Avoiding Insensitivity in Characters or Story

Unsplash photo -LeeAnn Cline

Hi SEers, John here with you again. Today I want to discuss authorship in light of the changing environment within our social framework. What do I mean by that statement? Well, to put it bluntly, I think it is time to take a look at how we write characters and stories in an atmosphere of ever-increasing sensitivity to the possibility of offending individuals and groups of people. Put another way, maybe it is time to seriously ponder the question, “Am I knowingly or unknowingly writing characters or a story which casts aspersions on anyone relative to their race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, or age?”

Now you may wonder why I suggest asking the question that I posed. I’m sure none of us would knowingly write any situation that in our heart knew discriminated against others. The key to the question is we may write something that we didn’t think would discriminate but did that exactly. How could this be? Think of how the concept of individual rights has changed over the years. These changes have come about through education and evolving acceptance within social norms.

An example is the lack of shock value of same-sex relationships on prime-time T.V. programming today. The first was L.A. Law in 1991 and showed a romantic kiss between two women. Such a physical demonstration between the two would never have been acceptable to the network censors before that time. Sure, same-sex relationships existed in real life, but networks were reluctant to include that slice of life in their shows.

To take it one step further, could you picture yourself writing a story where there is criticism of such a relationship. Of course, you can.  A historical novel could have all kinds of criticism for same-sex intimacy depending on when it takes place. So, what is my point? It is a simple one. In writing the story of the same-sex relationship, are you the author taking the view of those doing the criticisms or the view of the lovers? One more question. If you are taking the position of the lovers, how do you know your opinion is correct?

The sweater begins to unravel quickly with the first pull of the string. Here’s how. Unless you are in a same-sex relationship, are you confident you have the feeling and emotions of that relationship, correct? I think most of us would have to say, in all honesty, we are not sure.

What is the downside of writing about a relationship that we don’t fully understand? The first is we could be laughed out of town by those we write about since we obviously don’t get it. Secondly, we could inadvertently write untruths that serve to hurt the feelings and maybe even denigrate those who read them. The first is all about us becoming a joke. The second is all about becoming a voice of discrimination.

I don’t mean to isolate just same-sex relationships in this discussion. The same applies to race, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, and age. The caution here is that if you are not part of a group you are writing about, be very diligent in your research. Some would say unless you are a part of a group, don’t write about them. I disagree since I do not want to believe that writers can only write what they know.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought.

Do you have any thoughts about writing outside your situation or other items raised by this post? Let me know in the comments.

118 thoughts on “Avoiding Insensitivity in Characters or Story

  1. I don’t know how I missed this one but am glad you provided the link. I think the cultural appropriation thing has gone over the cliff. Isn’t it part of the job of a writer to do research if they want to write about something they are unfamiliar with – be it science, geography, history, cultures? The reason I mention this is I have an author friend who cannot get publishers interested in a beautiful love story between a Jewish man (she is Jewish – but not a man) and a Native American woman. She did her research, she had two aboriginals go through it to ensure she got it right. She made the changes they suggested. Publishers won’t touch it because of this brouhaha…
    This was most interesting, my friend. It, like everything, has become something we must be so careful with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! The historical novel I’ve been writing over a period of years includes a relationship between a male slave of color and a free woman of color. It also has the dynamic of the white slave owner. It takes place in the Carolina backcountry in 1769. Researching the laws governing slaves in South Carolina during that era has been key to what was legal and what was illegal, but writing the mindsets and emotions of each character has been a challenge. I’m ever cognizant of the fact that I can’t truly know how it felt to be in the shoes of the slave or the free woman of color in that or any time; however, it is also true that I cannot fully grasp how it felt to be a white woman in that time or place. That said, the attempt at writing from the point-of-view of each one is a joy and stretches my thinking. I’m not quite to the point of giving the manuscript to beta and sensitivity readers, but I am eager (and anxious!) to do so. It was distressing last week to learn from the American Library Association that To Kill a Mockingbird was once again among the top ten banned books in 2020. Although the story line should offend our sensibilities in 2021, I believe it probably paints a fairly accurate picture of a possible scenario in Alabama a century ago. What would the American literature collection look like without To Kill a Mockingbird? If we don’t study history and read (and write!) good fiction, we are living with blinders on and can’t possibly make the world a better place in our own time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi John,
    You made some very interesting points there, as did so many other authors here.
    I have a different dilemma as an author. My books are memoirs of when I lived in Africa in the 1980s.
    I do not try to write about African culture, of which I know insufficient, but recount what we did as an expat family – the good experiences, the not so good experiences, the hilarious bits (plenty of those) and the bad parts.
    Most of my recollections are supported by copies of letters I wrote to friends and family. There are good and bad people in every nationality, and where bad things happened to us I wrote an honest account. I have had some reviews accusing me of being a racist, which I most certainly am not. If those same things had happened to me in the country of my birth I would have recounted it in the same way.
    I told my story of the way things were there 40 years ago, and I cannot change that. It would not be realistic to leave out the bad things just in case someone is offended.
    So I’m not really sure where this leaves me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: What to Do With Books That Are Insensitive to Social Norms | Story Empire

