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So You Want To: Avoid Unfortunate Implications
Whether you're creating something that may or may not touch on known issues, or you're wanting to avoid creating new tropes with their own Unfortunate Implications
, you may find it useful to have a simple guide to handling potentially loaded tropes and situations with care.
This guide is intended only as a simplistic overview not applicable to each and every situation (and sometimes ignoring its advice may be a good idea), and some of you may know far more than it illustrates. Its purpose is to help the average/inexperienced writer avoid creating unintended offense and/or badly creating intended offense.
- Do not assume the Viewers Are Morons, do not use Small Reference Pools, and refuse to play to the Lowest Common Denominator. This is as close to a "golden rule" of avoiding Unfortunate Implications as one can get. Specifically, assume that your viewers will be of a diverse nature, smart enough to understand implications, and expecting well-rounded, interesting characters and plotlines in many cases. Even if they are Just Here for Godzilla or Fanservice, your objective is to assume that even Godzilla battling an armada of strippers will not make the viewers morons who ignore everything else along the way.
- As for the Lowest Common Denominator, there is a reason it is a virtual Trojan Horse of tropes with unfortunate implications. That's because in many societies, the Lowest Common Denominator is playing to bigotry, specifically racism and sexism, and opens the door for the worst mistake one can make in creating bad implications—not thinking.
- If you're looking into a potentially problematic or controversial issue, do your research. Read up on it, look for accounts of those with experience, maybe even talk to people involved in those areas. The more understanding and perspective you have on the issue, the more effectively you'll be able to write about it. However, please keep in mind that no one is obligated to share their experiences and some may find such questions uncomfortable or offensive, especially if the one doing the asking is an outsider. Finally, it might be worth letting someone with experience in these areas—and whose opinion you trust and respect—have a look over your work to offer their comment; they might be able to pick up on potentially problematic areas that you have missed.
- Even so, don't make the mistake of thinking that any one person can be the main spokesperson of an entire group. If you find yourself having to explain that you did do your research to people who are still upset, it may turn out to be, or be perceived as, a case of Some of My Best Friends Are X.
- Treat all characters as people regardless of race, gender, etc. Are characters of a specific group being marginalized or ludicrously idealized? Is the character a legitimate part of the story or is said character in it solely for the sake of filling a Token Minority slot?
- Be very careful when you're depicting interracial relationships and don't put your own fantasies in them. Is it really judicious to make the Asian girl your White Male Lead is dating a subservient doormat who doesn't talk back? Is making the black guy who dates a white girl a pimp or a hoodlum necessary? If at the end of your romantic show the Asian guy and the Black girl are the only ones left dateless, did you ask yourself why? Because of all this, when two people of a different race get together, make it 100% clear that race isn't involved in the reasons why they are together. However, that doesn't mean you can't explore their cultural differences. If you want to make it a drama piece about racism, avoid the white/black plotline because it's so overused it has become a full-blown cliché. There are plenty more possibilities yet to be explored.
- Write characters, not caricatures. Never write stereotypes. You can have an Asian character who is smart or a black character who is athletic, but people are more than just one character trait.
- Behavioral or cultural characteristics are not inherent aspects of race, apparent gender, or genetics. However, this does not mean they should be ignored either. It's never a bad idea to research why social constructs such as ethnic identity exist and how they affect people (and your characters). See the second bullet point on this page.
- Avoid sexual stereotypes like The Plague, seriously.
- Combined racist-sexual stereotypes are the worst. Yes, some people might still see them as funny. Many more see them as offensive or at the very least, stupid and pointless. This includes "race is somehow a gauge of penis size" (it isn't, outside of very vague generalities which are by no means universal and full of exceptions), that "race determines sexual submissiveness/availability" (no one race or ethnicity is universally more sexually submissive or "lusty" than another) or anything else that equates race to what someone is, is not, or does or will not do in sexual situations.
- Homophobic/transphobic sexual stereotypes are just as bad, even if people do, unfortunately, still believe them. This includes the "All Gays Are Pedophiles" canardnote , the notion that being penetrated makes a man less of a man, the equation of same-sex relationships with anal sex, and the notion that transgender people are severely mentally ill or have some sort of deceptive "agenda" to make people give them attention and sex against their wishes.
