Awareness and Writing

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

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  1. Erika Holt
    10/06/2011 at 4:19 pm Permalink

    Wow, Morgan, what a great post. I’ve thought about this stuff a lot while writing my current novel and, if I’m being honest, still have work to do. Thank you so much for this–I’m sure I will revisit it often.

  2. Shadow
    10/06/2011 at 5:09 pm Permalink

    Excellent post!  We all have a lot to think about. 

  3. Shadow
    10/06/2011 at 5:09 pm Permalink

    Excellent post!  We all have a lot to think about. 

  4. Juliette Wade
    10/06/2011 at 5:28 pm Permalink

    Wonderful post, Morgan. I think about these issues a lot. I’m glad you’re bringing this message to everyone.

  5. Galendara
    10/06/2011 at 5:34 pm Permalink

    brilliant! thank you for this.

  6. Nathan Crowder
    10/06/2011 at 5:39 pm Permalink

    Astoundingly good post, full of identifiable metrics to spot issues, and useful tools to fix them. I had been thinking about the same issues myself, even did a less-detailed diversity audit of my short fiction last night. Now I’m going to have to look at the same info again through the filters you just provided. Thank you!

  7. Wendy Wagner
    10/06/2011 at 6:48 pm Permalink

    Diversity audit! Yes, that’s exactly it. I love it.

  8. Anonymous
    10/06/2011 at 8:37 pm Permalink

    OMG “diversity audit” perfect term!!

  9. John Remy
    10/06/2011 at 8:02 pm Permalink

    This is brave and necessary post. Thank you. It’s wonderful having the disease, the cure, and the ugly symptoms all in one post, and I plan to refer back to this as I start projects. 

    To switch metaphors, I share all your ideals, and tend to think of them less as a destination, but as something to inform me as I journey. I try to include them all in my process, but based on past experience, when I expect to fully achieve a fullness of sensitivity and awareness ideals in each story, I feel paralyzed, and I fall away feeling frustrated and even cynical. So I tend to look at this as process. I realize that I will never produce a work that is completely free of my biases and ignorance, but I know I can grow and improve each time.

  10. John Remy
    10/06/2011 at 8:03 pm Permalink

    Sigh. Speaking of falling short of perfection, I really need to line edit before I submit…

  11. Anonymous
    10/06/2011 at 8:37 pm Permalink

    I’m so glad you pointed this out. Yes! Absolutely a journey! I feel like it’s less a process of fixing my writing and more a process of fixing what’s internal. If I were to ever manage to overcome the “training” I’ve had, as far as media exposure, then the conscious and aware writing would simply flow out.

    <3 Thank you!

  12. Wendy Wagner
    10/06/2011 at 9:04 pm Permalink

    There’s another reason why it matters, and it’s sitting right here in the comments. I’m assuming everybody reading & commenting on this is part of the spec fic community, and  the faces next to the comments are looking incredibly, incredibly Caucasian. It’s hard to bring in a diverse group of writers when we create works that are overwhelmingly white.

    Mary Kowal told a story at the Rainforest Writing Retreat about a time when the puppeteering community realized they needed to do a better job reaching out to a more diverse audience. It’s painfully clear that the spec fic writers of previous generations could have tried a little harder. 

  13. heresiarch
    11/06/2011 at 1:51 am Permalink

    Try this rule: When you are designing a character, think if there is any reason for them to be the gender they are. If there isn’t, switch it. Think if there is any reason for them to be the race they are. If not, change it. Their sexual orientation: switch it. Their economic background: change it.

  14. Kirkus MacGowan
    11/06/2011 at 2:28 pm Permalink

    Enlightening, and needed. Great post.

  15. Sandra Wickham
    11/06/2011 at 9:28 pm Permalink

    Great post!!! 🙂

  16. M
    12/06/2011 at 1:58 pm Permalink

    Morgan, I am going to play the unpopular role of Devil’s Advocate for a moment:

    You should always make your characters appropriate to the story you are writing.

    Why would I say such an unpopular, heretical thing? Stop and think about it for a moment.

    Every last one of us has subconscious images that we carry around. Some of them are ingrained enough that they have effectively become “stereotypes” (and that’s an UGLY word!).

    Some of these are subtle connotations we’ve formed regarding gender roles, sexual orientation, religion or race. Others have developed through exposure to political preference, celebrity status, or other forms of less obvious social stratification.

    You addressed a little of that in Part 2, when you said “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.”

    Yes, they will. Some who share the perspective you’ve chosen to embrace will say you have no business trying to identify with them, because you are not part of the group. Some will look at what you’ve done, and recognize your motivation, and still say that you perpetuated so many stereotypes that the attempt is an affront, an abomination, and an abysmal representation of perceived reality.

    If you construct a character from a perspective you do not understand, with no good reason, you run the risk of doing more harm than good. If you pursue every variant upon the research that would logically enable understanding, you will still make mistakes, because even within a group there is seldom a universal conception of identity. And if you are determined to hone and polish one work to the point of elevating it above such criticism, you will never write anything else.

    You used a noble thought to close Part 1: “Do you want to go to a place that subjugates, or a place that elevates?”

    Another noble thought concluded your roundup of Why It Matters: “Are we writing what’s easy? Or are we writing what’s honest?”

    Let’s consider the juxtaposition of the two, for a moment. If the goal is to write what is honest, then what is honest does not always elevate. If the goal is to visit a place that elevates, then it will not always be an honest representation of reality. Both are noble ideals, and not exactly mutually exclusive… but if you limit yourself to the small intersection of the two, there are suddenly a lot of very good stories you can no longer write.

    And so I reiterate:

    You should always make your characters appropriate to the story you are writing… even when that means being more honest than you really wanted to be, or forces you to stop short of an elevating conception that would undermine the impact of your story, as a whole.

  17. Erika Holt
    12/06/2011 at 6:07 pm Permalink

    Thanks for your comment. It’s always great to get different perspectives and engage in a respectful debate.

    My thoughts are these:

    1) You’re right–there is a risk of offending someone, or being attacked, if we write diverse characters who differ from us in in some way (though I’m not sure I agree that there’s a risk of doing more harm than good, if one makes some attempt to be informed and respectful). But what’s the alternative? I’m not even sure it’s possible to write a decent story sticking rigorously and only to our own, narrow experience. At the very least this is incredibly confining.

    2) As far as the elevation vs. honesty point, I don’t interpret Morgan’s post as suggesting that diversity should be represented only through rose colored glasses (and therefore in a potentially dishonest way). I interpret “elevate” as sort of synonymous with “include;”  so the goal would be to include traditionally under- (or un-) represented groups as fully present, fully realized characters, with all of the attributes, positive and negative, of any human being. For me “elevation” means taking characters from unseen to seen, or from caricature/stereotype to real.

    3) I’m also not sure it’s necessary to have a “good reason” to include diverse characters other than that diversity exists in the world. When I write a caucasian female character, for example, usually her “whiteness” is about as important to the story as the color of her hair. She’s not intended to be emblematic of caucasians or females as a whole, but has that skin color and gender because, well, some people do. Why shouldn’t the same hold true for other skin colors, sexual orientations etc.? As writers we don’t necessarily have to make Issues out of these things, but can simply seek to reflect the world around us to the best of our ability.

  18. M
    12/06/2011 at 7:56 pm Permalink

    Erika, on the surface I agree with everything you’ve said. But when a story goes to great lengths to emphasize that this or that character is somehow “different,” and lauds itself for inclusiveness, I also mourn the fact that by making it an issue the author has failed just as thoroughly as if it were never mentioned.

    Universality is just as often accomplished by what you leave out, as by what you put in. For example, in one of my stories I only used a handful of characters. In that story, I never addressed their racial characteristics, and only touched upon the sexual orientation of two of them, since those two happened to be engaged. Each character had a voice, and vocal inflections, but nothing that would jump out as a giveaway tag or force an assumption upon the reader.

    So far, that one has been my most most popular work. No one has complained that it wasn’t inclusive enough, and no one has tried (to the best of my knowledge) to claim that any particular character had to have any particular genetic heritage or orientation. In the story, it’s not an issue, one way or the other. If a reader envisions those characters with certain characteristics, then those characteristics are an accurate representation… for that particular reader.

    Should you always strive for fill-in-the-blank, bland characters? Of course not, and I’d sincerely hope no one would describe my characters that way! But by the same token, I’d hope to always include something in my characters with which any reader could identify, rather than targeting a demographic for the sake of inclusiveness.

    Our characters must serve the story. If we lose sight of that, and try to do it the other way around, we sacrifice our stories upon the altar of “greater good.” Penning an extended character sketch can serve a more effective purpose in the unspoken background, or when woven in as a single thread of the whole, so that its presence serves to strengthen the tapestry rather than becoming a focal point of the depiction.

  19. Jaym Gates
    12/06/2011 at 9:23 pm Permalink

    “Just sent an email, pulling out of the WorldCon all-white panel on improving minority representation in the industry. An oversight, I’m sure.” ~Lee Harris

    This comment was pulled from Twitter *just now*. Minority representation *is* a problem in genre lit. LGBTQ, disabled, female, bi-racial, any race but white, non-Western white (Polish, Russian, etc).

    Thing is, I do see M’s point as well. This post may actually be more fitting for longer stories to novellas,
    since those are usually where the big, detailed casts come in.  Some stories simply do not have the capacity or need for minorities to be specifically included or secluded. Like Carrie said, this isn’t about building a rainbow coalition. It requires thought.

