Monday, March 11, 2013

A Question of Taste

I am having a trouble with appropriateness in my WIP comedy novel. I began the Miss Havana paranormal comedies series with Miss Havana being an evil wench, one conniving enough to outfox the devil. She had all the attributes of the antichrist and she was easy to portray. Over the course of four novels, however, she has become a kinder, gentler soul—fewer more wanton murders and only an occasional sexual fling. Over time she has become a relatively normal female with occasional carnal inclinations.

I’m on the fourth novel now—almost finished actually—and I’m finding the conclusion difficult to write because Miss Havana might step out of her kinder, gentler character and revert, if only momentarily, to the heinous bitch she was in the beginning. This is hard for me because I’ve actually grown to like her.

Maybe the problem is that I identify more with the evil side of Miss Havana’s behavior than the nicer side. My wife would probably agree. Anyway, I have attempted to transfer Miss Havana’s evil to her daughter, Lilith. Like the evil Miss Havana, Lilith is easy to portray. In fact, she has become more disgusting with each book. Now she’s so bad even I have trouble with her. Does anyone really act like that? I mean, is it ever appropriate for an author to, say, to make fun of an anorexic for being skinny, even if it is done through an evil character? That’s what I mean by a problem with appropriateness—are there topics too taboo for comedy?

I wrote another blog on the limits of bad taste last year when I wrote The Training Bra. In that blog, Lucifer offered Lilith as a “sexual favor” to a couple of his henchmen, an encouragement for them to do his bidding. One of my reviewers thought it a little crass that Lucifer would consider a “rape for loyalty” exchange. Fathers are not supposed to act like that. I gathered opinions from a number of you, and the consensus was that “bad things happen to bad people.” As a result, Lilith got hers (and she didn’t take it gracefully).

Okay, Lilith got abused, no problem; she didn’t have a soul to mar anyway. Now the stakes have been raised. In The Trophy Wife, Miss Havana becomes God’s mate (at least to the extent that immaculate conception applies to mating). So now Miss Havana is on a giant pedestal and she has a very wholesome daughter named Angel. But bad things keep happening to Angel, precipitated (of course) by her half-sister, Lilith. Now, here is where I’m having my problem. Should terrible things happen to a really nice person? To kill or not to kill (violently), that is the question.

I actually planned on writing a five book series: The Substitute; Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!; The Training Bra; The Trophy Wife; and Sisters. Now I’m wondering, if Lilith gets too darn mean in The Trophy Wife, will that discourage people from reading Sisters (assuming I really do write it)?

The specific scene that precipitated this blog concerned eating disorders. I originally planned to make skinny jokes about that, but then delved into the real issues surrounding the disability. Being the sensitive male that I am, that researched caused me to back off. The intent of the books is to make people laugh, not to trigger a purging episode or to make anyone feel bad. I suspect all authors struggle with this. It would be easy to go overboard on a sensitive topic—and everyone would hate you for it. I don’t want that. I don’t even want people to hate my characters. I want them to laugh at their ridiculousness, nothing more.

Up to now, the comedy in my Miss Havana novels has dealt with dicey issues, and the bad guys always come out on the short end of things; few innocent people or characters are harmed in the stories. However, with the books gradually depicting an improvement in the behavior of my main character, that has become harder. Now I am faced with a kinder, gentler ending … and I’m not sure I like it. Someone MUST die. That’s just the way it is. But this time, it could be the good guy.

Overall, to maintain a modicum of good taste, here are the rules I have attempted to follow (feel free to comment if you like):

a. Necrophilia. Jokes about such deviant behavior are okay, but the story should stop short of actually cracking open a cold one, even though the character would never have to say he was sorry.

b. Incest. Not cool. Threats are okay though, as is often the case between Lucifer and Lilith.

c. Rape. Used sparingly and reserved for the worst of the worst (for those without a soul to scar). Lilith gets passed around a lot, but she deserves it. I will say, in defense of defiling Lilith, she gives more than she gets—to the point that some demons refuse to take her when Lucifer offers her as a bargaining chip in some wacked-out scheme. Lucifer gets his too … when Lilith is in charge.

d. Killing of the guilty. Have at it. This happens on a continuing basis.

e. Killing of the innocent. Poop happens, but not in every paragraph. A few innocent people die in the rampages of the devil’s people on “the surface.”

f. Making light of sickness. This one bothers me. I haven’t made any jokes about cancer, eating disorders and the like, except in very tasteful ways. For example, two bulimics might barf playful comments at each other’s disease, but not at each other.

g. Religion and politics. Fair game in all circumstances. The books are comedy so the barbs can be hilarious.

h. Bestiality. Never in detail, but okay by reference. For example, when the farmer says, “Don’t believe those sheep. They’re all liars.”

h. Child abuse. Not permitted, except to point out its horror … and to take action against perpetrators (as when Miss Havana goes after the child sex traders).

