I went to a writing conference recently and attended a number of lectures. Some were interesting, some were not as applicable for me as I might have personally liked. Two stood out, at either end of the spectrum. One, by Angelique L’Amour on writing about past trauma, was amazing. I had a lot of feelings. My face might have leaked a little.
The other that stood out was a session about building compelling characters. It was less a lecture and more a question and answer, so it already wasn’t going well because she was asking us to come up with her material when she ran out of slides 20 minutes into an hour session. But then. Oh then. She talked about her characters, two princesses, one kinda evil and one good and wholesome. She discussed making even your villains relatable, to give reasons for their behavior.
Then she said her evil princess was autistic, and couldn’t understand the good princess’ emotions.
Yeah I walked out of that. I was done. That’s ableist as shit.
A word to other writers. Don’t make your good guy a privileged group and your villain a vulnerable group, and have that difference – and the associated stereotype – fuel the conflict of your story. No greedy Jews vs generous Christians, no thug or drug-riddled POC vs wholesome white folk, no shrew women vs faultless men. No emotionally troubled disabled people vs stable able-bodied heroes. Especially if you are also Christian, or white, or a man, or able-bodied.
Someone out there is already saying “But what if” or “But my art” or “Freedom of speech.” No, stop that. No excuses. You’re not giving up anything significant by being a decent person in this respect. Your freedom to write whatever you please isn’t important enough to add one more piece of bullshit to the great big pile of bullshit already leveled against vulnerable communities. Besides, relying on those stereotypes is not great writing. It’s certainly not sacred. It’s lazy, and frankly you can do better.
Guys, we all give up tiny freedoms. We do not live in a truly free world. We never did, and we cannot, as long as there are other people in the world. We give up the freedom to swing our fist exactly where someone else’s nose begins. What you put out in the world can be a fist. You need to be aware of where others’ noses begin. Demonizing aspects of people that already makes them vulnerable to oppression, discrimination, etc. is an already-sore nose. You must refrain from hitting it. Don’t make someone else be the one to stop you, then whine about how you’re being controlled. Just be a halfway decent human and stop your own damn self.