I want to get this out of the way right up front:
You can write whatever you want. The people whining about being "canceled" or "not being able to write what they want" are misleading themselves. They are still able to write whatever they feel like.
They are complaining about the response to their work – both by publishers and by the public.
And they’re getting that response because it’s bad writing.
If someone said they were "canceled" just because they can’t spell or use grammar, or "not able to write what they want" because there is no character development or plot or descriptions in their work, you’d laugh. And the same applies here.
Just because you write it doesn’t mean that anyone has an obligation to publish it. Just because you write it sure doesn’t mean that a reader has an obligation to like it.
This is explicitly about the quality of your writing as well. When you use stereotypes or cliches or inaccurately portray someone of a different race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, or whatever, then it’s bad writing. It breaks the immersion of the reader in your story. This is especially true when you’re a "genre" writer – science fiction, fantasy, and horror. We are attempting to immerse a reader not just in someone else’s story, but in a story that is intrinsically unbelievable. We are writing about people on starships, or elves, or facing eldritch horrors that simply aren’t there in the "real world" – and we want our readers to believe it.
It’s our job as authors to produce a believable representation of someone else’s thoughts and actions. And the devil is in the details.
You’ve probably heard the advice to try to use all five senses on the first page of your story. (If not, you’re welcome!) It’s good advice, because it quickly helps immerse your reader in the story and makes it more "real" to them. In real life, people don’t all think the same way. They have different histories, different experiences, different ways of understanding the world, and different motives. The more your characters have this kind of complexity and richness, the more real your story will be to the reader.
But again, the devil is in the details. And that means research.
To accurately portray a character, you must understand that character, experiences, and motivations. That means research. Not just secondary research, not just what you’ve been told or what you read on Wikipedia or have learned from other media. That means actually going and getting to know and understand the people and cultures themselves. When your details are stereotypes, cliches, or worse, just wrong, then it’s bad writing.
There’s a story I wrote a decade or so ago that I’ve never submitted anywhere, and will never submit anywhere.
It’s not because I don’t like the story. I’m very fond of the story and the two protagonists… both of whom are LGBTQIA+. I showed the story to some friends who have lived the kinds of experiences those characters had… and they universally panned them. The characters were fun, I kept hearing, but they didn’t ring true. Every person I showed it too told me that my beloved protagonists sounded like a straight guy trying to write LGBTQIA+ characters.
And they were right.
That’s why that story has always sat in my "trunk" file.
Not because I’m "scared" to submit it or have it published. Not because I’m "canceled" or something ridiculous like that.
It’s because it was bad writing, and I’m enough of a professional to acknowledge that.
Those characters, that story I was trying to tell, deserve better than bad writing.
Because at the end of the day, it’s not about my ego.
It’s about the story.
Featured Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash