A commenter mentioned being annoyed that in a post about scenes, I spoke about my characters "male-bashing" (with words, not bludgeons :). Wasn't that sexist? If it were reversed, and these were male characters trashing women as a group, would I be more sensitive?
That brought up an interesting issue! At what point does our portrayal of characters being offensive become offensive "from us"? If I have a character who insults a group or is otherwise objectionable, does that mean I am espousing those sentiments? What if there are several characters like that? (I don't mean just politically incorrect offensiveness, but maybe also violence or discrimination.) When does it stop being just offensive characters and become an offensive book by an offensive author?
But... it gets so complicated when we're working with fictional characters. Every character we create is within us, they say, so perhaps a reflection of us. Yet if we create only characters that reflect what is best about us, well, there won't be much conflict in our books! Not to mention, you can't always know ahead of time what will offend someone somewhere.
Recently I was teaching character point of view to college students, and this issue came up. Most of their "novels" are really sort of fictionalized memoirs, with (probably idealized) selves as narrators. There was some bafflement when we read "A Cask of Amontillado" where the first-person narrator is truly an evil guy. (One of the worst ever-- walls up a friend for committing "an insult" and leaves him to die). They weren't sure how Poe might write a bad narrator without being bad himself, and who knows? Can we create a character who is not within us? Or should we even try? (And Poe of all writers has probably suffered the most slings and arrows because his first-person narrators are so nasty... many readers and his first biographer succumbed to the belief that they were him.)
I often wonder if mystery writers or thriller writers are associated with the bad behavior of their characters. We think, oh, yes, it's just fiction, but deep within, we might wonder... well, if she created this plausible serial murderer, does she have a serial murderer within???
I bet we've all read books where the entire tone and plot seem to push some offensive button-- it's not just one character who hates Italians, it's all of them, and there are three scenes where someone gets food poisoning at an Italian restaurant, and then there are all those metaphors referring to the Mafia, and the only joke in the book has a punchline about the dirtiness of Venice canals, and.... Yeah, it's not just "subtext" that's screaming out there.
In my own writing, sometimes I'll notice I have a character will reflect some silly prejudice of my own, usually something like "only children" or "people who bring potato chips to a potluck dinner" or "those annoying sorts who are cheerful at 6 am." And I do sense sometimes I just give it a bit too much emphasis to this Thing I Don't Like, you know, sliding into rant-territory.
One of my characters was "authentic" in a lot of ways, bristly and angry and sardonic, but at some point, it just went too far, and readers didn't like her or sympathize with her. Worst of all, they didn't want to spend time with her. I don't think we need to make characters "likeable" to keep readers interested, but there is a point where the character just gets tiresome. I didn't want to make her a wimp or trivialize her justifiable anger about the past. But I found several "offense-ticklers" and phased them out. Like she had a habit of endowing people with slightly mean nicknames. And she was always thinking if not saying defensive responses to other characters' conversations. Once I could isolate the "too much", I was able (I hope) to make her both herself and reader-involving.
I notice I keep saying, "There's a point where...." That indicates, I guess, that this is a matter of degree, that what's acceptable at 48% can become annoying at 55%.