Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.22: Examining Unconscious Biases, with Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale joins us at LTUE for a live-audience session in which we explore gender biases, and extrapolate from there to our many other unconscious biases.

Our unconscious biases are not just the things that we consider to be “just the way things are,” or “common sense.” They’re the things we don’t even see, much less consider, and the obvious challenge for us as writers is  to find those biases, and then to dig into them and really understand them. Our goal is to be able to write beyond them, and create literature that is both more believable, and more widely accessible.

Credits: This episode was recorded live at LTUE by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Take something you’ve written, and gender-swap it.

Thing of the week: Women Destroy Science Fiction!: Lightspeed Magazine Special Issueedited by Christie Yant.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Everybody has unconscious biases, which will get into your writing. Start looking at them, seeing what you are doing, and examining them to make yourself a better writer. For example, let’s look at how we write female characters. Who are the main characters, the named characters? Writing and reading are not gendered topics. Watch out for the one token awesome female — better than no females at all, but lacking in variety and diversity. Ask yourself “Why?” and “Is there a bias at play?” Start with a person, then decide traits. Try the two rules — every crowd is full of men and women, and every other speaker is a woman. Then start fleshing it out from there, with interesting characters. Keep trying! You will make mistakes, but learn from them, don’t just repeat them.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Examining Unconscious Biases, with Shannon Hale.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m living the unexamined life.
[Brandon] And we have our wonderful friend, Shannon Hale, here joining us again.
[Shannon] Thank you very much for having me. I listen to your podcast and I pretend you’re all my best friends.
[Brandon] Wait, you are my best friend.
[Shannon] True. But the rest of these guys… ngh.

[Brandon] So we want to do a podcast on our biases. Everybody has them. They will get into your writing. In many cases, it’s really good for you to start looking at these things, seeing what you’re doing, and examining them to make you a better writer. We are going to use specifically writing female characters because we have two women on the cast this time. That means that Dan, Howard, and I are going to kind of step back on this one and say a lot less. We’re going to let me throw questions at Mary and Shannon talking about both how men write women and how women write women and what our unconscious biases might be.
[Shannon] Sounds good.
[Brandon] So let’s start into it. What do we mean by this? What unconscious biases do people in our society have about women that often go into their fiction?
[Shannon] Well, first of all, I would say from a very young age, we teach boys to only read stories about boys. Whereas girls are encouraged to read stories about everyone. So from the beginning, we are training boys to only be interested in stories about boys, and to have empathy for male characters. This is true in fiction and it certainly is true in television and movies where 80% of the main characters in movies continue to be male. When there is a movie where the main character is a female, that is a chick flick that men don’t go to. So the first question is are… As men, are men exposing themselves… Please not literally, gentlemen. LTUE has a harassment policy.
[Howard] Wait. They’re back on, they’re back on. We’re good.
[Shannon] All right. Okay. Thanks. You can’t tell… It’s amazing with these… When you see these tables, you can’t really tell if anyone’s wearing pants.
[Mary] I am not.
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this question…
[Shannon] Is this appropriate for our topic?

