Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

A lot of authors have been taking a stance against bigotry among authors, especially against misogyny. Chuck Wendig is the only one I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are others. More power to them! And yet, I have to wonder, out of honest curiosity (here I’m responding to item 19 in Wendig’s article): When it comes to diversifying in our writing, are we going to let writers play to their strengths, or insist that they have to crawl up and join the cool kids at the cutting edge of “social progress” (which is of course infallible and never overdoes anything)? If they stay where they are, does that afford us the right to kick sand in their faces?

Here’s one example. I love it when books and stories have strong female protagonists. In fact, that’s one reason I have no objections to Tauriel, the new female Elf character who’s going to be in the next Hobbit movie. And why the heck should I object? Strong female characters are awesome. It’s true, men get the spotlight too often. Women ought to make more decisions as characters, be more fleshed-out like the human beings (or elves/fairies/aliens…you get the idea) they are, fight in more battles, and affect the plot more than just being a prize for a man to win. When a book includes a female character who is, you know, a person, I celebrate. Break out the Guinness and firecrackers!

However, that doesn’t mean I’m only going to read stories with strong women, nor does it mean I “have to” only encourage authors who include them. An author may indeed be the “god” controlling everything on the page. And sometimes a god should be allowed to focus on male characters, not only female ones. You won’t get me to throw out my copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World because only men get to climb the prehistoric plateau and shoot at Pterodactyls, while the women are manipulative, liable to scream, barely figure into the story, and stay in England.

Wendig and others seem to regard authors as the deities who control pages, yet these are strange deities if they must keep up with what bloggers insist they must do. What if the author (male or female) doesn’t write a strong female protagonist into their work because they feel utterly unqualified to develop that sort of character? Does that make them misogynist, or behind the times? Does their inability to develop a take-charge female character indicate a weakness in their writing? If it is indeed a problem, do they have to fix it right freaking now, lest they be branded a bigot?

Does it make someone a homophobe if they don’t/won’t write about gay characters? Is an author racist if all of their protagonists are white? Do they hate Irishmen if there’s nary a brogue to flavor the dialogue?

The answer that should be obvious is “not necessarily.” The decisions a writer makes rarely — if ever — betray a person’s opinion. (And deconstructionism should be locked deep in the ice of Hell’s ninth circle for saying otherwise) Even when they do state their personal opinions, readers keep using said opinions to write them off. I’ve seen people declare with straight faces that they will not read any of Orson Scott Card’s fiction because they hate his stance on gay marriage.

Really? You’re choosing to care that deeply about what one writer thinks? Whatever. I’m still going to read his books, and love them.

Aren’t you supposed to let yourself get sucked into the story? Suspend your disbelief, and as long as the author has done a good job, the story should be all that matters to you. If you’re mainly worried that the author’s not checking off little boxes for what “must” be in today’s fiction, or you disregard their work because of differing personal opinions, you’ve already failed as a reader.

I’d rather someone roll up their sleeves and tell a great story, regardless of their stance on the controversial subject du jour, and regardless of the genders/races/creeds of their characters. Even when the bigotry is real and overt (e.g. the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales), there is still potential for great fiction. I consider it a deep injustice whenever a good storyteller is vilified because their opinions aren’t PC enough for the popular crowd.

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2 thoughts on “Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

  1. You make some excellent points, and I do agree with you–readers should be able to enjoy a story without having to worry about the author being politically correct.

    I think what Mr. Wendig is driving at, ultimately, is reader and author awareness. Is the author *aware* he or she is writing a politically incorrect character–is that author writing the character with purpose? Yes? Excellent!
    If the author is unaware, or the character serves no purpose (i.e., as a foil for the protagonist, or something) then maybe the author should take a step back and ask why the character is like that.

    By the same token, readers need to be able to do the same thing.

    I’m not saying that every work of fiction carries a specific moral, but ideally, fiction presents a mirror of society. If we, as authors and readers, are aware of the characters that are less than stellar people, chances are we can identify them in real life, and thus defend ourselves against the nonsense those people may present us with.

    I think Mr. Wendig still wants authors to do whatever they want, just with self-awareness. You can’t grow if you can’t question yourself, and you can’t question yourself if you aren’t self-aware.

    • Very good observations, Jackie. I do have to agree with you, those principles are very important, to writer and reader alike. Wendig does seem like he’s ready to call someone a sexist pig and a contributer to rape culture if their cast is all-male, but maybe I just haven’t read enough of him lately. In any case, your points are excellent, and I thank you for sharing them.

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