Disclaimer: I do not claim to be someone who knows. I only claim to be someone who tries.
This post is addressed to all writers. Even the ones who don’t think this applies to them. Because, however much we try, we will always make mistakes.
The world is really diverse, and I mean, really diverse. And changing. The list of nations given to us by Yakko Warner less than twenty years ago is no longer accurate. And within those countries are regions and cities and towns with their own unique feel and experience, different to any other place in the world. And those experiences don’t stay trapped within those borders. They move and grow and arrive in other places.
Within the US there are more women than men. Between the 2000 and 2010 US Censuses, there was an increase in the percentage of every non-white group living in the United States, an increase in the double-digits. Women lead first-world countries. We have a black president. We have a trans model who is hot in haute couture.
And yet, our fiction doesn’t always represent this reality. In fact (she says, as she casts a glance at slush pile reports) it’s actually kind of rare.
If we look at where we stood one hundred years ago, socially, economically, politically, racially, everything, and where we stand today, there is a clear trajectory. Upward mobility is being opened to more and more people. Formerly restricted groups are now able to step into roles that were once considered impossible. It’s not at all perfect and wonderful and harmonious now (oh no, not even remotely) but there is a clear path, and that path is going up, so long as we continue to walk it.
And yet, as I said, our stories don’t show that. I so often see stories of a Young White Male (Aged Nineteen to Forty Five) who is Obviously Our Hero. Any women in the story exist to be Looked At, Lusted Over, and then Won As A Trophy. If somebody has a skin color that isn’t white, Lord help them, because the author won’t.
Do you write like this? Because, I’ll tell you what… I know I used to. And — this hurts to admit, but I must be honest — I know I still do.
When this is the only story you have ever heard, ever read, ever seen… it is the only story you know how to write.
There are two parts to solving this problem: Identify and Rectify. The first is actually easier than you may think, only requiring a willingness to hear that you have made a mistake, regardless of your best efforts. The second is harder. Much harder.
Part 1: Identify (aka The Easy Part)
I claim this part is easy, but I should clarify. It’s easy as long as you’re willing to be wrong. Despite your best intentions. Despite not believing yourself to be racist/sexist/etc-ist. Despite actively being an ally. If you can say “I tried and I still screwed up” then this part is manageable. If not, then there’s nothing but an uphill battle ahead.
Take your story, novel, play, screenplay, comic script, whatever you have. Write down every character’s name. Do you reveal if they’re male or female? Their gender? The color of their skin/hair/eyes? Their sexual orientation? What’s the source of their name? (If it’s a made-up-language name, did you draw those sounds from some existing language?) Note what you put down on the page in your story. Not what’s in your pile of exhaustive character questionnaires, but what the reader will see.
Who lives in your world?
Is the hero a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male? Is there a girl who is beautiful by western standards which the hero longs for? Does the hero “get” her in the end? Is every action he takes good and right, even when it’s wrong, because he’s the hero and it’s always justified?
Is there a woman? Just one? Is she raped or molested? Is she a virgin? A whore? Is she physically described, at length, in the style of how a heterosexual man might inspect a woman? If she’s good, does she ultimately rely on the hero? If she’s evil, is sex her weapon? If she’s a mother, does her world revolve around her children?
Is someone homosexual or bisexual? Is someone trans? Is there somebody who doesn’t strictly conform to gender roles? Just one? Are they sugar and sunshine and so good and noble it hurts? Are they the darkest epitome of evil? Do they attempt to find love and come to a tragic, heartbreaking end? Do they ultimately “realize” they were “wrong” about themselves, and are somehow “fixed”?
Is there a person of color, any color, any ethnic background other than white western? Just one? Are they overwhelmingly good? Are they evil? Are they “primal” or “native” in some way? Is the color of their skin merely painted on, and the reader would probably guess they were white if you hadn’t said otherwise? Do they exist only to offer mystic wisdom? Do they sacrifice themselves for the sake of the hero?
Is anybody handicapped in a significant way? Not in some minor way that is easily overcome to the point where they are not really handicapped, but actually handicaped? Are they, as previously queried, one-dimensionally good or evil? Do they live on the moon with a laser pointed directly at the Earth, twirling their mustache? Do they exist only to reveal the compassionate nature of the hero?
