Why Social Justice Is Intrinsic to Storytelling

I suspect more than one reader of Mythcreants has wondered why we don’t just stick to the technical advice and avoid all that political stuff. Why are articles with wording exercises and obscure weapons intermixed with long rants on gender equality and unjustified violence?

It’s because our primary focus is storytelling, and you should no more separate social justice from storytelling than you would neglect spices in a blog about cooking. That’s because…

Storytelling Relies On Cultural Analysis

It’s difficult to overestimate the influence of culture. It shapes whether we see our world as a chaotic realm in need of order, a synchronized pattern of occurrences that are meant to be, or the random events of a meaningless universe. It dictates not just what we think but also how we think. When we face a problem, culture helps determine whether we solve it by punching numbers in a computer or by negotiating with everyone who has a stake in the outcome.

It also sets rules for how we interact with each other. In one culture an anonymous writer is a malicious trickster, and in another culture the same writer is a humble contributor that forgoes credit. In one culture it is rude to accept food without turning it down three times; in another it’s rude to push food on people who don’t want it. Even within a country, these rules are incredibly diverse. It should be no surprise that cultural misunderstandings complicate many of our conversations, and cultural differences drive many of our conflicts.

A storyteller is charged with depicting many people relating to each other in an astounding variety of ways. How can a storyteller with no understanding of culture hope to craft interactions that feel genuine? They can’t. They can only depict echoes of themselves, mixed with caricatures that reflect their shallow understanding of everyone else. Their poor imitation will only pass muster for those with the same perspective as them.

An understanding of culture is also needed to craft conflicts that are thoughtful and meaningful. Without knowledge of the differences that divide us, it is challenging to make two people vehemently disagree unless one of them is definitively wrong. Storytellers with poor cultural analysis must resort to cartoonish villainy.

Let’s say the storyteller works in speculative fiction. Now the bar isn’t to merely depict characters and their conflicts but to dream up entirely new societies operating under fictional rules. These fictional cultures are shaped by a variety of strange environments, and then the characters are shaped by the cultures, causing them to clash over cultural differences. Nothing requires an understanding of something like recreating it convincingly.

Cultural Analysis Requires Critical Distance

Just as an understanding of culture is required for strong stories, it is impossible to fully understand a culture if you accept its entire narrative as truth. What we call “myths” are only known to those outside a culture looking in. A culture never knows its own myths, because it labels them under “facts.”

It is incredibly beneficial to have first-hand experience participating in a culture. The more cultures you have experienced, the better. But to equally embrace all elements of a culture is to exempt it from objective analysis and let it color your stories without your active intent. If you believe a cultural narrative that men are inherently less introspective than women, then your male characters won’t be self-aware. This won’t be because you set out to make them that way, but because you set out to depict men, and your idea of men includes this limitation.

Even worse, the more cultural narratives you believe without active analysis, the less capable you will be of depicting another culture. Trying to create another culture without examining your own is like handling a white shirt after picking berries. The berry juice will rub off, and your shirt won’t be white anymore. You can’t wash your hands of berry juice if you can’t even tell the juice is there. Similarly, you can’t depict a culture that views men as more self-reflective than women if you don’t understand that it’s a cultural viewpoint.

It is inevitable that we will cripple ourselves in this manner occasionally, even when we try not to. When we do, we won’t know it without assistance. Without critical distance on the subject, we can’t evaluate the cultural fingerprint we’ve created with our stories. But we can still listen to feedback from others and maintain objective distance when we do so.

Critical Distance Reveals Troubling Patterns

Once you have critical distance from cultural beliefs, it is impossible to miss that some cultural beliefs are beneficial and some are destructive. Not all cultural patterns fit in either category; many have both strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a cultural focus on individualism might give members the liberty to pursue their own happiness but hinder their ability to understand and cooperate with others. But with enough objective distance, it is impossible to miss cultural practices that hinder the welfare of society as a whole or that inflict suffering on specific groups of people.

As an example, in American culture automobiles represent freedom, independence, and prosperity. But their flaws are great: people who are old, young, poor, or have disabilities are locked out of transportation; cars require enormously expensive infrastructure and tie up excessive amounts of land for parking; they pollute the atmosphere; and they cause tens of thousands of deaths per year. Nonetheless, it has been difficult to move away from cars or even fix their flaws because of a cultural narrative that states they are the only legitimate form of transportation.* Understanding society-wide problems like these will help you give your stories meaning and your worlds depth. However, they aren’t as ingrained in storytelling, because they usually involve larger, more abstract social constructs like economics rather than interpersonal relationships.

Americans also follow a cultural narrative that emphasizes personal sins as the cause of misfortune. As a result, many people with diseases are blamed for having them. It is assumed that people who are obese got that way because of sloth and gluttony, people who are addicted to substances are ridiculed for poor decision making, and people suffering from chronic depression are asked to provide a reason for it. The narrative of personal sin leads to the harassment of those with obesity, the punishment of those who are addicted, and a lack of sympathy and support for those with depression. However, if you’re doing well, this narrative might not harm you. Because it operates in the social sphere and has disproportionate impact on a minority of people, it is an issue of social justice.

There is no story without social justice implications. Every culture has social justice issues, and every one will have narratives to justify the harm, deny the harm, or dismiss the people who are suffering. If the culture recognized its own problems, they wouldn’t be there. A strong storyteller understands culture well enough to see through the justifying narrative and recognize the harm.

Storytellers Can Influence Those Patterns

Once you understand the harmful narratives that are a part of any culture, it is impossible to ignore the role that storytellers have in perpetuating them. It only takes one popular story to make a noticeable impact on widespread beliefs. For instance, the movie Jaws is famous for creating fear and hysteria regarding shark attacks. While the reality is that shark attacks are rare, the movie depicted a shark that not only attacked people but also remembered individuals and sought revenge on them. It led to the widespread, inhumane slaughter of sharks for sport, decimating their numbers. Even today fear of sharks deters people from swimming in the ocean.

