In Part I, we examined a few manuscript killers including plot holes, over-editing as the all-knowing author, pacing, cramming, cutout attributes and repetition. This is the second installment of Manuscript Killers: the Overts, the isms. Let us begin.
Some authors write a story without ever realizing they’ve glorified an ism. Have a disabled character who is always thankful when some random passerby holds the door open, or helps them across the street, or saves them from walking into a busy roadway? Ever consider that in real life, they probably didn’t need the help? The ADA has worked wonders in raising awareness and influencing laws, such as requiring doors of public places to open with minimal force. So just because someone is wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean they can’t open the door. It’s a nice gesture (I like when the person in front of me holds the door), but to make that character oh so thankful because, unless this person came around, they would have been destitute is ableist. To assume that all people who struggle with mental health issues are violent is equally sanist.
If your heroine steps back and lets a man lead while asking him to educate her about things along the way (barring experts briefing her on something), it sends a message that women prefer the backseat, or they’re incapable of common sense. If it’s important he lead, let them lead together, but don’t make her subservient. This is the accidental glorification of sexism.
Portraying immigrants as poor speakers of the dominant language, or using color to portray a fear are isms (they were driving through a black neighborhood. Uh, okay? Ever heard of Black Wall Street? What are you implying with “black neighborhood?”).
A common degrading and marginalizing practice is to depict religious people as fanatics. I’ve seen many apocalyptic stories that have Christians pillaging families for their virgin daughters. Uh, so atheist men don’t want your virgin daughters, just the Christian ones? How often do we see Muslims or Middle Easterners as cardboard-cutout terrorists? Is the point of stating their origin to give me a sense of them as a character, or to accept their “propensity” for violence? (Some of the kindest, most generous and gentlest people I know are Muslim.)
Westerners are also intolerant and capable of terrorism. A few of them shot up schools. A few others planted drugs on the people they swore to protect and serve. No demographic is immune.
Portraying the hero as fit and attractive juxtaposed to the heavyset and unattractive villain could be a case of lookism.
Ever read a book that degrades one religion to promote another? Perhaps it depicts people of faith (whatever faith) as uneducated morons who still believe in fairytales, pagans as spell-casting blood-drinkers, and atheists as immoral evildoers.
You’ve got to ask yourself, am I writing this to promote my own beliefs, or because this is so for the manuscript? Am I bringing my hate and intolerance into fruition, or am I just telling a story with characters who happen to be…
Criticizing a group in order to promote one’s own is the most unattractive thing in human beings. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than –ist propaganda.
Throwing in marginalized characters and calling it diverse.
There’s been a recent push for diversity in novels—which is great—but comes with its drawbacks, too. In an effort to make their manuscripts “desirable” or “up with the times,” many authors feed into these blunders by adding marginalized characters for the sake of having them.
Countless writers have tossed in members of marginalized demographics as side characters who have no arc, no background and no depth, just so they could pitch their story as being diverse. (No-no.) Conversely, many other authors have recognized the lack of marginalized characters in their own stories and include these demographics in an effort to change their own tendencies of unconscious omission. They do not use it as a marketing tool, but as a way to keep themselves accountable for inclusion. (Perfect.) There are also many authors who don’t feel the need to include marginalized characters and continue writing the way they always have. (You do you.)
Just remember, if you include marginalized persons, keep stereotypes in mind and make a conscious effort to avoid cardboard cutouts. If your character and you don’t look the same, share the same sexuality/identity/mental capability, believe in the same deities or come from the same nations, find a sensitivity audience and a good resource to help you understand, embrace and appropriately depict their culture.
If you resort to stereotypes thinking it’ll be fine this time, expect them to do your manuscript more harm than good—lazy writing and lazy research are finally being recognized after centuries of being called out. But one no-no from above reigns supreme: depicting a human being who isn’t like you in the same manner you would depict someone who is, and then calling it diverse.
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