Tag Archives: diversity

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

  • Genre
    • Young Adult, Semi-Autobiographical
  • Plot Summary
    • Arnold Spirit Jr, the mildly disabled, perpetually bullied egghead of the Spokane Indian Reservation, gets fed up with the hopelessly outdated schools and transfers outside the Rez. He becomes an outsider both at his new school, where he’s the only Native American, and at home, where he’s seen as a traitor for leaving. The entire world seems out to get him, but it has made one serious miscalculation; he’s got a twisted sense of humor and absolutely nothing left to lose. 
  • Character Empathy
    • In some ways, this book is deeply empathetic. The first person narration immerses you deep within Jr’s point of view, and also invests time in unveiling the hidden reasons why those around him do what they do. In other ways, it’s faithful to the periodic other-person-blindness that infects all teenagers. Jr has enough to deal with; he doesn’t need to deeply empathize with every jerk who picks on him.
    • What makes this mixture work, though, is that the it’s not as simple as Jr empathizing with everyone who is nice to him and hating everyone who is mean to him. Sometimes that’s the case, but other times he understands why somebody is being mean to him. Sometimes he takes for granted somebody who is kind to him. As his relationships evolve, so does his level of empathy with the people around him. 
    • Nobody is simple. Even as cultural differences between reservation Native Americans and small town white people are discussed, no individual’s actions can be boiled down to “they’re an X so they do Y.” Some characters start out enemies and become friends, or start out friends and become enemies, and sometimes they go back again. Everybody is made of conflicting pieces. Everyone is a human being.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Jr. isn’t depressed so much as he has rocketed straight past depressed into “all out of fucks, bring this shit on.” That gives this book a tone not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s raw and real, but at the same time, it constantly laughs at itself, and from that laughter comes strength, and from that strength comes Jr’s ability to take on the next challenge. He never really expects to win, and most of the time he’s right, but he is never willing to back down. It starts as cringe comedy but eventually becomes genuinely impressive. 
    • Also, there’s this recurring theme of deep profound thoughts interrupted by bad, bad teenage boy jokes, and I am a hundred percent there for it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • There’s a scene with a white schoolteacher on the Rez that, in so many other books, would turn out white saviory. But this book was written by an actual Native American, that wasn’t going to happen. The teacher has to earn his right to give good advice by first confessing all the racist shit he’s seen and been complicit in. In addition to being a truthful window into oppression and cultural genocide, it makes for a more compelling character in the teacher and a far more powerful scene overall. 
    • All the main characters are great, but I’ve got to mention this coach who I thought was going to be a macho asshole but instead he’s really empowering and sweet. He gives a speech about how crying just proves you care and caring gives you strength, so if you feel like crying, do it and don’t be ashamed. He says the same thing later about being nervous. I loved him so much.
    • There’s another scene where Jr and his friend talk about books and reading and the inspiring awesomeness of learning, but it also has boner jokes, which in my opinion elevates the scene from good to fucking required reading. If you think boner jokes are funny. 
    • The message here is real as shit. It’s not about working hard until your chance comes and then seizing that chance and then suddenly fame and fortune and the American Dream! Jr. doesn’t have a shot at an amazing prep school that will guarantee his admission to Harvard. He has a shot at a dinky rural high school where the books were printed sometime this decade. The point of this book is that, when you’ve got nothing left to lose, do something stupid and reckless and risky that makes you feel like you’ve got hope again. Doesn’t matter if it pays off or not. You die without hope, and it’s the shittiest kind of death; the kind where you go on living like a zombie for ages before you actually die. So hope, even if it might not work out. At least you’ll stay alive until you die for real.
    • The paper form comes with pictures of Jr’s cartoons and they’re hilarious. The audiobook is read by Sherman Alexie, who has a slightly nasal, awkward voice that works for Jr so well, I kept forgetting Jr wasn’t a real person. Both are perfect.
  • Content Warnings
    • Tons of bullying, alcoholism and a few deaths. 
    • Racist and ableist language, including some that is internalized by Jr. It’s an accurate look at how toxic attitudes around can seep into a person’s head, even if they know rationally that they are wrong. The book finds ways to show you Jr is an awesome kid, even when he’s calling himself names.
  • Quotes
    • “I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
    • “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
    • “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Planetfall

