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March 2017

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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.

Comments

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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.
Thanks.

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.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN.

0.0

*sigh*
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 do believe in heterosexuals! I do! I do!

Hee. S'okay. It was a brainfart, I think....
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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