Learning From Those Who Came Before

Been paying attention to HARRY POTTER news lately? If not, you’ve missed one hell of a storm.

I’m not going to get into the whole thing, but you can read about it here, or accept my totally inadequate summary:

  • JK Rowling has disappointed a lot of her fans by (a) including very little diversity, and then, when made aware of this problem, (b) claiming the diversity was there all along but somehow invisible.

This was not, shall we say, the best way to do things.

When What You Wrote Before Needs Help

The thing is, I understand where Rowling is coming from.

Learning as you go and therefore seeing the mistakes you made in earlier writing is a normal part of the process.

It’s also damned embarrassing, and we as writers often have a hard time figuring out where to go from there.

We write our stories, and we do the best we can. For many of us, that means we write from perspective born of backgrounds we didn't control, educations we weren't aware were cheap, and information we didn't know was dated. Click To Tweet

An example: I used to suck at writing women. I’d been raised with a whooooole lot of internalized misogyny, and it’s taken years to untangle that mess and write women worth reading.

I’m embarrassed  at the way I portrayed women in the past; in fact, most of the secondary characters in THE SUNDERED got short shrift.

I’m grateful most people haven’t noticed. I noticed. So what’s a writer to do?

Retcon: Doing it Right and Doing it Wrong

I don’t know that it’s necessarily wrong to go back and retcon when things need to be fixed – but if you do it, you need to actually fix them.

“Retcon” is a shortened form of retroactive continuity, and refers to a literary device in which the form or content of a previously established narrative is changed.[…]

Though Sherlock Holmes died at the Reichenbach Falls, the author, Arthur Conan Doyle, retroactively declared that his death had been staged in what has been described as an early example of a retcon.


Lemme repeat: if you retcon well, you need to (a) acknowledge what you did wrong, and (b) actually fix the damn thing.

Please allow me to emphasize that I LOVE LOVE LOVE Harry Potter, and deeply respect Ms. Rowling. I’m trying to say that this is something I am going to do differently.

So here’s a timeline of what I’m not going to do:

  • Harry Potter is published. Everybody loves it.
  • Over time, it’s noted that there’s very little diversity in the stories.
  • At first, we get it. We understand it was the 90s and she was a straight white woman from a privileged country. Still, it would have been nice to have a little diversity in there.
  • But wait! Suddenly, Ms. Rowling says Dumbledore is gay. Great! Although, truth be told, there was no way to get that from reading the books. Still okay.
  • Then she says he was in love with Grindelwald! Again, okay – but there was no sign of it in the books, and that’s regretful, but okay.
  • So then we get FANTASTIC BEASTS. New material, set in the past, an excellent chance to do retcon in a way that would enhance the HARRY POTTER  series magnificently.
  • Only it won’t be explicit. At all.

This is no longer the 90s. Ms. Rowling is now aware of the need for representation – and her choice is to keep that representation in the closet.

This is kind of painful. Actually, a little comic from THE NIB really put it better than I can.

(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB
(Brilliant comic by Kendra Wells on THE NIB)

Personal Application

Representation as an afterthought for more woke points is not good representation.

Jen Moulton

I have made mistakes and failed to include diversity in my writing.

See, writers grow. We change. The more we read and the more we learn about the world we live in, the broader our horizons become. This affects our stories.

I have a choice how to retcon my own work. Some fixes I can fudge using the “unreliable narrator” thing, but the rest? I just have to admit I did badly and will do better henceforth. And I’m okay with that.

Even as I write brand new stories to fill in those gaps from the past, I need to do it without pretending I had these things in mind all along. Because I didn’t.

And I think maybe that level of honesty is a better way to go.


A three-times bestselling author, Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and been the keynote speaker for the Write Practice Retreat. Author of two series with five books and fifty-plus short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom and used up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon in the process. When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away. P.S. Red is still her favorite color.