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Suspense, Space Colonization
  • Plot Summary
    • I don’t know how to describe this without spoiling anything. When this book was recommended to me, it was recommended that I read it without any knowledge of what was to come, and I’m so glad I did. So I’ll give you details about some of the fun things to come in the sections below, but for plot I’ll just say, strap in and enjoy the ride.
  • Character Empathy
    • The protagonist is richly developed, to the point that even when you think she’s doing something completely wrong and foolish you still want it to work out for her somehow. Her secrets make her somewhat isolated from the others, so you can’t get to know them as well, but they are still interesting, multifaceted and likable.
    • This story does not give you a straightforward villain. Antagonists, yes, as well as people who make decisions that are hard to condone. But the reasons they have make it difficult to judge them. I love books that can truly pull that off, and this one does.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s like a Hitchcock movie; sheer, agonizing suspense that never sacrifices character for plot or resorts to cheap tricks to make you jump.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • A bio-engineered extraterrestrial colony that was well thought out and like nothing I’ve ever read before.
    • Brilliantly paced exposition. I was always curious but never frustrated or confused. So few writers can pull that off, and I’ve gotten used to forgiving some missteps, but Emma Newman did not have a single moment to apologize for.
    • Most of the main characters are POC. The protagonist is Black and a lesbian. Nobody in the colony thinks this is a big deal.
    • One of the most relatable descriptions of an anxiety disorder that I’ve ever read.
    • Questions about the intersections of religion and science that were organic to the plot, dodged every cliche and managed hit that sweet spot between frustratingly vague and boringly preachy.
  • Content Warnings
    • There is no shortage of anxiety involved when reading this, but I can’t think of anything specifically graphic or commonly triggering.
  • Quotes
    • “I think “majority” is one of my least favorite words. It’s so often used to justify bad decisions.”
    • “That scared me more than anything, sometimes; the noise of my thoughts, the sense that even the space inside myself wasn’t safe.”
    • “That was the second major lie I told that week. It gets easier, in some ways; now I lie without expending any effort. But I think each one has its own weight. One alone may barely register, like a grain of sand in the palm of one’s hand. But soon enough there’s more than can be held and they start to slip through our grasp if we are not careful.”

The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle

The Surrender Tree

  • Genre
    • Poetry, Historical Fiction, Free Verse
  • Plot summary
    • The story of Cuba’s various wars for independence, told primarily through the eyes of Rosa, a former slave who becomes a gifted herbalist, dedicated to healing the wounds of enemy and friend alike.
  • Character empathy rating
    • I’d answer this question, but just thinking about it makes me reach for tissues, so I’ll just move on to the next one while I can still see straight. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • When you read other people’s reviews, the words that come up most often are “haunting” and “powerful.” And yeah, that sums it up pretty perfectly
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Most of the characters are taken from historical figures, including Rosa the healer. 
    • Lieutenant Death’s switch from being a sympathetic child to a dedicated Javert type figure is jarring and tragic, in the best way.
    • I swear I learned more about the Spanish-American war from these poems than any teacher ever taught me. 
  • Content Warnings
    • You get to learn about the world’s first concentration camps. So yeah, there’s violence here. 
  • Quotes
    • “The child tells me her grandmother
      showed her how to cure sadness
      by sucking the juice of an orange,
      while standing on a beach.

      Toss the peels onto a wave.
      Watch the sadness float away.”

    • “Hatred must be a hard thing to learn.”
    • I can’t understand
      why dark northern soldiers
      and light ones
      are seperated into different brigades.
      The dead are all buried together
      in hasty mass graves,
      bones touching.”
    • “Can it be true that freedom only exists when it is a treasure, shared by all?”

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

Spoilers ahead. Seriously.

I recently wrote about how to do a better job coming up with racially diverse protagonists, as opposed to writing an all-white cast, realizing what you’ve done, and trying to find someone re-writable at the last minute. One of the tips was to mentally recast stories you like.

Stranger Things is ripe for this exercise. It’s a great show with talented actors, but it does not do well with race. The setting is Hawkins, a small Indiana town in the ’80s, which would realistically have a white majority and a few Black families. The fact that there are only a few Black characters isn’t what I’m objecting to. They still had full control over who they picked to represent that Black minority, and unfortunately the writers picked Lucas.

