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. 


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

36 thoughts on “11.22: Examining Unconscious Biases, with Shannon Hale”

  1. I was thinking that I had grown up on a diet of female fantasy authors, but then I went back and looked over a list of my favorite authors (not comprehensive, or solely from my childhood), and found that male authors outnumbered the female authors 25 to 13. Which pretty much perfectly illustrates the point being made in this episode.

  2. What a great episode. I haven’t listened to WE for a while, but glad to hear you’re still getting to the nub of interesting topics.
    I’ve just written a couple of blog posts on writing POC and a lot of the same advice applies. Start and end with character.

  3. I read Louise Lawrence, Andre Norton and Ursula K Leguin when I was young :-) but all the male writers too. I’m an old white dude.

    My books are almost all female led, with multiple female characters, and non-Caucasian (non-binary as well). In fact I was in the middle of one when I considered maybe I should increase the number of male characters.

    Then I thought: Why? :-)

    As Challa said: It’s about character. Always.

  4. This is an interesting topic for me. When I worked on literacy project for low-income students who were struggling to read, we almost exclusively worked with boys. There were a couple girls (both coming from bilingual households), but it was the boys who tested as needing extra help with learning how to read.

    I think part of this has to do that boys and men are just given a smaller and smaller section of books to read like Shannon was saying.

    I also think there is a problem that reading in general is considered a feminine activity. It doesn’t have to be but many of us think of it that way unconsciously. When you think of a book club, do you picture it being all women? Most do with maybe a token husband. Do you know a lot of men that read fiction regularly–say ten or more novels a year? Do boys grow up seeing their fathers reading fiction written by both men and women?

    There are a lot of subtle messages that get sent to boys and men that say reading books just isn’t for them. I feel like that needs to be countered by encouraging the male half to read regularly and read widely.

    1. Interesting. I’ve not thought of this. I read more than my husband. And I read in the living room while the kids are playing. He reads in the office or bedroom, where the kids don’t see him.
      I’ll have to encourage him to be seen reading.
      We both read to the kids, but now I think we should both be seen enjoying reading.

  5. Well, I’m hugely jealous of Mary getting to have tea with Ursula Le Guin. Jealous in a good, pleased for Mary way, but you know, still jealous… :)

    The distinction between ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’ struck me too. Lately, I’ve been dwelling a lot on failure and why we fail at things. At any rate, it was an interesting, elegantly simple framework to hang some ideas on.

    Great episode, as always.


  6. SOS my males outweigh my females!
    Main group of characters : 3 to 1
    Loner 2:0 (aka males only club)
    Men of influence in world 5+ (that are also in book)
    Women of influence in world 3…..2 (that have and will always have, lines)
    Women that actually have any power 1 (But I haven’t ever given, err Revealed, her name)
    The number of times I write my FMC as a static character that needs saving, can’t make a decicion or doesn’t know how to do anything 100 to the power of 10
    The one time I wrote her as a man….. She was terrifying. Seriously, she….. He kicked butt.
    The number of people who need someone to rescue them (physically, mentally emotionally) 9 or 5:4 (though if I list who actually gets rescued……..)
    Who dies ….um sorry not sharing that.
    And the list goes on……

    I have known I had a problem for a while now. I have a lot of male characters, and only recently forced myself to re-add women I had cut because they weren’t ‘important to the story’……because they didn’t DO ANYTHING. So I could see the issue, but not the BIAS. That happen when someone challenged my to write my FMC as a man. It was amazing how changing gender changed the character! It didn’t work very well for the sake of the plot, but it allowed me to write a much more active character.
    When I started this story, I decided that it wasn’t a love story. This has challenged how I cause the main cast to relate to each other in very interesting ways and has made me more aware that (especially tryue in YA) people come to Expect romance in a book and, funnily enough, the more I write this book the more my brain wants to ADD in the love stories. Because apparently my brain thinks that as part of the normal story structure…..it becomes specially troublesome when my number of males outweigh my number of females……… D_D。
    Also, my cast is too big (proably) and I have too many POVs (definitely) but every time I cut characters (like the entire circus troupe from the first two drafts) it seems like my cast grows big again with time like a starfish regrowing it’s limbs…..but that’s off topic. Oops. ;)

