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bear by san

September 2015



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criminal minds prentiss text

whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong.

So I was thinking this morning about what I said about having a problem with the lack of female characters (other than the redheaded assassin) in kenscholes ' book, and that got me thinking again about an ongoing problem in all writing (and most art), which is, of course, Writing The Other without being a dick.

I still hold by the unpopular theory that it's actually pretty simple. (Simple, in this case, still does not mean "easy.") That in the long run, we are all people, and the basic similarities in the Venn diagram are more prevalent than the differences.

Please note, as a fantasy and science fiction writer, I spend a lot of my time writing things that are really Other--intelligent wolves and giant talking stag-headed ponies, for example. Also angels (fallen and otherwise), hyperintelligent supercolloids, virtual winged dinosaurs, and other stuff. So I keep thinking, well, if I can write something that doesn't even have the same senses I do, how hard can it be to write a Jewish former Army Captain from St. Louis?

Well, the problem is, I'm much more likely to run into a Jewish former Army Captain from St. Louis. And she'll tell me I'm getting it wrong. The talking stag-headed flying ponies don't have much of a lobby here on our planet.

But here's the thing. Unless I'm going to write people just like me, I'm going to have to write The Other. And there's gotta be a limited market for EBear self-insertion novels. Especially if it starts looking like that scene in Being John Malkovitch, where all the Malkovitches are walking around going Malkovitch Malkovitch.

You know. Like you do.

And besides, then I'd just be like, the butch girly version of Tom Clancy, and--well, that doesn't bear thinking about.

So I'm going to have to write people who are not like me. Okay, cool.

How do I do that?

Well, I think the first step is to stop thinking about those people as The Other. Because they're not. I mean, okay, they may not be a lot like you? But they're also people, and if you can question your own cultural assumptions about what people ought to be like, and also the stereotypes you've probably assimilated without knowing it, you can hopefully write people who are not just like you.

They're not Those People. They're people. People are us.

You may not be able to do it with the kind of deep immersion somebody who grew up in that culture can--one of the real joys about leahbobet  coming on board for Shadow Unit is how much easier it's getting to make Falkner properly Jewish--but you can at least try not to make a dog's breakfast or a blaxsploitation film out of it.

You probably know some people who are not like you, and not like mainstream culture either. One thing to do is ask.

I am not Jewish. I am not Catholic. When I write Jewish or Catholic characters, I try to get a couple of friends who are Jewish or Catholic to read those stories and tell me where I blew it. I'm also not middle-class, black, latina, Muslim, Canadian, white American (in the sense that yes, I am fairly amelanistic and chiefly though not entirely of European descent, but my cultural upbringing has very little in common with that of your average WASP)...

...I'm really not anything at all. I've rejected the subculture I grew up in and was acculturated to. I'm totally out of touch with what it's become in the intervening fifteen years.`

So if I'm going to write anybody, really, I have to find somebody to ask. 

When I wrote "Sonny Liston Takes The Fall," I threw myself on the mercy of a lot of friends with heritage through the African diaspora, because it was important to me to get it right.

Not writing the story was not an option: it was in me and it wanted out, in the way that art has. And I still honestly think it's my best work, and I really hope I did it justice.

But when I write, I am very aware, always, that if I am writing a character who has a personal background that is not bog-standard, there is going to be some twelve year old kid out there who is going to find that character, and it's going to be the only character like them they have ever seen, and if I screw it up then I am, essentially, tossing sand in the eyes of that kid.

I knew that when I was writing Lily in Whiskey and Water. I knew it when I was writing Jenny Casey.

Actually, now that I think about it, I suspect the thing that all of my characters have in common is that they are somebody's Other. Because, having been the Other all my life, it's what I know how to write.

And because of that experience, I desperately do not want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the normalization. I want to work against the idea of The Other in any way I can. I do not wish to contribute to tokenism, or stereotyping, or kicking sand in the eyes of that twelve-year old kid.

I've been that twelve-year-old kid, and I've seen my story exploited (cheaply, commonly, because some of the things that contribute to my own status as Other are things that are hot-button issues for a lot of readers, and easy for the writer to install and then push, push, push) and you know what?

