What Storytellers Should Know About Normalization

When we’re making recommendations about story content for social justice reasons, we often mention “normalization.” The basic idea is simple: something that’s depicted in a story is more likely to done by real people. However, there are some common misconceptions about what normalization is and isn’t. Let’s go over it and its implications.

Normalization Is Not Endorsement

One of the biggest misconceptions is that normalization is akin to authorial endorsement, and so whether something is normalized depends on how it’s depicted.

Let’s dive into an example. We’ll say you’re considering whether or not a character should use a gendered slur, in this case “bitch.”  Depending on how a character uses this slur in your story, you can choose to endorse it as acceptable behavior, or you can communicate that it’s not acceptable.

If one of your protagonists uses “bitch” as an insult, and no other protagonist tells the character that using a sexist slur is wrong, then the usage has authorial endorsement. This may or may not be your intent, but judging only by what you put in your story, you are telling your readers using this gendered slur is okay.

If your goal is to teach readers that using the word is wrong, you’ll put the emphasis on a protagonist who thinks it’s wrong. A protagonist with high credibility, like a wise mentor, might explain the harm of the slur to a character who uses it. Then that character could admit they shouldn’t have done it and apologize. This way, you clearly are not endorsing its usage, just the opposite.

However, no matter whether or not you endorse a behavior, by depicting it you are still normalizing it. Normalization is just the process in which things feel less strange and more normal with exposure. Every single thing you put in your story will be more normalized for readers because it is there. If you make a point of how weird something is, that will normalize it less, but overall, it will still be less unthinkable and more old hat than it was. And when people choose how to act in real life, behavior that’s normalized is more likely to spring to mind.

People Copy What They See

You can think of normalization as the “human see, human do” principle. Humans are inclined to do what other people are doing. You might think, “If my nefarious villain is the only one who does a terrible thing, surely people won’t want to do that – it would make them a villain.”

I hate to break it to you, but people often want to be villains. Even discounting how villains are usually pretty cool, people get angry. We become hateful. And some people just enjoy having power over others. When someone feels like hurting another person, what behavior is normalized matters. It changes what they imagine doing and how shocking or tame various behaviors seem. If I’m angry and I want to insult someone who happens to be a woman, and calling women a “bitch” feels normal to me, I’ll reach for that word.

Stephen King learned this the hard way with his novel Rage, which he wrote under the name Richard Bachman. In the novel, a student shoots several faculty members and holds other students hostage. The novel was originally written in 1965, while King was in high school but before school shootings were common. But it was linked to four shooting incidents from 1988 to 1997. After seeing that his book was inspiring actual shootings, King pulled it from publication. Unfortunately, since then school shootings have only become more normalized, and there’s a lot of discussion about whether news media coverage has contributed to that.

Outside of villainy, self-destructive behavior can also be normalized. Studies have repeatedly shown that news coverage of suicide leads to higher suicide rates, and a recent study suggests that the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why might also have inspired suicides.

However, normalization isn’t just bad. In an era where lots of people want to do the right thing but don’t know what that means on an interpersonal level, good examples are desperately needed. Depicting a cute, romantic scene where a character asks for consent will make it easier for readers to ask for consent. Showing marginalized characters in leadership roles makes it more likely that marginalized people will have those opportunities. We’re often so focused on the bad things, we forget how much good we can do just by depicting the world we want to see.

Normalization Is One Factor Among Many

If normalization were all that mattered, we might feel obligated to depict only utopias full of perfect people. That would be unfortunate and impractical; storytelling requires problems. However, while normalization is not the only consideration, it’s important enough to take into account. Let’s look at when normalization might be the deciding factor and when it’s balanced out by other things.

Examine what your story needs and what it doesn’t

First, when there aren’t other big considerations at play, we should normalize good behavior rather than bad behavior. Unfortunately, most storytellers are in the habit of further normalizing bad behavior even when the story doesn’t benefit from it in any way.

A frequent culprit is adding pointless oppression to the story or setting. For instance, many other-world fantasies have patriarchal settings, and the stories in them are rarely about liberating women. Not only does this further normalize oppression, but it’s constantly used to exclude marginalized characters. If women aren’t allowed to be leaders, how will women change the fate of the world in an epic struggle of good versus evil? If they don’t make a difference, they’ll have to be cut to keep the story tight. Pointless depictions of oppression are by their nature oppressive.