Jaws is just one story. When many of our stories emit the same cultural narratives, their influence is inescapable. Even if they express ideas that run counter to what happens in day to day life, confirmation bias will make it appear as if they match. Let’s say you’ve read a lot of books recently where female characters were emotional, and it’s given you a small bias toward thinking women are emotional in general. Every time you see a woman exhibiting emotion, you’d probably think, “She’s being emotional because women do that.” However, when you see a woman who isn’t emotional, you might think, “She must not understand the issue because she isn’t getting upset.” Even if the women around you weren’t emotional at all, you could believe they were. Then if you wrote a story with female characters, those characters would be very emotional, spreading the bias further. This self-reinforcing cycle occurs without our conscious awareness or intent, and it is the reason our popular stories depict so many of the same stereotypes.

And just as a diamond purchaser who has never heard of blood diamonds can’t choose to avoid them, someone who isn’t aware of destructive messages can’t write stories without them. Luckily, once a diamond purchaser knows that some diamonds financially support violence, they can make an informed purchase of certified or antique ones. Similarly, storytellers who have gained critical distance take with it the power to alter the cultural narratives they produce in their work.

Positive Cultural Impact Becomes a Moral Imperative

Human suffering can be measured in many ways, but many of them are too abstract to be compelling. So I’ll just say this: it is a statistical inevitability that destructive cultural patterns will cause the deaths of innocent people.

People with diseases will die because they didn’t get the help they needed. LGBT youth will commit suicide after intense bullying. Women will be killed by their boyfriends and husbands or starve themselves trying to achieve “beautiful” thinness. Black people will be shot by police. Prisoners will die during torture. And that doesn’t even count the times when a person consciously chooses to pick up a weapon and go murder someone because of the negative cultural narratives about them.

The effort we must take to counter negative messages is trivial in comparison. For instance, labeling a single-occupancy bathroom for all genders instead of for specifically men or women could prevent a trans person from being beaten up when they leave. So why wouldn’t you? It’s just a bathroom label. As storytellers, we just have to spare a little thought to the patterns in our stories – which we should be doing anyway, to create the experience we want our audience to have. The effort means little to us and a lot to someone else.

Creating Positive Impact Makes Stories Better

Besides leaving society a little better than how you found it, being mindful of your impact will also benefit your story and its reception.

  • Your story will appeal to a wider audience. Those who have disabilities, are from an ethnicity or race in the minority, are queer, or are otherwise outside what’s considered default might be minorities when counted alone, but together that’s a lot of people. The more your story aims for positive impact, the less people will be turned off because you unintentionally insulted them or didn’t have enough to offer them.
  • Your story will have a longer lifespan. Culture changes quickly, and in the last century it’s changed in the pro-social justice direction. What seem like minor problems to us today will be large ones in the next generation.
  • Your story will be more interesting. The stereotypes that are damaging are also boring, because they’ve been done so often. Breaking negative cultural conventions will make your work more fresh and memorable.

Who doesn’t want their story to be a memorable classic that appeals to a broad audience?

It’s Easy to Create Positive Impact

Cultural analysis is a skill that must be built over time. It requires pursuing knowledge over many years. Even then, we’ll never completely understand culture or agree about it.

But you know what? Social Justice 101 is an easy course! Here’s a simple guide to getting started.

  1. Write your story as you normally would.
  2. Switch around the genders of your characters.
  3. While you’re doing that, make a character or three gay or trans.
  4. Change some characters’ names to ones that don’t scream “white people.”
  5. Make some characters heavy, old, or otherwise conventionally unattractive.
  6. Give a character a disability that doesn’t hinder them, because they adapted to it years ago.

You may need to switch some pronouns or modify some physical description, but you’ll get better results with less effort if you do this after your story is written. If you do it before, you run the risk of writing all the destructive cultural narratives about your swapped characters into the story with them.

The result? Imagine an employer looking over the resume of a woman named Lakisha. Resumes with African American names are 50% less likely to get a response than equivalent resumes with white names. But instead of looking at the name “Lakisha” and subconsciously putting it at the bottom of the pile, this employer looks at this name and thinks, “That’s the name of the character that slew dragons and brought peace to the galaxy in the book I read last week.” Because you gave your character a different name, someone got the job they deserved.

Here at Mythcreants we instruct readers about storytelling. That means helping our readers hone their cultural analysis. A storyteller that blunders into sending messages they didn’t intend has skill inferior to one that weaves intelligent commentary into their work. A story that is culturally aware is better, both creatively and morally.

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  1. Alverant

    I agree with the points made, but I would add in that in an RPG you have to take into account your players’ personalities. They may not want social justice or anything that would give the impression they are being preached to. What happens if you have a player who is convinced that all homosexuals secretly lust after children or every Muslim is a terrorist or every large corporation is unbelievably corrupt who is then faced with a situation that does not match their pre-conceived notions?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well, I’m fortunate enough that I could drop such a person from my group, and have before. Someone that extreme could easily cause problems in your group beyond disliking social justice. Like, if one of your players is gay or a Muslim.

      Now, RPGs do often require a light touch on controversial issues, even in less extreme situations. I’ve run games with libertarians, for example, and to keep things moving I keep my socialist ideals in the background. It comes down to how well you can read the room, knowing how much will get players to reconsider their positions, and how much will just drive them to become disruptive.

    • Mike

      well then that person will learn homosexuals are not child molesters and all Muslims are not terrorists and many not all large corporations are corrupt while they play the game

      you don’t change a game to appease gay-bashers, racists, sexists etc if they can’t handle it TOUGH

  2. ggt102

    I’m sorry, but this is one of the dumbest articles I’ve ever read. It started off good and said some things that made sense. I agree with what you said under “Cultural Analysis” and the stuff about mythology, but after that the whole thing descends into a load of SJW nonsense. For instance, under “Critical Distance Reveals Troubling Patterns” you wrote that automobiles are the only legitimate form of transportation. Really? Have you never heard of bicycles or airplanes? Have you never heard of boats, or trains? These are all forms of legitimate transportation. You said that the young, old, poor, and disabled are locked out of transportation. Have you never heard of PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION? If you don’t have a car, or are unable to drive due to a disability or some other medical condition, you can always take a bus or train to get to where you need to go. No one is locked out of transportation unless they are physically unable to leave their homes under their own power.

