their stories will hit your readers with an impact that “edginess” can’t ever hope to attain.


57 Responses to How to Ruin Beloved Characters

  1. Avatar
    Ron Andrea June 14, 2017 at 5:46 am #

    Totally agree.

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    Christina Miller June 14, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    Well said. Thank you for this much-needed word.

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    B.J. Taylor June 14, 2017 at 6:12 am #

    Karen, well said, especially this: “showing us who they are through their actions, thoughts, expressions, body language, and so much more. Such characters will live and breathe.” I strive for this in my work and I thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

      Ron, christina, and B.J., thanks so much.

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    Rebekah Dorris June 14, 2017 at 6:16 am #

    “Friends, forget being edgy. Instead, be a student of real people, real behaviors, yes, even real language. But get past what’s on the surface and dig deep. Look beyond the obscenities to see what’s burrowed into the soul. We’re all human. We’re all flawed in some way. And even those who long to follow God all too often fail. Show the failures. Show the faith. But do it by understanding what’s deep within.”

    How I needed to read this. As I did, it hit me: Jesus didn’t hide himself from the cursing maniac, nor did he stop loving Peter as he swore and denied knowing Him. In both cases, He knew His blood would purify them and transform those potty mouths into preachers of righteousness. That blood still works today! Has for me!

    Great post. Thanks!

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      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:40 pm #

      Amen, Rebekah! That blood is the only thing that can save and cleanse us. Thank God–literally!–that He loved us enough to let it be shed for us.

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    Kirsten Panachyda June 14, 2017 at 6:21 am #

    I’ve read that Anne of Green Gables was also subjected to the same treatment in the latest remake. Why?
    This post is a great challenge to not take the lazy way.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:38 pm #

      Excellent question: “Why?”

      It seems to me that it’s a misguided attempt to broaden a readership, but what ends up happening instead is that you lose the readership you already had.

      Not at all smart.

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    Renee Blare June 14, 2017 at 6:29 am #

    Thank you.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 14, 2017 at 6:53 am #

    I wonder if many authors and screenwriters add foul language in the thought that it will make the character more individual, more ‘spicy’, when all it does is reduce said character to the level of the common and heedless herd?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:41 pm #

      Great point, Andrew. That’s exactly what it does: make them common.

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    Judith Robl June 14, 2017 at 6:56 am #

    Amen, amen and AMEN!!! Thank you, Karen for an insightful post.

    My sainted grandmother used to say foul language demonstrates a paucity of vocabulary and a dearth of imagination.

    With a fourth-grade education, she was one of the most erudite people it has been my privilege to know.

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    Victoria Bylin June 14, 2017 at 6:58 am #

    If we write with compassion and respect for God and others, the language takes care of itself. At least that’s my personal philosophy. I *love* writing about tough subjects.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:42 pm #

      That’s a pretty sound philosophy, Victoria.

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    Carol Ashby June 14, 2017 at 7:00 am #

    A few years ago, there was a cable channel that showed clean-language versions of R-rated films. They were sued (and lost) for damaging the artistic merit of the films.

    We watched one film in a motel room that was hilarious when clean. We didn’t realize it was a sanitized version. My husband bought the VHS in the discount bin at Walmart, and we were SO disappointed. The steady stream of profanity added nothing of “artistic” value, and we trashed it.

    How sad! So many more people could have enjoyed the clever plot if the director hadn’t chosen to take the “edgy” road.

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray June 14, 2017 at 7:11 am #

      Years ago, my local grocer had something similar with the VHS rentals. They called it “The Dove Section.” Same stories. Same plot lines. Same viewing … no, improved viewing experience. Sanitized. I loved it!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

      That would be wonderful. So many movies I’d love to watch but can’t. And won’t.

      Funny thing is, you’ve hit something square on the head, Carol and Damon. Movie companies could expand their audience if they’d allow clean versions for those who don’t think all that garbage adds to the flick! Talk about short-sighted.

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    Joey Rudder June 14, 2017 at 7:02 am #

    What a great post, Karen! I remember hearing when writers use a swear word (especially the f-word), it’s like a bomb that blows up and destroys everything around it. So all those delicate and powerful details that make the character breathe and live are annihilated and there’s nothing but a pile of dirt leftover.

    And I agree with how you wrote, “Look beyond the obscenities to see what’s burrowed into the soul.”

    That’s it for me. I want to peel all the external layers of a character away and delve so deep in her heart that her pain becomes mine, her failures and successes my own. I want to live and breathe with her, through her, so when the victory comes I can rejoice with her too.