It feels awful, and I'm going to try very hard not to do it to anybody else. I will probably fail, because people do fail, but I'm going to try.

So, okay, I said it's simple but not easy. How do I do it?

1) For one thing, stop thinking about this person you're writing as The Other. Think of them as human, an individual. Not A Man. Not A Woman. Not A Chinese Person or A Handicapped Person or A Person With Cancer or a Queer Person. A person. Stop trying to make them universal, and make them unique.

1a) Do not use Otherness as a basis for pointing out how Wrongheaded Those People Are. Or, conversely, How Enlightened And Noble. They're not. They're people. Sure, you can pick the subculture you like and line 'em up and knock them down, and some are easier targets than others. But out there, somewhere, is a 12-year-old kid just beginning to tentatively explore her sexuality as a furry, and do you want to be the one who makes her feel even more ashamed and awful than she already does?

If you are going to write about people, try to be humane about it. Please do not use queerness, whiteness, blackness, obesity, or any such thing as a shorthand for Ebil. (I have a special hate in my heart for Teh Ebil Albino. One of my best friends is albino. I will give you a Very Disappointed Look if I find you bandying about Teh Ebil Albino. Guy Gavriel Kay, I'm LOOKING AT YOU.)

Also, do not use it for a shorthand for Good. If all your good people are carnivorous and polyamorous, and all the bad ones are vegan celibates, we're going to catch on. You're either overcompensating, or you really hate vegans.

(One of the editorial comments on Carnival was that the New Amazonians should be culturally lesbian. I said no for several reasons. One: I believe straight people exist. I even know a few. Two: I was not going to have that subtext in my book, thanks.)

2) If you do not know a great deal about people who share experiences with the person you are trying to write, research. Find some people whose lives were informed by similar experiences and talk to them. Read primary sources.

ETA: per nojojojo 's comment below, do the research before you corner your friends. Possibly even do the research, write the story, and then ask them to read it for dumb mistakes. if your friends are writers, so much the better. Also, do not assume that the experience of your friends is Universal, because they are also unique individuals, and real live cultures and subcultures resist being simplified into An Experience. (The Gay Experience. The Black Experience. The White Experience. The Rich White Guy Experience. The Jimi Hendrix Experience... okay, that last one is valid.)

Also, if you actually understand what you are writing about, it's much less likely to come across as exploitative or hurtful.

3) Listen. And try to listen with openness and without assuming you understand. In anthropology, we talk about ethnocentrism, and the idea that cultural preconceptions color everything we perceive. Try to alienate yourself a little from your own tribal programming. Try to set aside your gut reaction to things that may seem horrifying or inexplicable or ignorant, and accept that your tribal programming is just that, tribal programming, and this other person's life is as valid an experiential path as your own.

When you create, try to reflect that, rather than using it as window dressing.

ETA: 3a) When you create your alien races, please please please try to make them something other than thinly disguised Japanese people. It's racist, and we will notice. No, really. We will.

4) Diversify. If you have one woman, one person of color, one queer, one whatever in the universe you're creating, chances are that they will be perceived as a token, and anything you do to them will become fraught with symbolic freight. If you only have one female character, and her major contribution to the plot is to get raped and then marry the hero and have babies, I don't care what you intended to say about her strength and recovery from trauma, I'm going to see a writer who brings a woman on stage just to have her get raped and let Hero Protagonist show a little sensitivity. If you only have one character of color, and she's there to teach the protagonist earthy wisdom, mentor him, and then get snuffed, I'm going to roll my eyes.

5) Be wary of patterns. If all your characters who are not like American Culture Base White Middle Class Protestant Male Able default seem to have the same sorts of things happening to them, people will catch on. (Frank Miller, I'm looking at you.)

6) Accept that no matter what you're doing, some people are going to think you're getting it wrong.

And that's okay.

Quite probably, for them, you are, but you can't make everybody happy. It's physically impossible. And at least you'll be doing the best that you can.


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Thank you. I am adding this to my memories, so that I remember.
Good idea. Also done.
Elizabeth, best post I've read in months. Thanks for tackling the subject.

Mostly, I would like to encourage the books I read to look more like, you know. My blogroll. Or something.

The talking stag-headed flying ponies don't have much of a lobby here on our planet.