    You also wrote that Americans follow a cultural narrative that emphasizes personal sins as the cause of misfortune. Being that I am an American I can tell you that this is absolute nonsense. People with diseases are not being blamed for having said diseases. If a person contracts an STD because they had unprotected sex, or is diagnosed with lung cancer because they’ve been smoking six packs a day for the past 20 years, they have only themselves to blame for their illness. We don’t blame people for getting sick, but we do expect people to take responsibility for their actions, especially if their actions led to their illness.

    The reason it is assumed that people who are obese got that way because of sloth and gluttony is because they got that way because of sloth and gluttony. It is a proven fact that if you don’t get enough exercise and overeat you will become obese. As I said before obese people have only themselves to blame for their situation and they need to take responsibility for their actions instead of seeking pity from others. If they don’t want to be obese they need to start exercising and eating healthy. People with addictions are not being ridiculed. They are, however, criticized for their poor decision making, because that is what lead to their addiction. Addicts are not immune from criticism and are responsible for their own actions.

    No one is asking people with Chronic Depression to provide a reason why they’re depressed. If you are referring to mental health professionals it’s because it is their job to ask such questions. Treating someone with depression takes more than just handing them a pill and sending them on their way. It also requires therapy and that involves discussing your problems with a psychiatrist. They can’t help you overcome your depression if they don’t know why you’re depressed in the first place.

    You also encouraged writers to make a series of changes to their story to make it more socially acceptable. The first was to swap the characters’ genders around. Why? I don’t see how such a change would be beneficial other than to make the story more politically correct. The second was to make some of the characters gay or trans. Again this is nothing more than a pointless change for the sole purpose of being more politically correct.

    The third was to change some of the characters’ names to ones that don’t scream “white people”. First, what exactly do you mean by “names that scream ‘white people'” and why do I need to changes the names to make my characters seem less white? Not only is this incredibly stupid, it’s also incredibly racist! The fourth was to make some characters heavy, old, or otherwise conventionally unattractive. Again this seems pointless. Basically you’re just telling people to make a character conventionally unattractive for the sake of having a conventionally unattractive character.

    The final change was to give a character a disability that doesn’t hinder them, because they adapted to it years ago. This makes no sense. There is no point in giving a character a disability if it isn’t going to hinder them in any way. You’re not making the character better, you’re giving it a pointless character trait. If you’re going to give a character a disability, it should be one that actually hinders the character in some way. This will create a conflict that you can build a character arc around and it will make for a more interesting character. A character with a disability that doesn’t provide a hindrance isn’t really disabled. These changes are nothing more than change for the sake of change. You should be encouraging writers to write the stories they want to write, not the ones you want them to write because they’re more politically correct. All you’re doing in encouraging people to stifle they’re own creativity.

    • Mike Hernandez has a great explanation on how calling something PC or SJW is just another way of dismissing it. It’s a tactic that assumes the concerns of the privileged person are neutral/universal, and everyone else’s are just personal.

      “First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.”

      The whole article is worth a read, and it highlights exactly what ggt 102 is doing here rhetorically.

      ggt 102 is basically communicating that the issue of representation in media is not something that concerns *them* and so anyone else bringing it up is distracting from topics that *they* think actually matter. Well this is something that does matter to many people, and dismissing it as a frivolous concern is both a failure of communication (it shuts down / sidetracks any discussions relevant to addressing the issue) and a failure of basic respect.

    • Gregory Lynn

      You could not be more wrong.

      I won’t go into tons of detail because I don’t want to take the time, but:

      Automobiles certainly aren’t the only method of transportation, but they are the dominant one.

      I live in rural South Carolina. The nearest grocery store is about ten miles away. If I don’t have a car, how do I get groceries?

      I can’t get a weeks worth of groceries home on a bike. There is no taxi service. We moved here recently and don’t know anyone. There’s no delivery service for groceries here. If we don’t have a car, I not only have to walk to the store, I have to go to the store more often.

      If you don’t think Americans emphasize personal sins as the cause of misfortune, you’re just not paying attention.

      If you think sloth and gluttony are the only way people get fat, you’re just wrong. If you think everyone can exercise the way healthy people can, you’re wrong.

      If you think people with depression aren’t told every day that they should cheer up, your out of your mind.

      You’re lying when you say you don’t know what he means by white sounding named and you know it.

      People who have accommodated to their disabilities can still be thrown off by something that’s slightly different than the norm. Ever pushed a wheelchair on a cobblestoned street? I have.

      Almost everything you said here was not just ignorant, but willfully ignorant. If you simply paid a little bit of attention to people who are different than you, or had a little empathy, you’d be better off.

    • Jerry

      Watch Sense8 on Netflix and you will see how wrong you are about diversity adding nothing of value to a story. Their cast of characters is incredibly diverse and it makes for a much more interesting story than if they were all het cis-male white Americans.

      • Zoran Bekric

        Are you seriously suggesting that the characters in Sense8 all started out being, as you put it, “het cis-male white Americans” and were only changed because Straczynski and the Wachowskis decided to switch around the genders and make some of them gay or trans?

        I think that highly unlikely.

        I find it much easier to believe that Capheus was always going to be a Nairobian matatu driver. That Lito was always going to be gay. That Kala was always going to be an Indian woman. And so on.

        The reason why I think that is because those traits feature strongly in the each character’s story. They’re not just pasted-on labels that could be swapped around willy-nilly. We know Kala is practicing Hindu because it turns out that’s important to her story; by contrast, I have no idea what religious denomination Wolfie is even nominally, since he doesn’t seem to be practicing, because that trait is incidental to his story.

        It’s like Dumbledore being gay: it’s nice to know, but somehow never came up in any of the Harry Potter books because it was never relevant.

        I would suggest that the advice to:
        “1. Write your story as you normally would.
        2. Switch around the genders of your characters.
        3. While you’re doing that, make a character or three gay or trans.”
        is more likely to produce tokenism than actual diversity. If a character’s gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc is important to the story it shouldn’t be something that can be swapped around so easily and at such a late stage in the writing.

