The Help Desk: I want to write a historical novel, but history is really, really racist

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Dear Cienna,

I’m a white writer, and I’m writing a historical novel. One of the characters — a villain, I guess you’d say — is racist as fuck. This is important to the plot.

But every time I write his dialogue, I cringe. He says the n-word a lot. A lot. It’s historically appropriate for him to do this, and I try to incorporate other racist synonyms when I can, but the truth is that if this guy was alive then, he’d be saying the n-word a lot. A lot.

Cienna, I’m half-inclined to use asterisks for the word in the body of the novel whenever he says the n-word because I’m so uncomfortable using it, but I think that would be silly and pull the reader out of the story and I don’t think my publisher would allow it. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Quentin Tarantino’s movies are aging about as well as The Jazz Singer in part because of his rampant use of the n-word. So what should I do?

Sondra, Northgate

Dear Sondra,

If you publish your manuscript, I can guarantee that no critic or reader will think, "not enough 'N' words for my taste." Part of writing well is understanding the power of language – when powerful words underscore your point and when they disrupt your narrative.

The N word is the most hate-filled word in the American English language. Period. An asterisk does not make it okay to use – if anything, it is an acknowledgement that you shouldn't be using it.

Yes, the word has been used historically in texts and no, I do not believe it should be censored from works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but there is a difference between writing in a period and writing about a period. Your writing is informed by almost 150 years of brutal history after the works of Mark Twain.

As a writer, you know good writing involves showing over telling. There are plenty of ways to show racism and racist thought that are more powerful than going Nuclear – if you're stumped, look to our current president and his administration for examples. Or grab one of the synonyms you've been using and stick to it – repetition builds meaning, and by layering the racist actions of your character with his repetition of a less hateful word, your readers will have no problem understanding his nature.