Offense occurs easily nowadays

Offense is always there on social media. Rowan Atkinson once said of proposed legislation aimed at controlling this, that it would create a ‘right to be offended’. Regardless of legislation, some people seem to think such a right exists. Authors need to avoid offending people unintentionally. Obviously, you might want to express a controversial opinion, but you might think how to express it. One idea is to attack opinions: not those who hold them.

Humour especially can give offense

If a joke misfires, it can offend inadvertently and any kind of humour can offend if people misunderstand it. That is why an editor or proofreader can be so helpful, since you might not see how others could read something into something. I have already written that comic characters can add humour to your writing, but we need to be careful. Here are some of the pitfalls.

You give offense if you mock the weak

Some characters you find in a lot of comedy are weak. We can make fun of deafness, shortsightedness or other physical weakness. Drunks and drug-users can seem funny – but not to them! People can laugh at old people when they are forgetful or clumsy. Should writers encourage this? We can laugh at the mistakes foreigners make in English or at the way regional accents lead to misunderstandings. This can slip into racism or regionalism (is that a word?) if we are not careful. If the comedy comes from a temporary aberration, like someone getting drunk once, or an articulate foreigner making a mistake in their English, you might avoid giving offense.

Don’t give offense to fools!

Foolish characters of any age, gender or race, occur in a lot of comedy. Sometimes we seem to be laughing at someone who has a low IQ or suffers from mental illness. I found it interesting to discover that, in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, the Fool is someone who chooses to be like that. The Fool shuns wisdom, whereas the Wise Man seeks other wise men and learns from them. Folly is a choice.

Don’t give offense to women

Sometimes you can get a laugh out of a ‘dumb blonde’ or a ‘damsel in distress’ but this can imply you think women generally are stupid. How about a male version of those characters for a change? Perhaps a woman could rescue them? In my series, Accounting for Murder, the female characters are positive players in the story, as are the ones in DOWN.  OK – they are not comic characters, but the point is still there.

The cover of Accounting for Murder: Double Entry. Is there anything here to give offense?

Is there anything here to give offense?

The cover of DOWN. Anything here to cause offense?

Anything here to cause offense?

 Stereotypes cause offense

Where a comic character is not inherently weak, you can still give offense, if the comic characteristic reinforces a stereotype. You can encourage the assumption that all civil servants are bureaucratic, that all farmers are slow-talking and slow-thinking or that all Afro-Caribbean people deal in drugs. Apart from anything else, stereotypes are cliches. Be imaginative: try shuffling the pack and let the farmer be bureaucratic or the civil servant a drug dealer.

‘One among many’ does not cause offense

If you have a lot of women, black people or old people, and one or two are foolish or whatever, you are not reinforcing stereotypes (or not much). Think how to populate the book as a whole. Do all the sensible people have to be white males?

Not all comic characters are offensive

There are plenty of comic characters we can use where none of the above issues apply, but if you want to use one of the ones I have mentioned, think how to use them in inoffensive ways. Humour does not have to mock or to reinforce stereotypes. Be creative!