Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Do Not Mean to Offend

I recently became aware of a criticism of the book Graceling by Kristen Cashore (if you haven’t read Graceling and plan to you may want to skip the following paragraph.  I will try to be vague, but there will be SPOILERS). 

In Graceling a character becomes disabled, but he has a special power called a grace that eventually allows him to compensate for the disability.  It was brought to Kristen’s attention that the magical cure for disabilities often seen in fantasy novels is hurtful to the disabled because it promotes the idea that in order to be whole, someone must be cured of the disability.  And clearly someone who is disabled and can’t be magically cured and has been able to live a fulfilling life as a whole person, may be insulted by this insinuation.  Kristen addresses this in her blog found here and is very open and honest about it.

On the writing site Absolute Write (a great site, very useful with lots of smart, nice aspiring and published writers), every once and a while someone starts a thread asking for advice on how to write a character of different race or of a different sexual orientation or with a disability, and I’ve seen some of these threads end in frustration on the part of the OP because there are so many pitfalls to avoid, some of which are contradictory. 

No one (that I know) wants to make anyone feel lesser or railroaded into a stereotype or marginalized.  But there seems to be no way to write a minority character that won’t offend someone.  A lot of times writers who really wanted to include a minority, end up choosing not to.  It is safer and easier not to include a minority character, which also leads to criticism of white washing or straight washing, etc.

It's a cute movie, but is it a little sexist?
But besides writing minorities, there are other issues that frequently come up on the forum.  Every once and a while, there are criticisms about books or movies being sexist, either subtly or overtly.  There is the Madonna-whore complex (where every female character is either virginal or a prostitute), slut shaming (where any female character who is sexually active is bad), and feeding into rape culture.  Female characters are criticized for being too passive or too domineering or too manipulative; and male characters for being too controlling or too violent or too stupid, needing the women to solve all their problems because men can’t seem to function properly without a woman’s guidance.   And honestly if you look hard enough, you can see issues like these in almost every book, movie, and TV series.   I saw Brave last weekend (a great show about a mother-daughter relationship), and there are already criticism about subtle sexism in that movie

All of this fear of unintentionally being offensive or propagating hurtful stereotypes or promoting harmful ideas can be stifling.  I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t try to be sensitive and consider what might be hurtful, but honestly if every character and situation was written to ensure that every aspect of the story fit political correctness, the story and characters could feel forced.  Over-thinking in any way can make a story unauthentic.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I have flaws.  I try really hard to be open and fair, but I’m sure I have prejudices that I can’t see.  I am a product of this imperfect world, raised by wonderful but imperfect parents.  No matter how hard I try not to offend someone, my stories will reflect my imperfect world view, and I’m sure if I ever get readers, some of them will be savvy enough to point out those flaws.

So what do you do as a writer?  Do you stress about unintended messages that might leak into your story? Do you go over your MS with a fine-toothed comb nixing any phrase, characterization, or plot turn that could possibly be interpreted as politically incorrect?  Or do you write from your heart and don’t worry about it? 

Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is.



  1. I think there are a few different issues here, and it's hard to tease them out. Some of the issues of sexism and particularly of romance that reinforces harmful messages is something that continues because it sells, and because women respond to it. And so I think if you have a problem with the way a book portrays romance (like Edward's controlling behavior in Twilight, or the comically extreme version of that in those *other* books), then the problem lies more with the market than with the author.

    As far as stereotypes, that's something authors need to be aware of but they have to trust their imaginations, too, or they'll never get anywhere. We have just as many tired tropes born out of a desire to be sensitive (like the Wise Native American Spiritual Guide trope) as we have overused negative stereotypes. The character overcoming the stereotype can become a stereotype in itself.

    Ultimately readers know when a character is fully drawn. We might disagree with the messages around that character or wish it hadn't reinforced a stereotype, but if the character is fully drawn, then we know the author thought about the characteristics of an individual (though made up) person, and not of a collection of census data. And I think that counts for a lot.

    1. You are right Sarah, on all accounts. :)

      Readers do know when a character is fully drawn, and to have a real fully fleshed out individual is the surest way to avoid a stereotype. Not an easy task, and requires a lot of research when writing someone with a different life experiences and world view than you.

      And I agree that that some harmful messages in romance (like bodice rippers) is an issue of a market, but I don't have to write for those markets, so I think authors have some responsibility there.

      And I do realize I've tied a lot of issues together, but these are the things that concern me as I write, and my point really isn't about the issues, but about feeling a social obligation to not contribute to the problems in our society through my stories. And yet if I took out all the elements that concern me, my stories pretty much fall apart.

