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Get your bias off my novel!

Everyone needs an escape, sometimes daily, sometimes yearly – but something they can do to recharge from all the pressures and demands of their professional and family lives. For some it’s watching tv, for others it may be reading, or playing in a band, or running. For me, it’s writing – specifically writing science-fiction / fantasy. Yup, that’s right, to relax I am writing a novel (it is okay to judge, my husband thinks I’m nuts too).

Amazingly, as I began the incredibly scary process of asking people to read my work, I stumbled upon a fascinating phenomenon - and I discovered it by accident.

To test if I had written compelling descriptions of my characters in the first chapter I asked the first set of readers to describe the appearance of those characters to me once they finished reading the second chapter. I was prepared for discrepancies, but I was shocked at how wrong the readers were. Of the six characters I had described (in detail!), only two of them could have been described as Caucasian. By the time the readers reached chapter three, they described five or six as ‘white’; (to be fair, most of the readers were Caucasian).

So, you may be wondering: why would I, a passionate advocate and founder of a company to remove biases from influencing opinions of people (including appearance), care about how people visualize my characters? There are three reasons:

  • Their appearances are important in the sequels (okay, I confess, I am writing multiple novels).

  • I use the diversity of characters as part of the illustration of how this world I built works.

  • This one is most important – they are my characters! I am very attached to them and I have spent a long time creating them, cultivating them and invested hours to find the perfect words to describe them.

So, when no one saw (or described) my characters the way I did, I felt like I had completely failed.

However, one day while giving a talk about removing the effects of bias in hiring, I had an epiphany; was my book suffering from the same phenomenon – was bias affecting how people were imagining my characters?

I verified my suspicion with the next round of readers: I asked what the characters looked like after chapter 1 and they largely described the characters correctly. Yea! The good news is, I didn’t fail, at least not completely. But, Bias is once again causing problems: this time causing readers to redesign my characters, and I don’t like it.

For hiring, bias leads to inappropriately attributing traits, personalities, and abilities to individuals based on what they look like - resulting in bad hiring decisions. In novels, a reader's bias, based on real-life experiences/prejudices, leads to incorrect images of characters because of that character's traits, personalities, and abilities, resulting in a skewed story and frustrated author.

Ironically the solution for these two Biases are exactly opposite. For hiring, remove what leads to bias by creating anonymity. For my book, remove the bias by adding a picture.

And for that one reader (you know who you are) – Maya’s hair is bright blue. And, it is mentioned many, many times. How could you have possibly missed that!

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