Well, that’s about it. If it’s not on the list, then it probably happens somewhere in the novels. It’s item “f” that causes me the most trouble. People with sickness already have enough to deal with. It just seems wrong to attempt to get a snicker at their expense. So I haven’t.

Feel free to leave a comment; let me know what you think. I’m always open to new ideas.

The Substitute and Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! are available from Solstice Publishing and at amazon.com/author/jameshatch. The Training Bra should be released soon. I will begin the editing process for The Trophy Wife sometime in the next two months. Sisters is still a gleam in my eye. I’ve given a short excerpt from The Training Bra below (from Lucifer’s POV when he’s just about to kill Shelly, Miss Havana’s host). Please enjoy.
We are about five hundred miles from Omaha when Shelly whines that her legs are cramping. Her cough is getting worse, she’s holding her stomach like she got cramps and her bowels are growling so loud I can hear them from across the front seat. She says she needs to stop. What a baby.

I’m torn. A cough with diarrhea is a bad combination, and a butt explosion could foul the car with a stinking mess. On the other hand, it will be far easier to dump her body if no one else is around when she croaks. I have just about decided to drive straight through when, to my surprise, Shelly bolts upright and screams, “You fucking idiot, she said stop the damn car!”

Oh, dear, I fear I’ve awakened a sleeping monster—the high-pitched shrill whine sounds like my ex. I glance over just in time to see her eyes flash red before Shelly’s body slumps back into the seat. Crap. Maybe I should stop. The heavily-salted French fries I gave Shelly for lunch might be pushing her over the edge.

I gleefully rub Dick’s hands together as I enter the motel office in Laramie, Wyoming. The proprietor is a middle-aged female with boobs far too small for her butt. From the back, she looks like two Buicks fighting for the same parking space. I try not to stare as I offer a friendly compliment. “Did you know nine out of ten men prefer a woman with a big butt … and the tenth prefers the other nine men?”

She looks up with a deadpan expression. “Would you like me to call the police?”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary. How about just checking my new wife and me into your very best room? Anything to die for would be great.”

Her flatline expression doesn’t change an iota. Is it possible someone as outgoing and flamboyant as me has come through here before? She blinks before answering; at least I know she’s alive. “We have the bridal suite … if you have cash.”

I pay for three days, plus a big tip, and ask for extra “Do Not Disturb” signs while winking suggestively and giving her two thumbs-up. All she says is, “I need a hundred dollar deposit in case you damage something.”

I grin as I peel off another hundred. “No problem. Do you ever wonder if the bills you get have been in a stripper’s ass?”

She shakes her head as she slips my payment into a slot in the floor. “Your parents must be siblings.”

Well, that wasn’t very nice. Too bad I’ve already tipped her. Oh, well, with luck I’ll leave alone in the morning and won’t deal with her again.

I settle Shelly into the bridal suite and excuse myself to seek out food for the evening. She needs sleep to bring her to the brink of death, and I would hate to disturb her. Now that I’m free of the collar, I don’t have to play Lilith’s game any longer. As it has been from the beginning of eternity, I can go directly to Croco’s waiting line simply by killing my host. No one will miss Dick anyway. He’s such a dork.

Thanks for reading!

