Do Writers have Societal Obligations?

An interesting conversation happened in the comments on Jim Zoetewey's "Legion of Nothing" this week when someone mentioned the superhero trope "Woman in Refrigerator," which is an idea with its own website that women in comic books are frequently victimized (killed, hurt, raped) to up the stakes on storylines. Different comments on the Women in Refrigerators website (WIC from here on) and comments on JZ's actual story summarized this trend as the result of a largely white, male, heterosexual writing class wanting strong masculine heroes to have emotional reactions to damsels in distress because that's their culture.

So, parallel to that, most comics are white hetero-normative (I think that's the phrase I want to use). There's not a lot of cultural, racial, sexual or gender diversity. There are sometimes "token" gay or racial characters. (There are also some comics that deal with diversity well - I think of X-Men, which addresses oppression, discrimination and diversity all the time).

Anyway, what I was wondering, was where do writers here weigh in? Do we have a social responsibility to try to incorporate different voices, perspectives and cultures in our writing, or just go with what we know? Do you write to be entertaining or educate? (This isn't an either/or thing, just want to see people comment).

Me personally, I have a lot of multi-cultural experience, but because of plots I've decided to do in my stories, I just realized that the majority of my characters are white, and they're all heterosexual (so far as I know, I haven't really asked most of my characters about their sex lives). I found it funny that a kid that had black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, straight, gay, agnostic friends and studied world religions grew up to write primarily white fiction. My own writing doesn't reflect my experiences and while I know my plots have a lot of planning (like in NMAI the main characters are rural Canadian white kids from the same small town, not much room for a gay kid from Hong Kong to join them) I wonder if I'm perpetuating stereotypes. Does anyone else think about stuff like this?

I think that to a certain degree, we do have a social responsibility to perhaps be even-handed in our portrayal of other genders, cultures, and lifestyles. This having been said, writers run the gamut of experiences and strengths, and we have to know and accept our strengths and weaknesses, keeping those in mind as we write. There are bestselling authors that CANNOT WRITE WOMEN to save their lives. There are authors who can't write men. Fact of existence.

I think it's important that we don't automatically fasten onto stereotypes as well, this going back to the even-handed portrayal. If you truly don't know anything about Islam, it might not be a good idea to write a Muslim character into your story, just to have one. If you have no experience with people of African extraction or Asian extraction, it's perfectly acceptable to avoid including them based on your lack of experience. If you've never had a transgendered friend, you may not want to dabble in characterizing a transgendered or transsexual character.

This said, I'm guilty of writing fiction with primarily Caucasian main characters as well (though the exception to that is one of my favorite MCs of the moment, Brendan Cho, from my E-557 universe). Supporting casts tend to be more diverse, but for the main cast, I stick to what I know and what I've been primarily exposed to all of my life--but that's not to say I give in to stereotypes with my supporting cast, and unless there's good reason for it, I don't think anyone should. It's about writing what you're comfortable writing and really feeling like you've got the characterization right, and while some stereotypes MIGHT be true, there's always exceptions to the supposed rule, if the rule's true at all.

In the end, I really think we're writing both to entertain and educate--with a heavier leaning, in most cases, toward entertainment. People will read what they like and what they can relate to. The trick is to make things relatable to as many readers as possible. If you're writing a homosexual relationship, you focus on the emotions, on what everyone can relate to about desire and being in love, or in lust (Ellipsis does this really well in the Traveller's Guide). Concentrate on the universals. When we do that, we end up educating people without them realizing it as they're entertained.

@Erin Klitzke: Isaac Asimov comes to mind as an example of a /fantastic/ author who couldn't write women for shit.

I rarely write to educate; rather, I write to entertain. I don't think writers have any obligation whatsoever to do otherwise. However, I've come to realize that there are ways in which I can exclude people from enjoying my work--dealing poorly with matters of race, gender, and identity, for example. As an entertainer--and as someone who is passionate about stories--I want to share my passion with as many people as possible. That means trying my best (albeit with many failures) to understand the narratives that speak to them, and not belittling, dismissing, or otherwise negating their experiences.

My goal is not to be instructive--only to tell stories that matter to those who read them. And to make that happen, I need to understand what matters to them. Put simply, expanding your understanding of human experiences makes you a better writer.

I don't think it's so much a societal obligation to force in diversity, but a responsibility to be accurate in what you do. If you write any character that is outside of your experience then you should do the research and put in the effort to make them feel as appropriate as possible.

That's my philosophy, anyway!



I think putting any demands on an author beyond "tell a good story" is probably dangerous. Considering that writers are not confined to any single political or moral ideology, trying to nail down what those obligations are would get ugly.

Writers have an obligation to themselves to write the story that needs to be told. There is no higher obligation to a writer than that, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something (probably a novel).

