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Suppose an author is writing a novel. The novel has nothing to do with politics, our society, or any of the hot questions of the daily news. It's, say... maybe a fantasy or sci-fi novel, set in a completely different world, revolving around a completely harmless topic.

Unfortunately for the author, certain scenes and ideas can't help but touch on the politically hot topics of today. They aren't designed to do so; they simply do because of what they are. The author knows that the scene/idea is a political minefield, and if handled wrong, could upset and possibly alienate a lot of potential readers. If things snowball, it could even taint the opinions of the critics, and the whole novel could get labeled as an anti-this or anti-that political rant. What is the author to do?

For example, I am writing a short sci-fi tale. The tale features a robot apocalypse, with humanity enslaved on a distant moon (not as cliche as it sounds, don't worry). Within the early pages of this tale, a young girl is frightened by a nightmare. The young male protagonist is close by, and he comforts her as best he knows how. She falls asleep next to him, and he - having grown up completely isolated - experiences for the first time the sensation of protecting someone. This scene is very pivotal for the protagonist, and leads him into a lot of character-defining chapters.

Here's the problem: Certain people will doubtless see this as the strong male protecting the helpless or weak female. While such is certainly not my intention, it is unavoidable. The fact is that women equality is currently a very hot political topic. Such a scene as the above could very easily be taken to mean that I view all women as weak, or somehow inferior to men. Which is obviously not the point of the scene.

So what should I do? Assuming I cannot remove or rework the scene, I can only see two options:

  1. I give the male protagonist thoughts indicating that he doesn't think the girl is helpless or weak, but that he just wants to protect her. An in-story disclaimer of sorts.
  2. I ignore the possible political implications, and continue with the story as it was meant to be told, without having the characters be politically correct (or at least politically conscious).

Option one deals with the issue, but introduces elements which are not part of the story or characters. I essentially make sure my world is politically correct when it has nothing to do with politics. I sacrifice 'immersion' as it were for safety in today's market.

Option two ignores the problem and tells the story the way it is meant to be told. It doesn't let the current politics dictate how to write my story (something I strongly believe in), but it also throws caution (and possibly readers) to the winds.

I like neither option. Which one should I choose? Is there a third option?


Note: Not a duplicate of this question. That question deals with political writing. This question deals with non-political fiction which happens to run afoul of the current politics unintentionally.

  • I think you're asking two different questions here: (A) how to avoid unintentional politics or social subtexts; (B) how to avoid fix a possible knight/damsel situation. Those are two different situations (for example, knowing whether there's a problem to address differs between them!). Perhaps consider editing and splitting the two? – Standback Dec 31 '17 at 14:28
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    @Standback No, there is a single question. I am not asking how to avoid political or social subtexts. This question deals with fiction where certain scenes or ideas could be misinterpreted as being political. The knight/damsel situation is an example - I'm not looking for a fix for that particular situation (though one would obviously be appreciated). The question is: how do I handle scenes/ideas in my tale which could be interpreted as pro/anti-x, y, or z? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 31 '17 at 23:26
  • Could whoever downvoted this question perhaps explain in what way I can improve it? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 31 '17 at 23:30
  • Ah, cool! Thanks for clarifying :) (the downvote wasn't me :P ) – Standback Jan 1 '18 at 6:55
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A third option is balance: Write that scene as you will, but elsewhere in the story ensure you show the opposite of what you worry about: Show a strong woman help a weakened male. Or show this same female eventually help the same male that helped her, or some other male.

A single instance does not create a prejudice. Flipping a coin for the genders of who helps, and who needs help, a male helping a female is as equally likely as any other combination. Which means with zero bias in the world, males would still help females.

If in your book as a whole, it is always men that are strong and women that are weak, then you are naturally biased, your mind is in a straight jacket if you cannot think of any plausible reason a normal woman can be the strong one and a normal male the weak one needing protection.

Find a way to achieve balance.

  • You beat me to it. OP should show somehow that this girl isn't "weak". How to do that depends on the specifics of the story being told, but surely there are ways to do that, perhaps even (depending on the POV) ways that don't involve the protagonist at all (so that readers will know, but the protagonist won't). – a CVn Dec 31 '17 at 11:47
  • I had a similar thought. Consider the Wonder Woman movie. No one will say that WW is weak by any stretch, but Steve still does protect her in a number of ways, such as keeping her desire to fight directed in the right way and navigating how to accomplish her goals in a way that won't get her in trouble with possible allies they will need or blow more covert work. They protected each other, but not always in physical ways. – hszmv Jan 2 '18 at 20:49
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One idea might be to think of his motivation and judgement. How does he know how to comfort her? Or that comforting her is the right thing in this situation?

He must have some source of information of what would be the right thing to do. Normally I'd assume that comes from the social environment he grew up in (e.g. his mother comforting him when he had nightmares as child), but you wrote he's grown up in total isolation.

So the only way he could have come to this information is that he himself experienced before (or quite possibly still experiences from time to time) what the girl experienced now, and he knew what he would have wished to get.

That is, portrait him explicitly as weak, but it is exactly this weakness that allows him to understand her and thus help her in her weakness, and in turn helping her makes himself stronger.

Another option is to consider whether the person with the nightmare needs to be a girl. Of course I don't know your story, so I can't tell, but maybe your story can work just as well if he comforts a boy who had nightmares? Or if the girls plays an important role later, maybe split it into two experiences, the first one with a boy, and then a repetition of the same situation with the girl (the protagonist's experience that he can do it again could also be a very helpful one for his development).

  • The character must be a girl, and there can only be one character. I think you're first idea is great though. The protagonist never knew his parents, but being young, he's had his fair share of nightmares. Comforting the girl is the first natural reaction he does. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 31 '17 at 23:29

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