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

I see your dilemma, James. That said, one of the reasons I became so addicted to "House" was because it was irreverent. When I started watching the show, I gasped at a lot of what he said/did. However, it was also refreshing - more importantly, it was real. People do think that way and say those things at times. Also, it was funny. Bill Maher's humor is the same. There is nothing sacred and it's humorous as hell. For me, it's his delivery. Never mean spirited, simply astute.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I see how you ended up on the edge here, James. The question for me would be how do you want the reader to see the main character? Is she evil with no hope of redemption? It has to be difficult writing a story with the main character as the villain--and harder still, to make it humorous especially if the evil acts are truly vile. Now, if on the other hand, the character attempts evil deeds but is always thwarted in some way, that could be funny. It's very risky business.
About the rules:
1. Necrophillia: Well shoot, the person is dead, but I think some readers might be offended if it's taken too far.
2. Incest: never good. I think this is one of those areas where having a villain as a main character and attempting comedy would be too difficult to pull off.
3. Rape: Not good if you want to make it a comedy. Next to murder, rape is the most violent crime to a woman. I'm not sure even an evil woman "deserves" rape. I'd be very careful.
4. Killing the guilty: I agree,it's not going to disturb most readers.
5. Killing of innocent people: It depends. If the villain is doing the killing, it's probably expected, but funny? Maybe not so much. I may be misenturpreting some your intentions here.
6. Making light of sickness: I can see it working if it's among the sick, like an inside joke.
7. Religion and politics: I agree that there is a wide berth here. Some of this could be very funny. Your readers would have to be enlightened people to enjoy it.
8. Beastiality: Well people make jokes about this one all the time. I wouldn't want to read the details, but you said you didn't do that anyway.
9. Child abuse: If your books are comedies, I cannot see how this would work. In a serious and deeply moving story, child abuse could give insight into a character's actions/motivations, but it might seem callas and insensitive for a comedy.
Of course, I haven't read each of these as they have been used in your stories, so I could be entirely wrong. The response of your readers is going to be your best test of what works and what doesn't. What have reviewers said about your work? Did they find areas that were offensive? Are your sales healthy? How do you feel about your work? If you have reservations, your readers may have the same reservations. Well, I've given my most honest opinions here, but only you know what it is you want your work to say to your readers.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Sarah and Tina. I loved your comments and spent over an 30 minutes responding to them, but Blogger threw the comments away when I tried to save them. Oh, how I wished I had copied them before typing the words. For whatever reason, the program went off into some "give me your cell phone" number realm, and never came back. I just can't go through all that again, but I want you to know how much I appreciated the time you spent -- and I wanted to tell you that.

Overall, in my books, good always wins out over evil, and Miss Havana has gradually grown to be a nicer person. Her offspring, Lilith, however, has become the devil's own. Despite her evil, everything backfires on her. The only place where things got dicey for me was in killing a child in "The Trophy Wife," but I can assure you there was a very good reason for doing it. That novel has two stories (like "Animal Farm"). It is my hope that the second story will not be obvious, even though the book is written for the purpose of highlighting the hidden story in the first place.

Thanks again for your comments,

James L. Hatch

Kathy Otten said...

I suppose in humorous ways, like the lying sheep joke, it's okay if it suits the tone of the book.

Tim Smith said...

James, this is a strange and wonderful universe you inhabit, my friend LOL.

You've brought up some good points. The only ones I can speak to are child abuse/incest and racial remarks.

In one of my books, the heroine came from a background where her stepfather would get drunk, wail on her mother then "attempt" to crawl into her bed. I made it clear that nothing ever happened, but my editor had me drop in a couple more reminders to make it crystal clear.

In another story the villainess made a racially-charged insult to the heroine and the only way I got away with it was because the mean lady got hers in the end, thanks to the hero.

Good post and excerpt!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi, Kathy. I think you are totally on point. I try to do everything with humor. Bad guys get theirs in the end; good guys come out on top. The lying sheep joke is typical, and that is the ONLY sense in which animal love is involved (nothing real).

Thank you for stopping by!

James L. Hatch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James L. Hatch said...

Hello, Tim Smith. You know, I've just never considered a racial comment of any kind. didn't even cross my mind. But as for the other stuff, I try to handle it carefully. Nothing blatant, and always with humor. My characters are, after all, (1) the devil, (2) the daughter of the devil, (3) the ex-mate of the devil ... you get the picture. A few good people get trampled in the process, but hey ... it's the devil.

On a more serious note, the latest novel ("The Trophy Wife") has a twist that is new, at least for me. Miss Havana has made a gradual transition from horrid to so-so to almost prudish. I have to be more careful with her now. On the other hand, there is a hidden story in that novel, like there was in "Animal Farm." The hidden story sometimes causes me to introduce snippets of terror into the story that, without the hidden story, I'd probably leave out. As much as anything, I think I just want to prove to myself I can do it -- two stories for the price of one. We'll see soon; I'm at 80,000 words now.

Thanks for your great comments, Tim.

James L. Hatch