- Don't use real people as "freaks," and avoid the Freaks of the Week trope like the plague. Transgender people are real human beings with feelings and real lives. As are little people. As are women with unusual hair growth. As are people in that freakish little scary subculture that just got torn to bits on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And so on. If you absolutely must have someone treated as a "freak" for laughs or in using someone's "freakishness" to amplify their villainy, either pick something not realistic or among real people and refrain from the pitfalls of Fantasy Counterpart Culture while doing so, or, in the case of amplifying villainy, pick something real but that does have an effect of violence or murder as opposed to something that doesn't (e.g. being a punk or metalhead or goth, suffering from autism or anxiety or depression)
- Also for more in depth on The Mentally Disturbed, if you're going to depict a character as such, do research into the exact illness(es) they have, the many ways they can be treated (e.g. it's not always "take your pills and get better, don't take them and become a Serial Killer"), and keep in mind that most mental illnesses do not cause violence to others in and of themselves.
- A major pitfall here is the stereotyping and depiction of mental illness as the most severe and all-encompassing. For example, most major unipolar depressives or severe anxiety sufferers can be functional even if untreatednote , and even with overwhelming disorders like schizophrenia or untreated bipolar 1, there are milder degrees where patients aren't hallucinating nonstop and entirely divorced from reality and violent or cycling moods every single day or week and acting out on those moods. Something else to keep in mind with the mentally ill is that for many, suicidal or even violent impulses/thoughts are resistable and most who have them do resist them and may even seek help to stop having them rather than act on them.
- Suicide and suicidal thoughts may be the ultimate act of violence to oneself, but most suicidal people aren't a risk to anyone other than themselves, unless somehow interrupted mid-suicide and armed with a lethal weapon like a gun. This is actually one of the worst depictions with some of the worst implications possible - portraying suicidal people as evil, dangerous, or only capable of being dealt with by professionals encourages people who believe these depictions to abandon them out of fear rather than be what they need most - friends who can watch out for them and discuss their feelings without judgment or the threat of arrest and incarceration.
- On the other hand, in depicting suicide, be careful not to endorse or encourage it in Real Life. The two most common ways of accidentally making your work suicide-inspiring are including suicide triggers such as graphic depiction of suicide or an absolutely unrelentingly dark yet reality-like atmosphere without even the Hope Spot or Gallows Humor without warning for them, and/or invoking the Werther Effect by making suicide or suicidal behavior seem best for all involved/glorious/honorable/sexy or something else that might easily convince someone feeling the same things or at a bad place emotionally that suicide will improve matters.
- Go to the Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes index. See all of the incredibly misguided at best and horrifically awful ways existing media has depicted rape or dubiously consensual sex. If after this you still wish to include one or more of these in your work, ask yourself why?
- Is it for simple cheap fetish thrills? If it is, be honest with yourself that that's what it is, do your damnedest to make it clear that the story is a fantasy or screwed-up kink that should never happen in reality, and make use of trigger warnings. Or, better yet, go look at the ways to make it into Safe, Sane and Consensual BDSM as opposed to actual rape.
- Is it for a Wangsty backstory or to make the viewers feel sad for/sorry for someone? Reconsider it. Look up Tear Jerker and think of ways OTHER than rape, because Rape Is The New Dead Parents. Rape as Backstory is overdone, and especially for throwaway angst, there's many other worthy ways it can happen than rape.
- Is it for Black Comedy? Then make it as absurd and obviously unrealistic as possible. You are Crossing the Line Twice, so at least try to make it so obviously absurdly stupid, over the top, and Fan Disservice that, while it's a joke, it's a joke at the idea of rape itself and/or at the expense of rapistsnote Use your trigger warnings, and (it should go without saying) be prepared for quite a few people to say "Dude, Not Funny!". Expect others to be triggered, upset or offended.
