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How To Avoid Prejudice in Fiction, by Jack Heath

“Today, I shall demean women,” says the novelist. “If I have time, I’ll  also reinforce some negative perceptions of migrants and bisexual  people.”

This never happens. The author is usually oblivious to  the sexism, racism and homophobia in his or her book. The subconscious  nature of prejudice is what makes it so hard to kill.

But kill it you must. Not for the good of humanity – sorry, your novel is unlikely to change the world, no matter how good or bad it is – but  for yourself. You may not notice your biases but readers will and they will not hesitate to condemn your book for them. And if you hope to  write an enduring classic, you cannot make do with what is currently  acceptable. In fifty years, more enlightened readers will cringe at much of what is written today, just as it’s now impossible to read the  original Noddy books without flinching.

Please don’t assume I am speaking only to white, heterosexual men.  We all have a tendency to rely on the same stereotypes, regardless of  our own attributes.

Fortunately, this isn’t a difficult problem to fix. Simply ask yourself this question after writing ever scene:

“If the character’s gender/ethnicity/sexuality was different, would I have written this the same way?”

If the answer is yes, then you may move on to the next scene.

If the answer is no, ask yourself why.

There may be a perfectly good  reason; it doesn’t make much sense for a gay couple to experience an  unplanned pregnancy, for example. I recently considered reversing the  gender of one of my protagonists but decided not to, since a woman is  unlikely to be able to beat a 7-foot male convict to death with her bare hands, and this was a crucial part of the plot.

But if there is no logical reason, only a “feeling”, then your own  prejudice may be coming into play. The scene should probably be changed.
Some characters to avoid:

  • A female character whose main concern is her love life, the love lives of other people, her appearance (especially her weight) or whose primary  importance comes from her father/husband (e.g. the president’s daughter, the billionaire’s wife)
  • An exuberant gay character who provides cheap laughs and funny mannerisms but whose intentions have no relevance to the story
  • A foreigner who is either a crafty villain (always doing bad things) or a hapless victim (always having bad things done to them).

In general, ask yourself what the defining characteristic of each  character is. If your instinct is to say “she’s a teenage thief”, “he’s a genetically engineered superhuman” or “he’s a homeless cannibal”, then  that’s good. If you find yourself saying “she’s a girl”, “he’s Chinese”, or “she’s gay”, then your book has a serious problem.

One last thing. Rather than avoiding prejudice, you may decide to  write a novel about it. Perhaps the main character is a woman in a man’s world, or a lesbian who wants to get married. Good for you. But if you want your book to be relevent in 2050, remember that there must be more to the story than oppression. These issues won’t be issues by then – the times, they are a changin’.


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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Ali #

    I take your point, Jack. I abhor prejudice and I involuntarily grimace when I come across something non-PC in an older book. The thing is, like it or not, we–writers and readers–are products of the culture we live in. Everything we write will one day be type of cultural relic, a sliver of our mindset that displays our biases and strengths. In this Post Modern era, we happen to prize tolerance and thank goodness we do. It makes living in our increasingly homogenised world a little more stable and pleasant. I wonder though if we can expect future generations to continue to uphold tolerance as the pinnacle value. If all goes according to plan, and we stop hating on everyone who’s different, won’t tolerance have become obsolete? Isn’t it possible that our bias towards tolerance will seem queer (in the old sense of the word) to future evolved generations reading works of today? I fear the cultural cringe is inevitable, no matter how diligently we try to avoid prejudice.

    I read an article in the New York Times recently about a parent who stumbled over the stereotypes in classic children’s literature. His child asked why there was a gorilla on a pirate ship. Much to dad’s embarrassment, the gorilla was actually an African, depicted in caricature, a style which, of course, pushes stereotypes to grotesque extremes. The father didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing and sweated it.

    While we adults squirm, children are just curious. They are not shaking their little heads and tut-tutting, “How could you people have been so judgmental.” Yes, of course we should use the opportunity to teach younger generations to be accepting and inclusive. Yes, as you suggest, we writers should be careful to avoid negative bias. At the same time I think we have to be mindful of making our writing conspicuously self-conscious.

    Instead of curling up in embarrassment over our ancestors’ unenlightened mindsets and gross misrepresentations of diversity, maybe we should celebrate the fact that we of this era have wrought some change, hopefully for the better and, with any luck, for the long haul.

    June 28, 2012

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