When should you add real bigotry to a story? This is a complex question, but one thing is generally agreed on: you need a good reason. If you’re not a target of that bigotry, you need a really good reason. Unfortunately, many authors continue to add bigotry to their stories when it isn’t needed. As an editor, I have seen this more times than I’d like to say. To help you avoid this awkward conversation with your editor, I’ve listed the five most common reasons I see, and why they aren’t good enough.
1. Balance of Viewpoints
Your novel is about a badass black woman who hunts down the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals and brings them in for the bounty. The story goes great, until you introduce a character who doubts that someone of the protagonist’s race and gender is up to the job of bounty hunting. Sure, that view is ridiculous, but you’ve got to include both sides, right?
This attitude is common far beyond the storytelling profession. Once an opinion gains enough adherents, people think it must be treated with legitimacy, no matter how absurd it is. You see this in the way news outlets now discuss far right ideology that would have been laughable twenty years ago and in how climate deniers are given equal air time with reputable scientists.
The error of this thinking is that it equates popularity with truth. The idea that Earth was at the center of the universe was once very popular, but that didn’t make it true. No matter how popular the Flat Earth movement grows, the Earth won’t get any less round. The same is true with bigoted stereotypes: they’re wrong, and they will never be right.
At best, including such views will only make your story seem ridiculous to readers who know better, as if you added a character who insists that getting caught in the rain would dry them off. At worst, someone who doesn’t know any better will read your story and think this bigoted view has legitimacy.
Making a character who holds such views a villain doesn’t give you a free pass either. Villains are cool and can legitimize an idea even if they are set up to be wrong. That’s why Darth Vader wants to crush the Rebellion, not kill the Jews. Of course, determining which views are nonsense is more complicated, but an easy rule is to include views because you believe they have value, not because a lot of people happen to hold them.
This time, your story is about a cyberpunk hacktivist living happily with his two husbands in the year 2057. The drama is building, and your protagonist is ready to rise up against the system with spiky hair and retro tech. But first, he’s got to deal with his homophobic boss. What? “It’s just realistic,” you say. “There’s no way humans will have completely stopped judging each other based on sexuality in just 50 years.”
Fans and storytellers both love to use the realism defense whenever a story is called out. Make any criticism of Game of Thrones, and you’ll quickly receive dozen replies of “things were just like that back then.” We’ll assume that “back then” means the historical time period that GoT is largely based on, since Westeros never existed in the first place as far as I know.
Let’s assume for a moment that the claims of realism are accurate, that the bigotry in question really is or would be common to the story’s setting. With that in mind, this excuse fundamentally misunderstands the point of realism. Realism is not a goal in itself; it is a tool used to make a story more immersive. You must decide how to use that tool.
When and how to use realism differs depending on the story. In a gritty story about the horrors of war, realistic combat injuries are a must. In a hard scifi story about surviving on Mars, realistic Martian weather is hugely important. On the other hand, most adventure stories would suffer from having realistic injuries, as the plot would be constantly on hold so the protagonist could recover from a shattered collarbone.
That’s why most fantasy stories don’t include realistic elements like half the cast dying from smallpox or fashion trends that seem ridiculous to modern eyes. Consider then: how does realistic bigotry help the story? Who is it more immersive for? Audiences who don’t suffer from the bigotry in question are unlikely to care either way, and audiences who do will be too busy reliving their real-life trauma to enjoy your story.
3. Saluting Past Works
In your favorite childhood movie, a sentient dinosaur saves the day by winning a potato-eating contest while drunk. Now that you’re a storyteller yourself, you want to pay tribute to the work that inspired you. So you include a scene where the inebriated protagonist must save the day by consuming a mountain of spuds. Only later do you remember that the main character in your story is Irish. Oh no.
Many storytellers want to salute the stories they loved in their youth, and that’s awesome. That is, except when it adds bigotry to the story. Sometimes, the original work was fine, but the story’s new context makes it a problem. This is what happened to Stranger Things’ E.T. tribute. The original scene is funny because the protagonist tries to disguise an alien as a human with makeup and a hat. In Stranger Things, the alien has been replaced by a human girl, and the scene is now about making her look more traditionally feminine. Not only is this gender policing, but it’s also got a creepy element as the boy characters suddenly decide the girl is attractive.