[Brandon] Does this have to do with kind of… whatever reasons we have it, with our definitions of masculinity?
[Shannon, Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] I notice my little sons, that… When they… One of them, when they’re really young, they might pick pink as their favorite color. My three-year-old, Minnie Mouse is his favorite character. The older ones all kind of go like this. Because it’s not okay for a boy to like something feminine, because they will get mocked.
[Mary] This is something that happens in… That’s reinforced kind of constantly and very subtly. The… One of the… I was walking down the street and I heard a construction guy talking to his friend, the bring your son to work day. Had this conversation, it’s like, “Oh. You have three sisters. Must be tough being surrounded by all those girls.” We’re telling kids, even if you’re trying to raise your child to be gender-neutral, we’re being raised in a society that is offering these messages all the time. It’s not just boys. Women will also internalize this stuff, too. Like, I’ve caught myself saying to a guy, “Oh, you probably wouldn’t like this. It’s kind of a girly book.” Then I’m appalled that I’ve just said that.
[Dan] Well, you were telling an amazing story yesterday about Ursula K. Le Guin.
[Mary] Oh, yes.
[Dan] And the Wizard of Earthsea.
[Mary] So, I’m going to name drop because… I was having tea with Ursula K. Le Guin…
[Mary] So Ursula… My friend… She was talking about how she regarded herself as a feminist. And that when she wrote Wizard of Earthsea, she wanted to do this groundbreaking book and do all… Break these rules. Wizards were always wizened old men, so she wanted to do a book about a young man who is learning to be a wizard. Which didn’t exist. Books that was… No one was writing a book like that. The men… The main character was always a white man. So she wrote a young POC character. But she still wrote a man. When you look at the book, she says that there’s these mistakes in it, that she… The aunt who teaches Ged how to use magic originally has no name. The girl that he has the first crush on is just the girl. She said that it wasn’t until much later that she realize that what she was doing was that she was writing a book for men, because the only books that she had read had been written by men for men. She had internalized all these things. She had to spend a lot of time reprogram… Or deprogramming and examining her unconscious biases in order to write a book as a woman for women.

[Shannon] That’s a reality for a man or a woman writing in our society, because there’s no lack of stories written by men about men, but there are very few that… Except when you’re in high school English class, you can go through high school and college without ever being exposed to a female writer. I can, off the top of my head, name 20 male authors who I’ve read multiple books by and I adore. I would ask the men to ask themselves, can you name 20 female writers that you’ve read multiple books by and that you adore? We protect boys and men from having to even think about and be interested in female stories. I talk about this a lot, because I’ve had many experiences of basically discrimination as a female writer. For example, going to a school to do an assembly and having the administration take the girls out of class to come to my assembly but leave the boys behind. Because, as a woman, I only have anything of interest to say to girls.
[Brandon] See, I went to that same school, and they only brought me the boys.
[Shannon] Did that happen to you?
[Brandon] The exact school.
[Shannon] Because I’ve asked… Multiple schools have done this to me. I always ask them, “Have you had a male writer?”
[Brandon] I was there after you.
[Shannon] In that case, they always had the full school.
[Brandon] Because I went and found it, because I heard this story. But even still, they did this thing, where they’re like, “Girls won’t be interested in your book, Brandon.”
[Shannon] Right. It’s just as damaging the other way around. When you’re talking about writing stories and being a writer and being a reader, you’re not talking about gendered topics. Like your menstrual cycle and you.
[Shannon] So there’s really no reason to do that. But because I talk about this a lot, I’ve heard so many stories. Some of them being, “In our high school English classes, we read Moby Dick. The next book we were going to read is Pride and Prejudice, but the boys refused. So the teacher found an alternate title by a male author, so the boys wouldn’t have to read a female author.” I’ve heard this hundreds of times. Where we’re protecting the boys from girls’ stories as though they’re going to be soiled by the femininity.
[Mary] Well, we do have cooties.
[Shannon] Well, that’s true. But where it’s damaging, besides just basic human empathy, is as writers, if you’re not exposed to the full spectrum of the human experience, you’re not going to be able to write as well. I have many male author friends… Not at this table…
[Shannon] But who are [garbled – excellent?] human beings who have wonderful, interesting women in their lives, and then in their books, their female characters are really awful, bad stereotypes. It’s because they’re basing their female characters on characters they’ve read rather than opening themselves up to reality.

[Mary] Exactly. That’s one of the things is that these unconscious biases… And these are things that you’ve internalized and you think are common sense. Those can reinforce stereotypes. Although we are using women as an example, this kind of thing happens across the spectrum of humanity. When you start talking about people of color, the intersection of being a woman of color, being a woman and being a person of color, the amount of unconscious bias that you have to deal with on an everyday basis is something that is worth examining. But we… That’s why we’re using women as an example.
[Brandon] They told me when I was coming up with this topic, you guys said, “Don’t use feminist in the title… Feminism. Because it’s such a charged topic.” But the… When you get into feminism, what feminism really is is just examining this. Right? The actual literary theory…
[Shannon] It’s actually just equality. Social, political, economic equality between the sexes is the dictionary definition of feminism. Unfortunately, it’s become a charged term.
[Brandon] I was actually using the literary term.
[Shannon] Right. Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] In college, feminism means examining gender roles. And just analyzing them. If you start analyzing this, like… We’re not coming to this with a political agenda. Whatever side you’re on, what we’re saying is if you don’t analyze this, you will start doing this. An example of this, I was… I wrote Mistborn, right? I’m like, “I’m going to do a dynamic female protagonist in an epic fantasy story.” To most fans I talk to, they say I succeeded. I still defaulted to male for the rest of the team. Now. When I say this to people, they’re like, “It’s okay, Brandon. You’ve got dynamic females in all other books, it’s great. Plus, it kind of would make sense in the society.” But the same thing is, I wasn’t sitting there and thinking, “Oh, it makes sense in this society.” That’s not why I did it. I defaulted to male because of unconscious bias. I didn’t sit down and say we’re going to make this the reasoning.
[Mary] One of the things about this that I want to point out is it makes sense in the society. The society is a society you built. You built it based on…
[Brandon] I’ve heard women get up on panels and say, “Why can’t we have a society where I get to do wish fulfillment? Where the society isn’t like every other one, where the women don’t get to take part in these sorts of things?”
[Mary] One of the things that i was talking about on a panel earlier with Dan was romance. Romance is actually one of the… It’s the highest selling genre period. By a lot. But it is written by women for women. While there are some certain tropes of romance that I’m not keen on, like the alpha male. I’m like, “Sorry, that’s a stalker. And abusive.” I’m not happy about that. But the point being that that’s a stereotype. People think that they know what romance is. But it is one of the few places where women are centered. It’s very hard in science fiction and fantasy to find books where women are centered and they’re not by themselves.

[Brandon] Can we stop for our book of the week here? The book of the week is actually called Women Destroy Science Fiction…
[Brandon] Mary, can you tell us about this book?
[Mary] Sure. So, Lightspeed Magazine has been… Responded to someone who said this ridiculous thing, that women were destroying science fiction, and shook his cane.
[Mary] Which is not…
[Howard] A man said that?
[Mary] Yes. Sorry, I just realized that was both able-ist and age-ist. Sorry about that. Actually, I just… I am not going to use that one anymore. But… The point being that the thing about this response was that they said, “All right. Women have actually always been in science fiction.” You might have heard of Mary Shelley?
[Mary] Ursula Le Guin, my friend.
[Mary] So they put together an anthology of stories by women. I also included a roundtable interview with Ursula Le Guin, Nancy Kress, Ellen Datlow, and Pat Cadigan about the early days of science fiction and how things have changed. The answer is not a lot.
[Brandon] Well, it is edited by Christie Yant or Yont. It has a multitude of narrators. You can find it at, start a trial membership, and download Women Destroy Science Fiction to kick off your membership.

[Brandon] All right. There’s a question I want to ask you guys and I’m curious to get your answers. Have you noticed, and do you think about the books that have the one token awesome female? Who is not a stereotype in the classic sense, but also has no flaws and no personality other than I am so cool that I could do anything?
[Shannon] I have strong feelings about that character. That character is really, really common in action and science fiction and fantasy books and movies. So much, the default is, well, there’s only one female character, but she’s strong. It… What’s important is variety and diversity. You can make female characters villains. That’s okay. A villain has power… That’s an interesting power dynamic. The more female characters you have, the more variety and diversity you’re going to have, the more interesting the story’s going to be. This is something male characters have had the luxury of for centuries. It’s time to allow more female characters than just the cold B…
[Shannon] And the mother character and then the sort of personality without… The woman without personality, but with a great face and body who is the prize for the hero.
[Mary] One of the things that I want to talk about is the damage that it causes when you have someone who is a single representation. Right? Because particularly if you think about it, I mean, we learn from books. This is what we’ve been talking about. So when you have someone who’s a single representation, what that does is it causes people to then think all women should be like that character. And reinforces those internal biases. It also means that everyone is then judged against that character. So it is very damaging. Whereas, as Shannon was saying, if you got a wide variety, a spectrum, it’s much easier to understand that there is a… Sorry. One of the things that I’m aware of and frustrates me is that it is completely possible if you have a book in which there is only one female character, it is actually possible for a reader to come to that and have never read a book with a named female character. This could be their first representation and how they learn about women.