        • LT

          ‘If a character’s gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc is important to the story it shouldn’t be something that can be swapped around so easily and at such a late stage in the writing.’
          But why does it have to important to the story? ‘White hetro male’ is a race, a sexuality and a gender – and it is given to a great many characters who’s race, sexuality and gender have pretty much no influence on the plot (beyond maybe a perfunctory romance). Why does that particular set of characteristics get to be applied across the board without question, but any change to it must be justified by relevance to the plot?
          I’m in many situations every day where the fact that I’m a woman is completely irrelevant – but I’d be pretty annoyed if someone made a film of those events and decided that I should be played by a man, because my gender wasn’t adding anything to the story.

          • SunlessNick

            To put it another way, it adds a sense that being female, or gay, black, or trans, or chronically ill need not be remarkable – that people with these traits can just be ordinary – and that *is* adding something to the story.

        • E Anderson

          I agree with you.

          I’m bi and … gender questioning? Still figuring that part out. I would find a story where “oh, yeah, so this one character is gay or trans* or whatever” to fall flat, like with Dumbledore. If you are a minority in some fashion, then you perceive the world differently and others perceive you differently.

          I have plot points around some of my characters’ sexuality or mental health issues and how they’re perceived in their culture. I’m currently working on a story switching between five characters, one of whom is from a different ethnic group that is a minority in their country. The media response and how people perceive her is an important part of what makes her *her*. She has always belonged to the minority culture. Different characters belonging to the majority culture see people from her culture differently. A character in another story runs away because she’s gay, but her girlfriend’s family is completely OK with her sexuality.

          Sexuality and gender identity is actually a fun one to work with, especially if you have a couple of different cultures; attitudes towards gay and non-binary individuals may be different, such as a culture where everyone who dresses the same regardless of gender vs. a culture with rigid gender roles, or a culture where marriage is instituted differently (or doesn’t exist at all!).

          If your characters aren’t on Earth, then there might be different racial and/or cultural features. Yes, learn what makes up a culture so you can create these differences. The first part of this article is spot-on there. But diversity for the sake of diversity? Nah. In fact, if transportation is an issue, then most people your character meets will be of their own culture unless they go traveling. There might be minority cultures, but it’s not going to be as diverse as America.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I feel like the problem with Dumbledoor isn’t so much that his sexuality wasn’t a plot point, but that he wasn’t actually established as gay in the story. Rowling did that afterwords, and whatever her intentions, it felt like a cheap ploy to claim more diversity than she actually had.

      • Chris Winkle

        You make some great points Zoran. Sense 8 did a great job with diversity, and part of that was making it relevant to the character’s lives and the plot. That could not have been achieved with an after-writing swap.

        But stories like Sense 8 also require extensive knowledge regarding diversity. To plan a story like Sense 8 without in depth knowledge of the experiences of each group could result in stereotyped characters that do as much harm as good. Even when writers plan, for instance, to include equal representation for women, if they go back and look at their work once finished, they’ll probably find they’ve unintentionally made the male characters more important.

        A storyteller who is trying to diversify their cast for the first time is not necessarily ready for an undertaking like Sense 8. Telling storytellers they have to do mountains of research before they can include a gay character will only result in less gay characters. The after-writing swap is an easy way to get started that side steps a lot of potential problems that someone less familiar with these issues could run into.

        While the method is intended for beginners and isn’t perfect, I don’t agree that tokenism is the most likely result. For one thing, tokenism is largely marked by under representation. There’s a single black person or women when there should be more, and so that single character must represent an entire demographic. For another, it can be valuable to have a diverse cast without dwelling on what makes them different. A storyteller writing in a future utopian setting like Star Trek may want to present gay relationships with as little fanfare as straight ones. Doing this can help normalize characters that aren’t white-cis-straight-men. Changes after the initial draft have given us some great characters like Ellen Ripley.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        An after the fact gender swap also gave us Toph. Never forget Toph, for she is awesome.

        • Bronze Dog

          Toph isn’t blind. She’s simply unable to see anything less awesome than she is. The difference is largely academic.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

    • Dave L

      >Have you never heard of PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION? If you don’t have a car, or are unable to drive due to a disability or some other medical condition, you can always take a bus or train to get to where you need to go.


      Not every place has public transportation. Buses and trains do not run all the time. Some people have difficulty traveling the three blocks to the nearest bus stop, then another three blocks to their appointment, then back. The typical bus cannot accommodate a wheelchair user.

      I work as a medical transporter. My job literally is to provide transportation to doctors, therapists, etc., for people who can’t get to their appointments w/out assistance (Medicaid pays the transportation costs). And I can tell you, an airplane, boat, or train is no substitute. Even a bicycle would be of no use to most of my clients.

    • StarSong

      As I read your comment, it seemed like your personal prejudices confirmed most of the points you were arguing against.

      For example, there are medical conditions that cause obesity no matter how healthily you eat or how much you exercise. Sloth and gluttony are not to blame for all cases of obesity; but no matter what, those people are likely to be blamed for their condition.

      Poor decision making is not the only contributing factor in addiction. Believe it or not, some people are forcibly addicted by others through physical violence or emotional abuse. What about a baby born addicted to methamphetamine? I suppose that what their fault due to poor decision making.

      As someone who actually has a chronic depression disorder, I can personally verify that even nice people who aren’t trying to be judgemental assume that there must be a reason. In some cases there are reasons. In some cases a person’s body and brain just don’t function the way they are supposed to, and there is nothing they can do about it without help.

      The way I read it, changing details about the characters after the fact was a suggestion. I’m pretty sure it was meant to help writers who want to be more inclusive but are afraid of accidentally feeding harmful stereotypes. If you write a character and change those details after, you get a similarly real person who just happens to be nonbinary or something similar. Doing this will help us to change things like certain occupations being thought of as gender specific (like nurses and firefighters) or the automatic assumption of male pronouns. The same thing applies to all the character points that were made. Age, ethnicity,
      and physical appearance shouldn’t automatically define the sort of person your character is. Those details will always contribute, of course. If your character isn’t just as believable as a woman as they are as a man, you may be unintentionally including harmful stereotypes. They’re not saying everyone needs to do this. The more writers who do, though, the faster our culture will change.

      Your last point comes across as an offensive opinion. The only disability that is really a disability is one that hinders? So I suppose my brother who is physically disabled but learned to work around it isn’t disabled anymore. I should tell him. He’ll be so pleased to learn that overcoming something means it practically never existed in the first place. That type of thinking is exactly the point this article was making. If evey writer creates stories where their characters believe that kind of thing, it will influence the way that real people think. This happens whether it was the writer’s intention or not.

  3. Gregory Lynn

    Chris, I haven’t read anything more than this post, but it’s clear to me that we think of stories in the same basic ways.

    This was an excellent post and I’ll be telling every writer I know to read it.

  4. Brigitta M.

    Regarding gender swaps. This was a technique I was taught by my jr. high teacher. Not to say that it’s a bad technique, quite the opposite. It’s just that it stuns me that I find so much rage about it on a writing board when I’ve used it and variations therein to create character depth for most of my writing life.

    In my opinion though, it’s also a great way to analyze personal cultural expectations. Why does this character seem more vibrant as a POC than they do as a non-POC? As someone whose color is just this side of “marshmallow” I’ll double and triple-check expectations in this regard. It makes writing more challenging… but also more interesting.

    For someone who is hardly considered “the life of the party” meeting a group of someones who are culturally different than I am means I often have a ton of questions. Usually preceded by “I’m a writer and I want to assure I represent a variety of people fairly, just let me know if I get too nosy.” I also apologize in advance for anything I say that may come off as rude.

    Most people are amazing if someone is genuinely interested in learning about a culture they’re otherwise unfamiliar with and those I’ve questioned are also extremely forgiving as it relates to unintended rudeness because they know I’m simply trying to learn.

    I’ve also formed some wonderful friendships this way and have (my favorite part tbh) been invited more than once to dine with them and have had my palatte expanded as a result. Proving that what’s universally true for every culture: food connects us all and the food of a nation or even a subculture can tell you a lot about them.

    I know, I’ve been all over the place with this, and I’m sorry but I’m ultimately just trying to say don’t be afraid to mix things up and then talk to the people who are different than you. This way you’ll avoid “token” characters because you’ll know entire families of people who are of the culture you’re bringing in for the story. This is true for members of the LGBT community as well as those who aren’t “conventionally” any darn thing else either (looks, abilities, personality…etc. etc).

  5. Liz

    You make really good points, but some of it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The story comes first for me always, and of course that means trying to subvert the cliches and stereotypes that poison our culture, but I’m struggling to see the point of changing a character’s gender, sexual orientation, etc. for the sole purpose of handing out social justice. It’s a story, not a sermon. Every choice you make in your writing should support the plot, theme, and characters. Trying to force social justice into stories without thought towards the most essential elements is like the old Victorian writing fads–just waiting to die. I want our literature to reflect a shift from antiquated biases, but not at the cost of terrible writing, because no one will read it and then where will we be?

    • Chris Winkle

      What makes you think social justice elements would be incorporated without thought regarding the story? Naturally as the storyteller you would consider how a demographic change would affect your story, and choose the ones that you think compliment your work the best. These changes are not about forcing social justice on your story, they are a tool you can use to improve your story. A character that breaks stereotypes is not just more welcoming to a wider array of readers, but more fresh and memorable to everyone. Stereotypes are by their nature cliche. And if the change is neutral for your story but positive for social justice, why wouldn’t you do it? I’ve heard stories of people bursting into tears of joy after encountering a character that represents them. It could mean a lot to someone.

      As for concerns about being preachy/giving a sermon, that’s mostly a matter of showing vs telling, a writing concept you are probably familiar with. Lectures via exposition is telling and can be preachy. Including diverse characters is showing and is not preachy. Is it really preachy to have trans women in your story? Any trans woman you meet will almost certainly say “no,” their mere existence is not preachy.

    • 3Comrades

      I’d also say that everything is political, and whether you like it or not, making the characters male/white/straight/cis is a choice that reflects that too.

      There is very rarely a reason to make characters this way for story reasons.

      One of the rare exceptions would be Emmett from Lego Movie because he is supposed to be bland and the stereotypical version of “normal” he was all those things because story demanded it.

      Nearly any other case isn’t writing “for the story” but to support old themes/or to make things easier.

      That said if it comes off like a sermon, then you are doing it wrong. I hate “girl power” books about a girl triumphing because it is so hard and making witty comments about boys, because that is a sermon and feels trite and a 2 dimensional character. They made that character about gender and it feels so weird. If Harry Potter used different pronouns and changed a few scenes… it wouldn’t feel like that at all. The girl who lived is a lesbian, no big deal.

      That’s how to write it. Of course make comments occaisonally, but not to any extent making that what the character is about, if you do that…no sermon.

  6. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    A magnificent and insightful article, thank you for putting this so eloquently! Your points on the way American works and cultural narratives were especially insightful.

  7. Teetengee

    “If the culture recognized its own problems, they wouldn’t be there.”

    This assumes that humans want to reduce the suffering of others. While I believe that to largely be true, personally, I’m not sure I can say with confidence that it the belief is universal. Some people fundamentally lack empathy (as in total lack, not just having little), not knowledge. Hobbes’ Leviathan and some readings of the Bible also suggest that many people might not hold that to be true.

    Still, I really appreciate you writing this article, as the subject is intrinsic to almost all that we as writers/gms/etc do.

  8. Xandar The Zenon

    As a disclaimer, I urge those who read my comments try to respond in a reasonable matter. I’m trying to say my opinions in as kind a way as possible, and I’d much rather hear why you believe what you do than why I’m wrong.
    I found the first section to be very true, and well written. The second one was very good as well. However, the problems start with the third section, specifically once it starts talking about “American culture”. Personally I find it ironic that an article talking about the importance of social justice thinks they can boil down the culture of an area about the size of Europe into a single thing.
    Anyway, continuing. The article mentions that cars represent freedom and other things, but it doesn’t really talk about any actual benefits of vehicles, only perceived flaws. It talks about several groups of people who struggle to get places, but not those whose lives it makes easier. A lot of money is indeed spent on vehicular infrastructure, and many believe it to be expensive, but others find it a reasonable amount compared to the benefits. I think we can all agree that cars pollute the atmosphere locally in areas where air becomes trapped, although whether or not it has a larger impact is yet another can of worms I’d rather not open. Again, the amount of land taken up by vehicle infrastructure can be viewed as either excessive or justified. I find the deaths one a difficult problem to consider, because we do not know what kind of casualties would result from a different main method of transportation, although it seems most people justify the risk. Cars being the only legitimate form of transportation is yet another problematic statement.
    The next bout of real-life examples is equally problematic, quite possibly more so. Saying Americans blame misfortune on personal sins makes Americans seem like religious zealots who believe everyone gets what they deserve immediately. The only example (non-addiction related) I have ever heard of where people get blamed for having a disease would be STDs, and frankly if you did not take the appropriate precautions that would be on you. The problem with obesity is that the vast majority of the time it IS caused by gluttony or slothfulness, but that’s not to say that there aren’t individual situations where medical conditions don’t interfere. You don’t become obscenely fat without a medical condition or having a serious lack of self control. And addiction is its own beast. The vast majority of addictive substances, such as drugs, are illegal, and by taking them or buying them, you are breaking the law and contributing to a larger problem, all punishable offenses. Other addictions are caused by someone’s personal poor choices, most often smoking and drinking, and resulting problems come from that. There are some cases, again, where this is not the case, but those are in the minority. Although you are on the mark that sadly most depressed people find little sympathy.
    The next section I again agree with, storytellers can influence society. However, I would disagree with you slightly on where to place the blame on your Jaws example. The movie did depict an evil shark, but ultimately the people killing the sharks are the ones at fault, since people who make movies cannot control the actions of others, and therefore should not have the blame placed on them. And since part of the point of Jaws is to scare the audience, I think that people still fearing sharks is more a testament to its success than its negative influence. I agree with the rest of that section, though.
    Yes, destructive cultural practices mean that those taking part in those destructive practices will be destructive. I recently had a couple of people close to me die from diseases because they couldn’t get the help they needed. But I’m getting the idea that you’re talking about psychological and other disorders that people often dismiss. Some of the other examples here are also up for debate/presenting one side of an issue. But ultimately I agree wholeheartedly with your message, it is a moral imperative to be a positive influence, however you may see that.
    I completely agree about what you have to say in the section Creating Positive Impact Makes Stories Better.
    And I do think it isn’t that hard to create positive impact, although many of the methods you list seem almost like a poor substitute to simply writing it that way in the first place. Instead of switching things around, making for inconsistencies or off characters, just make a conscious decision to include a more diverse cast of characters.
    EVERY group of people is subject to harmful stereotypes, whether it be white male Americans, or black African women. In the end, it is up to each individual to do their own best to positively influence others through their writing. I apologize if I came across as vicious, but I felt like I should say what I think of the article.

  9. Bubbles

    Hi. I was looking to see whether this website had any articles on “trigger warnings.” They’re a controversial topic, but I’ve seen the warnings actually used a few times on this website itself. I did some searches, but couldn’t find an article on when to use and when not to use trigger warnings. That would be a good article.

    However, I did find a website with an article called “Keep the Politics Out of Your Writing Advice” which criticized Mythcreants and the social justice articles on it specifically. I’m not linking to it unless I get permission because I know that links may trigger the spam filter, and I’m not sure about when it is appropriate to link to criticism. To be honest, I’m not totally sure either whether I should be posting this, here or anywhere. I’m just letting you know this because it’s the first criticism of Mythcreants specifically that I’ve found.

    • Chris Winkle

      Someone did that? Lol, that’s amazing. Please put in a link, it will go through moderation but we’ll approve it.

    • Chris Winkle

      As for trigger warnings, we don’t consider ourselves experts in them, so I’d recommend looking elsewhere for when it’s a good idea to use them. We chose to use them as a courtesy to our readers. We think giving people a choice to not read possibly upsetting content is better than not giving a choice. It’s exactly the same as putting up a spoiler notice, we’re just notifying about different things.

      Why people get so angry that we’re offering them a choice is still beyond me.

      • Bubbles

        I understand if it’s not your expertise. I was just wondering what the boundaries are. Would something such as, say, a murder or a burglary in a story mean it’s a good idea to put a trigger warning? People have been traumatized by burglaries, and families have been traumatized by murders. However, I rarely see things such as that listed as subjects for trigger warnings, even the ones on this site. I don’t mean to be offensive or minimize what anyone has gone through in any way, but when do you decide not to put a trigger warning? There are a lot of things that can offend and/or traumatize some members of an audience.

        • Cay Reet

          I’ve normally seen trigger warnings for extreme violence and for rape, because those are highly traumatizing for the victims. I agree that it is traumatizing if you have been burgled, but it usually doesn’t lead to a smuch damage as the aforementioned cases (people to get things like PTSD from rape or extreme violence, I haven’t heard of a case of PTSD from burglary, although I’m not saying it doesn’t exist). Quite often, the trigger warnings are for people who suffer from PTSD and can have a very strong and horrible reaction to a mention of what happened to them.

          • Bubbles

            Hmm… I thought I’ve heard stories of murders in which the victim’s family panicked, or something along those lines, if anything even remotely related to the murder happened. I was wondering why it’s rare to see trigger warnings for any death (I know you mentioned “extreme violence,” but I’ve never actually seen any warnings for murder specifically – although maybe I just haven’t found them).

            As for burglary, I was thinking of certain news stories I’ve read in which people became extremely paranoid and scared of doing anything because of a burglary. A break-in is a horrible violation of privacy, even beyond losing your things, after all. Also, I just looked up “ptsd due to burglary” on Google and found a bunch of websites discussing the topic. On the first page alone, one was a PubMed article, there were a few on PTSD forums, and one, I believe, specifically mentions it is actually post-traumatic stress some people are feeling. Therefore, I think it is seriously possible for people to have PTSD due to burglary.

        • Chris Winkle

          Okay, I have changed my mind. I will write an article on content warnings, because even though I personally know lots of people who really want them, articles advocating for them seem to be hard to find these days.

          • Bubbles

            Really? That’s cool! I hope it isn’t because I bothered you or anything. I was just curious about the whole topic.

          • Chris Winkle

            Not at all. I just realized that a) I have more to say about this than I thought. b) all the friends I have that really want them could use an advocate online

          • Bubbles

            This is just my personal suggestion, but if you’re writing about trigger warnings, a good idea might be to look up the scientific research about them. For example, there are websites such as and
            It seems that in general, science supports some aspects of the common trigger warning rationale, but not necessarily others. This ambiguity could be good to include in an article.
            (I guess the spam filter may catch these links, but I think they should be appropriate, because they are relevant).