- Is it for Rape as Redemption? Unless you do not care about being called out, censored or sued, avoid using the variant where someone is raped and this makes him or her "realize" how much he or she was engaging in risky behaviour, needs to settle down, acting provocatively etc... Any justification you may come up with will most likely fall flat on its face. Please note that victim-blaming is extremely likely to offend the audience, and even more so in the context of rape; the only possibly workable exceptions may be the Unreliable Narrator or a highly skillful Black Comedy. The rape or realization thereof being the Heel Realization moment for the rapist may be workable, as long as the victim is not being blamed by the narrative and the act of rape is not idealized or glorified or somehow sympathetic, and the victim doesn't exist solely for the redemption of the rapist.
- Is it really intended for Rape as Drama, with all attendant respect it deserves as a traumatic experience? Then do the research. Go to RAINN, go to sites for victims, read and listen to interviews with victims. Then, and only then, prepare yourself to write all of your understanding and emotions into your fully developed character, and prepare to devote considerable time in the work to this.
- On the other hand, beware of Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil. Do not treat rape as the epitome of heinousness in a story where other villains commit crimes just as bad or worse, such as genocide, harming or killing children, or Cold-Blooded Torture. Rape is disgusting, but presenting it as worse than murdering and torturing thousands of people is just as offensive than trying to justify it. It's all about good measure in the end.
- Check out the Gender Dynamics Index for guidance on how to portray gender in your works and keep in mind a few basic things if you want to avoid clichés and stereotypes:
- Gender doesn't trump morality. Just because a character is female doesn't make her automatically harmless or kinder than any male. Her ladyparts alone don't justify her horrible actions nor do they make it "less bad" than if it was a man who did it. A villainess doesn't have to have a Freudian Excuse — maybe she's just a selfish person who only cares about herself and what she wants, plain and simple. Conversely, a male character isn't necessarily more threatening or perverted than a female.
- The men/active - female/passive dichotomy isn't an obligation. Just remember that sticking to it at all times will need to be justified by the plot, else it may pass off as sexist even if you don't mean to be.
- Gender does not define emotional depth. A woman can be The Stoic, for example, and a man can be horrifically traumatized and act believably as such.
- Direct physical violence isn't always the fact of men. If you're depicting a physical fight between two women for instance, don't make it a Cat Fight, unless it's meant to be one. If two women are trying to kill each other, don't sexualize the scene if you want it to be taken seriously.
- As a note on the Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes above, beware of Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male. A woman can rape a man (objects, Sexual Coercion, and especially with the advent of date-rape drugs and erection-inducing drugs) and the effects can be just as devastating for a male victim (in the same ways and sometimes in different ways) than for a female victim, especially if emotional abuse or drugs were the means of the assault (since men "aren't supposed to be" vulnerable to either in most male-dominated societies). Being "hot" is not a valid excuse for rape, either.
- Women can also be pedophiles targeting boys or girls - female pedophiles are far more rare than male, but they exist and are also more easily disguised, since a female pedophile will generally target her own children or be a teacher targeting students rather than roaming playgrounds or the internet. The Teacher/Student Romance trope actually feeds into justifying these pedophiles' Real Life behavior and should be used with extreme caution if at all unless one wants to deal with trying to prevent the Unfortunate Implications almost inherent in both. Similarly, be very careful around the Oedipus Complex as that, in Real Life, is often the result of a pedophile female carer (or at least one with improper boundaries) engaging in grooming then victim blaming.
- Similarly, don't fall into the trap of justifying stalking or unironically playing it for laughs just because the stalker is female, or alternately, defining innocent behavior as somehow "more" creepy or stalkerish coming from a male than from a female. A woman you don't know breaking into your house and having A Date with Rosie Palms on your bed is just as creepy, possibly danger-implying behavior as a man doing so, and on the reverse side of the coin, a man asking you out for a cup of coffee or giving you his business card isn't more "scary" or "dangerous" than a woman would be, all other factors being equal.