  7. One variant of the writing prompt I’m kinda fond of, When you’re doing your first draft, or detailed outline, or whatever will give you a complete picture of the entire story, don’t use gender tags If you’re using a modern/future culture, don’t use race tags either; medieval cultures didn’t have much racial mixing, so if you’re in a medieval setting that doesn’t have magical transportation open to the masses, you’ll probably have racial divides by region like Wheel of Time. When you’re done, flip a coin for the gender (if it lands on the edge, they’re transgendered – 1 in 6000 for an American nickel – no idea how this stacks up against reality, but the vast majority of people are cisgendered), and…I dunno, roll a die or something for race (if applicable). It won’t work if gender issues are a big part of the setting (looking at you, Mary) or actively a part of the plot (say a story based around the Suffrage movement). You’ll almost certainly have to make a few tweaks for the sake of romance plots, especially if you’re going to get…ah…detailed, or if you have pregnancy involved. (2 guys have sex and one of them gets pregnant? what?), but at the very least, it’ll be an interesting experiment.

    1. It’s not actually true that Medieval cultures didn’t have much racial mixing. Venice, for example, was a giant melting pot of cultures. Any of the big metropolitan cities, or places on trade routes, were going to have mixing.

  8. Aren’t there ages where kids instinctively socialize primarily with their own gender? Obviously it’s something to grow out of…

    I’ve called the single awesome female character in action, etc. films the “token female butt-kicker”. Sif from the Thor movies comes to mind. I’m really tired of it because the character has become cliche. It’s as if the writers think putting in this one character is all the gender-balance due-diligence they need to do and she can be reduced to a 1-dimensional formula. Contrast with Vasquez from the movie Aliens.

    Back in the 80’s, comics writer Chris Cleremont is quoted as asking new writers who show him character designs, “Is there any reason why this character cannot be female?” I think that’s a great formulation of the bias question.

    How much gender bias correction is too much? Can there *be* too much? I’m sort of surprised the Ghostbusters reboot didn’t get mentioned in the podcast…

  9. A great episode that I really enjoyed and will endeavour to work on my Unconscious Biases in my own stuff.

    I wanted to make a quick comment on crowds in films. I’ve worked as a sound guy in the film industry for a number of years and in my experience (albeit, lower budget films) crowds are generally not planned too much in terms of gender. They send out a casting call for extras of the rough demographic needed, they’ll pick all the people needed but that doesn’t mean those people show up on the day. Very, very often a lot less extras show up on the day than were booked to. And if only men turn up, or only women turn up, you just have to roll with that and try make it work. Too much money has been spent to cancel the shoot. Times like that some crew members may get roped in to stand in the background.

    As I said, that is just in my experience. I’ve heard it’s pretty much the same at any level of the industry, but I’m quite happy to stand corrected there. And of course, there are probably films which HAVE requested mostly men as extras for a scene. Though most directors I know are more concerned about having bodies doing stuff in the background than who those bodies are.

    TL;DR, a background crowd in a film is probably not the most accurate thing to judge the film’s equality on.

  10. Under the table, no one knows what pants or lack of pants lurk… wait a minute, this isn’t supposed to be horror, is it?

    Right. Unconscious biases! Otherwise known as how to avoid stereotypes, increase variety and diversity, and make your stories more interesting to more readers! Go ahead, read all about it in the archives or over here


    And remember, there’s more than one bias lurking under the covers (Wait, not horror!)

  11. I was really stoked when I saw the title of this episode and even more-so when Brandon asked his first question, but after listening to the whole thing I have to say I was a bit disappointed.

    Writing female characters is something that I always gravitated towards and I was really hoping for a more nuts-and-bolts discussion. It seemed (to me) that most of the talk centered around convincing us that bias was happening and providing examples of it, rather than teaching us how not to do it.

    I love the podcast and I hope this comment doesn’t come of as too critical; I was just hoping for some tools to tame that Unconscious Bias.

    Thanks gals and guys.

    1. Sean, there are other episodes on this podcast that cover your “nuts and bolts” request. Listen to them. They are great. The first one is around season 3, with just the guys, so they feel a little shaky. But there are several others in the later seasons with some female POVs.

      1. Hi Deana, thanks for your reply. I think I was either unclear or you misunderstood me. I wasn’t looking for tips on how to write a woman’s POV really, I was looking for more tools for the ole writing toolbox.

        I was already familiar with most of what the podcasters (and guest) were talking about, and was left wanting for a nuts-and-bolts discussion on how to write with less unconscious bias. It is one of the things I love about this podcast; they usually get down to business and teach us how to write.

        I’m sure this episode will help some out who don’t have any idea about the stats and percentages, and the patriarchy *we live in, but for me I missed the practical writing advice/tips/tricks/exercises.

        Can we can-of-worms another episode on the same topic, but more centered around writing process?


  12. Many of the points made in the podcast are “spot-on”. Women should be given more opportunities for dialogue in books, film, and media since it would reflect real life. After all, women speak 20,000 words a day compared to men’s 7,000 words a day.

  13. Today I have been listening to Season 11 episode 1 – 22. Excellent Content! I am learning so much while being entertained. Unconscious Bias is such an important issue in writing and in life. (My preferred method of listening to Writing Excuses episodes is binge listening. )

  14. We are taught to only like things with boys in them? What a load of nonsense: you talked about Alien and Aliens not but a few weeks ago. It is, and always has been, bullshit. When I was little, we watched disney movies, whether they were about mermaids or lions. We watched Full House about as much for Michelle as for the rest of the cast combined and just about every other sitcom had a good mix of gender roles. And men were often depicted in a negative light: being the bumbling dads who have no idea how to take care of a child just fumbling through it.

    The first book series I chose to read was Dune, which has a lot of fantastic characters of all genders. In high school I was basically forced to read Charlotte Bronte, along with a myriad of other literary works which did not have male action heroes in them. So how exactly, are boys being drilled to only like this?

    Please don’t spread ideas that are obviously not true. Seriously, why do people keep believing this nonsense? And why is it, that these people only ever talk about the “unconscious bias” of men toward women. Turn a critical eye on yourself, please…

    1. Aulis, I too was forced to read the Bronte sisters. I would have preferred Jane Austin. I think the guys would have too, given the chance. Austin is much more entertaining than the Brontes’.
      Besides Little Women, I cannot think of a single other work written by a women that was Required reading in my Jr. High and High school. All the other reading for 6 years was written by men. Mostly about male characters.

      But just because you did not experience this, or believe you did not – does not mean it does not happen.

      When I see lists of “must read” books – again 80% are written by men. Many of the books have only the “token” female, or person of “other.” Thankfully authors, like those on this podcast, are changing this. The “must read” lists in 5+ years will look very different.

      As a half blood Native American, I never see “myself” in any books. Or if I do see a Native American, they are the “magic man” stereotype.

      My 3 year-old son call a few TV shows “girl’s shows.” I corrected him. “No. There are kids shows and there are adult shows.” He’ll watch the formally “girl’s shows” now because of this. If I had let his impression stand, he would have continued down that path of division thinking.

      Again, if you have not experienced this split – congratulations.
      However, myself and most of my friends completely understand why this episode is needed and full of great ideas.

      1. Deana, yeah, I can believe that most writers are male, but so what? Are they lesser writers for having a penis? Who writes the books does not matter, neither does the content really, but at least there I can understand the argument.

        Ultimately there used to be a whole lot more male writers than female ones. So it’s bound to be skewed in their favor quite a bit, for quite a while to come. But so what? Shouldn’t it be their books that matter instead of what genitalia they were born with?

