Writing bigots as characters

I stumbled across an online conversation about authors creating racist, sexist, or homophobic (etc.) characters, and readers feeling the characters’ views reflect the authors’ views. The argument was that authors should be able to write characters with negative character traits without being labeled as espousing those viewpoints themselves.

First: I absolutely agree with this in principle and in general. Seeing characters like these is one way we work through our feelings on these matters, and it’s a legitimate part of a story to have a character that isn’t perfect (or hell, is downright nasty).

BUT. Sometimes authors forget that there are authors out there who are sexist, homophobic, and/or racist. And when they give those traits to their characters it’s because they do espouse them. It’s understandable that the line can get blurred in a reader’s eyes, and sometimes it’s absolutely right to call out an author for what they’ve put into their work.

The author needs to think to themselves how they can show the distance between themselves and the character. For instance, does anyone challenge the character on their bigotry? Do the character’s viewpoints get them in trouble or have a hand in their downfall? Is the character otherwise portrayed as sympathetic, such that we think we’re supposed to identify with them?

Also, take genre into account. For instance, if a romance protagonist espouses homophobic beliefs and no one calls them on it it’s going to look suspect, because a romance protagonist is expected to be a sympathetic character. In some science fiction on the other hand it might be expected that a story will push the boundaries of what’s comfortable.

So yes, write about characters that have negative beliefs. But if someone tells you that you’re coming off as homophobic, sexist, racist, or otherwise, take that into account. Ask them how and why. Ask them how you can make it clear that it’s the character who holds those viewpoints and not you. Keep in mind that it isn’t their responsibility to educate you. You’re asking them for a favor here. Nor should you, if they can’t give you a good answer, dismiss them out of hand–it’s entirely possible to know that what you’re reading is problematic without knowing why or how to fix it. Be open to learning. Of course there are going to exist some readers who will assume the worst no matter what you do, and if you truly believe this is what’s happening then go ahead and ignore them.

Just remember that they might have a point.

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