- There is a fallacy that a one-dimensional Impossible Genius Action Girl is automatically less sexist than a one-dimensional Damsel in Distress Screaming Woman. The truth is that both characters still come off as sexist because they are both the result of writing women as props or ideas rather than people, and both present worrying implications about the expectations the writer has of women. A common example is a Mary Sue only written as brilliant because the author is afraid he will be considered sexist if he makes her anything other than perfect, or if she's only written as brilliant to make her a better Token Romance for the Author Avatar male character (this makes her into a plot device). Don't confuse 'strong female character' with 'a female character who is physically strong' - a 'strong female character' is a female character with a strong personality, who has some inner depth and has an existence outside of being a plot device. If that's satisfied, she can be anything on the spectrum between an extreme Badass and a Useless Protagonist with all sorts of Phobias, and still be a great and powerful character.
- Women make up roughly 50% of the people on the Earth. Unless you're setting your story in a time or place where the absence of women is justified, it doesn't make sense to make all your minor characters male, with the only women in the entire cast being important characters whose gender is important to the plot. These settings promote the idea that Men Are Generic, Women Are Special, which is offensive to everyone (and makes your female characters into glaring Chekhovs Guns).
- Consider who you are putting at the center of the story. Is it reasonable for a Mighty Whitey outsider to take leadership and save the day rather than native leaders with lots of experience of solving problems on their own turf? Remember that characters do not necessarily have to be white, male, or heterosexual. Every culture has something to share, and having a more variegated cast adds a more diverse outlook on life. And main characters are one of the least likely character types to be members of a minority, which can send unfortunate implications that the straight white male perspective is the most important or the 'default', so at least consider varying the POV character a little.
- Don't make evil groups or evil characters distinctive for an appearance feature that parallels a specific real world race or culture and especially do not make them parallel to said culture. Your "aliens" who happen to have hooked noses, wear hats that suspiciously look like yarmulkes, and who are greedy bankers aren't "cute" or "getting crap past the radar", they're a stereotype recycled.
- On that note, be very careful around the Superior Species trope. If you're going to use it, don't make it parallel to a real-life culture either.
- In general, be careful with Fantastic Racism. If you want to portray it as unjustified (which is pretty much inherent in the trope), be careful not to accidentally introduce good in-universe reasons to discriminate against the "victim" species.
- For the straight yaoi and yuri fans, keep in mind that real gay and bisexual people exist, and some of them are also fans of yaoi and yuri as well. This doesn't mean that all of your stories have to have aesops about LGBT rights or be entirely 100% realistic - in fact, going off on an Author Filibuster about this or driving your characters out of character to do it is one of the worst mistakes you can make, because it makes you look like a White Knight as well as showing off privilege. It does mean that having your characters be unexamined stereotypes of LGBT people will be noticed and taken badly, and it does mean you should understand at least a little beyond what you learn from porn or Slash Fic or manga or whatever.
- It also means that you need to be well aware of the setting for your LGBT characters. Eternal Sexual Freedom does not exist, and for this reason certain times and places can be problematic as settings. For example, setting your yaoi fic in Nazi Germany without it being either a Black Comedy parody or without your seriously considering the implicationsnote is going to upset a lot of people. Even if you are writing in a far more tolerant subset of an intolerant time or culturenote , you need to recognize that once the characters stepped out of that bubble, they couldn't even have as much as a public display of affection that wasn't "justified" as something else, until AT LEAST the late 1990s or early 2000s.
- In combination with the note on rape tropes above: rape and questionable consent are STILL rape and questionable consent (and have the same painful emotional and physical effects) if the rapist and victim are the same sex. And no, this doesn't incur love or a long-standing relationship. A part of the audience may find this deliciously kinky but, in general, romance novels, particularly the Boys Love Genre, already suffer from the reputation of being low-quality smut so you might want to avert this if you want to be taken seriously as an author. This also applies to Yuri Genre - yes, a woman can be sexually assaulted or raped by another woman, and the result isn't love or an ongoing relationship but fear, trauma and suffering - the same as if she had been raped by a man.
- Be extremely judicious when applying the Rule of Funny. If you find yourself using this as a justification when called out for not doing your research, you've probably already invoked Unfortunate Implications. This is another good reason to have people related to the issues you raise vet your work.
