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HOW DO YOU AVOID OFFENDING ANYONE IN YOUR STORY?

August 26, 2020

            I thought about titling this article different things to do with race, but this goes beyond just that. While race IS at the forefront of many conversations right now, there’s…to use a tired but true old cliché… more ways to skin a cat. Now I’ve probably offended cats or PETA people.

            In today’s cancel culture, one can become offended over just about anything.

            While that sounds almost facetious, in fact, it’s quite true, especially when it comes to social media. In the context of a book, where there’s more time for an explanation and context to go with it, it’s not as much of an issue, but that ugly premise is still there.

            Let’s look deeper.

THE 400LB GORILLA

            Race is by far the easiest way to offend someone.

            As an author, no matter how well intended, when you add in diverse characters to your story, since you have not lived those characters lives, you’re bound to write something untrue or unrealistic that’s likely to offend someone. The more insulated and unread you are toward these diverse people, the worse and more unrealistic the faux pax is going to be.

            TV doesn’t always count.

            Quite often, script writers throw in unrealistic dimensions to racial characters all for the sake of drama. They often skirt the borderline of what’s acceptable, consciously or unconsciously creating stereotypes for minorities or even majority races. On the other hand, sometimes these portrayals can be quite accurate, especially now as the entertainment industry is slowly forging ahead with diversity.

            Books can be a great source of realism, if the right books are consulted.

            By far, the best source is the people themselves.

            If you want to write a race you are not, talk to them and feel them out for their experiences. That will help you build a more realistic character.

            Just today, as I edit this, someone on one of the forums asked the question about describing someone’s skin using food, such as “olive skin.” What about “mahogany skin?” Skin the color of coffee, or skin the color of whatever? Is that an insult? I’m sure it is to someone. When you think of white people, they aren’t white either. Very few people except those that are albino even come close to actually being white, and they’re more pink than white, usually. So, how do you describe the color of someone’s skin, hair, other features without insulting them?

            A good question.

OCCUPATIONS

            This is something people don’t often think about and once again, media is quite often the source of numerous stereotypes. Of another more common source is the “I heard,” or the “I just assume” bunch. This is where real research is necessary.

            If you portray a plumber as the typical butt crack money grubbing guy who won’t even listen to what you have to say, you have a problem.

            Are all lawyers the same stereotype? Do all doctors automatically ignore women? Do all bankers ignore the little guy? Do construction workers all leer at women?

            Not only are those stereotypes, but they’re also clichés and can offend as easily as ignore the reality.

RELIGIONS

            Another 400lb gorilla in the room is religion. Quite often, religious people are portrayed as stereotypes. While one can’t deny that these stereotypical people DO exist, constantly badgering the reader with these people in every story gets kind of old.

            When you’re NOT of said religion, of course, you should observe some real people of that religion. However, you should also talk to some of those people. Do some reading. You might be surprised.

DISABLED PEOPLE

            Not every disabled person is completely helpless.

            Not every disabled person is a saint.

            Not every disabled person is a jerk.

            If you don’t know someone that’s disabled, it would behoove you to seek them out and observe. You’ll find them just like everyone else.

LITTLE PEOPLE

            This is an often overlooked area. One of my personal heroes from way back, Billy Barty, stared the organization Little People of America back in 1957 (I think). Little people are quite often dragged into stereotypes. It’s only been recently that we’ve seen them gain acceptance in major roles, such as Peter Dinklage.

POLITICAL OPPOSITES

            This is another one that gets people riled, especially right now in an increasingly polarized time.

            All conservatives are whacky right wing religious gun nuts.

            All liberals are dirty liberal weenies who secretly want a communist state.

            To some, there’s no in-between.

            The reality is far different.

            In the world of political thrillers, this gets to be a touchy subject because the bad guys usually have to lean one way or the other, or sometimes in a completely different extreme. The reader is then going to accuse the author of slanting one way or the other automatically, because of who the author made the bad guy. In this case, one automatically offends the other side even if it was just done for a good story.

            You can’t win either way unless you come up with some bizarre third party? Some people will still twist it around so you lose, no matter what!

            While this has to do with plot, it doesn’t necessarily include the individual characters. The individual characters can be portrayed as normal people and all the offense is with the plot. Maybe that mitigates things to some extent, maybe not.

WHAT’S THIS ALL MEAN?

            The fact is, in today’s cancel culture, there are going to be people trolling for this stuff. In a way, they’re out looking, spoiling for a fight. Inevitably, they’re going to find something no matter what you do, if you’re unlucky enough to be targeted. Fortunately, most of that is saved for the immediacy of social media and not books. After all, who wants to take time out of their day of outrage to read a book, rather than Tweets?

            Of course, I’m being facetious.

            On the other hand, as an author, I want to grab the largest and most diverse audience I can. I want to be the most inclusive I can. The last thing I want to do is offend anyone, intentionally or unintentionally.

            On the other hand, have I intentionally played to stereotypes? Sure, deliberately to make a bad guy bad, or to make a point. It’s not done with malice.

            I know that as my own race, I cannot realistically write a main character for another race. The best I can do is portray that diversity in my secondary and minor characters to the best of my ability.

            How do I do that?

            I’ve been on this planet a long time. I’ve had my ups and downs, seen a lot and learned a lot.

            I lived in both Spain and Turkey and have been exposed to some widely diverse cultures. I also grew up in a melting pot in Southern California. Not only that, I spent almost my entire adult life in Guv’mint service, and I’ve continually observed racial and cultural diversity as a matter of course and normalcy.

            I try to bring that to my writing.

            How?

            It’s very simple. When portraying people of different races and cultures I’ve learned a huge lesson that more isolated people may not realize.

            No matter who or what you are, people are still people.

            We all share the same basic DNA. We all share the same planet. We all share the same basic human experiences. We all breathe the same air.

            Outside of a few minor cosmetic and cultural differences, we’re still basically the same.

            There’s no avoiding it. We’re all human.

SUMMARY

            While you want your characters to be colorful and diverse and dynamic, do NOT forget that they are still people. Don’t get trapped into the world of stereotypes. That, my friends, is the quickest way to offend someone.

            Do NOT forget that basically, we’re all the same.

            Happy writing!

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