Lucas_Sinclair_001

Lucas barely has a personality. He is the sidekick who carries the conflict ball. Worse, he frequently insults my favorite character, Eleven, and that absolutely poisoned my ability to like him. Given how popular Eleven ended up being, I’m certainly not alone in that. If your audience keeps wishing your only Black character would shut the hell up, you’ve gone seriously wrong.

The last couple of episodes did redeem him somewhat, so I hope season two will make better use of his character. Still, I can’t help but wish they had represented the Black population of Hawkins with a protagonist, instead of a sidekick.

Hopper

Hopper

The thing about demographics is that your age, race, gender, orientation etc are always a part of you, but at some points in your life they are major factors, and at others they are minor. It’s fine to recognize that you aren’t qualified to write a Black Person’s Story (TM). But that’s no reason to never write Black protagonists, because everyone’s life is made of thousands of little stories. You can pick the stories where a person’s race isn’t the biggest element.

Hopper is a perfect example of this. His primary identity, in this show, is as a cop. He is pulled between his fear that he’s overstepping his jurisdiction to find a missing child, and his worry that he isn’t doing enough. He battles obstructive authorities, sorts through red herrings and struggles to see the truth. In this setting, those conflicts wouldn’t be changed by his race.

Hopper is also a good illustration of how the spotlight itself can act as a vaccine against stereotyping. In the course of his investigation, he sometimes resorts to violence. If he were a secondary character, those moments might comprise most of his screentime. Even though it’s heroic violence, it could still potentially feed into aggressive Black man tropes. But because he’s a protagonist, he’s allowed a greater degree of complexity. He gets backstory, moments of introspection, doubts, vulnerabilities, and even scenes that showcase his gentleness. He’s balanced and multi-dimensional.

I am white, so take everything I just said with a grain of salt. I might have completely overlooked something problematic; if you think I have I would love to hear from you. This goes for everyone below as well. But on the whole, based on what I’ve learned so far, Hopper feels like the safe choice.

Joyce, Jonathan and Will Byers

Joyce and Jonathan

If Hopper is the safe choice, this is the risky one. The Byers are dirt poor. Mr. Byers is a deadbeat who abandoned them a long time ago, and Joyce struggles to find enough time to spend with her sons. Furthermore, this isn’t a poor town. The Byers are outliers, looked on with suspicion by most everyone else. If you made them the only Black family as well… I’m sure you can all see the problem.

In this case, being protagonists wouldn’t fix anything. Hopper is shown being violent and gentle, confused and canny, confident and conflicted. The Byers don’t ever stop being impoverished. If the spotlight is the vaccine against stereotyping, they have the egg allergy.

Another issue is that Will and Eleven’s resemblance to each other is a plot point. This means Eleven would also have to be Black. Eleven’s mother is a catatonic addict. Sure, she took drugs as parts of an experiment, but you see the problem. Also, there’s an implication that Eleven’s biological father didn’t even stick around long enough to learn her mother was pregnant.

That’s not to say nobody could write the show this way. But if you wanted to do this, you couldn’t ignore the racial issues. You’d have to change the show, to actively discuss race and poverty. I, as a white writer who was raised in the middle class, would not feel comfortable doing this. My life so far hasn’t given me anything special to say about those issues, but my privilege would elevate my voice. I’d end up talking over people who really have experiences to share.

The Wheeler Family

Mike is the classical  children’s protagonist. He’s brave, smart, and precocious, but still figuring out who he is and how to take care of things on his own. He’s part of a group of friends, but in this story he takes the lead, and their actions revolve around him.

Mike

For some reason, this character is always coded as white, but there’s no reason for him to be. I can think of Black cops, like Hopper. I can’t think of any characters like Mike who are Black, and I can’t think of good reasons for that. So I’m already liking this option.

Then there’s Nancy. When I imagine her as Black, she actually gains depth.

Nancy

She’s a good girl going through her rebellious phase; kissing boys instead of doing her homework, tasting beer, generally seeing what it’s like to not live up to her reputation. You can relate to her identity crisis, but it’s fairly prosaic. There’s nothing to set her apart from all the other characters like this.

