Guest blogger Paul D. Marks wonders how to convey the evil of racism without employing racist language and situations.
My novel White Heat is an intense, highly charged mystery thriller that begins where the "Rodney King" riots leave off and is being released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of those riots. But it might as well have been written today as the things it deals with are in today's news: the Trayvon Martin shooting by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, the shooting of Kendrec McDade by Pasadena police, as well as the shooting of several African-Americans in Oklahoma. One would have thought that things would have changed more in the last twenty years. But you know what they say, the more things change…
Los Angeles P.I. Duke Rogers finds himself in a racially charged situation. He inadvertently helps a client find an old "friend," Teddie Matson, an up and coming African-American actress. When the client's friend is murdered, Duke knows who did it. Guilt overwhelms him and he takes it upon himself to find the killer, his client. This leads him into South Central Los Angeles in April of 1992, just as the "Rodney King" riots ignite. While he tries to track down the killer, he must also deal with the racism of his partner, Jack, and from the dead woman's brother, Warren. He must also confront his own latent racism – even as he's in an interracial relationship with the murder victim's sister.
In real life we often don't know who we really are until we are tested. It could be in war or in everyday situations such as those depicted on the show "What Would You Do?" Do we do the right thing, or do we avoid getting involved? Are we willing to lay our lives on the line or do something but not go as far as putting our lives out there?
That's what I like to do with my characters. Put them in situations that test them. See if they measure up.
Duke's partner Jack talks like a racist, but when push comes to shove what will he do? Same with the dead victim's brother in the story, only he is black and Jack is white. Duke is in the middle, trying to do the right thing and fighting his own suspected demons.
In order to have a strong characters, I think you need to plunge them into situations that push them to their limits. This can often push readers to their own limits. As one reviewer said: "White Heat is a tough, tersely-written book featuring tough, complicated, and not always lovable characters who might push many readers to the very edge of their comfort zone. But it's honest and it's real, and it doesn't pander to its audience by providing pat or phony answers to the many complex issues it raises."
White Heat was a tough novel to write because it deals with uncomfortable, tough issues in an uncompromising, harsh way. I had reservations about using certain language in the book – i.e. racial epithets – and still worry that someone will misinterpret them. We live in a time when they are taking Huckleberry Finn off the school library shelves and when people get offended at the slightest excuse. As a writer I wanted to portray things realistically and honestly. So ultimately I came to the conclusion that I had to use harsh language and tough situations to tell the story. I think readers will see that when they read the book.