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Three Levels of Characterization

Good writers do not cast stories entirely with xeroxed copies of themselves, mostly because that would be no fun. If you’re wondering whether I mean no fun to read or no fun to write, the answer is yes. Imagining you aren’t you is fun, and imagining you are you isn’t imagining at all. Writers are generally the kind of people who never stopped playing make-believe, so by the time they start publishing, they are pretty good at feigning the perspective of somebody who is different from them.

However, when those differences cross into the land of privilege and oppression, writers get scared. They get nervous about writing someone of another gender, race, orientation, religion, or with a disability.

On the one hand, it is strange that the same writers who will happily write a medieval knight, a cold-blooded alien or the monster under your bed can react with panic at the idea of writing a regular human being with somewhat darker skin. And yes, I’m laughing a bit at myself when I point that out. Just because I recognize the absurdity, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience it.

At the same time, there is something reasonable about the fear. The monster under my bed isn’t ever going to criticize me for misrepresenting it. It doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of all the misconceptions I’ve just reinforced, or subtle elements of racism I’ve unintentionally introduced into my own story. It doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t care. If I’m wasn’t more worried about writing a black character than a nighttime bogeyman, that would be a sign of very skewed priorities.

Of course, because the monster doesn’t exist, it also doesn’t have any reason to care if I choose not to write about it at all. It doesn’t need to be better represented in the media. Somewhere between the crippling paranoia and blase carelessness is a kind of sensible caution that should motivate writers to write underrepresented characters, and do that writing extra well.

I have a system for thinking about real world characterization traits. First, I imagine three concentric circles. The innermost one is for personal experiences. Everything I have done, every word I could use to describe myself, everything that I am goes into this circle. Then, just outside is vicarious experiences. Into this goes things that I am not, but that I have experienced indirectly through listening carefully to people who have chosen to open up to me. When my Mom tells me a story about her nursing job, when I read somebody’s autobiography, when a Korean-American friend invites me to their home and I pay attention to the differences and similarities between their family and mine, I can put all those things under vicarious experiences. In the third, outermost circle go things I can only research remotely, through dry articles and research papers and without any direct experience to temper them.

The research done in the outermost circle can be useful. Even when it comes to things I’ve experienced personally, some fact checking can expand my understanding. However, if I try to characterize somebody based mostly on traits I can only study remotely, I will end up with a flat, bland, stereotyped character. That kind of information comes in averages and generalities, and it cannot convey the flavor or sense of a culture. The middle circle of vicarious experience is more useful for that, but must be used carefully. I cannot expect to know everything about Korean culture from one family dinner. I might be able to pick out some details, useful for a scene at a Korean character’s house. More useful are the vicarious experiences I have repeated. A lifetime of my Mom’s stories has given me a good sense of what it’s like to work in a hospital, but one conversation with a Muslim about what they believe can’t guarantee I can write a convincing Muslim. Most useful for writing realistically, of course, are the traits in my innermost circle, the things I have personally experienced.

Here’s where the illusions begin.

People are never just one thing. They are hundreds of things piled up on each other and interweaving. They go through stages of being one thing and then another, they find one part of their identity more important than another, and they find other people react more strongly to some sides of who they are than another. The trick of writing convincingly is tearing apart everything in these circles, the parts you’ve experienced, the parts your friends have experienced and the parts you know intellectually, then weaving the parts back together, keeping the things you are familiar with dominant over the ones where your experience is limited. I can’t claim any personal experience of blackness, and my vicarious experience, though I’m working to improve it, is still sparser than I’d like it to be. That’s all right. I can still write about a man who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, works as a vet and identifies most strongly as a cosplaying nerd, and sometimes has the experience of walking down a street at night and seeing a woman shuffle away clutching their purses, quickly but not too quickly because, after all, she doesn’t want to look racist.

Now, the reason to keep the traits you know best in the foreground goes deeper than just accuracy. It’s also about respect. It is fundamentally disrespectful to speak for someone who isn’t you, unless you’ve earned serious trust from them. It’s hard enough to do this with individuals, and essentially impossible to do it with an entire demographic. If I may switch from the perspective of the privileged writer trying to represent other groups, to the marginalized person who other people are trying to represent, I hate it when somebody tells me about this movie about a trans person, and just from reading the IMDB page I can already tell that A. the cisgender writer was trying to tell The Ultimate Story of What It Means to be Trans, and B. they got it wrong. That’s not the story that anybody cis gets to tell. Write about being a delightfully quirky Irish foundling trying to find her mother and make it on her own, while also happening to be trans. I love that movie. Or, you know, about an identity thief who happens to be trans. That works too.

