It’s July, and the first Wednesday of the month already. Time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, postings by a bunch of great and savvy writers with hints, advice, and stories of how we can all overcome the fear that sometimes gets us down. Want to join in? Go here and check it out. Sign up if you’ve a mind to. This month, I want to talk about political correctness—the bane of many modern writers.
On Fathers’ Day, I got into a conversation with my daughter about writing. We started out talking about some of the ultra-right wing writers who set our teeth on edge, and whose work I can never finish because it’s so biased and . . . well, you get it. Anyway, that segued into political correctness, and how much of it is too much in creative writing. This is a topic of particular interest to me because I write a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers in the west after the Civil War, and given the racial and social dynamics of the time, some of today’s PC restrictions (words, topics, etc.), if followed to the letter, would make it impossible to tell the stories of these valiant men credibly.
In a way, though, the same goes for my mystery series. Although it’s set in the present day, it’s about every day (and sometimes not so every day) people who live in Washington, DC – not the DC of politicians, lobbyists, and spies, but the gas station attendants, drug dealers, grocery clerks – you get my drift – the people who live in the real world.
So, how far should political correctness or sensitivity go? In my writing, I have a few self-imposed rules I follow, not so much to be PC, but so nothing gets in the way of telling a good story.
Sex – Got nothing against it, but I avoid overly graphic sex in my stories, even the gritty mystery. My reason: the act itself does little to advance the story. The seduction and the aftermath might, in which case I leave them in, but the anatomical details of the act itself have nothing to do with the plot., so I leave them out. Besides, I find it more enticing to let people imagine.
Profanity – People swear, and that’s a fact of life. Some people swear more than others, and they can be quite graphic and colorful when they do. I don’t put a swear word on every page, but when it’s appropriate to the scene, I use the word the character would use in the situation in real life. Once or twice to let readers know what kind of character they’re dealing with. Usually that’s enough.
Ethnic, Gender, and National Stereotypes – Again, people do this, and when it’s important to establish this in a character, and it has to do with the story, I let fly. Again, as with profanity, I try not to overdo it—just enough to establish the character.
Handicaps, etc. – Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t stress handicaps in my stories. There will be cripples, people with emotional or mental problems, etc., usually, though, it’ll play a role in the story. Gratuitous pokes, though, are a strict no-no. An example of what I mean: in a work in progress, a young man is accused of murdering the man he abused his mentally ill younger sister. The girl’s condition is key to the story, as it explains his reaction, and is also used to set up a couple of key scenes.
That’s not a complete list of PC stuff, but I think it’s enough to tell you where I stand on the issue. Political correctness, in moderation, is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t hurt people with our writing—unless, like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other scumbags, they deserve to be hurt. But, we should also be fair to our readers. Writing holds up a mirror to the world, and says, ‘Look, this is how it is. Edited a bit for clarity and flow, but baby, it’s not that vanilla world you’d like to live in, so learn to deal with the bits of nut and chocolate chip.’
I was a diplomat for 30 years. I’ll bet you think that made me ultra-PC. Not so. Contrary to what you might believe from popular portrayals of diplomats, we can be quite blunt at times—when it gets the job done. That’s the how your writing should be.