Writer Bias

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How can you tell the difference between a story with deeply troubling opinions, themes, and character actions and a story where the writer is inserting his or her own views, opinions, and preferences?

Warning signs:

  • Characters with a certain point of view are written as strong, wise, reasonable, sensible, or normal.
  • Characters with different or opposite views are written as weak, foolish, strange, wishy-washy, aggressive, or dysfunctional.
  • Limited ways of thinking. The “right” way and the “wrong” way.
  • No moderating voice of reason. Even those who should know better fail to be unbiased.
  • Unrealistic characters, character interactions, and authority figures.
  • World-building is not only unrealistic but also feeds into the “reasonable” character’s understanding of reality. Reality itself is warped to support a point of view.

NOT warning signs:

  • One or more character is dismissive, contemptuous, aggressive, or unhealthy in his/her point of view. (See: unreliable narrator)
  • Good characters all think the same way and badguys are clearly evil. (Good guys are good, bad guys are bad is very common and not typically cause for alarm.)
  • Characters taking sides. (This is normal human behavior. Even when the sides are unbalanced in someone’s favor, that is realistic. A 50/50 split is too contrived.)
  • World-building that creates a problematic world or a world where most people fall into a certain way of thinking. (Dystopian worlds and dysfunctional characters.)

Examples:

Yes, writers can make a point through story. Classic dystopian fiction like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver all make commentary on human nature and serve as warnings for how far society can fall if we let it. Unreliable narrator stories like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye have less social commentary and more to do with tragic human nature on a limited and personal scale.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have simple stories of good versus evil where characters aren’t very well fleshed-out. Sometimes the good point of view is obviously the author’s idea of what good means, and the evil is evil for no reason, but that’s just failure to think through character motivations and create nuance.

It’s only when the fabric of reality in a story (the setting, the facts, the characters themselves) warps into something unrecognizable that you can be sure that the story you are reading is biased. This is most obvious in situations like “Pretty in Pink” where a character is a stereotype or farce of a people or culture. I recently read a story (not fanfiction) where modern culture was written as oppressive to straight men in a premise that was meant to be light-hearted but made any sane reader deeply uncomfortable. In that story, the LGBTQ+ community was sexually aggressive, wishy-washy, and foolish, as were any “progressive” thinkers, and the main character and his friends were the only “reasonable” people who saw problematic behavior as problematic. The establishment (such as police) supported the warped version of reality by treating straight men as guilty until proven innocent while they treated everyone else with kid gloves. That was a perfect example of a story which pushed its social views on the reader. (I would give you a link and a detailed analysis, but I have no wish to give that mess any web traffic.)

Conclusion:

Darkness in fiction is normal because darkness in human nature is normal. Racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, these are real things in our world, and so they make it into our fiction on a regular basis. Sometimes a writer condemns them through their story by making them part of the bad guy’s point of view or something for the main character to change in someone else to make that person “good,” but sometimes they are simply there to create setting, world, mood, and characterization. Because they are real things. And in realistic stories, no plucky heroine is going to undo a lifetime of negative social grooming by pointing out that that mindset is bad.

Every writer has different motivations for their writing. To entertain, to reveal, to find catharsis, to condemn, or to simply write. Reasons for writing are as widely varied as writers themselves.

Therefore, if you ever think a writer him- or herself thinks the way a character does, ask them how they feel about the characters and themes in their work. Ask why they decided on this story and these character traits. (Writers love these questions.) Get the writer’s own unambiguous words speaking as themselves before rendering judgment.

Anything less is pointless speculation.