    There’s something special about digging deep within for those precious gems instead of just settling for the dirt on the top.

    Thank you, Karen. God bless you!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

      “…settling for the dirt on top.”

      Love that! Don’t ever settle for the dirt!

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    Laura Kirk June 14, 2017 at 7:06 am #

    First off, the masked dog provided my first good chuckle of the day! Secondly, the blog is spot on. Thank you for sharing.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 14, 2017 at 7:09 am #

    There are some places, though, where bad language is entirely appropriate.

    If anyone were to make a movie about the Wild Weasels, they’d have no choice but to elucidate their unofficial motto – ‘YGBSM’.

    The Weasels grew from a need to counter North Viet Nam’s surface-to-air missile defenses, and the method used was simple; they loitered over known missile sites, and when they got a launch indication, evaded the missile and trashed the site.

    Putting oneself in the position of having to evade a Mach 3 missile isn’t really something sane person would want to do; thus the reaction to new members of the unit, on being briefed in, was, “Ya gotta be s***in’ me!”

    YGBSM. Get it?

    There’s no other way to say that, and to sanitize it would be something of a disservice to the Weasels whose bones yet molder in that laterite soil, made all the more red by their blood.

    It was their call, and they get to describe it any way they want.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

      I can see what you’re saying, Andrew. And I confess I wouldn’t find that phrase offensive in context. But if they used it every other phrase, or peppered every sentence with s**t, I’d shut it off. It’s about whether or not something needs to be there. And what you explained does.

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    Katie Powner June 14, 2017 at 7:13 am #

    I agree, Karen, thank you. You got to the heart of the “edgy” and “real” fiction debate I think. People are edgy and real because they’re people, not because they curse.

    I, too, was disappointed about the movie Logan. It’s the only X-Men film I haven’t seen.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

      Don’t see it, Katie. It will break your heart.

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    Damon J. Gray June 14, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    Karen, I love your heart.

    For me, the operative term in that blog posting was “gratuitous.” If the verbiage, or the violence, or whatever it is is integral to the story-line, then it is not gratuitous. If it is placed there for “edginess,” then it is gratuitous, unnecessary, and probably indicative of a lack of writing skill.

    I work two cubicles down from a young man who, throughout the day, drops an abundance of f-bombs and assorted other linguistic beauties. They add nothing to the conversations he is having, but I believe he thinks they make him more “down to earth.” Not at all. They make an otherwise intelligent man look prepubescent and devoid of true intellect.

    So it is with our writing, speaking, and film making. We would probably be well-served to avoid gratuitous anything. Not just profanity, violence, and sexual indiscretion.

  16. Avatar
    Karen Saari June 14, 2017 at 7:23 am #

    I always cringe when a movie begins with the f-word three times in one sentence. Really? Did the writers not go to vocabulary class? Or are they just lazy? It takes skill to write your characters ‘as if’ they may be or could be using the f-word, but they aren’t. They are using language.

    One may think, it’s okay for me to watch this, I don’t use that kind of language and I’m secure in my relationship with God. But you know what? That kind of language is insidious. It creeps in and before you know it, it bursts from your own mouth! Or it is present in your thought process.

    As a Christian who strives to please my Lord and Savior, I can’t justify letting my eyes and heart watch movies like that OR write characters like that. He has called me to write, He will give me the right words to use in place of the ‘the easy way out’.

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    Susan D Gutting June 14, 2017 at 7:35 am #

    Karen, this is wonderful. I am repeatedly disappointed in christian fiction where the main character can’t take her eyes off of a man’s rippling muscles, full descriptions of their deepening kisses and partial worldly phrases that give the implications but it’s ok because the phrases weren’t completed. The images are left with us…..things that would embarrass anyone looking on. Why is it acceptable in print? I am almost afraid to pick up a new author, having deleted many books from my kindle reader after reading only a few pages. I could go on and on…….but I agree with Mr. Gray. Why not focus on a good story, well written that doesn’t need popular content?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

      It’s a challenge, that’s for sure, to write stories that resonate with true emotion and the realities of things like attraction and passion. Challenges us to push ourselves to a higher level of craft.

  18. Avatar
    Stacy T. Simmons June 14, 2017 at 8:40 am #

    Thank you for this post, I totally agree. Gratuitous violence and curse words don’t have a place in movies like Logan or in fiction. Let the beautiful words paint the picture not violence or gutter-trawling language. Maybe the next X-Men movie will be better too Karen. We can always hope, can’t we?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

      From your mouth to the producers’ ears, Stacy!