  5. Great topic, john! I don’t believe in just writing what we know either. As writers should be able to write about whatever we want. That’s what research and sensitivity readers are for. If you’re writing about a gay couple and you’re not gay, you can get a group of gay friends to read the story for harmful or oppressive content. If you’re writing about a race that isn’t your own make sure that at least two of your beta readers are of that race. A sensitivity reader’s purpose is to spot cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, and stereotypes. Thank you for writing about this, John! 😀 xo

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Great post, John! To me, authenticity is most important. My series slowly builds itself into having a gay couple, but I do so by focusing on love (not sexual energy). It’s a YA novel, so I wanted all walks of life to be able to enjoy the story without feeling offended, and I hope I’ve done right by all groups.I enjoy including various races and cultures in my stories. As an Army brat, I grew up in various countries and cultures, and I have friends from all over the world. I don’t focus on the culture within the story, but I try to make my characters diverse when I can. I’m not all-inclusive (yet), but it is something I think about when I’m creating characters. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  7. There is nothing I can say that has not already been said. Historical truth must be stated even though we might not like what happened. Censorship is a dangerous and difficult road to travel.
    This has been a most interesting post, John, and a topic that we as writers must be cognizant of. I read every comment from above and I appreciate each of their opinions. We all have much to learn. We all must be respectful. We all must tell the historical truth.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I think this is a great topic to bring up for discussion, John. Vigilance is a good idea for every author. I think writing fantasy makes things a little easier as I can ignore the modern world, modern biases, and real cultures that I might misrepresent. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Watching American programmes and films when I was a child I thought all American couples slept in separate beds! Was it rue they weren’t allowed to show double beds? I think we can write about characters of all sorts, but mostly not in the first person. But imagination is valid, if we only wrote what we knew, our chaps might all be a combination of our father, brother and husband and our first person characters an improved version of ourselves!

    Liked by 2 people

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  11. This is excellent, John. Writers have so much to think about. I like what you say about writers being able to write about things they might not know first-hand, but only with a lot of research and deep thought. I’m so glad I saw this!

    Liked by 3 people

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  13. Hi,
    I really don’t know what to say. I believe the writer has to write how he or she perceives the world with open eyes, but I don’t see a lot of that happening. One of the reasons that I decided to go public with my writing was the lack of color that I saw in any of the books I read. And if there was color, you could be sure that it was downright degrading.
    Having lived in Europe for some time, I also admit that when I first came here, I, as an African American woman, was definitely a racist and had stereotyped people into different categories. It took living in a multi-cultural society away from the stigma of classifying people as black or white to transform my mind.
    I agree with what The Paltry Sum said about perpetuating racism and stereotypical tropes. Research is not enough to write a book. If you’re going to go on research alone, you will probably miss the boat and a group of people will be offended. You need to have lived in the culture, even if only for a month. Getting to know people is what tears down racism of any kind. Getting to know the culture erases the stereotypes.
    I’m not putting down research, because I do a lot of research on what I write, but I say again research alone is not enough.
    Shalom aleichem