          • Chris Winkle

            I do like science, but scientific justification is actually besides the point in this case. I will explain why.

      • JSHADOWM

        Please excuse the Thread necromancy, but i have an answer why people hate trigger warnings: They are “SJW terminology”

        but you do not need to use [it] anyway. i personally feel there is no difference between:



        “This story contains horrific violence, Disembowelment, the effects of stressful situations on the human psyche, and occurences maternal affection”

        Disclamers are useful but going “TW: RAPE” is just lazy compared to “This contains realistic portrails of non consensual sexual activity” include “rape” or “ptsd” as tags so people who can be triggered can just blacklist it out of there search results, but make sure your DISCLAMERS are precise. otherwise i will assume you are writing rape not because the story demands it but because you wanna shock people for no reason.

        • Cay Reet

          I think that there is a difference between disclaimers (which are often merely about ‘this is not based on any real-life persons, places, or organisations’) and trigger warnings.

          Disclaimers are often ignored or just glanced at, whereas people who do have triggers are definitely going to read a clear trigger warning, because it has no other function than to warn them.

          Disclaimers have a legal function to make sure someone who happens to fit with the villain of your piece can’t sue you over your book, because disclaimer! You made sure to point out that you didn’t mean any real person, so not them, either. Or a small town whose mayor thinks you used it as a backdrop and made it look bad. Disclaimer! You didn’t use any real places, either! If you’re not expecting anyone to use your person or your place for a book, no need to read a disclaimer.

          Trigger warnings are warnings and nothing else. They are there to specify the use of topics which can cause emotional pain to people with certain backgrounds. If you know there’s something which can trigger you, you look for trigger warnings and you don’t read a text with a trigger warning that includes whatever you need to worry about.

          Honestly, people to get angry over a trigger warning because it’s SJW stuff, should get their heads examined.

  10. Bubbles

    I was looking for a Mythcreants article on “trigger warnings.” They’re controversial, but I’ve seen them used several times on this site, so I was hoping I would find a guide on when to use them and when not to.

    I couldn’t find one by searching (maybe a new article can be created on them?) but I did find a blogpost in another blog called “Keep the Politics Out of Your Writing Advice” which criticized Mythcreants specifically because of its social justice articles. I’m not going to link to the blog itself unless I get permission to because I know links can trigger the spam filter, and I’m not sure what the rules about linking to criticism are. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should be posting this here, but I couldn’t find anywhere else to do so, and I just wanted to let you know that this is the first criticism mentioning Mythcreants specifically that I’ve found outside the site. I was just wondering whether anyone would want to respond to it. That said, if the authors of the website want to take this comment down for whatever reason, they are free to do so.

    • Chris Winkle

      No no, we welcome criticism, just not hate speech or abusive language. We’re unlikely to bother responding to them. Do you want to know what we have to say in response?

      • Bubbles

        Yes, I want to know. It’s great that you talked to me personally and were so nice! I’m new, so I wasn’t sure of the rules.

        Although, please try not to send emails to me. You’re nice, but I did ask for no email alerts…

        • Cay Reet

          Next time to write a comment, set the email alert to ‘don’t subscribe’ in the drop down menu, then you won’t get any emails. As far as I can tell, if you set it once, it stays that way.

          • Chris Winkle

            I actually sent Bubbles an email myself, that’s what they’re referring to.

          • Bubbles

            I know. I actually put “don’t subscribe” but I still got the email. Wait, come to think of it, maybe the email wasn’t a normal alert; it was due to a specific set of circumstances. (I had posted the same comment three times because it never showed up after I posted it, and I had written that I was worried that I was being blocked). So I guess I can say I would generally prefer comment discussions to getting emails, although I understand why it happened that time.

        • Chris Winkle

          Yeah, sorry about that. It’s just that in your last comment you seemed convinced that you were being blocked, and I wasn’t sure that you would find out your comments were actually going through. I didn’t have any other means of notifying you of what was going on. Don’t worry, you weren’t added to any type of mailing list, it was a one-time personal email from me. I will not send you any more.

  11. An Individual

    Okay, but what about stories fixated on a premise, such as “Death Note” with the premise being the interpretation of justice?

    Kind of spoiler warning, but not really:

    In the anime we see Light and L go at it, but they are both playing mind games/ being manipulative to catch the other off-guard or use a specific person or resource to their advantage to expose his opponent.

    In such a show, the representation of one of the minorities mentioned would either get them caught up in a ploy of one of the opponents to get the other, or the vilify that minority in the event that that minority takes the place of Light or L in the story’s plot.

    Also, it wouldn’t be contextually consistent because the story takes place in Japan, an overwhelmingly homogeneous society. (but an easy solution to this is to have the story be in america).

    In this case, would it still be “good” to put such minorities in a story, or should you purposely exclude them?

    In this case, the analysis of culture is unnecessary as well because the entire plot is closely packed around the theme of justice and the fight between Light/Kira with L, so I think Death Note would be a counter example of a point you made in the article since it is wildly successful, and for good reason in my opinion because I believe it is excellently written and incorporates a good bit of your ANTS.

    I also believe Light and L are a kind of counter example in the way that they aren’t likable in the way that I’ve seen Mythcreants mention: they are both quite unlikable, but they are overwhelmingly compelling, so you end up liking them despite their natures and enjoying their powerful dynamic.

    Your thoughts?

    I’m asking because I intend to focus my story around the premise of personal relationships, trust, friendship in the face of adversity, and the flaws and virtues regarding seemingly polarized institutions.

    Yeah, I know my premises don’t qualify me for what I previously stated, but I’m still curious of the Mythcreants’ thoughts about the relationship between non-minority-friendly settings and representation of said minorities.

    • cerabobble

      I don’t know if I count as Mythcreants, but I am a regular reader and have two cents to throw in. I think that even though Japan is basically all one ethnicity, there are other ways to include minorities. For example, there could be a disabled character, or a LGBT+ (is that the right acronym?) character, or a character from a minority religion. Also, though Japan is homogeneous, it would not be totally implausible to have one foreigner, and such an inclusion might allow for some outsider commentary.