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    B Anderson June 14, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    Thank you so much for this perspective. My dad used to say only people with little intelligence used that foul language. Nowadays it seems the norm – in real life, books and movies/TV shows.
    Has our intelligence decreased to the point all we know are four letter words? Thanks for the comment of showing the inside of the person – if a person is so angry to use a four letter word – let us see it by the physical reactions, not just the reactionary blurting of cursing. And, show us the character’s intelligence by using other language.

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      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

      Exactly, B. Use the whole spectrum of language, and not just what’s common.

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    Paulette Harris June 14, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    This was a great post and I totally agree with the perspective written. Again, it boils down to show not tell. 🙂 Have a great day in Jesus Christ.

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    Jerusha Agen June 14, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    Thank you for this post, Karen. SO very well put. I’ve been so disappointed by the ruination of great characters in the name of “darkness” or so-called “realism.” I’ve actually given up on watching my beloved super-hero movies for that reason! You’re so right, we need to forget trying to be “edgy” and let realism be shown through the clear lens of the Christian worldview that lets us look past the superficial and proclaim the truth to the glory of God.

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      Anna Bourassa June 16, 2017 at 7:52 am #

      I’m with you there, Jerusha. After the last three superhero movies, I’ve given up too. The darkness and evil outways the good and leaves me walking out of the theater feeling depressed. 🙁

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      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

      Amen, Jerusha.

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    Edward Lane June 14, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    I agree 100 per cent, Karen. An agent once told me I needed to have my characters cuss to be more realistic. I was disappointed.

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      Peggy Booher June 14, 2017 at 10:59 am #

      Several years ago, a popular Christian writer of westerns said that when he first started to publish, lack of profanity was not a problem, but as new editors came on board at publishers, he was told his characters needed to cuss to be “realistic”. He finally found an editor at a Christian publisher. Lack of profanity was welcomed then! Keep on trying!

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      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:53 pm #

      Edward, Peggy is right. Keep trying.

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    Peggy Booher June 14, 2017 at 11:20 am #

    Thanks for this post.

    Creative writing means being able to express ideas in new and different ways, including emotions such as anger. My example is when Peter realized he denied Christ. The KJV says, “Then began he to curse and to swear…” (Matt.26:74) That gets the idea across to me; no need to spell it out.

    Unfortunately, many people use profanity as a way to seem more “adult” or because they’ve been raised in families that used it on an everyday basis, for anything. But, Christian writing can help them see there is a different way.

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    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    Karen, I agree that swearing is not the way to establish a character. It is through good writing that our characters should come alive, not through being a written incarnation of a Shock Jock. Good posting!

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    Ginger June 14, 2017 at 2:50 pm #

    Thanks for the review of the movie, Karen. I’m also a big X-Men fan, but dislike the language issue.

    I grew up in a family who didn’t think twice about uttering swear words in every sentence. I do my best to avoid reading or listening to such because it is all too easy for me to slip into bad patterns learned in my childhood (mostly when I’m SUPER angry).

    I for one have written to “Christian” authors who use foul language in their books and expressed my disappointment. To me, it doesn’t matter if the character is Christian or not. If the book is marketed to Christians, then the language (or sex) needs to be left out.

    [Stepping off my soap box now.] As you might can tell, this is an issue I am a bit passionate about. LOL

    Thanks for the post.

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      Peggy Booher June 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm #

      I too, grew up in a family that routinely used swear words and profanity, whether angry or not. As a child, I used to try to “screen out” the profanity and focus on what they were really saying. As an adult, I try to avoid books, tv, movies where it might appear; it seems to stick in my mind. I’ve burned a couple books where the language got to be too much; I don’t need to read it.

      It’s harder to avoid in a work situation. One reason I’m glad to go to church is because I know people can communicate decently.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:55 pm #

      You’re welcome, Ginger. And trust me, you’re not alone on that soapbox.

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    Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux June 14, 2017 at 3:24 pm #

    Who’s the reader “edgy” Christian writers have in mind? What is the desired response? I’m deeply concerned about secularizing Christian fiction. So thank you, Karen.

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      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:56 pm #

      Peggy, it’s often explained as an effort to draw in a non-believing audience or because the writer doesn’t want to “preach to the choir.” But I keep saying there are plenty of lost folks in the choir, and writing that doesn’t honor God isn’t going to draw anyone where He’d want them to be.

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    Anna June 16, 2017 at 7:56 am #

    Not only was this article a great read, but i REALLY enjoyed everyone’s followup comments. So, I’ll just leave one “thank you” here, instead of at the end of everybody’s comments. :^)

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball June 16, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

      Anna, I agree! Loved the comments. Thanks for adding your own.

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