      Honestly, I'd like to not worry about it. To just write from my heart without any concerns about social obligations (and that is what I've done so far), but as I get closer to thinking of putting my stories out there, I can't help wonder if I should be more concerned about these things.

  2. Trying to create a world free of sexism, racism, and stereotypes is impossible. Unfortunaitely, these are reflections of our believes in society. Everyone thinks that he/she has no prejudices but then if no one is sexist, racist, or ect then why does it exist in our society. It comes back to the same problem that I am not racist or sexist but others are. In my college diveristy class I learn one important truth. I do have prejudices and everyone does but trying to be aware of them instead of denying them allows me to realize that it is my preconceived preceptions not them. I think what is so wrong with the writers believe system getting into their worlds. For example, we get so angry with sexism but none of us know how to have the perfect relationship. Men and women have believe systems that support sexism. Maybe if the books are imperfect then we have more to discuss and learn from.

    1. I agree that it is impossible for a writer to keep his/her world view out of the stories. No one is perfect, and even our politically correct views of today may be seen in a different light in the future.

      In some ways I think there is authenticity in being honest with your personal world view in your stories and not trying to modify them to fit what is currently popular.

  3. I just wrote the most brilliant comment ever, and I don't know what happened to it. I'm so sad. Here's the short version--

    In real life, sometimes people with handicaps are healed, or their handicap is taken away. Sometimes they learn to cope with it so well that it seems like the don't have a handicap anymore. Because this is true, what happens to a character with handicaps in Kristen Cashore's novel is only marginalizing or demeaning if being magically healed is the only way to a fulfilling life.

    So when we notice that we've created a stereotyped character, or written something that sends a message we weren't intending, one option might be to create another character who is dealing with the same issue in another way--i.e. if Cashore created another character with the same handicap who can't magically heal and yet is still living a fulfilling life.

    It's late, I'm on a borrowed computer and I haven't gotten enough sleep this week, so I might wake up and realize this is rubbish, but at the moment this idea seems very genius-like.

    Great post!

    1. Melanie, I like your idea of balance. The problem is never just with one character, but seeing the same thing over and over again in lots of different books. So having two disabled character with one of them being magically healed and the other learning how to adapt sounds brilliant to me. :)

  4. I never shy away from sensitive groups, possibly because I am one. My last story's protagonist is a young man on a wheelchair and I haven't heard anyone complaining of being rude to the disabled (probably because only 6 people've read it so far). My current WIP's protagonist is a man that doesn't like the company of a certain ethnic group.

    My other WIP's protagonist is a black man but since I haven't met any black people personally, I have no idea what might offend them. Is the term 'black person' offensive? I didn't mean it as offensive so if someone is offened by my words, they obviously want to be offended. There's really nothing I can do so I don't worry about it.

    The point is, worrying about this sort of stuff only puts your writing on hold and then it's just another excuse not to publish your work.

    Your characters are not you. That's the beauty of writing. I create the characters as they need to be to tell the story. The rest is bickering by people who spend way too much time and energy looking for stuff that offends them.

    Every nation has a national sport. Wanting to be offended seems to be one of them.

    1. In some ways I agree with you, and I think we shouldn't shy away from certain characters and issues, or let it hold you back from finishing and publishing stories.

      But there are certain tropes that can be applied to me that I see a lot that become irritating like the evil or incompetent scientist. Especially when it reinforces a fear of science in the general public, so I think I understand why stereotypes or some tropes became really irritating and even offensive. Seeing it once or twice isn't the problem, but seeing the same stereotype over and over in book after book and movie after movie really gets grating, and even more so if it was applied to a personal aspect like race, gender, or religion.

      Anyway, I think it is good to be aware of these issues. And maybe it all comes down to making real, three dimensional characters, and not trapping anyone, even a character, into any preconceived notions.

  5. I have thought and thought on this post, and am having such a hard time articulating any of the things that are spinning around in my head, so, maybe it's just best to say, this is a very thought provoking piece, and I apprieciate that you've really made me think about these issues.
    Excellent post.

    1. Thanks Susan. I'm glad it was thought provoking. :)

  6. I try to be fair, but I don't pull my hair out trying to make sure I don't offend anyone. There is always, ALWAYS someone who is going to be offended. I think Kristin Cashore handled it very well. She appologized for the oversight and I'm sure the experience expanded her horizon just a bit. It has expanded mine, as well. Thank you for the post. I know I'll have this in the back of my mind as I write now.

  7. The problem with books is how autobiographically they are taken, and how autobiographical they sometimes are without our meaning for them to be. Writing comes, in my experience, from the subconscious, and even if your mind thinks differently, subconscious thinking can be racist, sexist, or politically incorrect.

    I think this matter is something to reflect on in the second draft.


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