Is there financial disparity? Is someone poor? Is this glossed over, with little understanding of what it is not to have money? Are they poor because they are lazy? Are they, like all the others, a one-dimensional character, a passing footnote, only existing to show us just how wonderful the hero is?
Look at every character that isn’t your hero. If the hero were removed from the story, would they have no reason to exist?
If you answered “yes” to a lot of this stuff… well, there’s a problem. You’re not treating your characters like human beings. You’re treating them like caricatures. They’re not people, they’re just props. (And I haven’t even covered all the damaging stereotypes, just a handful. Enough to give you an idea.)
And I can already hear the protests. “But this is fantasy!” “It’s called fiction for a reason!”
Absolutely. It is fantasy. It is fiction. We get to make up a world perfectly under our control. We get to envision this beautiful, hostile, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking world we put our characters in.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in a world I’ve read about a thousand times before. I’m not interested in a world that looks like the most limiting, restrictive version of where I currently live, or worse, a place we grew away from, where only a percentage of the people have power, and those people are all demographically similar, and nobody else can ever have those opportunities, and that’s being presented as a good thing.
I want my fiction to follow that path of opening the world to everyone who will fight to take it. And then I want to read the stories of all those people who fight. All of them.
That’s the world I want to escape to. I want to follow that hopeful trajectory to its logical end, and I want to taste the richness of the world through fiction.
And you? Do you want to go to a place that subjugates, or a place that elevates?
Part 2: Rectify (aka The Hard Part)
The really, really hard part.
This part is going to take careful thought. It’s going to take consideration, and it’s going to take being considerate. It’s going to take research, and meeting people, and going places, and watching foreign film, and listening to foreign music, and reading translated works, fiction, nonfiction.
It’s going to be about trying, trying really hard, being really honest about trying really hard, and getting it wrong, and having people get mad at you, and calling you out on it. It’s going to be about getting hurt, and angry, because goddamnit, you tried so hard… and then quietly putting that all aside and fixing the flaws, because are you a whiner or are you a writer?
It’s going to be about going past what the movies and books and music and news tell you something is. It’s going to be about diving in and getting fully drenched.
It’s going to be about respect and curiosity. About approaching a group you are not a part of and asking to be invited in, instead of knocking on the door and demanding entry. About asking politely and saying please and thank you, and thank you for your time, and I’m sorry for bothering you. It’s about squashing your entitlement. It’s about humility and gratitude.
It’s going to be about picking up all of it, not just the shiny parts that excite you, but all of it, even the boring bits, the bits where a woman’s dance is for her own pleasure and not yours, where someone’s sexual orientation is not a curse or disease but just is, where someone’s rough hands caked with cornflour are not used for “ethnic flavor” in your writing (as illustrated in this paragraph), where someone wasn’t “born into the wrong body,” where a person isn’t a cripple to be pitied or shamed but a paraplegic whose story isn’t “tragic” or “noble” or “heroic” but simply theirs.
Why It Matters
This is hard, I’ll be honest. Unbelievably hard. When the stories you see in books, movies, magazines, news, everywhere, all of it, paint an entire group of people in one way, it’s hard to break out of that.
But it matters.
It matters because of the story of a little girl on a bus who wishes she was white, a kindergarten girl who already learned to hate her own skin because of what media has told her. It matters because of little boys who want to be chefs are told they shouldn’t take cooking classes, because what are they, gay or something? It matters because of the homeless man who wants to work, any job he can get, but will never be hired, because oh you know, those people, lazy and feckless, probably won’t even show up on the first day.
An individual story making an individual error isn’t the problem. Each story isn’t its own individual drop. It’s part of a large ocean, surging in a hurtful direction. Each error is a tiny scratch, but with the way that things are, it’s death by a thousand papercuts.
This isn’t about “quotas” or building ourselves a “Rainbow Coalition.” This is about being honest about the people in our world, about human beings in all their messy glory. This is about taking an honest look at others, and an honest look at ourselves. Are we writing what’s easy? Or are we writing what’s honest?
“Let me say true things in a voice that is true, and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.” — Neil Gaiman