        Harry Potter, which is possibly the biggest fantasy series of recent memory, was written by a woman. Did that prevent any man from enjoying that series? No! Because the genitalia the writer was born with does not matter, only the words on the page.

        —“When I see lists of “must read” books – again 80% are written by men. Many of the books have only the “token” female, or person of “other.” Thankfully authors, like those on this podcast, are changing this. The “must read” lists in 5+ years will look very different. “—

        If this agenda is pushed through, they will feel forced and won’t be good books. Like we’re seeing now with the new Star Wars and the upcoming Ghostbusters.

        Good books with good female characters have always been around. The Wheel Of Time exists! David Brin’s Uplift trilogy! Aprilynne Pike’s Wings! I mean come on, even Brandon pretty naturally made Vin a female character simply because it gelled better. Writers don’t care about the gender of their characters, they care about the character.

        It’s these people who keep saying that women are “underrepresented” that really care about what genitalia a fictional character has, and they blatantly ignore any examples that contradict them. Alien and Aliens are always fantastic examples here.

        —“As a half blood Native American, I never see “myself” in any books. Or if I do see a Native American, they are the “magic man” stereotype.”—

        Well, as a Belgian, the last time I saw my nationality represented in a book was One Hundred Years Of Solitude, which is by a Colombian writer (Marquez). Does that matter? No. Because I can empathize with characters who have nothing to do with Belgium. And as a person with a skin condition, I am most often represented on the big screen as a villain.

        But hey, women are really underrepresented by all those varied female characters in books, and even being the primary demographic of certain genres of books.

        I think you have a much more valid point in complaining that Native Americans (half-blood or otherwise) are only ever stereotyped and underrepresented. Though, Star Trek did at least one or two good episodes with Native Americans in them. But then, Star Trek is just awesome like that.

    2. Pay attention, please. The things that Shannon, Mary, and others have described are, in point of actual fact, actually happening. If you won’t listen to people who are having experiences that you do not have, you have no business weighing in on the matter, other than to offer yourself up as a case study for how unconscious biases look on a person who doesn’t bother to consider them.

      Note also: if you only start listening when castigated by a moderatorially-endowed male, that’s symptomatic of the exact problem at work here.

  15. General question: Every time a version of this prompt is brought up, I sort of struggle with it. I’m female and, for the most part, have tended to read/watch and prefer “boy” books, and, honestly, usually prefer the male characters to the female (probably for all reasons mentioned prior to this comment). So on the one hand, I do get excited when I see a female character that actually resonates with me.

    On the other, I don’t know if I’m just doing the prompt wrong or what, because every time I attempt this exercise I wind up with completely different characters, not just swapped pronouns, and probably for various reasons. Anyone have tips on how the executed this one?

    1. I don’t think you can just swap the pronouns. That feels artificial. Boys and girls have pretty naturally different instincts and strengths and weaknesses. Pretending otherwise just makes the characters feel “off” and that’s not what you want.

      I would focus more on having good characters, the gender is (despite this podcast episode) not important. Just write them as good characters with their own motivations and strengths and weaknesses. Their gender is more of a secondary characteristic.

      1. Aulis,

        Sorry I disappeared. Yeah, that was kind of part of the thing. It just didn’t work without rewriting the entire character. Thank you for helping. I wasn’t sure if it was just me.

    2. Hey Kaci, it should serve to consider the setting as well as the characters, because they influence each other greatly. For example, George R.R. Martin writes fantastic characters and the way he develops them over the course of his works is astounding.

      Looking specifically at the Lannister twins, you can see how just being a woman directly impacted Cersei’s life. She grew up with a father that treated her as something less than her twin, because she was a woman. But this isn’t Martin’s bias, but the setting’s, evinced by the counterexample of the wildlings and their setting (and a whole bunch of other cultures/places in that world). Propaganda and tradition go a long way in defining and cementing roles.

