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 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’.