They really should.
The flying stag-headed ponies vote yes.
Guy Gavriel Kay, I'm LOOKING AT YOU

I have clearly blocked this from my memory - which book was that in?


Frankly, I can't stand vegans.

Wait, no, what I meant to say was I just reshared and linked this in my journal. I've got friends for whom this is a popular topic of debate (the lack of diversity, I mean. Not vegans.)

(I'm also kidding about the vegan hate!)

Edited at 2009-01-12 08:53 pm (UTC)
Mem'd this (from a rec on someone on my friendsfriends). Considering that I'm trying to create some alien races myself for my original fic, it's worth reminding myself what sort of traps not to fall into.
Actually, I know of at least one other person your flist who would probably love to see a short book on you Monkey/Cat conversations. ;-)

And you make some excellent observations. I wonder how much of this stuck-in-a-cultural box has to do with the perceived limits that surround us in the media, from TV to the movies.

Yeah, some writers could do with a lot of self-examination...but if they're a member of the White Male default, I think there's very little motivation for them to do so.
I know *I* would love to see a book of Monkey/Cat conversations!
Patterns are tricky; I have very good pattern recognition, and use this a lot for my research (PhD in Literature), but I've come to realise that some people just don't see patterns all that well. How does one teach oneself to do that?
Damned if I know. Study them, I would guess?
I am sending this post to every writer I know. And linking it from my LJ and my blog. It is most excellent advice.
Oh what a wonderful post! Thank you! I'm writing two non-white characters for the first time, and so far I think I'm' doing everything you said. But it helps to remember.
This is fantastic. Very well done.
If I ever get to write my road-trip quest for the Holy Grail book (it's a sequel to a book I can't sell, in which a Wiccan who lives in Minneapolis inherits the Ark of the Covenant and has to figure out WTF to do with it), that has an albino in it, but he's a vision-impaired short-order cook and evil only if you consider being a smartass using one's intellectual powers for evil.

But I don't think the Ark book is ever going to sell. If an albino short-order cook ever turns up in one of my other books, you'll know where he came from originally, though.
Oh, and right. I meant to note, I was kind of startled to discover that Evil Albinos were so common as to be cliche, and I immediately decided I wanted to write about a non-evil albino who is a short-order cook rather than a TRAINED KILLING MACHINE or an assistant torturer or whatever.

I think this reaction is pretty common among genre writers, actually (not "oh, I want to write about an albino cook" specifically, but "huh, everyone seems to to X. I think I want to do the inverse, because that would be fun." Which has its own set of problems, honestly, as it's still saying "I would like to write about {OTHER} in a particular way." I try to compensate by making sure that these people are three-dimensional characters.)
One of Lawrence Watt-Evans's Ethshar books has a supporting character who's albino. I think that's the only known case where the cover art shows more melanin in a character than they have in the book....
This? This concept of 'even Other are beings, and have their own thoughts and desires and..' is why I love your writing. Few authors pull it off, but you seem* to pull it off, with a different frame every time, effortlessly. And your humans seem to respond to Problems in a human manner. Not necessarily** my manner, but I can see, or at least approximate, WHY they're doing that thing.

* well, ok, because I read your blog I understand the blood and sweat that goes into it

** Strange aside: I can not spell that word. It just doesn't seem to sit in any of my language hash tables.

ETA: Also, RE: EBear self-insertion novels; Isn't that why we all read your blog? ;-)

Edited at 2009-01-12 09:08 pm (UTC)
Well, thank you.

It's all about the alienation, man.
I apologize for not commenting cogently on the rest of what was a very fine and smart post. I am just going to sit here watching the steam rise and listening to the metal of the the WTF-radiator in my head go "ping" as it cools, because the "New Amazonians should be culturally lesbian" thing made it overheat a little.

So I'll just be sitting here by the road for a bit until I can pour a little fresh antifreeze and water down in there and get the cap back on.

I do believe in heterosexuals! I do! I do!