In other instances, the original story was bigoted in its own right, and a storyteller copies it too literally in their tribute. This is to be expected, as older stories are less likely to be socially conscious. Either way, when a storyteller is called out on their tribute, they’ll often insist it’s about respecting the past. But that’s not how respect works. We respect something for its positive elements, not its negative ones.
If a story you love wasn’t bigoted, adding bigotry in your tribute is slander, not respect. You’re taking the work you love and dragging it through the mud. If the story was bigoted to start with, the best way to show respect is to improve it by taking that bigotry out. This is a story that meant something to you, and you can share that meaning with a greater number of people if you take a little care to make the story more accessible.
4. Character Development
You’ve cooked up an exciting tale about elite warriors protecting humanity from a dragon attack. You’re cis, but your protagonist is trans, because why not? Gender isn’t an issue when you’re the only thing standing between murderous reptiles and the last surviving human settlements. But then you decide the protagonist needs some development, so you add a flashback with someone misgendering them. That sort of adversity will really kick things up a notch!
This is one of those times when otherwise good storytelling instincts can work against you. It’s true that most stories benefit from the protagonist facing adversity. That’s an important requirement for conflict, the fuel stories run on. But not all adversity is good, and bigotry will usually fall into the bad category.
For one thing, whatever form of bigotry you’re thinking of is almost certainly overdone. Marginalized groups are often thought of by outsiders in terms of the bigotry they face, and so lots of other authors have had this idea before. Rape is the go-to adversity for female characters, misgendering is the default for trans characters, etc. Audiences are sick of it.
Even if you’re not concerned with how overused a type of bigotry is, you’ll probably care about how much it pisses off your audience. No matter how good your intentions, many people in a group will not appreciate an outsider trying to tell their story. Most obviously, outsiders are more likely to make mistakes. But even without mistakes, a privileged outsider’s story is likely to overshadow works from people within a less privileged group. That’s why most people in marginalized groups are happy to see themselves represented in stories, no matter who the author is, but feel that stories specifically about a marginalized group’s experience should be left to an insider.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to develop a character without invoking bigotry. Just do what you’d do for a character who wasn’t from a marginalized group.
You paid attention in history class, so you know that in the past, people thought women were genetically inferior to men. But no one believes that anymore, right? Everyone you know is a firm believer in gender equality, and you want to shake up the status quo. You write a scifi story about how faster-than-light travel is inexplicably lethal to women, so all space explorers have to be men.* You don’t really believe this idea of course, but it’ll get people talking, and that’s what matters.
The desire to create controversy by including bigotry is common among people raised in homogeneous environments with liberal values. No one they know is the target of visible discrimination, so they figure it must not exist anymore. And if a form of bigotry is only in the past, then what harm can come of adding it to their story?
Lots of harm, it turns out. No matter how ridiculous a prejudice might sound, someone out there believes it. Probably a lot of someones. They might not admit to their bigotry publicly, they might not even be consciously aware of it, but they still act on it. Real people will feel the consequences.
If you’re not convinced, a little googling will turn up endless accounts from people who’ve suffered the bigotry of all kinds. But you don’t actually need to go looking. If you think a form of bigotry is serious enough to cause controversy, odds are 100% that people in real life suffer from it. It’s likely that someone you know suffers from it.
None of this is to say that controversial stories don’t have a place. The issue is what makes them controversial. A story about everyone deserving medical treatment will be incredibly controversial. People will call it communist propaganda and say it undermines the American dream. That’s the route to go if controversy is what you want, and it won’t require validating anyone’s bigoted views.
Bigotry is never something to include lightly. It has the potential to harm real people, something no storyteller wants. If you find yourself justifying the bigotry in your story with any of the reasons from this list, take a step back and reassess. You could be saving yourself a difficult talk with your editor.
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