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When your main character is a misogynist or a racist, how do you tell your readers that you don't subscribe to his racist views by merely showing? The only way to kinda do this in my opinion is to make him learn from his mistake and develop him into a non-racist or non-misogynist character, but what if you don't want to change that because it wouldn't be realistic or historically accurate or plausible? What are some other ways?

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    Authors fear of ethical judgments is growing bigger everyday. "Look on my tribe, Moro. We grow small, and we grow stupid. We will soon be nothing but squealing game… that the humans hunt for their meat" - Princess Mononoke
    – Bassem
    Jan 22, 2023 at 8:03
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    It seems like this could be generalized to most kinds of anti-heroes. Do you think the author of the "Dexter" books believe in vigilante justice?
    – Barmar
    Jan 22, 2023 at 17:13
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    If you are afraid your readership will think badly of you because you write a story featuring a character with traits they consider repugnant, you're in the wrong business.
    – Tony Ennis
    Jan 22, 2023 at 17:54
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    People that mistake a character with the author aren't smart enough to understand the difference. No amount of explanation will fix that. Those are usually the same that complain about a character having a certain mix of features. A good example is the protest against J.K Rowling because she created that was trans and commited a crime, something unfathomable for people than conflate gender with behaviour.
    – osiris
    Jan 24, 2023 at 10:11
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    @osiris - J.K Rowling was already subject to a fair bit of protest regarding her views on transgender people prior to publishing that novel. Including her view about the potential for non-trans people to abuse self-identification laws to commit crimes. When she then created a character who pretended to be trans to commit a crime it added fuel to an already blazing fire, but it certainly wasn't the first cause of people's upset.
    – Guy G
    Jan 24, 2023 at 12:53

11 Answers 11

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There is a wide range of possible techniques; the common thread is to tell or show the reader that the story’s world doesn’t work the way the main character thinks it does.

The bluntest approach, if you’re writing a 3rd person narration, is simply to have the narrative voice comment explicitly on the MC and their actions. A famous example is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, laying its cards on the table right from the opening: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!”

A slightly less explicit approach, if your narrative voice doesn’t just follow the main character’s PoV, is to show events the MC doesn’t see, which show the errors of their worldview. This is also used in A Christmas Carol — we see the Cratchit family at home, suffering from Scrooge’s miserliness.

The subtlest way, that doesn’t require leaving the main character’s viewpoint, is to show a train of events which the reader can see as a certain pattern of consequences, but with the main character failing to make the inference. This can be used in combination with the earlier more explicit ways — as again in A Christmas Carol — or alone, as in another famous example, Nabokov’s Lolita. There, the whole novel is told in first-person from the PoV of Humbert Humbert, a paedophile, including Humbert’s self-justification and denial: he tells us what a beautiful life he’s giving Lolita and how generous he is to her, but he shows enough for us to see that Lolita is descending into traumatised depression from his abuse.

So there’s a spectrum of approaches, with different advantages and pitfalls. The blunt approaches risk becoming heavy-handed and preachy — A Christmas Carol is a classic, but many readers still find it too overtly moralising. The subtler approaches risk going over readers’ heads — many readers are still outraged that Lolita doesn’t condemn Humbert more explicitly. But then again, you can never please all possible readers at once — and the payoff of all of these is that they can let you convey a moral message in a way that you wouldn’t be able to in a straightforward good-guys-versus-bad-guys story.

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    A more concrete way to put your main point: Show the ugly consequences of their actions, expose the lies they use to justify them. Jan 23, 2023 at 9:20
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    Just to extend/rephrase the answer to address what I believe to be OP's main concern: making a racist character is not indicative of the writer's personal opinion. Building the world/narrative so that it confirms the racist character's ideology can be indicative of the writer's personal opinion (and will generally be inferred to be as such)
    – Flater
    Jan 24, 2023 at 23:22
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    That's easier for characters that are overall bad people, like the examples you gave. I think OP's question included characters that are overall "good" but have problematic traits. Then you want to show you don't agree with those without putting the whole character in a "bad person" category or having to focus on a "redemption arc" of some sort. Your answer still works but in my opinion it would benefit from an example of a more subtle character, an antihero that's not just asocial, a coward or an alcoholic or something. Jan 25, 2023 at 13:13
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I feel most other answers tell you to make your story in a way where the racist character will fail or at least lose out due to their racism. This might make a good story but it is unfortunately not historically accurate for large parts of human history.

