Every culture, every time, every person carries them without even realizing: preconceptions, assumptions, prejudice. What most of us forget is that they color how we experience, interact with, and mold the world around us. We cannot fully escape them. They are as much a part of us as the blood in our veins. Oh, they are somewhat fluid. They can alter over time, but to be without these is to be without experience or individuality. It is to be without culture, heritage, or self.
So what do we do when--and it will happen no matter how hard we try--prejudice and assumption impact our storytelling?
The most important preventative is to be aware that all the opinions, views, thoughts, emotions, and so forth that we have acquired through life are subjective and filter into our stories. This post’s intent is neither to argue over truth nor judge good from bad, so I’m not even going to go there. What’s important to remember, however, is that whatever each of us thinks, someone somewhere believes the opposite so ardently that it is truth to them.
Prejudice, assumption, and opinions, I believe, show up most in three main areas that are integral to fiction:
1. Gender: Men and women perceive each other differently. Their opinions and modes of interaction and relation alter over time and geography. They alter even within the same household. Whether you are male or female, you have preconceived notions of your gender and the opposite gender. Be aware of these as much as you can. Otherwise, your 16th century lady might sound an awful lot like a 21st century businesswoman.
2. Age: Whether it’s childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or the elderly, our stereotypes impact our impressions of people in and outside our age category. Look at yourself as an example. Do you view six-year-olds now the same way you viewed them when you were in kindergarten and they were your peers? And beyond this, again, culture plays a major role. In some times and places, the elderly were revered. In others, they are, sadly, simply a burden.
3. Culture: There are and have been and will be more cultures than we could ever count. Each possesses its own mores, fashion, habits, beliefs, gestures, and so on. Each tends to think that it has it “right.” Individuals may vary, of course, but overall, this tends to be true. (If you disagree with me, there’s another example of personal differences in perceptions.) Consider how a Hawaiian from a hundred years ago would view modern day New York City. Consider how we might respond to true Vikings (and no, I don’t mean the fictional horned helm variety) or the Aztecs, how a boy from Azerbaijan might react to modern America. Taking this into the realm of fiction, what might a hobbit think of present day London?
Bringing this around to storytelling, it’s natural to infuse ourselves, especially these parts, into characters and worlds we create for our stories. After all, it is what we know, and aren’t we supposed to write what we know? Yes, to some extent, but if we only write what we know, exactly as we know it, our stories would look too similar and lose whatever luster initially made them appealing. Rather, why not reach deeper, reach beyond ourselves, beyond what is known and comfortable, and tell a story influenced by our experience but not fully reflecting it? After all, writing is in part an exploration of self, the world, and humanity. If we do not reach beyond ourselves, we will become stunted and bland.
The most important protection a writer possesses is awareness. Once we know a prejudice or assumption, we then take the power to include or exclude it in our fiction. Notice I said that we can include or exclude. Just because we hold a prejudice or assumption does not mean that it is “bad.” Rather, they can paint a story with rich hues if done artfully and intentionally.
However, few people enjoy reading historical fiction weighed down with modern culture and thinking. Few like science fiction that does not break the bounds, or at least push them, of the world and mindsets of today. When we read about Ireland or South Africa, we want to feel the difference between there and what we’re used to experiencing in our humdrum lives and locals.
All this means that, in addition to becoming aware of our own prejudices, assumptions, and beliefs, we must also become familiar with those of the cultures and individuals we write about. Their zeitgeist, if you will. What Old West story would work if the majority of characters did not on some level believe in Manifest Destiny? If a character in such a story did not, an intriguing plot could develop. The unusualness of the belief would fascinate, but a writer could not capitalize on such a treasure trove of story possibilities without being aware of the Old West zeitgeist.
So when you write, pay attention to what parts of your personal opinions, beliefs, and prejudices leak into the story. Use them to mold something compelling and great rather than allowing them to mold your story into something you may not even be aware of making.