[Howard] Coming to this from the Y chromosome, and for a long time heavily biased point of view…
[Shannon] It’s okay. It’s genetic.
[Howard] I love the term…
[Howard] Unfortunately, it’s also heritable. I love the term unconscious bias because it allows me to take responsibility to learn something, to make things conscious. My take away for several years now has been every time I put a character in a book, every time I put dialogue a book, or anything, I ask myself, “Why?” And I’m willing to ask myself, “Is there a bias at play?” That does not mean I catch all of them. But it means I’m far more aware than I used to be. I joked about living the unexamined life. It’s still mostly unexamined. But I’m starting to look a little more closely at bits of it.
[Shannon] And it’s taking more control of your writing. If instead of you’re always defaulting to a character that’s kind of like yourself, or if it’s a white man, it’s making conscious choices about every character trait. You don’t start with a white male and then decide should I make him a woman? You start with person. Then you start to decide race, gender, ability, age, body type, all these things. Then you make really cool interesting characters and your story becomes more interesting. It doesn’t become like everything else.

[Dan] One of the great voices, one of the great crusaders for this, is Geena Davis who has a… She talks primarily about film, because that’s where she works. She has two rules that she’s kind of campaigning for screenwriters to use. They are so simple. What I love about them is how easy it is just as a first step. It’s not a great place to end, but as a first step. Number one, any time you describe a scene, say a crowd full of men and women.
[Dan] And number two, you go through your screenplay and make sure that every other spoken part, every other speaking part, is a woman. Just those two simple things. Even if it’s just cop number one and cop number two, and making sure that there’s one of each. Just those two tiny things are a really easy first step that any author can do to start adding more women and more equality into their fiction. Once you start doing those, you see so many more opportunities to go, “Oh, well. I can flesh this out. I can make this… Wouldn’t this character be so much more interesting if I did this?” It’s a great way… It’s so much easier than people think it is.
[Shannon] One reason why she did that is because in crowd scenes, in movies, are on average 17% female. That is true whether it’s live-action or animated. Someone is making a choice to draw those crowd scenes 17% female. What is that, 83% male? Whatever. There’s been a lot of studies done where if you take groups of people with equal numbers of men and women in business and school settings and let them talk for an hour, then afterwords, interview them. Who spoke more, men or women? If women spoke 17% of the time, it’s perceived as being equal. If they spoke 30% of the time, it’s perceived as women have dominated. We’ve become comfortable with having women less visible and think it’s normal. We need to question that consciously in order to make a change.

[Brandon] I would just like to add, if you’ve done this as a writer, because both men and women do it…
[Shannon] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] It’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, but it’s okay to acknowledge that you have done it. If you have the one like paragon woman, who is just like super awesome, then that means you’re trying. Right? You’re trying to not make all the women a weak stereotype. There are steps to take, and you can learn and grow and get better, but it’s okay to acknowledge it.
[Mary] I just have one thing to say before we break for homework. When you make a mistake, that’s okay, that’s no big deal. People make mistakes all the time. It’s part of the learning process. The difference between a mistake and a failure is that with a mistake, you learn from it and you do better the next time. A failure is you make a mistake, and you double down and repeat that mistake. So it’s okay to make mistakes as you’re learning to write women. Just please don’t fail.

[Brandon] All right. Shannon, you have some homework for us.
[Shannon] Yes. Take something you’ve written and gender swap it. Every character that’s a male, make him female. Every character that’s female, make her male. See how that changes the story. Often what will happen if you have a story with a lot of male characters, not many female characters, suddenly your now newly male characters, you’re going to say, “Why aren’t they doing anything? Why are they just sitting around and only the female characters are doing everything?” It’s going to open your eyes to how you treat the different genders. Then the challenge after that is see if you can actually make your named speaking characters half female and half male, just like they are in the real world.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.