If you want historical accuracy then racist characters can be very successful in life. More accurately almost all very successful people were racist old white men (or whatever other group was dominant in the historical setting you are interested in.) Of course this turned out miserably for most people in these societies and you can focus on these aspects.

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    This would have been my approach: focus on the suffering that the protagonist's bigotry inflicts on other people. If the author was bigoted, they would either revel in that suffering or turn a blind eye to it, rather than portraying it sympathetically.
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 23, 2023 at 9:30
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    @F1Krazy: Some people feel that, e.g., Orson Scott Card tricked them on that score. Jan 25, 2023 at 3:02
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I suggest you ignore the answers where people said that protagonist should be shown the error of his way - either by failing, or by character growth. If a setting doesn't allow it, then it would just be unrealistic and immersion breaking. I thing majority of people is kinda fed up with current mainstream media where everything is made trough the eyes of modern society, no matter how inappropriate for the setting it ends up.

But how you approach the problem heavily depends on the setting. Protagonist can become more and more rasist because of the pressure from his peers - so he is actually a victim of his environment. So firstly he struggles with dissonance between the reality and his (society's) beliefs. And as he internalize his belief he become both colder and less happy, seeing enemies where there are none (I personally belive it is practically impossible to hate a group and not develop a certain level of fear from them/seing them as a threat).

Or you can show the other end of the coin. To show how the minorities suffer from protagonist's actions - or the actions of society as a whole. Not how protagonist see them, as he can be so far into that hole that he wouldn't notice/care, but from their point of view. Or from a point of view of an innocent child who lack the bias.

Or you can focus on the point that morality change trough time. Someone considered quite liberal 150 years ago in America would be labeled a horrible racist these days. So protagonist can be kind of racist, but if everyone around is more racist, he can be painted in a good light.

In the end it's your decision how to tackle this issue. And you have to ask yourself, should it really matter what some people think? You will never be able to satisfy everyone, so just write what you feel it's right. Some of the best works of literature were (or are) controversial!

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The only way I've ever thought an author really shared the views portrayed in the story was when he used the narrator's voice (as opposed to the character's voice) and expressed the opinion as a fact.

Otherwise, I think all readers understand it's the ideas and views of the characters.

That doesn't mean they won't put your book down and quit it if they feel the subject is too far from their worldview, it just means that most likely they won't really blame you for it.

And then again, some people see racism and misogynism and other forms of antagonism everywhere, and sometimes people in the majority won't even understand they are saying and doing things that chafe—see microaggressions for examples you might not even have considered if you belong in the majority.

I don't think you really can control what readers will say about the book and what qualities they might ascribe to it, and how that might be interpreted as being about you as a person.

However, if the message isn't racist or misogynist, that's a good step in the right direction. Here's a few pointers on doing that:

  • Come up with a non-racist/misogynist message, e.g. that it is toxic, etc
  • Punish racism/misogynism with setbacks and losses—in every scene where it happens
  • Reward openness and gender equality (also in every scene)—it doesn't have to be your MC, it could be any character
  • Give some character an arc with respect to misogynism/racism (they get a positive arc for abandoning it or a negative arc for sticking with it)
  • Optionally, have another character (the hero?) defeat your character, and even better if it is because of racism/misogynism (e.g. the police lock him up for wife beating or racial crimes)

Also, it seems your main character is a villain. You may only need to write them well to convince the readers you didn't just write this thing to be able to be racist or misogynist.

There are tons of resources on how to do that, but here are a few things you might want to consider.

Build the character as you would any other.

