‘I Don’t Want To Get It Wrong’
Is your writing suffering from ‘moral perfectionism’? The reason I ask is that I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the writers I work with worried about ‘getting it wrong’.
What ‘wrong’ means can depend, but usually relates to the depiction of marginalised characters and communities. A writer will feel stressed and even frozen by fear at seeming like an ‘over-privileged asshole’. This may relate to …
- Male writers writing female leads
- White people writing BIPOC characters
- Straight writers writing LGBTQ characters
- Able-bodied writers writing disabled characters
- More affluent writers writing about poverty and/or class
That said, this fear can relate to ANY type of character or story. That’s why I was very interested to see both the quoted tweet and comments below by Tyler Austin Harper, which received a whopping 1.3M views on X (aka Twitter) recently.
On Moral Perfectionism
But first up, what do I mean by ‘moral perfectionism’? As we can see from the original commentator @MrHWM, the original post laments that many students ‘struggle with irony’. Not that they don’t understand how irony works, but feel it’s ‘wrong’.
The post says this is never more obvious than when the lead characters are women, or BIPOC characters. Tyler agrees, giving further context. He says that when teaching a story by indigenous filmmakers about native life on a reservation, his non-indigenous students felt it was ‘racist’. He goes into more detail here …
This Really Struck A Chord With Me
As someone who has written extensively about the act of writing marginalised characters, as well as writing such stories myself, I recognised what Tyler was talking about IMMEDIATELY.
Moral perfectionism is not a new thing. Whilst older adults may lament the snowflakes of Gen Z online, I recall similar discussions back when I was at university. Older friends assure me they were talking about it on literature and gender studies degrees waaaaaaaaay before this too.
In short, moral perfectionism is just more obvious now thanks to social media. At grass roots level, moral perfectionism means readers & viewers struggle with irony – and even just conflict! – so much they may believe a story condemning an issue CELEBRATES said issue. Icona nails it in this post:
Depiction Is Not Endorsement
There’s a feeling in certain quarters that if a writer writes something ‘bad’, it’s secretly because that’s what they THINK or want to those bad things to happen. This in turn has bled into writers’ own fears: if they write something ‘bad’, what does that say about them personally???
But let’s get real: depiction is not endorsement. What’s more, it’s typically felt that drama is conflict in stories. We all know this. This means ‘bad things’ – whatever that might mean – are the lifeblood of compelling stories. This means that generally, we do NOT want stories where everything is fine and nobody has to overcome anything. It’s felt that is DULL as ‘nothing happens’.
I’m reminded here of getting put on blast by a reader for a single racial slur in a book of mine. For context, the book itself was about the intersection of racism and misogyny. The antagonists were not just sexist assholes, they were literal white supremacists.
So, how to illustrate they were not just sexist, but racist as well? Well, they had to be frigging racist somehow!
But how to depict this? Well, an antagonist has to act or talk in a racist way. I included that single racial slur for that reason … And you can bet your ass I agonised for AGES over including that horrible word.
I’m also white, so I was very conscious of the optics. I didn’t want the use to be gratuitous, plus I wanted to combine this single word with other commentary on racism in the book.
So what did I do?
I talked to amenable BIPOC friends and relatives, of course. In addition, I hired two sensitivity readers. I did some webinars on writing BIPOC characters as a white writer. Plus I talked to a variety of writer friends and other industry pros. Put simply, I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.
Hell, I spent more time on that single moment in the book than probably the twenty to thirty thousand words that preceded it or came afterwards!
I also ensured the characters who were being racist were literally killed by my protagonist – a woman of colour – in the very next chapter.
But of course, that wasn’t enough for this reader. Moral perfectionism was imposed on my book regardless.
Apparently the racial slur was ‘unnecessary’ and the character who uttered it faced ‘zero consequences’. (Remember, he dies in the next chapter). As far as they were concerned, this meant my book was ‘racist’. In addition, the reviewer’s online friends all clamoured to ask her if she was ‘okay’. They also reassured her they would not be reading my book either, now. A couple even tagged me to tell me I should be ‘ashamed’.
Because I’m nosy, I clicked through on profile pictures. The reviewer and her friends who were so offended by my book all appeared to be white. Because: obviously. After all, many people in dominant groups set themselves up as arbiters of what is deemed ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ writing. (They were not just Gen Z either, incidentally).
You Cannot Write About Issues Without Including The Issues!
Moral perfectionism is at the root of many writers’ anxieties in the internet age. Though they may not realise it, it’s also what prompts many writers from dominant groups to say: ‘Waaaaah we can’t write anything anymore!’
As I’ve written on this blog many times, writers can write WHATEVER they like. Let’s repeat that, because too many writers knee-jerk on being ‘policed’ just for writing. This is not true and never has been.
Somewhat ironically though, those writers from dominant groups are LESS likely to suffer from imposed moral perfectionism by others. It’s no accident that my ‘racist’ book did not get put on blast beyond that tiny corner of the internet. I am a white middle-aged woman, which means I now get the benefit of the doubt as standard. As it goes, I worked hard to be anti-racist in the book, but even if I hadn’t, others would have been willing to go to bat for me. That’s the difference.