    Liked by 5 people

  14. I think it’s a no win situation right now. If we don’t include diversity right now, we’re criticized. And if we do, we worry that we’ll offend someone, even when we’re trying really hard not to. I’ve just decided to try to do my best and make each character real and honest. That’s all I can do. I don’t want to exclude them because I think that’s wrong, too. Two of my friends are writing historical novels, and it’s even harder for them. If they’re true to the times, people have called them prejudiced and worst, but if they can’t portray characters who are racist or biased, they lose the point of the story. Writing about a character is often NOT the view of the author, and it’s not fair to judge them for what one of their characters might think. But people are sensitive right now, and it makes it hard to tackle tricky subjects.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. You have opened an interesting can of worms here, John. Sorry if I’ve offended any worms. I have characters who suffer from a conditions that that were not well understood or tolerated in the time frame in which the story is set. I’m certain some readers will be offended by some situations, but to leave them out would stretch the limits of fiction. I am hoping that a well-worded preface will help, but the only other option is to not tell the story.

    Thank you for bringing this topic to SE. I have read and I appreciate the comments by others.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. A wonderful and timely post, John. When I write ideally its about the human experience and I could leave out details of the person’s physical traits easily . But, as you said we are awakening and have to consider what we are saying and how are are saying it. I completely agree research is a good beginning point and having personal knowledge even better, yet we can never really know what a person is going through unless we live their lives. I’m much more comfortable observing a character whose life I haven’t experienced through another characters eyes where I understand the experience more. It requires a lot of balance and ability to adapt to constant change. I’ve wanted to continue my historical fiction story set in the early 1900s. I’m a bit leary because even a few years ago I upset a person or two for portraying what was available to women and girls then. I made an adjustment, but worry it would be even more difficult now to write, which went off the subject a bit but some things are getting harder to write and putting it in the past even harder. I admit to being irritated at some female characters written by a couple male authors, they were given a male’s thought process that didn’t work. I think being mindful now, and having extra eyes on our work, can help us avoid offending others. I try to live and write without hurting anyone, and yet learn so I can help in our awareness through fiction. Hopefully someday our differences will be few and what we have in common more of the focus. Thanks, John for a great topic.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for a great comment, Denise. If you wrote an accurate historical novel today there are no number of stones that would hit your house for depicting life the way it was. Currently there is a strong move to eliminate the history or to radically change it to more closely fit todays norms. I think that is a form of censorship that all authors should decry. Your points are well taken, Denise and I wish you well with any future historical work. 😁

      Liked by 2 people

      • So true, John. I don’t we should cancel history, we should be learning from it so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again. Writing my answer provided clarity why I’ve been putting off this sequel for a long time. At least I’d write it for adults over kids so I don’t have to go down the road of I’m traumatizing children with history:)

        Liked by 3 people

      • Denise, I totally agree that we shouldn’t cancel history. In my soon-to-be-released short story, most of the scenes take place in the 1960s. Although I don’t take a political stand, I do mention a prominent political family of that era (the Kennedys). Some people may get offended, but what happened back then happened. We can change the fact that two brothers were assassinated.

        Liked by 3 people

      • No Joan we can’t change those facts, and it’s sad people are trying to do that. Luckily there are still people around who remember what happened. I love books set in that era and can’t wait for yours. In the one I wrote set in the 80s I didn’t mention anything at all political, just the music and clothes worn. I have another waiting for me set in the 60s, the focus has mainly been on the music, but I will be diving into some of the culture of that time frame. For adults, I’m not going to bend like I did for my children’s book, but I will be sensitive at the same time.

        Liked by 3 people

  17. This is a very relevant subject, John. Diversity has hit us square in the face over the last few months and I think this is a good thing, BUT, and it’s a big but, as writers we must tread carefully. Part of the problem is research. Things are changing so rapidly, that what is fact today becomes a point of contention tomorrow.
    I agree that we can’t ignore cultural change (or awakening is maybe a better term). It’s our job as writers to teach, even if it’s in a fictional setting, but when everything is gray it’s hard to shed some light.
    This is a very important topic, John, thank you for opening a conversation about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. The only thing I can add to this discussion is that I don’t write 1st person POVs that I have no experience with. Hence, both of my two characters that I usually write in first person are women, specifically southern women. I’m one of those too, and feel comfortable with that. Men and children are always written in 3rd person POV, because I’ve seen plenty of them, and feel I can describe them, their actions, and some of their motives fairly safely, due to years of observation .

