Writing the Other

So Zoe Marriott had another awesome post on Friday about writing characters that reflect the real world — in other words, not always having an all white, straight, able-bodied cast. I’m really liking her blog and I have got to move her books to the top of my TBR list.

In my comment to her post (yup, I actually commented, I liked it, and her blog, so much), I mentioned that if you belong to a majority group, and are writing characters that are different from you, it’s important to ask your beta readers to pay attention to the issue. Flat out ask them to look for places that you unwittingly fell into the trap of a stereotype (For example, one issue I recently dealt with: My villain was the only biracial person among a multiracial cast of characters. So to I tried to make sure it’s clear that it’s not a racial characteristic by including a biracial character among the good guys.) or have been oblivious (For example, there’s one male author who writes female characters who always cross their arms over their “breasts”. Now this might just be me, but I generally cross my arms over my “chest” because I am not so super-aware of my breasts that I think about them all the time. Throws me out of the story every time — not that I’m reading this author for his great characterization. I still haven’t figured out why exactly I read the entire series; it wasn’t for the infodump either.)

And if you’re lucky enough to have beta readers who belong to one of those groups you might be trying to write about, they are not exhausted by constantly educating the privileged about why what someone just said or did was racist, classist, ableist or sexist, and they think about these things in a critical way, you can ask them to tell you where you just tripped over your big, fat privilege and ignorance. (In other words, walking up to a random woman, a black person or a person in a wheelchair (for example) and asking them to read your work and tell you about being a woman, a black person or a differently abled person, or asking any of those people to act as a representative for the entire group is NOT OK. But I know you know that already.)

And the other thing I said in my comment was that how you react if you mess up in a public, published kind of way is really important. In my view, a lot of RaceFail had to do with people obliviously saying “I did not do something that was offensive to you!” instead of being respectful, acknowledging that we all make mistakes and taking it as a learning experience to do better in the future. (Of course a lot of that was the result of unexamined privilege manifesting itself as defensiveness and attack, and some to the fatigue that people of color feel dealing with this issue also manifesting as attack, and it just spiraled downwards from there.)

But as an example of a response that is appropriate, I was thinking of N.K. Jemisin admitting she had messed up by linking her character’s blindness to her magic in The Broken Kingdom in her post Why is Oree Shoth Blind? (Edited to add: You have to scroll down past the parenthetical asides to get to this part). Or the apology issued by Strange Horizons and one of the authors whose work was posted, in response to comments stating that the story was racist because of its stereotyped depictions of native americans (I can’t find the links).

Ok, and I stole the title of this post from Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward and their book/workshop Writing the Other because I hate coming up with titles and because it’s so good! The title, I mean. I haven’t read the book–yet.

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