Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Personal rules for writing diverse characters

I remember when Rogue One, the Star Wars spin-off movie, came out, there was a touching story of a young woman who took her dad to see it. Gal’s dad had a thick accent and was overcome with emotion to see that one of the lead characters, played by the talented Diego Luna, also spoke with an accent. Not just a side-character either: Cassian Andor was one of the main leads. And people not only understood him but identified with him and loved him, not despite his accent but including it. Reading this woman’s tale of her father’s amazement and tears got me all choked up, too. This story is what happens when representation works, and it is so beautiful.

It’s also really hard to pull off in a genuine way. I see a lot of cishet white writers populating stories with diverse characters, trying to capture that kind of magic, but they come across sometimes as performative. Like, see how savvy and sensitive and cool I am? No, honestly, you’re a bit cringey.

If a writer is creating characters who are just like her, is it easier? Maybe. I dunno. I’m very light-skinned, able-bodied, North American, cis-gendered, sexually uninteresting, and in all other ways extremely boring. So if I’m going to write about anything fun at all, I’m gonna have to veer outside my lane. Even if it’s whoa difficult.

I have basically two personal rules for doing this: 

  1. I don’t write the pain of someone who is unlike me. My characters can protag all over the place, but if they experience othering or discrimination, I make sure that I’m not in that character’s point of view—because I have no idea what that would feel like and cannot presume to show that pain in an authentic way—and also make for-damn sure that my character and/or her allies call out the otherizing asshole. (Note: I’m Texan and my Texan characters talk smack about where they come from a lot. But it’s all fairly good-natured, like, I can ruffle my little brother’s hair, but don’t you dare put a paw on him. Possibly this is how own voices authors feel? Regardless, it ain’t right to ruffle the hair of somebody else’s little brother.)
  2. I research the hell out of everything. If I screw something up, it won’t be because I was too lazy to read beyond Wikipedia. Honestly, this means I live in fear every time a story comes out, because I’m human and of course I’m going to get some things wrong. But it’s very important to me to get the big things right, and to not be afraid to ask for help from folks who know more than I do.

Do these two rules limit me as a writer? Um, yes. Of course they do, but that’s not a bad thing. I have lots of stories and story fragments that I’m not comfortable sharing until or unless I can get an expert to vet them and make sure I won’t hurt someone.

Because that’s the kicker, right. All of this care and attention and angst isn’t to avoid inconveniencing or even offending someone. It’s to avoid hurting a reader. As a teller of stories, a seller of books, that should be our prime directive: don’t hurt readers.

And white-washing an entire cast, pretending that the universe isn’t crammed full of gorgeous, fascinating, illuminating diversity, is essentially hurtful. To all of us.

1 comment:

  1. Great rules! Writers should have a motto like doctors, I will abstain from all intentional reader harm in my pursuit to entertain.