  • If you don't want them to change, you might consider some form of dark flat arc—it requires other characters to arc to create story energy, but I'd say they can go positive or negative regardless of the moral of the MC
  • Work on their backstory
  • Give them opposition and make sure they're not obvious winners
  • Make them relatable
  • Give them human interests (a misogynist with puppies or a telescope?)
  • Work on your villain's antagonist, who are they? Another villain? A hero? Make sure they are fully-fledged characters. Make sure they start out stronger than the villain. Maybe even worse than the villain.
  • If you can, use internal emotion (internal monolog/thoughts) to create connections with the reader and give explanations for their behavior
  • Give them a compelling voice

Then look into how to create great antagonists:

  • Give them a reason for being a racist/misogynist that readers can relate to, even if they wouldn't have made the same choice
  • Make the MC think they are saving the world or someone/someplace doing what they do
  • Make sure they have good and bad in them in a mix
  • Give them a plan, good or bad, but one that shows they have ambition
  • Make them extremely good at something
  • Give them charisma
  • Give them an honor code/moral
  • Give them a crew/a cheer squad that is impressed by and respects them, even adores them

Examples of villain MCs:

  • Dexter
  • Maleficent
  • Macbeth (and Richard III?)
  • Raskolnikov?

Here is some further reading:

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    Is "punish racism/misogynism with setbacks and losses—in every scene where it happens" particularly faithful to the reality of societies where privileged bigots have often been able to get away with their bigotry and fail upward? Perhaps another method would be to show how such people drag others down and ultimately deprive themselves of the advantages of a more open perspective by isolating themselves among people who share their views.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 23, 2023 at 2:00
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    @Obie2.0 You phrased this in a more positive way but to me most of this advice feels like this: Don't describe a historically accurate setting, rather change it to a setting of how from todays perspective you would have liked the historical setting to be even if it didn't actually work that way back then.
    – quarague
    Jan 23, 2023 at 7:45
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    Also of note is that while the narrator can be impartial, they aren't necessarily, even with Third Person Omniscient. This can be shown in phrasing, asides, or even just contrasting the narration with the actual events. It's common in comedy (e.g. the Narrator in Arrested Development), but by consistently flavoring or phrasing the narration, it can become clearly a viewpoint, not objective truth. If I read, "The professor stood at the podium sort of Jewishly, his beady eyes peeking out of his ugly, wrinkled head," I would immediately understand the narration was being racist, not objective.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Jan 23, 2023 at 17:32
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    This answer is not a political agenda for how to fix racism or misogynism. The parts about message are about how to work with message and theme in a work of fiction. If you're writing a historical novel then you keep to the historical facts.
    – Erk
    Jan 24, 2023 at 1:15
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I suggest that you read Knox, by Harlan Ellison, and see how a master handles it.

a mordant and literary story of a dystopic future plagued by racism — a future (perhaps) where the Patriotism Party holds great allure. The work is particularly hard-hitting due to the fact that similar white supremacist groups exist today. Knox rises through the ranks of the Patriotism Party by engaging in hate crimes, memorizing long lists of racial epithets, and practicing at the shooting range. Ellison masterfully pairs Knox’s growing hatred of minorities (and the events after his first kill) with the slow disintegration of his family (especially his love for his wife). Although ‘Knox’ is a product of Ellison’s day, these issues have in no way disappeared. A terrifying read…

Ellison tells the grim story entirely from Knox's point of view, using Knox's language (the Patriotism Party has provided Knox with a convenient workbook, so he can look up racist insults and regurgitate them). I'm not sure that Knox could be published today, for the reasons that @Valorum has stated.

Knox resembles Mephisto in a way: the protagonist doesn't "see the error of his ways", and doesn't suffer retribution until the very end, when he realizes that he's destroyed his life.

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    Further reading: Many of Wilbur Smith's historical dramas set in Africa portray the colonial attitude and its effects in a matter-of-fact way. And the main characters are often (realistically) oblivious to the damage they do. Jan 25, 2023 at 6:14
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The film Gran Torino has a character that fits the definition, who is shown to use offensive slurs against people, but he's an equal opportunity offender. As the character was played by Clint Eastwood, who also had a Producer credit on the film, his character is given a sympathetic portrayal. It helps that his distrust of his Hmong neighbors stems from his time in the Vietnam War and is ultimately because of his own self-hatred for the things he had to do in the war to survive that he is disgusted by and most of his racism is "equal opportunity offending" as a scene among his fellow friends shows they enjoy when they are the butt of the racist joke in a sort of "We pick on you because we love you" kind of humor. Eastwood's character laughs when his own Polish Heritage is mocked. It's also shown that Eastwood's bitter attitude stems from him morning his recently deceased wife, who was probably a calming influence to him, and how little his own family cares for his well being.