    I have a secondary character in my Riverbend series who is a gay man in a solid relationship. As someone who has had several very close gay friends in my life, I think I can handle this particular character, though of course, everyone (regardless of general groupings) is unique. Years ago, I spent some months taking care of the terminally ill partner of my best gay friend of 40+ years’ standing, and hopefully have some insight into that particular relationship, at the very least. My Riverbend character is having a slightly larger role than his usual in my current WIP, mostly because he offers a chance for one of my regular characters to have a bit of a growth/learning experience. But my main characters are all amalgams of people I have known and lived around all my life, and that’s fine with me. Yes, it’s writing some of what I know, but they are the people I actually want to write about, no matter what current trends are out there. So, I guess I’m playing it safe in that way, but at the same time, basing my plots in what they experience in their journeys, rather than just who they are.

    Very interesting post, John, and something I’m pretty cautious about. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      • I write for the sheer pleasure of it, John, and have no real agenda to promote, other than the redemptive power of love. That makes me happy, and upsetting or alienating readers isn’t worth risking the sense of joy I feel at finally doing something I always wanted to do. At least not to me, and not at this point in my life. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  19. HI John, this is actually quite a difficult topic because it seems you can be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Authors get as much criticism for not being diverse as they do for being diverse so it is perhaps more a question of balance. I, for example, would not be comfortable trying to write a historical novel based in South African from a native African point of view. I could not, on the other hand, write such a book and exclude the native African POV completely. How I attempted to handle this in A Ghost and His Gold was to have a few good supporting characters who demonstrated this POV without my trying to step into the shoes of a person with a different perspective, heritage and culture. I hope I’ve managed it satisfactorily. I would not write an entire book about a same sex relationship, but I might possibly include such a couple as supporting characters. In that way I would hope to acknowledge them without presuming to understand the details of their lives and experiences. Not an easy topic, as I said, and one that is close to peoples hearts. One thing I have noticed recently, is there is an increase in books written from a Native American POV, but not necessarily by a Native American. I think something like that is really difficult to carry off, but I am interested in what other people think about it.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. We certainly live in a time when everyone is super sensitive and knowing that does affect our writing. Indie authors don’t have anyone looking over their shoulders and censoring, but published authors certainly do. For example, my sister cannot use the word Indian in her historical romance stories. Is it right to censor? No. Is it right to disparage any person due to race, gender, sexual preference, etc? No. What’s the answer? I think someone above nailed it. If we approach our characters from the human standpoint, I think we’re good. Thanks for shining a light on this subject today, John!

    Liked by 4 people

  21. I’ve approached different races as “we’re all human.” Because honestly, that’s how I see us all. But cancel culture is alive and well. So, I’ve had to tread more carefully while writing characters of a different race, religion, creed, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  22. I love the last two paragraphs from “What is the downside of writing about a relationship that we don’t fully understand.” I totally agree. There’s a shift in boundaries and things are not as clearly defined as before.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. If my own family is a microcosm for our country’s culture, and someday our global culture, then we’re becoming more diverse with every generation and soon (God willing) none of this will be awkward. Right now, as an author, I do tread carefully because I don’t want to offend anyone. And sometimes I think it’s that very carefulness that might cause offense. On the other hand, some characters have to be who they are, which can also cause offense. Which is unfair. Because characters aren’t the author. It’s impossible to know what’s the right thing to do. Great post, John.

    Liked by 6 people

  24. As others have said, this is a timely subject, John. Like Gwen, I have a very diverse and loving family, all of which provides insight to different races, religions, and sexual preferences. Still, as I writer, I am most comfortable writing characters I’m most familiar with. I’ve tried to be more diverse a time or two but felt that I might offend someone unintentionally. I ended up not using those characters. It’s a difficult line to tread. Writers are great for research—we’re always diving into settings and subjects we don’t know about, so this should be no different yet it seems to carry more scrutiny in the eyes of the reading public. I’m also a believer in writing characters who speak to you as an author and not trying to be all inclusive because it’s expected.

    On the most basic level, I remember reading a book by a NYT bestselling male author decades ago who wrote many of the chapters in first person POV from a woman’s perspective. Those chapters were positively dreadful because he clearly had no idea how to think, talk, or act like woman. My guess is he got better with time, but something as simple as writing from the perspective of the opposite sex requires thought—especially when using first person POV which gives a far more intimate viewpoint.