On the other side, storytellers are missing lots of easy opportunities to normalize positive behavior. Just a few ways to normalize good behavior include:

  • Depicting egalitarian societies
  • Including characters with marginalized traits
  • Showing characters respecting and listening to their fellows
  • Illustrating what consent looks like
  • Narrating positive outcomes from therapy and medication

Chances are good that in your story many of these can be included without going out of your way.

Watch out for bad societal habits

While stories usually depend on bad behavior to generate conflict, some really bad behaviors are especially sensitive to normalization. Generally these are things that many people are trying to justify, or even promote, or things that specific groups of people are inclined to act on. Some of these behaviors include the following:

  • Sexual assault, including attempted sexual assault
  • Forced pregnancy (in speculative fiction, it’s usually done by magic or aliens)
  • Mass shootings
  • Abuse
  • Hangings of black people or other hate killings, including “mercy” killings of disabled people
  • Suicide

There will always be a place for stories specifically about addressing the harm of these actions. However, if the behavior is present in the story just to add some extra threat, provide conflict for a few scenes, or drive a character arc, generally the harm of normalizing them outweighs the benefit. Since the story is not actually about the issue, in almost all cases the depiction can be replaced with a different conflict that can serve the story just as well.

Ask whether the issue needs awareness

One of the potential benefits of showing real-life problems is raising awareness about those problems. If the issue is flying under the radar or people don’t understand that a behavior is harmful, bringing it to our collective attention might be worth normalizing it a little. For instance, the killing of black people by police officers has been going on for a long time but has only recently come to the attention of many white people in the United States. That’s created a much larger conversation about police accountability that will hopefully lead to reform that prevents more killings.

However, not all problems need this kind of awareness. There’s already a lot of public conversation about how sexual assault against women is bad; anyone who doesn’t believe that doesn’t want to. What we need is for people to stop thinking that sexually assaulting women is normal human behavior. At this point, while awareness campaigns showing how many women we personally know have been affected are helpful, sticking sexual assault in the average story isn’t.

Even if awareness is needed, a depiction must be able to demonstrate the harm. For instance, showing the harm of people enslaving undocumented immigrants by threatening to deport them should be doable, as long as the story focuses on and builds attachment to the undocumented immigrant.

On the other hand, demonstrating the harm of emotional abuse is enormously difficult. Emotional abusers specifically design their abuse so that onlookers will side with them over their victims, or at least do nothing. Accurate depictions leave many readers thinking the abuser has a point. For this reason, it’s probably more productive to fight this type of abuse by normalizing supportive behavior and eliminating depictions of “tough love” and other kinds of controlling, disrespectful behavior.

And of course, remember that raising awareness about serious problems is not something that a storyteller should take on lightly. Personal experience and/or extensive research are crucial.

Don’t forget: your story matters. What you put into the world will affect people. It’s up to all of us to decide what to do with that power.

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  1. Michael Campbell

    I’m glad you mentioned mentioned the normalization of beneficial authorial choices.
    A story with a detective with tourette’s or cerebral palsy, would give some normalization to such people within the workforce.

    But I think the worst normalisation that didn’t get a bullet point was “inconvenience free” shootings.
    The Sheriff shoots the cattle-rustler at high noon:- everybody lives happily ever after.
    The cattle-rustler’s widow never cries at the funeral or sells everything she has for a headstone.
    The cattle-rustler’s children never grow-up to have a life of crime caused by a fatherless upbringing.
    The cattle-rustler’s brother never comes to town looking for revenge.
    The cattle-rustler’s comrades never turn to alcoholism because if they’ld just convinced him to move to the next town, he’d still be drawing breath.
    And never, ever does the Sheriff need to explain his actions in a coroner’s courts.

    A soceity that normalizes the “death penalty sans a jury of twelve of one’s peers” (especially with regards to no death penalty crimes); is headed towards becoming a high bodycount society.

    • Adam Reynolds

      This is one of the big questions I’ve been thinking about lately. Is it possible to portray violence without normalizing it? While you can certainly portray violence without endorsing it, as with plenty of anti-war or crime movies, the problem is that even those are still in some sense normalizing violence by portraying it in the first place.

      I think what might be better is to normalize alternatives to direct violence as being at least as effective, allowing diplomacy and peaceful activism as substitutes. The problem is that those tend to be less interesting to write about by default, which makes it a case of trying to show the less interesting thing as better. I also think more stories need to feature the villains being taken alive rather than killed, as well as showing realistic(especially legal) consequences of violence to some degree. Which would probably also help to make diplomacy look better as well.

