by Nick Conrad
One of the biggest challenges for anyone writing fiction is how to construct the story and characters in a way that readers can relate to them. Sure, part of the fun of reading fiction is that it provides an escape from everyday life, and no one expects to fully identify with a third-level mage who's training to be a High Priestess to the Sun Goddess Axyklpmot when she falls in love with a dragon shifter. But regardless of a story's setting, an author rarely wants to make potential readers feel as though they are not welcome to read the story. Of course there's no way to universally appeal to everyone's sensibilities, but there is a way to actively alienate whole groups of people. And often, an author doing it doesn't even mean to.
The term "political correctness" gets thrown around a lot these days, especially with reference to the media. It calls to mind a stuffy, hypersensitive suppression of free speech in the name of not offending anyone. Some might even see it as language policing. But I'm not here to talk about being "politically correct". Such a concept seems, at best, a misinformed way of trying not to step on toes and, at worst, insincere or even ignorant. Although it would be wonderful if everyone could get along and people never made generalizations about whole groups, we all know we can’t just forcibly change people’s thinking. (And what good is freedom if you don’t have the freedom to think for yourself?) What I'm here to address are ways authors can be more considerate of their readers—all readers—because you never know who is going to pick up your book.
Sexist, racist language. Let’s talk about unnecessary adjectives. How often have you heard someone casually mentioning a “male nurse” or “ black lawyer” or “woman doctor”? That’s annoying and unnecessary. Often it happens because a profession is dominated by a specific group of people—especially a gendered group—and a person might think the male nurse or female doctor is novel or noteworthy. But there’s no hard and fast rule for who is best suited for a certain job, and whether or not it's intentional, that is exactly what those expressions imply. If you have a character who is a male nurse or a woman doctor, just describe the person as you would any other nurse or doctor. (Do you say "the female nurse" or "the male doctor"?) The pronouns and/or name will give the gender away soon enough. And if your lawyer’s black—well, you have to ask yourself how much that matters to the plot. If it's necessary and appropriate, have the lawyer mention it him or herself. (Example: The lawyer is talking about growing up black in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s.) If the character's color is important to the plot, the representation of that will come naturally. But if you’re just intent on visually depicting the character as accurately as possible, then what's wrong with giving a vivid physical description, the same as you would any character? Perhaps Linda has cocoa-colored or cinnamon-colored skin, just as she might have a coffee-and-cream or peaches-and-cream complexion. Skin is another physical feature and it comes in many, many shades. It's not forbidden to describe it.
Also, "black" is not a dirty word. Different people have different opinions on it, and unfortunately any word can be used as a weapon, but describing someone's race at all is not impolite in the proper context. Just don't make it the sole or central defining feature of a person when it's not appropriate. Some people might prefer to say "African-American" or "Asian-American," but use consideration when employing those words, too—if Peter has lived in England all his life, the term doesn't really apply, does it? Especially not if his family came from Jamaica, which is not located anywhere on the African continent.
Have some class. Please don't emphasize that a character is poor or comes from a rural setting by making them speak in a stereotypical "ruffian" or "country bumpkin" way. Just because a person has a lower income or lives in the country doesn't mean that person never had a formal education. And even if a person didn't have a formal education, it's not always apparent in the way they talk. Sure, not everyone uses perfect grammar (regardless of their background or education), but you can convey this without turning your character into a caricature. There's no need to exaggerate or dwell on how uneducated the person is. Also, uneducated does not mean dumb. You never know what a person might know—lots of high school dropouts are better read than many people with master's degrees, and just because a person is illiterate doesn't mean he or she might not have a slew of skills or smarts that many an avid reader couldn't begin to grasp. So just remember to look beyond the money in a character's wallet or the amount of culture in that character's background when you're deciding how that person thinks and acts. Explore all the dimensions—if you have an ignorant, not well spoken character, show us how and why, rather than just making that character "stupid" by default or to get a point across. When characters have a whole set of pre-designed characteristics just because they fit a certain image, we call them stock characters. Sometimes they have their place, but often it's just lazy.
Dated terms, and people are not adjectives. Sometimes there are terms that have slipped into the vernacular of a particular region or country with little thought to the origin. For instance, you might say, "I was gypped!" meaning nothing more than "I was ripped off!" or "I was cheated!" But this ignores the fact that "gyp" comes from "Gypsy"—as in, the Romani people—and that it was used as a derogatory term against them. The implication was that Gypsy/Rom people were inherently dishonest. (The term "Gypsy" itself is considered offensive by some, as it originates from the mistaken assumption that the Romani came from Egypt. However, some Romani use it themselves, and it is a term that is used all the time in historicals. We'll talk more about historicals in a bit.) Or maybe you’ve heard of an “Indian giver”—that term comes from a historical misunderstanding between Native Americans and English settlers, and the unfair generalization that came about as a result. Or maybe you casually refer to Asian or Asian-descended people as Orientals. While a large part of the Western world referred to Asia as the Orient at one time, no one really asked the Asian folks for their opinions. (Actually, in its time it was more common to call what is now the Middle East “the Orient”, and it only gradually became associated with points farther east.) As it turns out, not only is "the Orient" a rather outdated term, but when “Oriental” is used as an adjective it’s most often in reference to an artistic style evoking the “ancient” Orient—think of rugs and vases. Needless to say, such a term doesn’t go far in describing people. And independently of this, it’s kind of clunky to reduce people to adjectives by turning said adjectives into nouns (“the blacks”, “the gays”) when referring to them—it’s like that’s the only thing about them that’s important. Even if these characteristics apply to you, are you comfortable being referred to as “a white” or “a straight”? It's not that there's shame in either of those adjectives, but probably you’d prefer to have them attached to a noun—like “person”, “woman”, “individual”—that grounds you as a human being and puts you on the same level as the other people of the world. Regardless of how we view our own identities, all people are people first.
Historical accuracy versus historical ugly. If a term for a group of people was largely in use at the time outside of an offensive context (examples being Negro for black Americans before the 1960s, or Gypsies to refer to Romani people in a historical), then you're being timely. Now, naturally there are limits. Another, much harsher "N" word was also a casual, seemingly innocuous term used by white Westerners for black folks at one time, and it would be revisionist to deny that that was the case. But here is where it pays to do a little research. (Actually, it always pays to do research.) Pay attention to the context of such terms, and be conscious of which characters are using them and when. Don't be afraid to question how a particular instance reads. Is the meaning clear? Are the characters' sentiments clear? Conversely, you don't want to overdo it. It wouldn't make sense to refer to a railway worker of Chinese descent in the mid-1800s as Asian-American, for instance. Just keep the research tools handy and don't lose focus on your character development. It's not necessary to unleash a slew of racial slurs on your railway worker just because they might have been timely, but keep in mind that most of his American contemporaries weren't familiar with any other term for him beside "Chinaman", a term that isn't particularly polite by today's standards. Then it's up to you how you want to use that information.
This is obviously a very extensive topic, and a single blog article can hardly do it justice. So if you have anything to add, please don't hesitate to speak up in the comments.