Bias – for it or against it?

What effect do our biases have on our writing?  For that matter, how do you even know you have a bias?  That’s easy; we all have biases.  They come from having life experiences and drawing conclusions or emotional associations to those experiences, often with limited data.

For instance, I am only familiar with one person who wore a toothbrush mustache:  Hitler.  I think due to the enormous negative impact Hitler had on the world at large, men for the most part quit wearing that style mustache.  When I see a toothbrush mustache, I think of death camps and Nazi war crimes, no matter that the mustache was not responsible.  That is a bias.

Your biases and my biases are our opinions on a given subject, our slant, our views.  I may say I would never name a child of mine Hildegard because I knew a Hildegard in grade school who made my life a living hell.  That, my friend, is a bias.  Attorney bashing is a national pastime; it is also another bias.  What do people hope their children become besides doctors?  Yup, lawyers.  Social standing and prospective income notwithstanding, everybody needs one or the other eventually and hopes for a discount.  Is that a bias?  You bet.

Biases are a fact of life.  Our characters have them, but they should have their own, peculiar to them as individuals.  I’m not advocating that what we write be free of bias, but that we are aware everyone has them and we are judicious about them in our writing.

You can’t write without bias.  How flat would our characters be then?  We just need to be aware of the fact of and inescapability of bias as a facet of humanity.

Here are a couple of resources regarding bias in writing:

“Have Bias, Will Write” is an article by Scott Warner.  You can find it here.  He explores bias in such writings as the New York Times and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

There are no end of biases to choose from.  “Biases in Science Fiction” is an article by Steven Novella that you can find at the Neurologica blog here. This article explores the biases of science fiction writers concerning designs of ships for star travel and how they depict gravity and thrust.  It sites such works as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001, A Space Odyssey.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. whiteravensoars
    Jul 05, 2012 @ 23:36:26

    I don’t know… I know that I tend to create my characters with some bias buuut, I don’t tend to have much in the way of bias myself. Every time I find one I work at getting rid of it, lol. To me it is a matter of not liking to limit myself. I do think that a well rounded character, in order to have that full life feeling really needs bias, but I also think that is part of what will give your writing conflict. How do we have conflict if there isn’t opinions that are strong enough to reach boiling point? It brings a depth and body that people relate to, prolly for the exact reason as when you have your own bias you feel empathy for that character. Kinda like your hero having flaws I think… *grins* just my nickle of thought (inflation don’t ya know)


    • C J Gorden
      Jul 07, 2012 @ 16:58:04

      Everybody has biases. Liking green better than red is a bias. If you have an opinion, you have a bias. Having them is not necessarily a bad thing. Being aware of them and using them to add depth to your characters is the challenge. I agree the biases inherent in your characters can create conflict. They can also create humor. There’s more than one way to mix things up. Heh.


  2. cmegge00
    Jul 09, 2012 @ 12:32:53

    Hey, Carol, I have a particular bias: I really dislike reading a book and finding out half-way through that the author has a political or religious bias he or she is promoting. I dislike being tricked into reading a book with such a bias without a statement from the author or the publisher on the jacket. You may think this is a minor complaint, but I have read two such books in the last month. In both cases I was halfway through when the prosyletizing became apparent. I wrote a nasty letter to the publisher of one about trying to trick me into buying the book by billing it as a spy story. It worked. I bought the book. After discovering the intense bias I returned the book and wrote the publisher.

    The point isn’t that I have a bias against religious or political promotion. It’s tricking me into reading someone else’s bias against my will.

    Furthermore, some biases are really harmful when they are based on lies or promote harm to other people.

    My conclusion is that protagonists can have small unharmful biases, but in most cases their biases must be towards moral values most of us readers can relate to. Sorry, “a preposition is something you shouldn’t end a sentence with,” said Winston Churchill, but he was biased.

    Carol Megge


    • C J Gorden
      Jul 10, 2012 @ 12:42:54

      Hi Carol! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree wholeheartedly about books where the author turns a bias into an agenda. I have stopped reading books by at least three authors for that very reason. Sadly they were all “best-selling” authors.

      I disagree that protagonists should only have “small unharmful biases” in that those very biases can be a point from which a character can grow. In the article “Have Bias, Will Write,” by Scott Warner, that I cited in the blog post, he pointed out the biases in Mark Twain’s character Injun Joe. Those biases made Injun Joe multidimensional. And it wasn’t only Joe. Think of the biases inherent in Huckleberry Finn, and even in Tom Sawyer. I identified with Huck in many ways, despite his many and varied biases. According to the article, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been removed from school libraries with regularity for being everything from racist to Communist. (Doesn’t that just make you want to read it?) It’s number 84 on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 list.”

      Regarding Mr Churchill, I love a man with wit, and wit is certainly something he had a lot of. 😉


  3. cmegge00
    Jul 09, 2012 @ 12:34:45

    Sorry again: proselytizing, not prosyletizing.


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