      So if you’re writing fiction, think about the character’s history. How would changing their gender change them? If it doesn’t change them, how is the world changed by them remaining as they were? Maybe your setting doesn’t have gender bias, so your character and world are largely unchanged.

      This might take you away from the specific prompt (I’m not entirely sure), but it should also help distance your writing from any bias you might have. That’s the goal, anyway.

      1. Jamie,

        Thanks! I have…neither read nor seen GOT, but the first two are on my shelf.

        Most of the time, I level the playing field, partly due to a sense of pragmatism (if you’re that concerned about the family line, the girls should count), and partly because it’s not typically an issue I want to deal with. But…y’know. It makes for a different canvas to work with.

        It does help, and thank you.

  16. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve listened to about half the stories already. Some good storytelling. Will have to check out some of the writer’s other works.

  17. Really glad to listen to this episode (and even more glad to have a transcript). I find that there is always more I can do on this subject, as a reader and as a writer. No matter how many female characters I’ve written, every now and then I will still think of an archetype I had always assigned, by default, to a male character. Consciously averting this lets me write more interesting, memorable characters. As opposed to another white-bearded wannabe Merlin wizard.

  18. Personally, I’m less concerned about women writers getting discriminated against and more concerned with the young boys. I ran into a blog post by Shannon Hale a while back disusing how among the elementary school boys who weren’t released to go to her readings, were young boys who liked her Princes Black books but were too shy to admit it or ask to go. And since the lead character was a girl and there was the word ‘princess’ in the title, people assumed the book had no interest for boys. Whereas it is not surprising at all when girls read Harry Potter and other books with male leads. If everyone started encouraging boys to read books with female characters as well as male, I think most gender discrimination problems would be solved within a generation.

    1. @CM It sounds to me like those boys don’t need encouragement to read those books, but rather encouragement to come forward about it. That’s always been something boys have had to learn, to stand up for themselves and the things they like.

      I don’t think it’s a problem of gender discrimination, I think it’s a problem of not teaching boys to stand up for themselves.

  19. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! for this podcast. Whenever someone in an online writing group asks “How do you write male/female characters?” my answer has always been to write them as people first. I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people who try to tell me that there are fundamental differences between men and women (other than the obvious) that need to be taken into account. Now, to me, those differences are all societal, so for a writer who can create their own society from whole cloth, those differences wouldn’t apply.

    I firmly believe you can’t say “all men are like this and all women are like that” any more than you can say, ‘everyone with blue eyes is like this, and everyone with brown eyes is like that”. It’s ridiculous. If you create a society where one eye colour is preferred over another then those differences would apply but even then, everyone is still a person first.

    Hmmm… now I want to write a story where societal roles are based on eye colour…

  20. I hope I won’t be skewered forthis post, but here goes…

    I’m glad the podcast concentrated on bias and especially subconscious bias. The examples were really good. But one thing wasn’t really mentioned and I’d like to point that out.
    Recognizing and removing bias does not mean that male and female characters have to be the same. It means that the choices that go into the story telling should be done *consciously*, and you should get feedback from both genders to make sure you’re not missing something obvious. It’s ok, in my opinion, to make males and females be very different in your story as they are in real life. Don’t be afraid of stereotypes because they are often (I’d argue usually) true. In other words, men are usually stronger than women, and women are usually more sympathetic to their kids than their husbands.. To deny that and try to write a story that goes against the obvious just won’t be believable. Yes there are exceptions, and if you write a story that differs from that stereotype then of course those characters will BE exceptional. But don’t do it to try to make some kind of feminist or male chauvinist point. Instead, it’s better to use the differences between men and women because people will identify with that.
    In the book I’m writing, my main character is chastised by his wife for not noticing something obvious about the kids in his village. He says he’s never even noticed it, and his wife tells him that’s because he’s too busy playing swords and bows with his soldier friends. I think that “works” because we all recognize the difference between the genders, and it’s OKAY to embrace that.

    But do it consciously.

    Okay, there it is.

Comments are closed.