Hee. S'okay. It was a brainfart, I think....
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Great post. Thank you.
Re 4--and this is a yes-and rather than a yes-but--sometimes if you are writing in our world or something approximating it, you will be stuck with the situations in which people are perceived as token in real life. To my way of thinking the way to deal with this is to deal with it: pretending that 1941 was full of an overabundance of women physicists, all of whom had it easy, in our timeline is just not going to work. I've read a few SF novels with very near-future female physicist characters (yay!) where the male author puts in the character's mouth that she has certainly never experienced sexism in the sciences and doesn't know what those other women are whining about, but certainly they don't know what they're talking about. (Not yay. Not yay at all.) Then the author goes on blithely with the story, having dismissed the problem as irrelevant. And look, I don't need every female physicist character to be groped or shunned or dismissed or directly discouraged because of her sex or any of the other happy fun-fun things that happened to me in a mere five years of physics, most of them at a good department, before I got out. But when the author goes out of his way to say, "See? I have given you a girl, and she says everything is fine, so quit whining," well, I'm a lot less likely to pick up the next book.

I'm doing stories that are approximately contemporary urban fantasy set in Bemidji, MN, and there's only one Chinese-American dude on the hockey team. And if I pretend that isn't a thing, if I pretend that nobody notices anything different about him, he becomes my token instead of the world's token. If I try to act like being Chinese-American on a hockey team is just exactly like being Chinese-American in a physics department, or just exactly like being Czech-American on a hockey team, it will be that thing people do where the person's ethnicity is the funny hat they wear to distinguish them from the other characters. And that's just not good. But neither is deciding that your fictional team can't have the Chinese-American guy on it. So head-on seems like the preferred way here.
YES. Oh, wait, I mean YES.

And okay, there's only one Chinese-American character on the Hockey Team in SHADOW UNIT. But, you know, somewhere back there she's got a Chinese-American family, including a grandmother who really wishes she'd marry (and a nice Chinese boy this time), and--

She wasn't DROPPED FROM MARS TO BE CHINESE. She's an FBI agent who happens to have that cultural background.
Thank you.
Good post. But: Cultural blind spots still exist. And sometimes the very familiarity of an alternate culture -- to the readers, if not the writer -- can present a problem.

Random example: I don't write African-Americans. Why? Well, not only am I not black, I'm not American either. I literally do not know any black Americans well enough to know where to start -- or well enough to pick their brains[*]. It's an alien culture on an alien continent, nearly as closed to me as, say, Ba'hai Iranians. Anglo-Carribean black is a different matter, but it's culturally very different from African-American -- it's like comparing American WASP to English C of E. And because I'm a Brit, writing for an American audience, I don't dare try and describe a ubiquitous US subculture if I'm going to get it that far wrong.

Yes. if you can't figure out a way to write it honestly, it's probably best not to write it at all.

I think that a good character in a story rises above the stereotypes. Not all black characters say "axe", not all jewish characters are greedy, not all talking tigers have pet boys.

I used to work with a woman who was albino, and her beef with the real world was a lack of cosmetics she could use. Mascara comes to mind.

not all talking tigers have pet boys

I'm distressed by this!
I've just had the highly disorienting experience of writing something that was strongly autobiographical and having a critic say that the work absolutely sophomoric and stereotypical and could not possibly represent the kind of individual it claimed to depict.

So really, even when you know your subject *exceptionally* well, some fool will tell you you're doing it wrong.
On the bright side, you know now whose opinion not to trust. :)
This is a superb post on an important subject - and one not only pro writers but fan writers should read. I have taken what you have to say on board, and will come back to this post. Thank you.
Elric of Melniboné is the only albino hero that comes to mind, but he may not be the best example.

Thinking of Mark Twain who worked on steamboats, and met every kind of person there was, one supposes. Does research include getting out more? There are stories i see every day, people that live on my street, that i could write about, but could never ever get published, because they are so totally non-PC in word and deed. Just saying.

That book, "Wicked" that is supposed to be so great, has all sorts of people in it, and they all act like coffeehouse commies

Not really quibbling, that was a great post.
Research *begins* with getting out more, and getting out more is deep in the heart of research. *g*
And if you portray the particular Other that I know as a raging stereotype, I can't read on, because you make it apparent you don't know people.
That they are different from each other, even within their demarcations and systems.

If you can't write about people accurately (by trying to see beyond stereotypes, at least), I can't trust you to tell a story to me.
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