Speaking only for myself, I tend to go from the perspective of coming up with the story concepts first, and then seeing where they go. I try for verisimilitude which for me (as someone with a couple degrees in sociology) means I should think about the setting's demographics and the way the main character interacts with his/her setting.

Is the character someone with friends from a wide variety of backgrounds, or do they tend to stick with their own group? Where are they going to run into people outside their group within their daily life?

In settings where it makes sense to have a wide variety of people, it's easy to get diverse groups that way. In settings where it doesn't make sense, I'm okay with things not being especially diverse. A "not very diverse" group of characters in Uganda will be somewhat different from a "not very diverse" group in the US or Canada, however.

It's then up to me to do the necessary research to write it well--not to mention paying attention to what I'm doing with the character(s). I don't want to write a stereotype.

I think a writer can decide that s/he has a social obligation, or that his/her writing will follow a moral code of his/her choosing... but that these things are individual, and should be. All of us if questioned probably have some subsconscious ethical underpinning for our artistic endeavors; if not what we write, then how we sell it. And all of us are weaving our beliefs into what we write.

Making ourselves conscious of those beliefs can be a useful exercise.

As for me, most of what I write either features aliens, or the humans are from a future far enough that they have ethnicity, it's just their own (it's a Thing in one of my novels that the protagonist was born on Mars, because Mars is a bit of a ghetto).

More than we write what we know, we write what we're interested in. I'm interested in cross-cultural issues, so I write about those. Other people might be interested in different things, so they use characters that are more "blank slate"ish so their background will be less of an obstacle to whatever that thing is.

(Though one of my big sorrows is that Caucasians are treated as blank slates. They're not. The "white guy" next to me with the Scottish grandmother he regularly chats with in Gaelic and who has extended family in Scotland has a very different life experience from the "white guy" on the other side of me who knows he has some Italian in him and wishes he could get to know his roots better, and maybe he secretly wants to learn Italian, or visit Italy; maybe he resents being a mutt, someone homogenized and without racial identity.)

I think that "blank slate" default is part of my problem as a writer. I have a lot of cultural experience to draw on from my life, and yet it doesn't occur in my stories. I just realized it's because I don't have a cultural connection of my own to draw strongly from. Being high functioning autistic, I don't feel a sense of belonging in general to anything other than my immediate family. And, my extended family had weird homogenzed racial identity -- we had Christmas and Easter without church, so basically just presents, potlucks and very secular stuff. My background is Irish/Scottish/British and no one in my family really celebrated those roots. Me, I love Braveheart but I don't go to Highland games, you know?

My stories No Man an Island and even The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin both deal with protagonists who are culturally, emotionally and relationally adrift. Ethan because he has Asperger's Syndrome like me and retreats into fantasy, Diggory because he has emotionally-distant parents and few friends. So, given that common theme, no wonder culture isn't that important to my writing yet.

I tend to keep an eye on the issues that mean a lot to me when I write. Mostly, this is racial and sexual politics. I don't write about particular issues in those fields, but I prefer to stay away from the stereotypes. I write scifi, which gives me freedom to mix things up, too, and that means I can make my own social rules (and throw away the ones I don't like).

I tend to be annoyed by sexual or racial issues being reinforced by fiction - a story might be awesome in many ways, but quietly reinforcing the female victim trope or a particular racial stereotype really detracts from it for me. Sin City is one example of this. Sometimes, it's not even obvious until you step back and ask yourself 'are all the females weak? Always asking a man's advice? Are all the males obsessed with proving they're Da Man?'

I often take that step back from my own writing and look for patterns, just to see what I've put in there accidentally. If I want to make a statement, I'd prefer to say it on purpose!

As for feeling obliged to write about cultures not my own... I don't feel obliged. I write the story that matters to me, within the bounds that are important to me. I enjoy mixing things up and stirring in many influences. However, I prefer to write only about those cultures that I feel I know well. Definitely a research issue! Usually, it's just easier to leave them out - I'd rather have a smaller cultural pool than get it wrong.

As a writer, you have a social responsibility to noone, at least if you are in a country like America where you have freedom of speech and expression.

Also, what makes a "good" writer is always in the eye of the beholder. You may think one style of writing is crap, where another person thinks it's incredible. It's like any other form of art, you can't really critique it for anyone but yourself.

That said... I think that if you strive to be a well-rounded and respected writer, you want to approach your writing from a balanced perspective. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't include imbalanced things in your writings. For example, an upcoming project is going to involve time travel, and having my characters in a rural america 1960's environment. My female characters will be disrespected, my black characters will be treated as second class citizens. That's just me writing the environment, and of course there is a message that I as a writer am going to deliver (look at the ridiculousness of this, and this was only 40-some years ago).