      As for stories that are built to focus more on themes, casual inclusion of a minority is still possible. Indeed, treating a disability (for example) as just a normal part of someone’s life is good representation.

      • An Individual

        Okay, I see where you’re coming from, though I don’t think you addressed my main concern: that Death Note is an inherently dangerous environment, at least around the main characters. Giving representation, I would think, would just end up in bad representation, like in horror movies, except in this case the person is being manipulated or vilified.

        I can see the outsider approach being relatively valid, but I know Death Note was built from the ground up to be a fast-paced thriller, so outside commentary would only serve to slow it down. To keep a story fast-paced, I’d imagine that you’d want to focus on the main characters interacting over the events rather than somebody commentating after the fact.

        Yes, I agree with your last statement about it being relatively easy to plug in minorities in stories focused around themes. I have a story that is focused on a theme as well, ambiguity/ the non-existence of true good and evil, and one of my characters is a person with amnesia who has improved and adapted to her condition before the main protagonist enters the story (to the point that the protagonist doesn’t even notice that she has amnesia until she decides to tell him). I’d say that’s pretty alright representation of people with minor amnesia. I don’t think people with major amnesia would be reading my story, unfortunately.

        Thanks for the 2 cents.

        • Cay Reet

          Representation and diversity are a wide field. Side characters who are not from the mostly-presented group are diversity. Having a main character who is not the ‘straight white dude’ is a large step when it comes to representation.

          Anime usually doesn’t do much representation-wise, even though especially there it would be easier, since a lot of anime isn’t that close to reality and thus could choose characters freely. But then, that’s not something anyone can easily change.

          And having someone with a specific condition (such as amnesia) in your story is always good. Because representation isn’t just about giving a group representation, it’s also about reminding everyone else that the group exists. It’s easy to overlook or forget that people with disabilities exist or to have mere stereotypes for ethnicities you don’t interact with a lot or LGBT+ people (if you have none – at least none who are out – among your acquaintances or friends) in your mind. Every character who is a real character and not from the mostly-presented group is a good step in the right direction.

          • Bubbles

            Just something I noted: First, you mention characters who are not a “straight white dude.” However, you are talking about anime. Unless there is something I am missing, the “default” anime character would be Japanese, not white.

          • Cay Reet

            The characters have Japanese names, but they don’t necessarily look Japanese. They are much closer to Europeans in looks than to Japanese, so very much also the ‘straight white dude.’ A shocking amount of them are even blond, in addition, their skin is relatively pale and their eyes are much larger than they would normally be, too. They do not that much look Asian, but more white.

            So, yes, technically the standard character in an anime or manga would be a ‘straight Japanese dude,’ but due to anime/manga aesthetics they look very much like the straight white dude.

  12. Sky Diamond

    I recently read Houseki no Kuni, in which topic of gender is inapplicable because gems have no gender, nor is race, be cause they aren’t humans, nor is sexuality, because they can’t have sex. So I wonder, what do you think of writing about immortal fantastic race that has no sex and gender? What if they can’t be considered “black” or “white” or “people of color” because their color does not correspond to human ones?
    Also, which implications can Houseki no Kuni have? Can a story be sexist if there’s no gender, racist if there’s no race, or homophobic if there’s no sexuality? Is it a good idea to avoid assigning gender to characters?

    • Cay Reet

      With regular humans, not assigning a gender (even if it is non-binary) will be extremely difficult, especially if you have several characters. If you have a gender-less species, however, you don’t have to assign genders, since it wouldn’t make sense.

      Even if their colours do not correspond to human ones, they could still have racism, if all green or blue or yellow people (I don’t know the story, so I don’t know what colours they come in) are treated badly just for being that colour. Skin colour is an easy-to-see way of discrimination, but far from the only one. Discrimination and even oppression can exist everywhere. Racism or sexism are just specific forms of discrimination or oppression (depending on how far it goes).

  13. Jon

    I agree that the “write a story and then do gender/ethnicity/sexuality/etc swaps on the characters” technique is a good way for people who are unused to diversity to get more diversity into their works without descending into stereotypes and portrays the characters as “people first and foremost”.
    It does have the disadvantage that absolutely nothing about that character’s heritage, gender, sexuality etc impacts on or is impacted on by the story (e.g. if the character is gay and another is homophobic, you’re going to wind up with a gay character not being affected by the other character’s prejudices).
    It is daunting if you have to do lots of research into issues that certain groups face in a given society and the cultural attitudes of that society that drive those issues, but sometimes it may be necessary for a realistic plot – and I’m not necessarily talking about a plot that revolves around, say, “race relations” in 1950s USA or some such; just a plot where one person might feel nervous about revealing their gender identity, religious views, political stance, sexuality etc around others due to previous bad experiences or a cultural bias against them or where a person might strive to “over-perform” in order to counter preconceptions or stereotypes that are prevalent in that time/place just as a matter of course during the story. Not a major part of the plot, just one of the many things they have to contend with on a day-to-day basis, just as a person with poor eyesight has to put their glasses on when they get up each morning.
    My current work-in-progress has a character I decided from the outset is a part-Māori pansexual woman from a culture that is accepting of diversity and some of the others she encounters in the story are from cultures that do not view women or non-whites as particularly valuable and see anything other than strict heterosexuality as “perverted”. Clearly, this creates friction. This friction is incidental to the main plot (the storyline is not “mixed-ethnicity pansexual woman has to negotiate racist, sexist and homophobic culture”), but it’s there and it means that people are going to behave and react in certain ways and she’s going to have to deal with that in her own way.
    Doing the “write the story and then retroactively decide this character is a non-white pansexual woman” would not work in this setting – but I agree that the technique would work very well in other stories.
    Not being a pansexual woman, I’ve got to rely on the fact that I’ve observed how women and LGBTQ+ people are viewed and treated by a large cross-section of the population and my knowledge of many real people of various genders, ethnicities, cultures and sexual orientations – and then infuse that into a unique character with her own goals, strengths and limitations so that I know how she will react when some of the less savoury views and prejudices rear their ugly heads.

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