writing rengeek magpie mind

April 2014



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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.


Damned if I know. Study them, I would guess?
I think so - one needs to have some patterns pointed out and then to practice recognising them, I suspect. I find it hard to teach, which is about par for the course for things one does easily. It's always easier to teach what one had to learn step by step...
I'm thinking of my learning to read the wind on the waves here. Learning to see the pattern out of chaos. Or learning to hear if you are singing in tune with your guitar. You can describe what a person should pay attention to, and possibly take pictures and point out what you're seeing in detail with a pointer, but sometimes the only way they'll ever get that satori where their brain suddenly starts to SEE the pattern in what previously was -to them- merely chaos, is if they keep looking/listening/thinking, trusting that there IS a pattern to perceive, until their brain suddenly sees it.

Short of brain damage/dementia, I believe this is a one-way process. I can no more stop stop seeing the wind on the waves now than I could see it when I first started sailing. (And I haven't been sailing for decades.)