Suppose, however, she was the only Black girl her age in a small, predominantly white town. She would exist in a world where she is spared some of the uglier, more overt displays of racism, but still has to deal with a constant feeling of not quite fitting in. She still sees a culture that doesn’t consider her type of beauty the “right” kind, and that will project a trashy image on her regardless of what she does. A few scenes could be enough to paint this picture. She sees a scene from a Blaxploitation film on TV, flinches and changes the channel. She stares a little too long at a blonde model in a lipstick advertisement. A shopkeeper is a little too watchful of her, and she imagines snapping at him, but doesn’t. All her life, she has overcompensated, by being a clean-cut, straight A student, and she’s sick of it. We would understand that Steve, who is edgy but rich and popular, offers an opportunity to cut loose while still fitting in.

The bulk of her story could remain the same. Stranger Things wouldn’t have to be about race, like in the example with the Byers. Race would just become a facet of Nancy’s character arc, which helps distinguish her, and raises the stakes of her conflict.

In fact, this change would actually solve a story problem. You know that scene, at the end, that made us all go “WHY??????!!!!!!!!?????” Imagine she’s the only Black teen girl in town. Imagine she has to decide between Steve, who elevates her status, and Jonathan, who associates her with stereotypes she’s desperate to avoid. I’m still mad at hypothetically-Black Nancy, but at least her decision makes sense, instead of being character assassination committed for no goddamned reason besides prolonging a love triangle.

Now, I’m not saying that making the Wheelers Black is the one true correct story choice. Rather, it’s the one that makes me, as a writer, go “ooooh!” Now I’m interested in someday writing a story with Black characters like Mike and Nancy.

That’s why I like this exercise. I think the reason we got stuck with Lucas as the token Black kid is that the writers weren’t excited about writing diverse characters. They were thinking, “better put a Black kid in there somewhere so nobody will yell at us.”

That’s not how either good writing or good representation works.

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos
The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face
Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine
Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque
Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild
Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Activist Audiences

I really enjoyed this video on whitewashing. It’s by Philip Wang, one of the geniuses behind Wong Fu Productions, a company that publishes comic and romantic short films on Youtube. All of the owners are Asian, as are most of the actors they work with. I highly recommend them.

Philip Wang makes the point that there have been many good conversations about whitewashing, what it is and why it is bad, but not enough done to actually correct it. It’s not just about complaining. We also need to create, and support creators. He talks largely about the fomer, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the latter.

These days activists talk a lot about paying attention to where our money is going. Are we supporting fair trade, ecologically sustainable practices, humane treatment of animals, human rights? Or are we inadvertently telling companies that child labor is awesome? Sometimes, because of our budgets and time, we can’t help but buy something that’s a little less ethical than we would like, but being aware at least lets us maximize the choices we have. When we choose to watch all of the Avengers canon movies, and then complain about Black Widow, our money means a lot more to the executives than our articles. When we choose to spend money on quality stories with diverse casts, like the new Star Wars films, the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and Dope, we tell those who are financially motivated that such things are worth their time to support.

Who we pay attention to also matters. Nowadays our eyeballs are practically money. Views determine who gets ad revenue, as well as who moves up the ranks of the publishing business. I follow a number of artists (musicians, comedians, short film creators etc) on Youtube. Many of them have stories about gigs and deals they got largely because of their internet followings.

None of that is revolutionary. I also think reinforcing creators can be complicated, because creators themselves are imperfect. I can’t think of many who are flawless social justice masters. I’m not even sure such a thing can exist. The conversation about what social justice is and how we can best create it is, itself, an ever evolving discussion. For me, supporting diversity is less about trying to find someone who is perfectly attuned to the current consensus on Tumblr, but about supporting creators who want to participate in the conversation. Whose work evolves over time? Whose portrayals of women are getting more nuanced, and who is still writing one token sexy action chick? Who is apologizing and actually trying to do better? Who is making promises and carrying them out?

In a way, this is an umbrella introduction to a number of posts I have in the pipeline. I want to write more about how I make decisions on what to read, watch and spend money on. And I want to hear about how you make those decisions, as well as your recommendations of works for me to check out and review.

Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

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.

Boring Privileged Protagonists, or How to Write Relatable Protagonists, Part 2

I write a lot about diversity in writing. It’s a big topic these days, and there are lots of “let’s make society better” reasons to have important characters who represent the wide swath of human experiences. Sometimes I talk about these, but I also think there’s some value in recognizing that this isn’t just a social issue. This is a better storytelling issue. Earlier I gave the example of how one of the biggest problems with the latest Spider-man reboot is the way they have mishandled disabled characters. It wasn’t just offensive; it set them up to characterize their villains in ways that were detrimental to the stories as a whole. Today, I’m going to return to that line of reasoning, and talk about how reflexively casting protagonists as white, straight males often sets writers up to lazy writing that produces boring protagonists.

I should say right away that there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a protagonist who is white, or male, or straight, or any other privileged class. I’m also not saying those protagonists are inherently boring. In fact, in a way I’ll be arguing the exact opposite. See, I think the reason these demographics are so popular for protagonists is that they are seen as neutral. It’s the default setting for people, and any points at which a protagonist deviates from that is “different.” You don’t want characters who are different, because that will make it harder for people to relate to them, right?

Hopefully you all are already seeing problems with this. Being white, male and straight (and for the rest of the time when I say this, go ahead and fill in cis, non-disabled, etc) is not normal. There is no objective normal. Real human beings come in all kinds of combinations; white, female and gay; trans, male and black; gay, white, gender queer and disabled, so on and so forth. Because one deviation from the privileged “normal” is enough to make a person “the other,” the vast majority of us are in some way different from Standard Hollywood Protagonist Demographic Model type one. If you want characters to be interesting to their audiences, you need to rely on a lot more than just “he’s a straight white man.”

I first realized this was a problem when the first Kick-ass movie came out. I liked some aspects of it, but I also found it kind of forgettable, and the main reason was how bland the hero was. Frequently the hero is boring because they spend most of the story reactive, not proactive, but this was not an explanation that worked. The hero of Kick-ass is very proactive. He wants to be a superhero, so he makes himself a costume and goes out to find some crimes to solve. I was struggling to relate to him, struggling to like him, and frankly if it wasn’t for Hit Girl I probably wouldn’t have cared at all whether the good guys won.

I was in college at the time, and I remembered a part of my homework where the author was introducing me to the concept of privilege. He pointed out how in order to be perceived as normal in this society, you have to be white, male, straight, cisgender, nondisabled, upper-middle class, vaguely affiliated with Judeo-Christian religion, etc. He asked us how many people really fit all of those categories. The male part alone cuts out over half the population, everything else whittles at it until you have to wonder if so many as ten percent of the population feels fully “normal.” Then I realized, this was why I couldn’t relate to Kick-ass. He was supposed to be an ordinary average teen boy. You know, white, and kinda Jewish but not really, very straight, not rich but not poor, not really outstanding in every field. Normal.

That wasn’t my normal. I was a homeschooled person, raised in a radical religion but coming to question it, attracted to men and treated as female but struggling with a feeling that I was supposed to be male. I started wondering how many other people in the theater could really relate to his “normal” life. Because the Hollywood market caters to teen males, probably that was represented more than average, but about ten percent of those were going to be gay. A lot would be Asian, black or some other race, and that would greatly affect their experience of teenage maleness. Some would have disabilities. Some would be Muslim, others pagans, some atheists, etc.

I also realized that, even though I had a few things in common with the protagonist, I didn’t really care. We were both white. So? I, for one, have never once gone, “man, I love that white protagonist. I can totally relate to the way our hair naturally looks ‘professional’ and we don’t have to choose between hair relaxers and battling for natural hair acceptance. And that scene where he walked into an expensive department store and didn’t get followed around by mall security? It’s just like how I don’t get followed around by mall security for no reason other than the lack of criminal stereotypes about my race. I sure hope that relatable white human being survives the movie.”