One of my biggest challenges, though, is writing from that different mindset. For example, it's going to be easy to write about racism. I have a late grandfather who, rest his soul, used words like "nigger" and "spick" all the time. So, I've been around that, I can write about that. However, I'm not sure I could legitimately write a respectable gay character. I have very close gay friends, but I myself am straight, and I worry that I wouldn't do a gay character justice. If I ever went there, I would want to enlist one of my gay friends' help to proofread and offer suggestions on the writing style.

So, I don't feel obliged to do it. But I want to grow and stretch myself, so I will try... as difficult as that may be.

I feel zero obligation to political correctness. I don't include token characters to please; I won't write trash into my stories to make it more hip; if people don't like my stuff because of those things, they can go read someone else's stories or write their own. Frankly, I only think about such matters if I want to satirize them.

I don't think anybody is suggesting people put in token characters for the sake of political correctness.

Personally I'm generally of the opinion that a writer's social obligations and a writer's obligations to the reader dovetail nicely. The main one that fits in both goes like this:

Avoid cliches.

If you do that, you'll avoid a lot of the really awful things people do with women or minorities in fiction. That's because in your fiction:

-- the black guy won't inevitably die first

-- the woman in the group of characters won't exist only to be rescued by the guy

-- the woman won't only exist to die horribly so that the main (white, male) character has motivation to kill the bad guy even harder

-- your fiction won't include a "magical Negro" character who exists to teach the main character everything he needs to know and then die (saving the white protagonist in the process)

I'm sure you can come up with overused narrative strategies of your own.

Beyond the question of whether doing things like that is offensive (it can be), it's boring. I shouldn't be able to pick which character is going to die based on the character's gender or ethnicity.

If I can, the writer's failing somewhere.

"Societal obligations" = "Political correctness". Nope, sorry, I don't have the "right" characters in my stories or the "right" plots, and I don't feel any obligation to place them there to please the anonymous "they". "They" can go rot.

You already made that pretty clear.

Though I would suggest that this thread overall is defining "Societal obligations" too narrowly. It doesn't necessarily equal "Political correctness." For example, if I feel an obligation to society where my writing is concerned (note that I don't, currently) I can promise that it will be because I actually feel an obligation toward society, not because society is imposing an obligation on me.

Novels that explore social and moral issues are not automatically "politically correct" and some are decidedly NOT so. And some writers put themselves at great personal risk writing them, but did so out of a feeling of responsibility. It's not required that writers do that--thank goodness--but I'm not willing to write off that inclination as succumbing to political pressures when there are plenty of examples where it's exactly the opposite of that.

I think the term "societal obligation" encompasses a lot more than what Gavin defined in his original post and what the thread has been focusing on overall.

That's a very good point.

I'm reminded of Barney Rosset, the U.S. publisher of books like "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and a number of other books that couldn't be published (until he did it) due to censorship. While not a writer, he was publishing things many people didn't want to hear about or see in print. He was doing it, however, because he thought it was right (and that censorship was wrong).

If you feel the urge, you can hear an interview with him here:

One thing that comes to mind, in response to many people saying "No, I'll just avoid having X race/orientation/issue in my story", is that the invisibility is a problem unto itself.

I'm thinking, specifically, of hispanics. The issue I notice is less that hispanics are stereotyped or put down (not that they aren't), but that they simply don't get any screen time, generally speaking.

Case in point: How many hispanic video game characters can you name? That aren't criminals in Grand Theft Auto?

The issue exists to lesser degrees for other minorities (the transgendered, the disabled). Much as others have said here, writers/designers/developers of major works don't want to offend, they don't know enough, and (not said here, still relevant) they also know that the appeal is perhaps lower as far as the mainstream public is concerned. So they play it safe.

Technically, one of the most successful urban fantasies in publication today is about a Hispanic heroine (Anita Blake).

But yes, I believe you. The problem with "Hispanics" is that we're not a monoculture. I am nothing like someone from Puerto Rico or Spain. The fact that we all speak Spanish doesn't make us a single culture/identity... we don't even look alike. There are Spaniards who are blue-eyed blonds. My father jokes that Dora the Explorer is oppressing him because all the "Hispanics" on it are brown and we're pale. ;)

So I can get where it can be daunting to even get involved with other cultures. But there's usually something or someone near you who's not like you in multicultural America, so why not get to know/explore/share the things you have access to? Or are yourself? By now small-town/rural crackers are just as "minority" as other minorities, for instance.

Ubersoft, I love what you say about "great personal risk". I've taken a few of those. Very difficult things to write, even more difficult to publish... and then you're worried about things like, "Is this going to come across as contrived? Are my readers going to think I'm taking a cheap shot to color a situation or culture or incident?"

MCA - totally agreed. Explore your friends cultures, religions, heritage. If you can't get it from someone in person, go looking for books, interviews, biographies. Study Puerto Rican culture. Read a few passages of the Torah. Go visit a psychic, even if it's against your religion. Study, learn, absorb, then write from THAT person's perspective, rather than your own. It's challenging, but you will grow as a writer by leaps and bounds.