      • Cay Reet

        I think the general reaction to a character, especially a hero/main character using violence is important. A lot of action movies essentially celebrate the hero using violence, making it look like the only way to solve a problem. Instead of ‘cool, man!’ the reaction should be more along the lines of ‘dude, what are you doing?’

        I’m also not sure whether diplomacy is always the less interesting thing. Diplomacy means a long-term solution with more steps than just ‘hit them until they give in,’ but it also opens a lot more options. Intrigue instead of violence is an interesting way to go (especially if the audience can see how the intrigue against the main character comes together or how they start a counter-intrigue). Positive interactions to win the trust of the other side (an important point of diplomacy – you have to trust the other one to keep to an agreement) allow for a series of interesting scenes instead of one big fight scene.

        It would also help, I think, if the heroes/main characters were more likely to show that violence is the last option for them, that they’re trying other things first and are weary of using it instead of polishing their guns, readying the ammo, and suiting up in their kevlar vests.

        Action movies won’t adapt that possibility, but another look at the violence alone, another way of showing the scene, might help there. By now, violence is often celebrated in great detail, whereas the repercussions, for the one doing violence as well as for the victim, is often pushed under the table. Does the action hero actually get at least investigated for what they did? Most of the time not. Is there some kind of program to help those who have lost family, friends, or just property to the latest superhero fight? I haven’t seen something like that. A little less time with the boom! bang! zack! and a little more time with what happens afterwards might put violence into another context. Or make the heroes more aware of how they’re endangering the populace (which would open the way for villains more set on hitting the general populace instead of that hero guy who always gets up again). You can still make a good scene out of that, but instead of beating up the villain, the hero would be trying to protect the people, keeping himself between them and whatever the villain sends out, while at the same time trying to find a way to bring down the villain without endangering others. Collateral damage should not be allowed.

      • Michael Campbell

        Well first I would commend re-watching The Empire Strikes Back.
        Luke asks Yoda a very direct question; “Is the dark side stronger?”
        And Yoda’s response isn’t clear enough for young ears to follow; “No. Quicker, easier, more seductive (but technically not stronger).”

        It is possible to express the idea that violence doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but it requires the effort of actually showing it.

        I think it’s important to show that a society that values “everybody” is stronger than a society that only values “winners”.

        I sometimes wonder if US attitudes to violence are an outworking of slavery:- there are people whose lives count and people whose lives don’t.
        But I would argue that since everybody’s lawabiding life has a positive effect on the economy, even if it’s just keeping prisonguards gainfully employed by sitting in a cell, that therefore the “violence solves problems quickly” argument is simply dumping money in the garbage in the interests of haste.

        The very least an author should do, is have the heroes be reticent about the use of violence because they know the inefficiencies it creates.
        E.g. The most difficult component of an aircraft for the airforce to replace is…the pilot. You’ve got to grow them for 9 months plus a further 18 years before you even get to the start of the training program.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    This is a really good post, and explains some issues I’ve had with some fiction or fiction tropes that I wasn’t able to quite explain myself. I’m just gonna say something additional about the “positive narrative outcomes of therapy and medication”.

    I don’t think you disagree with me here, because you always stress the importance of doing research if you’re really gonna delve into something, but yeah… do research if you’re gonna write about mental illness.

    As I’ve said before, I have a schizo-something condition (never given a precise label) and have been a psychiatric patient for 20 + years. People talk ALL THE TIME about how getting psychiatric help and being on meds shouldn’t be stigmatized, and I obviously agree, but I think it’s SUPER COMMON as well for people to have way too rosy a picture of psychiatry and psychofarmaka. We know far less of the brain, how it works, and how that relates to mental illness than most people think, there’s so much pure trial and error in medicating psychiatric patients, shitty side effects of the meds are really common, and being on meds can quite often be a case of choosing the lesser of two evils rather than choosing something good.
    I think it’s important that people get this. Yeah, it’s terrible when people think mentally ill people could just “snap out of it” and “get their act together” by sheer force of will. But it’s not THAT much better when people believe that mentally ill people could just “get help”, e.g., go to therapy and take meds, and THEN they’re gonna be perfectly fine and have no more serious problems.

    Also, when it comes to psychotic symptoms in particular, it’s quite common to see a psychotic character having 100 % realistic hallucinations, it’s as if they were in the Matrix or something. Or maybe they just see and hear a person who isn’t there, but they see and hear them JUST LIKE you see and hear real people, which is an unrealistic depiction of psychosis to start with. Then the psychotic character gets neuroleptika, and boom! Back to reality. Which is also hella unrealistic. If you’re deep in psychosis, you might need a shitload of meds to quell the symptoms, and then you’ll usually end up a bit zombie-like; it’s not just “neat, I got my meds and now I’m normal again”. So what I here describe is technically a narrative that shows a positive outcome of medication, but it’s still SOOO stupid, and builds misunderstandings.

    • uschi

      I can relate to you somewhat, as my mother has been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for a long time (I myself struggle with depression, which is way more treatable, even though people still have misconceptions about medication and therapy). Even when medication works, it sometimes has such bad side effects that it is hard to convince a person with psychotic symptoms to take it. It’s a terrible situation and the general lack of knowledge and understanding from people around is extremely unhelpful.

      I think you are on the same page as the article though! As I see it, Chris is more advocating against a “people with mental disorders are just more special/enlightened/have abilities bordering on superpowers, and medication or treatment is violent/takes away their special powers/borders on abuse” depiction, which is extremely common and never fails to upset me. People with such disorders are anyway much less likely to seek treatment, and its negative depiction just reinforces that I think. Of course not everyone will react equally positive to a treatment, but seeking professional help is the important first step to someday lead a normal life (or getting close to that – I don’t expect to ever be completely free of depression, but one can learn to handle it).

      In my opinion, getting better should be depicted neither grim nor easy, but with a realistic amount of struggle, but also hope and small successes along the way. Obviously that is hard to do if one doesn’t have the same experience, but it should not be too much to ask from a writer/creator to educate themselves and talk to people that have been through that – but apparently many think they know enough about depicting mental illness without such research (and that brings us back to Normalization).

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Yeah I probably think Chris, you and I are all on the same page, but I still thought it worthwhile to elaborate a bit.

      • LizardWithHat

        Just my thought on this:
        It is easier to show a character who has already adjusted well to their condition.
        The might have bad days and stories about managing those but overall the massage is a pretty positive one: “This can be done, this I manageable!”
        I also think it’s better not to focus on the acutely therapy sessions if the condition isn’t main focus. Just let the characters mention that they have a session now and have to leave or such.

        Also I find the “STFU, just take your meds and see the shrink!” lazy… not to mention that in stories most psychiatry is Freudian or how condescending many psychiatrists are written

        I hope this makes sense and was insulting or dump (or both)…

    • E. H.

      Thank you very much for sharing your story. I’ve had psychotic episodes, am often depressed and also live with just about every anxiety disorder on the books (slight exaggeration) including near constant intrusive thoughts (look up primarily obsessional OCD if interested).

      I’m very interested in promoting mentally ill people sympathetically in fiction. I think you make a great point that hallucinations (which I admit I don’t have a huge amount of experience with, but some) aren’t normally as “solid” seeming like movies portray them.

      I’m curious though, how they should be presented. Not saying you have a duty to have the perfect answer just because you made the point, but I’d love to hear your suggestions.

      I usually just gave this a pass on the grounds that film is a highly visual medium. It at least gets the point across that the person is experiencing something others don’t. Now I wonder how they could do it better.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Stuff I’ve experienced which, from what I understand, are pretty common:
        – You see creatures that aren’t there in the corner of your eye; they keep moving around, so you can’t look at them directly.
        – You look directly at people and/or objects that really are there, but you see a sort of twisted and scary version of them. This particular example might be more me-specific, but a thing I’ve had is where all humans start looking like those creepy humanoid robots you can see in various Youtube videos, complete uncanny valley.
        – It seems fairly common (just anecdotal evidence from other schizos I’ve talked to) to get this uncanny valley shit with your own face when looking in the mirror; it’s just not quite right, it’s like an okay but not great copy of your face, imitating your facial movements. All this can be shown on film.
        – Besides visual stuff, there’s also the intense feeling of someone standing right behind you, moving as you move so you can’t see him at all, not even in the corner of your eye. This can obviously be shown on film.

        (I think it’s common for auditory hallucinations to be more “real” than visual ones though; I’ve had some myself that were super real).

        Then there’s the case of getting threatening messages through TV, radio, newspapers etc, where it’s not a matter of hearing/reading sentences that aren’t really there, but rather of how you interpret them. And, in general, having a sort of weird logic going on, where you draw conclusions in weird ways – there’s no single image you can use to convey that, but I think you CAN convey it, not just in writing but also in film.

        • E. H.