While he's not politically correct at all, he's also still a decent person and only shows genuine hatred for Spider, a Hmong gang leader in the neighborhood who is terrorizing his own people. In one memorable scene, Eastwood has a wordless conversation with the elderly matriach of his Hmong neighbor, and that, despite the language barrier, she's just as happy about Eastwood's pressence at a family gathering as Eastwood is about being invited to the gathering

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    Maybe I'm seeing the movie through Caucasian colored glasses, but Eastwood's character isn't intentionally racist. He helps a black family change a tire and when he makes a racist slur, they correct him and he accepts the criticism. True racists wouldn't have even helped that family and they wouldn't have accepted the criticism if they decided to stay. Granted, he does give off the racist vibe, but it's also an "old man of old ways not keeping up with current trends" vibe. He also helps repair his neighbor's houses and yards, more with "keeping up the neighborhood" than a racist would do. Jan 24, 2023 at 20:14
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    (cont) Eastwood's character more dislikes the actions/lack of home maintenance than the actual people. It definitely comes off as disliking the people, though. He also admits that he and his neighbors are more alike than he thought, which no racist I've ever met would admit. I'm going to rewatch the movie tonight to see if I'm just making excuses for his character, but it seems more like a "crotchety man" with a literal side of "get off my lawn" than a racist. He's definitely angry in general, like you say. Jan 24, 2023 at 20:19
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    @computercarguy Your not wrong, Eastwood's character isn't supposed to be be an out and out monster, but to a modern audience someone who casually uses those words in their intended meaning is going to come off as racist. And I have family that acts like Walter and they are racist. They aren't violent about and they aren't incapable of learning proper terms. However, Walt's hatred of his neighbors is steeped in his time in the Vietnam war and a lot more personal than any other displays. The line about how much they have in common is said with a bit of horror.
    – hszmv
    Jan 25, 2023 at 12:16
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    that "bit of horror" can go 2 ways, in that he can also see just how far apart from his kids he has become. After watching the movie again, I'm not sure where I got the part about the tire change, since it wasn't in the version I saw last night. And yes, Walter lets fly with all kinds of racist slurs, and much of it is specifically to be antagonistic. Other times those slurs are to be harmless or even endearing banter, so context plays a big role. It's definitely a mixed bag. I also have racist family, and they aren't capable of the "endearing" use of slurs. Jan 25, 2023 at 16:05
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    @computercarguy, Also, keep in mind that Walter is very much a dynamic character. The relationship isn't him teaching a kid, but the kid teaching him as well. Additionally, the film gets a lot of humor from Walter's use of language as shock value. It's kind of like in "Blazing Saddles" where the humor isn't so much the language, but the over the top way it's used.
    – hszmv
    Jan 25, 2023 at 17:28
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Frame challenge: don't worry about telling your readers your authorial opinion on your characters.

True, authors are facing ever increasing levels of harassment for perceived moral slights. But this harassment is unavoidable even if you are extremely explicit with your views; you will get it from the opposite political camp.

You need to ask yourself what you really, in your creative heart, want to explore by writing a racist or misogynist character. Perhaps their bigotry explores personal moral anxiety, perhaps they're allegorical to a historical person or faction, perhaps you want to imagine what happens when their ideology clashes against an anachronistic counter ideology - there's a million good reasons. Find out what yours is and focus on making that evident to readers.

Perhaps your true, core goal is to educate readers on the evils of racism or misogyny - in which case, you're writing a parable, and this is the right question to ask. But if you're writing just about anything else, it's the wrong question, and by focusing on it you end up writing to the sensibilities of the simplest readers. This is usually very evident to any more advanced reader looking for a complex story to sink their teeth into, and you'll find that there will be a dearth of nuanced criticism and reactions to the work. The people who write nuanced criticism will get bored and not finish the story, leaving you with the critics who focus on moralism, completing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The other way is karmic. You control this universe and what happens in it. Including good luck, bad luck.