In my experience, people relate most actively to their most privileged or marginalized statuses. They form their sense of self around what they have had to struggle with, or fight for. If you want an easy way to get me passionately fixated on a character’s well-being, if you want that character to be my absolute favorite person in the entire book/movie/show, make that character trans. FtM or MtF doesn’t even matter; heck, in their absence I’ll get attached to the tomboys and the girly men. It’s not just me. I remember one day my boyfriend and I took a museum day, and accidentally both wore Star Wars shirts. Three different black security guards took the time to talk to us about the upcoming movie. None of them failed to mention Lando. They weren’t even trying to make a big racial point. Their minds just happened to collectively drift to, “have you heard anything about them bringing Lando back? Man, I love Lando. They gotta have Lando.”

What about minorities who I have no experiences in common with? Well, I am a person of average height. I have no dwarfism conditions. Despite this, Tyrion Lannister is one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones, as he is for most people. Also, I really loved the character Peter Dinklage played in The Station Agent. In neither case did the external difference between us make it hard to identify with the character. If anything, the opportunity to see life from a different perspective made the characters more interesting. I liked both characters because they were people like me, and seeing their humanity through the lens of differences was cool.

This was what Kick-ass lacked. He didn’t have any character that went deeper than “well, that’s pretty normal of most teen heterosexual white males.” The part where he actually put on a superhero costume was a difference, but there was nothing inherent to his character that made him the kind of person who would do that. He was just wish fulfillment for nerdy white straight teen males.

Good characters don’t just walk around with census data stuck to them. They are first and foremost made out of things that connect us, collectively, as human beings. Then the author layers individualizing details over that; a backstory, a personality type, tastes, dislikes, aspirations, and of course demographics like age and race and economic status. Next the character must become dynamic, making choices that only they could make, but we see how those decisions come from emotions and needs and limitations that we all experience. Good characterization portrays the universal through the specific.

This is not to say that you cannot write white straight male protagonists. However, if you do, you should be careful to not see those as some sort of human default. Do not rely on that to make anybody relate to your character, and don’t dismiss other demographics simply because you worry they will be hard to relate to. To get people to care about your characters, the most important thing is to write a human being.

Or, you know, a black lesbian transwoman with mental health problems and a physical disability of some kind. That should work for everybody.

Gorillas in the Phone Booth

One of my favorite writing resources is Writing Excuses. It’s four writer friends hanging out and talking writing in a way that is accessible and encouraging and just overall wonderful. If you write, please check it out. Over the years they’ve developed their own jargon, which they are pretty good at explaining for newcomers. One of my favorite phrases of theirs is “gorilla in the phone booth.” It is for those cases where a writer accidentally puts in something, as an aside, that is so unusual and interesting that the readers halt and demand an explanation. If in the middle of a chase scene the characters ran past a gorilla using a phone booth, everybody in the audience would say “hey, what’s up with the gorilla?” and be highly disappointed if they never got an answer.

I’ve realized this is one of the many problems that confronts writers who aim to represent human diversity. For example, an earlier draft of the novel I’m currently working on had an asexual protagonist. The story wasn’t about asexuality, nor did it contain any romance or sex of any kind, but the character had an asexual vibe to me, so in my head she was asexual. I wanted to make that text instead of subtext, but every time I tried, the story ground to a halt. I couldn’t bring any explanation of asexuality into the story and make it seem natural.

Right now, unfortunately, asexuality is a gorilla in a phone booth. It’s real, but even those who have heard of it probably don’t really understand it. I couldn’t put it in a story without explaining, and I couldn’t explain in a way that was natural to that particular story.

As portrayals of a given minority become more common, it becomes easier for all other writers to write them. It’s almost like there’s an assembly line. First a type of person is never represented, or actively demonized. Then there are the stories that double as PSAs, and for a while this is a relief. Then the demand comes for that type of person to be an integral part of the cast. If that demand is listened to, eventually the old strange becomes the new normal. I don’t have to halt a story with a love story between black and white characters to explain why no, this is totally a fine thing to happen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner already broke that ground for me, along with countless other portrayals of healthy interracial relationships.

Eventually I actually changed protagonists altogether. My current protagonist is mildly schizophrenic, which ties in well with the themes of illusion, secrecy and how to know what is true. I can debunk myths about psychosis in a way that enhances the creepy psychological thriller that forms the main plot. Meanwhile, my asexual character waits in my head for a new plot. I have every intention to use her, when the right story comes along.