That’s the real point of the three circles. Recognize that your ability to write a human being and speak for a demographic are two totally different things. Recognize that people’s experiences are multidimensional, yours included, and that you can expand your repertoire, but not instantaneously. One of my favorite research resources is the NaNoWriMo reference desk forum. It’s a good way to get obscure questions answered by an expert, but on every page you will get somebody asking, “so I want to write about this deaf person, and their entire reason for living is to find a way to regain their hearing and finally become whole, obviously, so I need to know how that can happen, and also I don’t know anything about being deaf-mute, so could you tell me what that’s like please?” Then you get a couple people saying “here’s what I found out on Wikipedia” before somebody finally says, “sigh… I’m a CODA/interpreter/actual Deaf person, and everything you wrote is already wrong.” Nobody can become an expert in a whole different way to perceive the world overnight.

In conclusion; think about what you know. Recombine that to create new and different people. Work on expanding what you know, and be patient with the process.

Why Do We Want to Know What the Author Meant?

This post has had a long history.

First I was trying to write a post on writing disabled characters, and it assumed that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory was autistic. That post will definitely still happen, for the record. Then I kept getting sidetracked by explaining why I believed he was autistic, even if it has neither been confirmed in story orĀ  by the authors. Explaining that in part means explaining my philosophy on the validity of interpretations. So I decided to make that a post all on its own. As part of that post, I started casually polling friends about their interpretations of interpretations. As I did this, I realized I was being a little dishonest to myself about my own philosophy, or rather how I apply it.

I originally meant to assert once again that all interpretations are equally valid, regardless of what the author says outside of the text. The only way an interpretation can be less valid is if it’s poorly supported by the text. I still essentially believe that, but as I talked to my friends I realized that I also like bending to the author’s stated intent as much as possible. I need a very serious reason to disagree with an author about their own work. Why do I do that?

Simple. Because the author is a point of reference who I have in common with all other readers.

I wrote a while back about how, while I enjoyed Harry Potter, I missed out on part of the Harry Potter experience by reading the books after the series was completely published, and the community that grew up with it and waited for each individual release was already nostalgic. Despite our common desire to have our own interpretations, most readers want to share their reading experience with somebody else. Having a community enhances the enjoyment for everyone who is a part of it… except perhaps when the community schisms. There are some divisions that seem to be playful, like certain popular shipping wars, but others that seem vitriolic and spiteful, like certain popular shipping wars.

In particular, divisions seem to get bitter when they depend on fundamentally different interpretations of the text. If you just like the dynamics of Katara and Zuko better than Katara and Aang, everything can stay fun, but if you believe, as one friend of mine did, that Katara and Aang getting together was incompatible with Aang’s mission to save the world, things can get heated in a not-fun way. When disagreements cut this deep, they can be hard to resolve, because the fans don’t have any evidence beyond the text, which is what caused the split in the first place.

In these cases, the author feels like the only one who can arbitrate. All us fans are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason any of us should be listened to over the other. The author, simply by virtue of having gone to the work of creating the piece, does stand out from the crowd of interpretations.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

Maybe it’s that fiction is a shared delusion, but of course because your mind and my mind are different places, we are both bound to differ slightly in our interpretations. In your mind the flowers on the table are red roses. In mine they are yellow tulips. Most of the time these differences are so tiny they don’t disrupt the game of make-believe, but when they aren’t so small, that draws our attention to the fact that this is fiction. It slightly spoils the illusion. We want to be lost in our suspension of disbelief. When we let the author be the God of their world, able to dictate its laws, we can return to the illusion.

Unless of course the “word of God” fails to make sense. This brings me back to Sheldon, the original inspiration. I work with autistic children. I am regularly required to attend workshops about autism for my job. These workshops are taught by national experts, and they regularly illustrate their points with clips and gifs and screenshots of Sheldon. Sheldon exhibits the symptoms of high functioning autism so perfectly that when the creators say he doesn’t have it, to anyone with any real world experience of autism it sounds absurd. It’s like saying “he’s not blind, he just can’t see things and has a trained dog guide him around,” or “he’s not deaf, he just can’t hear so you have to learn to make words with your hands if you want to communicate.” The writers are drawing our attention to the fact that this is constructed universe, because we can only believe that Sheldon doesn’t have autism if this is a bizarre fictional world where the whims of some author reign supreme. Its impossible to both believe in Sheldon as a person, and believe in the Big Bang Theory universe and our universe, and not conclude that Sheldon has autism.

On reflection, I still think it’s the text that matters and not the author’s interpretation of it. However, I am perfectly capable of hearing somebody else’s interpretation and adopting it as my own because I like it. The author’s interpretation is as good as everyone else’s, and often it’s nice to adopt it because it helps lend coherence and verisimilitude to the story. Still, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

What do you think?