    Thanks for a great topic that really got me thinking!

    Liked by 6 people

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  26. This is a timely post, and our readers have to worry about cancel culture and upsetting people more than any other time. I just forge ahead and do the best I can. Maybe I should return to writing about aliens until this all settles.

    Liked by 6 people

  27. Excellent post, John, and timely. My extended family is very diverse, and the love I have for each of them has opened doors to understanding. In my books, there are often characters of different religions, races, disabilities, and sexual identities. I use research and rely on personal experience to bring the characters to life, but there is no assurance that I’m successful. My dad had one arm because of a farming accident. I know well the struggle he had with his prosthesis, but my experience is that of an observer. It seems to me, that if we write respectfully, fiction is forgiving because it is fiction. 😊

    Liked by 4 people

    • I agree about fiction forgiving, Gwen. There are some folks who seem dedicated to accuracy and others who play pretty loose. There are also some action groups who want the loose elements to be held accountable. I am totally opposed to censorship but feel a growing appetite for the elimination of books that offend or perpetuate stereotypes. I guess my post is like the canary in the mine for all of us to be careful about what we write concerning others. Thank you for sharing. 😊

      Liked by 3 people

  28. Thank you, John, for bringing to our attention what can be a difficult subject. These days it’s easy to offend people without realizing it or meaning to do it. I think your advice about research is spot on. If you aren’t familiar with a subject, ethnic group, or gender preference, talk to someone (or many people) who are. I’m curious to see what others have to say on this topic.

    Liked by 6 people

  29. ‘The sweater begins to unravel quickly with the first pull of the string’ – loved that! You raise valid points here. The world in which we live has changed in my generation and (if we look at the same sex relationships, for instance) whereas before these relationships were hidden, now I suspect we’re all aware of how many people in our communities are able to openly express their feelings about same sex partners. If we ignore these significant sectors in our writing, then there’s the risk that the world we describe is skewed unrealistically. We all know people with disabilities, multicultural backgrounds, different faiths etc and to exclude any reference of their existence seems almost like a form of censorship. On the other hand, as you point out, if you don’t have shared personal experiences then you do have to tread carefully in case you’re making ignorant assumptions. I also disagree with people who feel obliged to include ‘minorities’ and have a tick-box because of a ‘woke’ agenda. It’s the character that matters. Love and hate are universal and at the heart of much of what we write. I’ve never killed anyone but it wouldn’t stop me writing about a murder…

    Liked by 6 people

    • “I’ve never killed anyone but it wouldn’t stop me writing about murder.” That is a great summary line, Alex. Your point about the tick box of inclusion is a good one as well. The human condition has so much in common that a concentration on the sameness of our existence is where the good stories lay. Excellent comments and thank you. 😊

      Liked by 4 people

  30. This is a tricky subject, indeed, and bravo to you, John, for raising some wonderful points. I am always so careful in my writing, and for the most part prefer to avoid talking too much about skin colour, etc., as in my life it’s what’s inside that matters not what’s on the outside, and I think my writing style reflects that, rightly or wrongly. If I ever do mention ethnicity or gender preference outside of heterosexuality (as in FALLOUT), I remain worried I’m going to end up in trouble or upset somebody. I agree that these current times and temperaments make this even more of a tricky area in our writing. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reglogged on: https://harmonykent.co.uk/avoiding-insensitivity-in-characters-or-story/

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for your lovely comments, Harmony. Fallout was a terrific example of well balenced characters. Your concern is what each of us should keep in mind when writing about groups outside our personal experience. Also thank you for sharing the post. 😊

      Liked by 4 people

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  32. It is a difficult one. I think most writers, when writing about a section of the population they are not part of would talk to people from that population. Similarly, if writing about a culturally different place, would at least visit it and talk to people there. (Difficult at the moment of course.)
    I don’t think it’s impossible to do, just that it needs care.

    Liked by 6 people

  33. Dear John, I have read some absolutely passionate but highly inappropriate and fetishizing writing about Japan. Clearly a lot of research went into it, but not experience, and not lived experience. It made me wince. As fondly as it was meant, it was just objectifying…I wont mention names, but…yes not good. Cultural appropriation is just not cool.

    Liked by 3 people

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