Using Unconscious Bias In Writing
by Aimee Lucido
We’ve all heard about unconscious bias. We know about the study where if you feed identical resumes to a hiring panel, Harold will get the job more often than Heidi, Joe more than Jose, Shawn more than Lashawna.
These studies are always framed as revealing Bad Things about human bias. We come away from these articles promising to be more aware of our prejudices when making decisions, hiring or otherwise, because it’s unfair to Heidi, Jose, Lashawna, that they’re getting overlooked for something as stupid as their name. And this is true. We do need to be more aware of our prejudices when making hiring decisions.
But unconscious bias is a writer’s most powerful weapon.
As a writer, you put so much effort into your characters. You spend months thinking like they think, talking like they talk. You imagine them beside you as you go about your day. You think about what they would wear, eat, watch on TV after work on a Tuesday night. You slave over the paragraph in the middle of chapter two that describes what your protagonist sees when they catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror. And yet, so many writers tack on a two-cent name to their characters in post-production, find and replace Julie with Roxy, Robert with Lennon, Michelle with Michael.
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but you’re not making a rose, you’re writing a book. All you have is your words and the images people associate with them. Your protagonist drinks Mountain Dew with her Doritos because it makes us think of chemicals and kids hanging out in front of the 7-11. She murmurs instead of whispers because it makes us think of groaning instead of little girls at school. And her name is Tabitha, not Jacqueline because her parents wanted her to be smart instead of glamorous.
Every word you use is an opportunity to make your reader get it. A character’s name can appear hundreds of times in a book. A wasted name is hundreds of wasted opportunities. Don’t shy away from unconscious bias just because it’s unfair to Heidi that she doesn’t get hired as often as Harold. Take the power that comes with knowledge of unconscious bias and use it to make your writing more powerful.
I could spend the remainder of this blogpost writing tips about how to find a good name for a character, but there are plenty of other articles that do that. Here is a good one by Brian Klems entitled The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters.
So instead, I’m going to talk about giving your characters’ names as much character as the characters themselves.