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On the podcast Writing Excuses this week, the hosts talked about writing that might end up unintentionally offending your readers. When I read the title of this podcast and began listening to it, I was worried that it would be a rather sketchy subject. After all, if we’re talking about offensive writing, I immediately think about risque language or content. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect in this podcast because those topics can be hard to talk about. But that’s not what the hosts were discussing at all.
Instead, this podcast covered unintentional offensive writing such as writing down to your audience, not diversifying your cast of characters, creating straw man arguments in fiction, moralizing in your writing, and failing to keep promises to your readers.
The first issue discussed on the podcast was the unnecessary presence of over-explanation. Essentially, this occurs when you don’t give your audience the credit that they usually deserve. Over-explanation makes readers feel dumb and makes them feel like you’re talking down to them as an author. It’s okay to be subtle about villains in your story or about romantic interests who come into play for your characters. If you put very explicit clues in your writing short of saying “this guy is evil,” your readers are likely to feel like they’re being talked down to, and no one wants to be talked down to.
Next, the hosts discussed racial and gender demographics in writing. Readers will most likely be offended if you exclude characters of races other than your own or characters of a gender other than your own in your story. The most important thing to realize here is, as the hosts pointed out, readers need to feel that there’s someone in a book they can identify with. If you have absolutely no women in your cast of characters, women are likely not going to identify with anyone you’ve written. Of course, you don’t want to impose some kind of affirmative action on your writing, but you need to diversify. The hosts did acknowledge that this can go badly — writers may fail at diversifying their writing because they portray someone different from themselves in a wrong way. But if you do your research and think of your characters as people and not stereotypes, you can avoid this.
The next issue the hosts discussed was one that I subliminally thought about but hadn’t really acknowledged, so I found the discussion interesting. One way authors can offend their readers is by creating a straw man argument in their fiction. Creating a straw man argument is when you present one side (your side) of the argument fully, and the other side on “weak legs,” so to speak, as a straw man would be. The hosts pointed out that readers usually want to explore other viewpoints and if you don’t present both sides of an argument equally, then your readers aren’t getting those new viewpoints. Essentially, I think you can do this by humanizing all of your characters, even the villains. The British sci-fi series Doctor Who continually does this and it’s one reason why I enjoy their storytelling so much. When watching, I can often sympathize with and understand the villains in the story. A reason is always given to why they’re doing what they’re doing, they are not built up as straw men villains.
One issue that all hosts were in agreement on is the unnecessary inclusion of moralizing in writing. As an author, you don’t need to put your characters on a soapbox to deliver your values. Most readers do not want to be preached to, that’s not why they read. The only way moralizing can be done well, the hosts stated, is if the morals come out through characters and through the plot in a realistic way for your story.
Finally, the hosts all agreed that authors should keep their promises to the readers. If you make a promise, so to speak, at the beginning of your story, it’s best to follow through on that. Otherwise, readers may feel that they’re reading something they didn’t sign up for by the time your story ends.
I thought this was a very intriguing and stimulating discussion because these aren’t things I normally consider when writing, but perhaps I should begin. If you’re interested in Writing Excuses, you can subscribe at iTunes or at their website.
— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan