What are your responsibilities as a writer? Should you self-censor in the name of being PC or setting a good example? Is that taking things too far? Writer’s aren’t role-models, are they?
When I was teacher, I was clear on my responsibilities to model certain levels of behaviour. No one is perfect behind closed doors (and that is why the staff-room door of any school is, generally, closed) but when standing at the front of the class, I tried to be the best version of myself, and I encouraged my students to be the same.
Is it any different when writing? This is a question I struggle with all the time, especially writing for young adults. Let me give you a simple example. In one my manuscripts the protagonist’s best-friend refers to some other boys as retards. He’s using the term in a pejorative way, basically saying they’re stupid. I know that this is something a teenage boy might say without even thinking about it, but I also know it’s offensive and harmful. The same can said for using gay (as in homosexual) as a pejorative (this was the major insult of my 90’s teenage years). So, do I keep the phrase in, because it’s accurate, or do I take it out, because it’s offensive?
I took it out and here’s why:
1) There are many alternative words that I can use to convey the same meaning.
2) The character in question is one of the ‘good guys’ which gives everything he says or does a certain measure of authority – if he does it, it must be OK. But using ‘retard’ as a pejorative isn’t OK, and I don’t want to imply that it is.
3) This character hasn’t been written as a ‘flawed hero’. If he had then the reader might think, ‘oh, what a jerk but that’s one of his flaws’. In this case, there’s no evidence of that.
4) The character said it, but I wrote it. For the most part I try to be respectful of the feelings of others when I speak, and so I should be when I write. I’m not perfect, I have said things which were rude, wrong and offensive, in my life because sometimes I speak before I think, but I don’t have that excuse when writing.
As writers, we do have a responsibility to think beyond our stories to the real lives that they may touch. Whether we want them to or not, readers will take a message from your work and you don’t want that message to be one that limits or puts down a group of people. Think hard about the things your fictional characters are modelling for your real-life readers.