- Acceptable Targets won't be seen as such by everyone. No matter how acceptable you believe the target is, you should not be surprised if some of your audience disagrees. At the *very* least, expect members of that acceptable target group to be offended.
- Do not apply Always Chaotic Evil to a race, ethnicity, nationality, age (young or old), religion, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, species (whether you are writing Speculative Fiction or not), or groups of sentient beings in general. It can be less problematically applied to an institution or corporation or movement or whatever, but even with that, be careful to specify that every being in, say, a nation, does not belong to that group. Most Germans in World War II weren't Nazis, for example. It's also good characterization not to make every single member of an organization flat-out evil or monstrous, as that rarely is the case in real life.
- Be very careful in regard to children or young teenagers (or childlike looking characters) and how you choose to depict them. The Token Mini-Moe, the Really 700 Years Old childlike, and the underage-looking Uke may be nigh-omnipresent characters especially in anime, manga, and Visual Novels, but often these characters are created solely to pander to a specific demographic, one you may not want your work associated with (or one you may not want associating with your work or yourself). If there is no valid plot or setting reasonnote for their existence beyond a Hand Wave created just so they can be there, at least consider the idea of making the character an older teenager or an adult instead, especially if the character is portrayed as sexually available.
- Avoid tropes like Crazy Homeless People and the Lower-Class Lout unless you really do want to engage the class and social issues of why some homeless people are "crazy," and why some lower class people are prone to criminality and violence. Do not make the mistake of depicting all homeless people as Crazy Homeless People or jokes or people who "just need to get a job," etcetera, or all lower-class people as prone to drunkenness, fighting, and violence. Finally, it's important to consider the conditions that could drive lower-class people to criminality or sex work.
- With respect to sociopolitical issues, absolutely avoid painting exponents of any ideology with a broad brush. Words such as conservative, liberal, democracy, and dictatorship will not mean the same thing to everyone. Two individuals with the same basic politics may still have a lot to disagree about. Also do not assume that two ideologies that seem to be at odds in some issues will be polar opposites in all things. Some conflicting ideologies may have little more than subtle differences. And being pro-something does not neccesarily mean being anti-anything else. Pride in one's culture, creed, or ethnic heritage, for example does not neccesarily say anything on their view towards other cultures, creeds or ethnicities.
- Be aware of what your characters have in common, not just traits, but their roles in the story, their reactions, and the events that involve them. Be careful not to give the same sort of plots to the same type of characters; if you do it often enough, it creates the impression that those events and reactions are inherent to that type of character, not to the character as a developed individual. For a short example, if a large number of your female characters have episodes of irrational, inconsolable panic, but your male characters don't, it leads to the impression that in your work, women are just naturally irrational. If your LGBT characters all die, and especially of AIDS or kinky sex accidents or in a particularly spiteful way for the work, it leads to the impression that you're expressing hatred toward real LGBT people. Consistent, repeated depictions can look like endorsements.
- Finally, do be aware that the attempt to avoid some Unfortunate Implications can create others, and occasionally worse ones. For example, if you aren't careful picking a victim character to avoid Black Dude Dies First or Disposable Woman or Bury Your Gays, you can end up with one of the ones you didn't pick if that applies. Trying too severely to avoid the Unfortunate Implications in Get Back in the Closet and Hide Your Lesbians and similar tropes can backfire into All Gays Are Promiscuous, and vice versa. Misogynist or sexist toward women unfortunate implications are a huge minefield for this - carelessly trying to avert them without an idea of why they are problematic can make a work seem misandrist and applying Double Standards - with racial implications being similar (e.g. having the white guy do the Uncle Tomfoolery in a case of Pretty Fly for a White Guy doesn't instantly make it not-racist).
- Have multiple, varied examples of any given minority. If you must make the tribe chief bigoted and aggressive, make his daughter compassionate and open-minded. If your female protagonist is a proud warrior who's never picked up a saucepan in her life, place her alongside a peer or authority figure who's typically, confidently feminine- and whose personal agency doesn't suffer for it. Increasing the emotional diversity of whatever group you're focusing on is the easiest way to avoid stereotyping- and create new plot opportunities, as well.