In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice and Benedick, the worst of rivals, are set up by their friends to fall in love. So that by Act 2, Scene 3, when Beatrice says, “Against my will I am sent to bid you come into dinner,” Benedick believes that Beatrice is madly in love with him, while Beatrice believes him to be an ass. After she exits, he says in all smugness, “Ha! Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner. There’s a double meaning in that.”
Someone I know once asked an English teacher how he knew the author intended the symbolism the teacher was accusing him of. The teacher replied, “It doesn’t matter.” As an author this makes me want to poke him in the eye just a little bit. But in the end he’s right; stories mean something to a reader independent of the writer’s intentions. Each reader brings their own experiences to a book and a writer can’t predict them. So how can an author prevent his readers from pulling a Benedick and seeing double meanings where none are intended?
It’s a very secret and advanced technique called (wait for it): educated guessing. And good beta readers. As an author I try to learn about other points of view, so that I can write stronger more realistic characters and then I rely on my writers group to read through a piece and throw up flags around text that might unintentionally carry a subtext that’s either offensive or poorly thought out. It’s hard to think that something I’ve written could be construed as offensive, because after all, I am I and I’m awesome and I have only the best of intentions. But we all have prejudices or periodically spout unexamined notions that have been fed to us by society.
An easy example is “pink is only for girls”. This statement is both observationally false (been to the mall lately?), and historically inaccurate (pink used to be a boys color). Color is a product of light bouncing off a surface or being absorbed (we see the portion of the spectrum bounced back); any deeper meaning has been assigned to a color by humanity. So unless my character is a sexist and I need him or her to say total nonsense about gender roles, I probably shouldn’t write that and a good beta reader should flag it as a problem. With any luck I can keep the unintentional double meanings to a minimum. I don’t want to be a Benedick.