          That’s a great answer. Thanks. So many movies do mental breakdowns without the weird logic but with some kind of scary character that only the protagonist can see. Like that’s the personification of the illness.

          I can sort of understand why movies concretize a complicated idea in an image, but I’ve even run into this in novels for some reason.

          The movies Jacob’s Ladder and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas do a good job creating a sense of genuinely strange experiences and sense of an altered reality, but they’re about drugs.

      • Rivers

        If the commenter in question does not respond, I know I’ve personally seen a fair amount of helpful information in posts or on blogs from people who suffer with different kinds of mental illness, I’m sure you could find some pretty easily. You can also look up personal accounts on YouTube about different subject as well as documentaries featuring professionals (if the documentary in question seems to be overly dramatic I would start to doubt the information presented, but I know there are some good ones out there).

  3. E. H.

    I agree with a lot of this but think the discussion of Rage was too simplified and gave the wrong impression.

    King went through a period of being both extremely disturbed and psychologically fascinated by the mass murders which were actually happening back then, though not as often as now.

    In several works, all but Rage still in print today, he tried to explore the menatality and motivation of that kind of person.

    I do think there are problematic elements on Rage, even for an edgy villian protagonist story, but I wish he’d revised it rather than taking it out pf circulation.

  4. Mrs. Obed Marsh

    Thank you for bringing up “mercy” killings. Unfortunately, the news media bears a lot of the blame for normalizing this practice. News stories often present killers as desperate people, crushed under the burden of caring for their loved one and grasping at a way out. It’s true that a lot of sick and disabled people and their caregivers are woefully under-supported and that our society needs to do better, but caregivers who kill often either refused support or received an above-average amount of support!

    Now, it may be so that even the best of caregivers will sometimes have dark thoughts about how it would be easier if their loved one were dead. I kind of understand that. However, those thoughts are something they should talk about with a counselor, not broadcast to the world. Publicly talking about wanting to kill a sick or disabled loved one normalizes “mercy” killing, and people need to push back against it when they hear others saying those kinds of things.

  5. Tony

    The example of Rage also reminds me of how Stanley Kubrick pulled A Clockwork Orange from distribution in the UK after it got linked to a number of copycat crimes.

  6. Dirk Studman

    Making immoral actions literally unthinkable removes the moral agency of people

    • Cay Reet

      There is a huge difference between ‘see, everyone is beating up the suspect for information’ and ‘immoral actions are unthinkable.’

      The way violence is presented and used has a huge impact on how much it is normalized.

    • E. H.

      I think in context “unthinkable” means something that’s considered so bad that a character who chose to do it would be by definition unsympathetic.

      If there’s any room for them in the story they’d be a villain. Or if they’re the main character, the work in question would be a study of an evil person.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Ok, I can see how moral agency would be undermined if, say, everyone was carefully conditioned from birth to behave 100% virtuously, and couldn’t even imagine doing otherwise. But now we’re WAY beyond something storytellers can accomplish through their writing.

      Storytellers don’t even have it in their power to, say, end torture forever. But if storytellers DID have and used that power, if every author agreed to never write about torture again, and this agreement somehow made it the case that torture completely disappeared from the world, that still wouldn’t remove moral agency from people. Plausibly, no one would deserve to be praised for not torturing people in this scenario, but it’s already the case that the vast majority of people don’t deserve praise for not torturing. I certainly don’t deserve praise for never having tortured anyone, since I’ve never even been in a situation where that might come up. We’d still go through life making countless other moral choices.

      The only thing storytellers CAN realistically affect is how EASILY various things come to mind for people and how LIKELY they are to do various things. So no, we’re not gonna undermine someone’s moral agency by writing books.

    • Mrs. Obed Marsh

      …Do you think about torturing people a lot? If so, maybe you want to unpack that with a therapist.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I’m not sure if this was a joke or not, but in case it wasn’t: No, I don’t go around thinking about torturing people, and that was part of the point. It’s something that doesn’t even come up, for me and the vast majority of people.

        Dirk Studman wrote above that if you make certain things unthinkable, then you remove moral agency. That sounds as if people SHOULD think about, e.g., torturing others (or raping or killing or what-have-you), and then consciously decide not to do it, otherwise something’s amiss with them. I objected to that.

        • Mrs. Obed Marsh

          I’m sorry, that comment was meant for Dirk. I have no beef with you!

  7. Lake Fairy

    I also wonder about matriarchal settings. Someone told me that I should be extra careful with “flipped” settings. Is it okay to liberate men during the plot, or show men struggling against misandry?

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