Friday, January 4, 2008

It's Not "PC", It Just Makes Sense

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.


Aimless Writer said...

Good topic! And something I agonize over in some of my stories. I have one character who is an uneducated black man who runs a kitchen. He is harrassing one of my main characters who is also black. I've gone back and forth on if I should say something like: the old black man. In the end I settled for: The big chef was wearing kitchen whites that were covered in grease and perspiration. Rounder then he was tall, Morgan looked like he hadn’t bathed in weeks. Involuntarily, Willy began to breathe though his mouth so as not to inhale the old man’s putrid odor.--
Still not sure I like it. Some times I write stuff and then go back to worry of the PC of it all. I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings but where do we draw the line? A character is a character! There are many different people in the world--so how do I paint them if I can't discribe them without offending someone? Most of my characters are a blend of people I've met in life.
Is this something an agent would tell you if/when they sign you? "Oh, better change that sentence! Its not PC."
And what about Stephen King who routinely uses characters depicted as ingnorant and backwoods types? I'm sure not all Maine peeps are like that. Of course I do realize he is Stephen King and he could write what ever he wants, but isn't this kinda what you're saying not to do? SK paints great characters by doing this stuff.
Thanks again for this topic. I think I'm going to save it for my files. Can I share it with my writing group???

Anonymous said...

Great topic! You make a bunch of very important points. However, if I were to read about "a railway worker of Chinese descent in 1834" regardless of what he was called, I'd be very, very skeptical. Generally speaking, the railroad was little more than a dream until the Gold Rush of 1849, and was not finally completed until 1869.

Great blog, though!

Sam said...

In one of my books, my editor changed the word 'Indian' to 'Native American' in every instance. It made the passages sound stilted, and in dialogue it was terrible. I negotiated and managed to get most of the Indians reinstated. I believe strongly that one should be careful of not hurting another's sensibilities, but there is such a thing as going overboard on the PC boat.

Aimless Writer said...

Re Sam: "In one of my books, my editor changed the word 'Indian' to 'Native American' in every instance. It made the passages sound stilted, and in dialogue it was terrible"
Wouldn't this depend on who is thinking/saying it? Perhaps a character from 2008, from the city and up on PC words would say Native American. But if it were set in another time or said by someone more backwoods or illiterate-they would say Indian, right? When do we cross that line and still keep the characters in character?

ECPI Editors said...

In one of our recent Ellora's Cave books, the "N" word is used. (Yes, the one that most of us can't even bear to type - nigger.) A reader wrote to us, very upset. Yes, that word is horrible and no one should use it - but unfortunately, millions of people in this country do use it continually. I tried to explain to the reader that the editor and authors had carefully considered that word usage, and concluded it was appropriate. The person in the book was a very negative character - racist, homophobic, crude, etc. His nasty, offensive dialogue is how the authors illustrated him, rather than just static description.

Would I have been brave enough to use that word if I were writing a book? No, I doubt it. Do I expect our editors to flag such usages and put them under a microscope? Yes, indeed. But if it truly fits the story and the times and the character, then no, we do not ban words. So the PC-ers may be upset with us, but even though the books are fiction, they are a reflection of reality.


Lyn Cash said...

even though the books are fiction, they are a reflection of reality

Yep. This topic always intrigues me. I AM Native American - and a few other things - lol. But (just my perspective) it's not that being NA or a BBW, green-eyed, a senior citizen, or any other "label" defines's that I define the label, because I am a reflection of my reality.

Whoopie Goldberg once said she considers herself an actor first when she's going for a part. She doesn't think Black, woman, Jewish, or whatever else, in other words. She thinks actor and how she can define that role.

That's how I view myself, so that's how I define my characters when I write them. Generally, we are the melting pot first...then what's inside the pot. The pot molds the ingredients, not the other way around. Depends upon the genre and style, though...and how we want that reality to be reflected. (perfect line, Raelene)

I'm most likely butchering this stream of consciousness, but maybe it'll make sense. That's why I need editors - LOL.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I had to face the unpleasantness of typing both "nigger" and "faggot" in the same sentence for an EC book I have in edits.

It was in character, and demonstrated more about the character and his country than any exposition could. (He'd already used "Injun" and "mud people" too)

I like accents.
I like using them to create the character's speech patterns, and establish their backgrounds. If a character speaks differently in the story than they did growing up, do they relapse? under what circumstances? Do non-native speakers slip into their native tongue? When?

That said, I don't want to plow through pages of "ah cain't go nohow, case mah haid is painin me" dialogue. A suggestion of the dialect is sufficient.

ECPI Editors said...

Thanks for the heads-up, anonymous commenter! More proof that research is important. I'll edit appropriately.

While some railroad had been laid in the US by 1830, it's true that there wasn't much going on in California until the 1860s, and that is when Chinese workers began to immigrate to the States.

Thanks again! Keep reading. We appreciate a sharp eye.


Debra Glass said...

Great topic!