The idea of political correctness can be a bit of a hot potato. However, one of the most valuable things I’ve learnt from working with an editor has been the importance of being sensitive to stereotyping, particularly when writing for children and young adults.
Below are two examples I’ve taken from an early version of my novel, Fury, both of which my editor pulled me up on. I’ve underlined the offending sentences and included her comments below.
Nadia tore a twig from her hair. She glared at him, then taking hold of her horse’s reins, she stalked off towards the camp. Slav scratched his head. He would never understand women.
This is what my editor had to say – Can we take this out? Seems unnecessary to offer this gender stereotyping to young readers?
“Do what?” Vedrashko asked. “Free you from a burden? A squalling brat demanding all your time, taking you away from me.” Slav hadn’t seen Nadia with any children, though there were several in the camp. She didn’t seem the mothering type.
And my editor said this – Can we take this out, to avoid stereotyping? I’m sure lots of people who are mothers, and good ones, don’t seem ‘the type’.
Needless to say I made the necessary changes.
The Language of Disability
In Fury my protagonist has a lame leg and his best friend was born blind. It was important for me to consider the kind of language I was using to describe them. So I came up with this question to try and put things into perspective.
Should we say ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’? Is there a difference or are we just splitting hairs?
Here’s how I answered it:
By using the adjective ‘disabled’ to describe a person you constrict the way people think about them. They have been defined. They are disabled. If you say they are a disabled person who eats a lot of ice-cream, it sounds as if the fact they love ice-cream should be noted as an unusual aspect of their character (which has been defined by one word – disabled). In effect you have put them in a box.
But if you say they are a person with a disability, it’s a lot easier to go on to add … who hates ice-cream and loves swimming in the sea. Their disability is only a single aspect. There is much more to know about this person.
How can our fictional characters benefit from PC thinking?
He is a vampire, she is a call girl, they are punk rockers. Defining characters by a single attribute can blinker us as writers, because so many of the words we use come with the baggage of preconceived ideas.
He is so much more than a vampire. He is a boy who likes Mozart, hates biting his nails and needs to consume human blood to survive. She is a girl who loves her sister, hates drinking coffee and makes her living sleeping with business men.
Thanks to my editor, I have taken what I’ve learnt from the PC debate and used it to change how I think about my characters.
It’s worth reflecting on the way we describe others. Are we restricting ourselves, our readers and those we write about because our words are ill chosen? Dialogue reveals a character’s subconscious views, and it may be appropriate for them to speak in limited terms about others, but when narrating our stories shouldn’t we be more aware than our characters of the language we use and how it reflects our thinking.
(Picture courtesy of Caroline Holden-Hotopf)