On Giving Offence

A common question from newbies and not so newbies on writing forums is “How do I write this without people getting offended by it?” Sometimes it’s a genuine question, but I think it’s a problematic one all the same. Framed the way it is it implies at least three things.

  1. That the people who are offended are the problem.
  2. That there’s a trick to avoiding it.
  3. That the writer is never the problem.

Let’s take them one at a time.

  1. It implies that the ones who are offended are the people causing the problem. That they are being over sensitive and preventing the writer saying what they want to say, by calling them (surely unjustly!) a racist or sexist, or whatever. There’s no chance that these people who are offended by it are correct. After all the writer didn’t intend offence, so therefore thinks none can exist. Before they know it they are arguing with the very people they claim not to be remotely prejudiced against.
  2. It implies that there is a trick to avoiding it. Some secret way of slipping something that is actually offensive under the radar. If only they could learn this trick! That way they could slip a problematic character portrayal (it is usually characters) past those lynx eyed social justice warriors just waiting to pounce with their (surely totally unfounded!) accusations.
  3. It implies that the writer is never the problem. How can the writer be the problem? They don’t intend offence. Why here they are worrying about it right up front to make sure it doesn’t happen. The problem is surely someone is going to be all oversensitive and try to censor them!

Writers need to change their thinking on that last point especially. People have not become over sensitive. They’ve either started to speak out about the offensive things said about a group they are part of, or they’ve become more aware of what’s offensive about groups they’re not part of. Either way they no longer passively accept the same old bullshit they used to. The internet has given many more people the chance to speak up and say “this is not okay.”

The writer must accept that people find something they wrote or said offensive, because it is in fact offensive. That doesn’t mean the writer is a horrible unrepentant racist or a paid up member of the KKK, it usually means they screwed up.

“But I researched!” The writer will cry. “I talked to people! And I’m not that kind of person!”

  • Research doesn’t guarantee getting it right. People get stuff wrong all the time despite copious research. There is no handy tick list that will tell the researcher they’ve now covered everything there is to cover about that topic. They probably missed something and they won’t know until someone points it out.
  • Talking to people is great! But all experiences are individual. Anecdotal evidence is subjective. No one person represents the experiences of every person in that group. Related to that, one person in that group saying “no, I don’t find that offensive” does not absolve the writer. Groups don’t all think the same way.
  • “I’m not that kind of person!” Really? Are you sure? Because anyone who is not must have just landed from Mars. To claim I am totally not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc, would be to claim that the culture I was raised in has had no effect on me whatsoever. If the society we live in is all of those things to some degree or another, then those ideas are buried deep in all our heads. Decent people recognise those ideas are unacceptable and wrong and fight against them. But it’s impossible to fight them if we refuse to acknowledge they exist. If I was convinced I couldn’t possibly think that way I’d end up believing someone else is the problem. That I didn’t write it wrong, they’re reading it wrong.

Writers even more than most people must be prepared to examine their own thoughts critically, whether it’s about the credibility of a plot twist, or just where the idea that people of that group are a particular way came from. Chuck Wendig goes more deeply into this subject here: I AM A RACIST AND I AM A SEXIST AND PROBABLY SOME OTHER -ISTS, TOO

Writers should worry less about what people will think about the work once it’s done and out there. They should worry more about what they think of their work before anyone else ever sees. Because if the writer is already worrying about what people will think then there’s a good chance that deep down there is a problem. They’re getting it wrong somewhere, but accepting that they’re wrong means accepting a flaw not in that fictional character, but a flaw in their personal character.

The good news is that both are fixable as long as they’re prepared to examine their own thoughts critically and accept that just maybe they could be wrong. A writer must be willing to accept that the reason people found something they wrote offensive is because it actually is offensive. They didn’t intend it to be, but they got it wrong. So what can they do now?

  • Admit they messed up.
  • Fix it or do better next time.
  • Work harder.
  • Think deeper and more critically of everything, especially their own ideas.

8 thoughts on “On Giving Offence

  1. If one steers clear of stereotypes in their characters and derogatory words in anything other than dialogue, I see no reason to worry about offending. Characters can and will say nasty things and can and will be thoroughly detestable people. That, of course, does not necessarily mean the author believes the same things. Readers will get offended at any number of things – writers can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try to.

    1. Some readers definitely don’t get that what the author thinks can be entirely different than what the characters think and say, even if they are generally sympathetic characters and good guys. That can be pretty annoying.

  2. This won’t surprise you, but I’m not worried about offending people in my writing. Why? Put simply, I am not my characters. If my characters say or do something racist, sexist, whateverist, and the reader thinks I’m advocating such behaviour, so be it.

    Maybe my books do cause offence but I’m so nails, no-one wants to tackle me about it! 😉

  3. I agree w this. It is a difficult thing to get right. I think if a character is ’rounded’ & realistic & not simply a stereotype that is enough of the writer working for me to forgive minor things.
    I read some mm/ gay romance books in summer & some of the characters were so paper thin and *only* stereotypical – in particular the camp ones, that I just couldn’t forgive. I shouted at the book that gay me do not talk like that or about those things (in my experience).

    I am camp & have got a lot of crap for it, but I think there’s a difference between being camp & doing camp. These 2d characters were just doing camp – nothing more. I’ve written plenty of camp gay men, but I’ve always tried to make them *more than* just camp (as in real life). I suppose ‘camp’ is a bit of a ‘hot button’ for me in terms of stereotypes and for other readers they’d just think ‘he’s gay, he’s camp’ move on. But for me, not so much. So different people will be ‘offended’ by different & unpredictable things depending on their ‘group’ past experiences etc.

    Liam Livings

    1. I can imagine camp being one where there’s a very thin line between pulling it off and failing. Like writing something funny, or sexy. There’s no grey area. It works or it fails.

      I haven’t written any camp characters yet. Maybe I’ll dare try one day – and get you to beta! 😀

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