Have your racist character unfairly mistreats people, but be unfairly mistreated themselves by other more powerful characters, and perhaps by nature itself. A tornado destroys their house.

Have mirror characters, not racist, go out of their way to be treat others fairly regardless of race, and be reward by karma (good luck, being in the right place at the right time because they are being good). They start a business, befriend and hire an employee of color nobody else will hire, that turns out to be natural genius that helps them boost the business to new heights.

Despite some early success, the bad guys live unhappy unlucky lives of defeat and resentment. Despite some early struggles, the good guys live happy lucky lives of success and gratitude.

You write the story. If anybody questions your writing about racism, or writing such a believable racist, then point that out -- the racists finish lonely and bitter losers, and the egalitarians finish happy, connected, grateful winners. And you decided that is how it should end.

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Option #1 Introduce a character holding the opposite views, and show the power of their views while making them pleasant to be around.

A nice way I've seen this done is with 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' by David Mitchell.

The main character, Jacob de Zoet, is a Dutch clerk working in the Japanese trading port of Dejima at the end of the 18th century. He is not a nice person - from the modern point of view. Rather, he is an allright enough man of his time. Racism, slavery, a certain view of women, children - those views occasionally make him an uncomfortable protagonist to follow, despite his many admirable qualities.

But what reassured me that the author was not holding the same objectionable views, was the doctor. Dr. Marinus is a side character, who appears to hold views enlightened for his time. Not only that, but also (through his interactions with a female medicine student and with his formerly enslaved assistant) he shows that he lives by those principles as far as society would allow him. The fact that it was more than lip service was important.

Having this character allowed me to breathe easily knowing that protagonist worldview =/= author worldview.

Option #2

Hide it in language.

It is possible to soften the impact of quite objectionable attitudes and actions by encoding it in language. See - the nadsat argot in Clockwork Orange.

The main character, Alex, is a juvenile deliquent extreme enough that no one would equate his initial views with the author's. But a lot of what he actually does and goes through seems less violent at first due to it being filtered through his perspective, and his perspective is encoded in a specific coded language. The language itself is beautiful, even though the acts depicted with it may not be.

Option #3

Make it a small enough part of the story that it feels more like a stumbling block than a brick wall.

I'd say Gene Wolfe's 'Book of the New Sun' series has this (combined with Option #2 because man, that man can play language like music). The main character, Severian, is a torturer and executioner. Because of his attitude of normalcy to something that he grew up with, and the fact that the acts are not really described and very rarely mentioned, as well as showing he has a life beside that, as a reader I don't hate him for it. Later in the books, he does things that disturb me. But because he doesn't really pay attention to it, it feels like a pretty big clue of 'his morality is different', but by that time, I've grown invested enough in his journey and his strange world that I will accept this tresspass. This wouldn't happen if things were described more graphically, or if the worst things were introduced too soon.

These are the initial things I can think of. I'm sure there are many more options!

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 25, 2023 at 11:53
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The other answers focus on how you write the story.

If you want to be really sure, just put a foreword in to the effect of:

"The protagonist of this book expresses outdated, racist, and misogynistic views. These are not the views of the author and such views are not acceptable in society at large. Below you will find some interesting reading material should you wish to learn more about the issues that face marginalised members of society."

It's a blunt tool, sure, but nobody can argue you've not been explicit about your disapproval of the views of your protagonist.

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    When the author needs to explain their work so people don't misunderstand it, then they failed as an author.
    – Philipp
    Jan 24, 2023 at 9:00
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    Not necessarily, you can't assume that the reader isn't a moron... Just look at the very clearly anti-war films that drove military recruitment to new heights, the people who attempt to ban Farenheit 451, or the plethora of other brilliant books where readers fequently miss the point because, you know, half of people are of below average intelligence. This is just a case of the writer covering their own arse rather than explaining their work. Jan 24, 2023 at 9:31
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Unrealiable narrator, that hides from the reader that he would be one of the out-groups members, if he admitted all he knew about himself to the society that produced him.

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    As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
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    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:32

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