Is Your Novel Problematic?

Is Your Novel Problematic?


Is your novel problematic?

Dear fellow writer,

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but yes, your novel is problematic.

I mean, it probably is–I haven’t read it yet. But still, I feel relatively confident saying that it perpetuates *blank*, it contributes to *blank*, it trivializes *blank*, and maybe even stereotypes *X, Y, and Z*.

It is nearly impossible to have a full length novel that isn’t seen as problematic to someone in some way. So guess what? If you want to write, you’re going to have to get used to people being unhappy with your work.

Okay, before anyone starts arguing with me, hear me out.

There are so many big and valid issues in this world. You turn on the news, and you see hate mongering and xenophobia. You peruse the world wide web, and you find heartbreaking and frustrating stories of inequality. You see misunderstandings and misrepresentations everywhere of “the other”, and “the other” comes in so many forms.

Take the topic of race, ethnicity, sexuality, mental illness, or physical disability, (and of course, this list isn’t exhaustive). Search online, and you can find a discussion on any of these subjects, and the problematic ways that they are portrayed in literature.

Yes, you should read these discussions. Yes, you should do the necessary research to create your work. This is especially true when you are writing someone else’s story (i.e. writing about an ethnicity, or a culture that is different from your own). If you don’t, you risk harmfully perpetuating a narrative against an already marginalized group.

What I’m saying you shouldn’t do, is get lost in the comment section of the aforementioned discussions, or sink too deeply into the forums. You will start to notice something if you do. You will notice that no matter what one person says, there will always be someone who (often aggressively) disagrees—and no, the person with a difference of opinion is not always the “cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, Caucasian male”. Two gay men will differ on what they believe is offensive. Two black women will disagree on how they want to be depicted in media. Just because two people share a descriptor, doesn’t mean they share the same experiences.

Yes, if you want to avoid offending someone, there are some near-universal “don’ts” to consider, but if you try to fit every person’s suggestion into your manuscript, you will lose your mind. Even if your actual characters are well rounded, complex creatures, you may then face the criticism of “how many” diverse characters you have in your novel. With the number of ethnicities on this planet, you can never include all of them.

Okay. What if you have mastered the perfect balance of diversity in your novel, and have managed to please every person you have portrayed? First of all, if this is you, I’m on my knees, kissing your shoes. Second, if this is you, then you should consider the slightly less politicized, but equally argued issues in your novel. You may have issues where your characters are perpetuating things like gender norms, or normalizing toxic relationship expectations. Does your MMC always have to save your FMC? Does your FMC love your super hot MMC who displays what would normally be considered abusive behaviour?

If we wanted to list all the things that could potentially be wrong with your novel, we would be here all day and night. And please, I do not mean this personally. What I am trying to get at, is that if you try to mold your story to fit everyone’s expectations, you will become paralyzed by the feat. You may think, “I can’t have a single instant where my black female is upset, or she’ll be labeled an ‘angry black woman,” or “my MMC can’t save the day, because then my FMC won’t be considered strong,” and you’ll never end up writing a single word.

There will always be someone to find a flaw in your work, or a flaw in you personally (yes, I know both feel like the same thing). There are billions of people in this world, and that means billions of opinions. Someone will always find something “problematic” in your writing.

The key is to think of your character’s stories, and of their environment. WHY are they doing what they are doing? Is it because of their experiences and their choices, or simply because they are fulfilling a stereotype? WHY is the cast all one-race? Is it because of their environment, or because it was “easier” or your personal perspective caused you to make it so? These questions will help to challenge writers in  their storytelling, and will help to avoid trying to please people for the sake of it.

What do you think? Can a novel ever truly be non-problematic? Can you please everyone? Discuss in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Is Your Novel Problematic?”

  • Love this post as I’m dealing with these same issues with my novel. I don’t think it’s possible to write a good, thought provoking novel that won’t poke SOMEONE the wrong way. The true problematic-ness comes when its obvious that it was done without any forethought, just being offensive and uneducated as a result of lazy writing.

    • Thank you so much for reading–and I definitely agree that there is a difference between lazy writing, and thoughtful writing. The thing is, the critics don’t always see it, and we need to learn to be okay with that. <3

  • I love this! I think that authors should write their books mindfully, and try to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or mimicking problematic societal behaviors. But the truth is that problematic things make for good stories. There’s always going to be a problem, and I think people should stand by their writing instead of cowering to the audience and stifling the story trying to do right by everyone. That being said, there are some novels that get it really close with being diverse without being /too/ problematic.
    tl;dr I totally agree and I think people needed to hear this!

    • Thank you Arizona, for taking the time to read this! I totally agree about standing by your writing, I think for better or for worse. OWN YOUR WORK. Sometimes, for example, someone has someone in a toxic relationship, and they are like “No, no, they aren’t, they’re perfect.” I would respect them much more if they were like, “yeah you’re right, this is unhealthy, but that’s how I wrote it,”. OR “I definitely see how you saw that, but I disagree for xyz”… Okay treading into a whole other topic here, sorry 😀

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