In contrast, for many marginalised writers, getting published or produced can be much more of an uphill struggle unfortunately. I discovered this personally, back when I was younger.
Splainers, Splainers Everywhere
As both a teen single parent with significant mental illness, living in rural poverty I found it was a VERY different ballgame.
Back then, I lost count of the number of times I had my characters – based on my own lived experiences! – splained back to me by people who were part of dominant groups. Such as, but not limited to …
- A male filmmaker telling me my female character was ‘weak and pathetic’ and frankly he was ‘surprised’ I would write such a character as a feminist (?? She was neither ‘weak’ nor ‘pathetic’. Instead she had very real issues because of gender-based violence)
- A grandmother claiming my teenage mother character would ‘worry’ young mothers because the baby in the book speaks ‘too early’. (The fictional baby was based on all three of my own children talking early, not to mention the countless other babies I’ve met in my life who have done the same … which is A LOT!)
- Countless others claiming I ‘glamourise’ teen pregnancy simply by writing about it and/or refusing to feel shame about it
- An agent telling me I should ‘meet some single parents’ because apparently ‘no single parents act like this’ (except they do, I was a single parent at the time and had friends who were as well)
- An editor blithely telling me psychosis and bipolar disorder do not manifest the way I depicted them (again, based on my own experiences AND those of others I met/spoke to, including psychiatrists who specialise in the illness)
- Female reviewers with internalised slut-shaming telling me my teacher character should be a ‘role model’ and should not enjoy sex so much (sorry, what??)
Note how all the splainer notes above do NOT refer to the plot, thematics, storyworld, or anything else to do with the actual CRAFT of writing.
Instead, they’re opinion-based and about how the feedback-giver feels about the character. This makes the notes BS because they are based on ego.
I’m by no means unusual, either. I’ve lost count of the number of Bangers who’ve told me they’ve received splainer notes like the above about writing that feature their own lived experiences.
Let’s Be Clear: Unconscious Bias EXISTS
Obviously, unconscious bias exists. You won’t get B2W arguing the opposite because that would be absurd. I’ve written a book about writing marginalised characters and taking care to avoid toxic tropes! I’m also dedicated to what I call ‘deep research’ … Hell, for one book I even broke into my husband’s car to see if I could do it. (Answer: I could. He was not pleased. Arf).
HOWEVER there *is* a difference between representation and REPLICATION.
In my experience, talking to countless writers from all types of backgrounds now, I feel very comfortable saying that most writers writing about issues don’t want to replicate. They actively want to do the research and their due diligence.
Writers usually write about problematic things to condemn them, NOT celebrate them
Sure, some may still screw up badly. Others don’t do ‘enough’ on their due diligence because it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Sometimes something starts as progressive, then the context changes and it dates very quickly. Other times it will depend on personal interpretation, too.
There are indeed some writers don’t give a shit about any of this. In even smaller numbers, some writers may troll certain communities on purpose. But these are the exceptions, NOT the norm. Most of us want to write good work.
But there is this pervading (minority) idea on Twitter / X, or Goodreads, or Rotten Tomatoes, or IMDB, or TikTok (or anywhere else) that writers hate people as standard. Yet the notion there’s a secret cabal of writers trying to do BAD THINGS via the medium of TV, film and books is absurd. If nothing else, there are much faster and more certain ways to change the world than bloody writing!
A single story rarely has the kind of cultural impact that changes society. It’s usually cumulative and a matter of interpretation, as I’ve written many times before on this blog, such as in the article Movies Have Always Been ‘Woke’. You Just Didn’t Notice.
So, What To Do?
Don’t worry about ‘getting it wrong’ and impose moral perfectionism on yourself! There’s people willing to do that for you.
It’s always been true that no matter what you do, someone will hate on your book, TV show or movie. Sometimes it will be because of moral perfectionism. Other times it’s because of something else. Accept this as the price of being visible.
Sometimes when I say this, writers throw up their hands and say: ‘Well, there’s no point in doing my due diligence then! I might as well write whatever I want!’
But that’s not the lesson here
After all, we know we can already write whatever we want. I say this constantly on this site because it’s the truth.
When you do your due diligence, the truth will always out in fiction, just like it does in real life. Sure, all the splainer notes I got were annoying, but they were vastly outnumbered by those who related to my characters and stories. They could feel the authenticity of my writing. That is priceless. (Yes, this included BIPOC readers as I’ve written about here. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, it’s quite literally the least I could do).
What’s more, if you do your due diligence? You start to notice BS notes more easily.
When someone wrote to me recently complaining one of my characters was ‘biphobic’, I said:
‘Yes. That was the point. Did you not get that?’
The emailer said they did, but then complained that I ‘should know better’ as an out bisexual person myself. To which I replied:
‘It’s BECAUSE I’m bisexual I wrote that character. As you know too, bi-erasure exists and biphobia even exists in the LGBTQ community, not just among straight people. How can I write about those things without a biphobic character to illustrate?’
So whether you’re writing from lived experience, researching representation – or both – doing your due diligence is always a win-win. It will also help you to recognise moral perfectionism.