    “Does my story specifically reference a race, gender or sexuality at any point?”
    “What is the point of this specific reference? Is it necessary?”
    “Do I have more than one character? Are they all straight and white? Are the women male-fantasy poster-girls? Are they tragic, wounded, strong women who will be saved by the main character when they suddenly lose their strength at the end of the story?”

    The trouble is, it isn’t enough to just grab a paintbrush and slap a coat of Black, Gay, Male to your White, Straight, Male character. It requires hard thought and research and *listening*. It requires being ok with making mistakes, being ok with being called out for doing something wrong, being ok with admitting ‘hey, I don’t know, but I’m doing my best. If I’ve messed up, please tell me so I can learn.’

    But here’s the problem: It also requires diplomacy, tact, understanding and grace from those of us who are minorities. It’s hard, I get that. I’m culture queer and sexually queer and a little gender queer, too. I
    don’t have a specific religion, I have my own spirituality. I get tired of being an ambassador, of having to explain my relationships and mindset and life to near-strangers. Sometimes I get snappy. I hate finding misconceptions or misrepresentations in fiction or news articles or people’s discussions. Sometimes I just want to go ‘god, are you people STUPID?!’

    But that makes me worse than the person who made the mistake. Because they didn’t know any better, but at least they put themselves out there and TRIED. I just reacted. Newsflash: even us minorities sometimes fuck it up. Sometimes to other minorities, sometimes to our own. It’s human nature.

    In other words: as a writer, I believe it is my responsibility to represent the world as best I can, to strive for balance, fair representation, creativity, hope, maybe a warning. I have to challenge myself to make a better mousetrap, as it were. I have to be willing to fail, to apologize, to look stupid. I have to *want* to fail and apologize and look stupid.

    As a minority: I believe it is my responsibility to be honest, fair, understanding, hopeful. To recognize genuine, good-hearted error. To point out mistakes where I see them, but to avoid accusation, back-lash and ‘why me’. To not force my beliefs on someone else, to not try and make the world look just like me. To recognize that we need the majorities as well as the minorities, that we need the allies, whether they be black, white, male, female or someone else entirely.

    Because hey, I would love to someday see a book with a minority main character win a Hugo. Not because they are a minority and the author is pushing the envelope, but because the book was just that damn good and the character was that damn real.

    But Neil Gaiman said it better than I ever could, and we should all get this tattooed on our eyelids and hands and stories:

    mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious
    mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank
    piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong, too scared to do

    Most of the things I’ve got right over the years, I got right because I’d got them wrong first. It’s how we make art.

  20. M
    12/06/2011 at 10:46 pm Permalink

    Jaym Gates said: “Because hey, I would love to someday see a book with a minority main character win a Hugo. Not because they are a minority and the author is pushing the envelope, but because the book was just that damn good and the character was that damn real.”
    Jaym, read THE MOTION OF LIGHT IN WATER, by Chip Delany. Although it’s his autobiography, and not a novel per se, it certainly meets those criteria and won the 1989 Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book.

    Which brings up an interesting point: No one — at least, no one in their right mind! — would ask Delany why his stories don’t include more “straight, white guys.” It would be an idiotic question.

    So what makes it an issue when the shoe is on the other foot? (In asking this, I am fully aware of my own status as a member of the normative majority. If you look at the raw data, I think “straight caucasian male, mid-to-late thirties” stopped being an actual majority sometime in the late seventies, but that’s beside the point.)

    If the reader asks, “Why aren’t writers producing works with which I can readily identify,” then it is an unfair question from the beginning, and if asked at all, should be applicable across the board. If the perception is rather, “Why aren’t there more works of good literature that address my identity,” it would be just as effective to ask why more who share that identity have not chosen to become writers. But if readers hold an impression that “Great works that address my identity exist, yet they are unrecognized,” then the blame is not on the author, or the establishment, but the fact that more individuals who share that identity have not involved themselves in the selection process. It is very easy to nominate works for the Hugo Award. It is also very easy to vote for the ones you prefer.

    (Jaym, I already know you are attending Renovation, so this isn’t a criticism; I am addressing the question in general.)

  21. John Remy
    13/06/2011 at 5:18 am Permalink

    M, the issue is one that you acknowledged in your aside: there is a normative majority. Normative female beauty is a caucasian size 0-2. Normative economic power: white men make up 78% of Fortune 500 board members. Normative SF writer: look at the list of Hugo nominees for Best Novel (perhaps our equivalent of the Fortune 500 CEO list), you see predominantly white folks. I remember being depressed about the 2008 and 2009 Hugo nominees for Best Novel because for two years in a row, every single one was a 40- or 50-something white guy. 

    Ironically, and appropriately for this post, Richard K. Morgan’s Black Man (published as Thirteen in the US) was a more powerful literary work than Stross’ Halting State and Scalzi’s Lost Colony–two authors I love, but these were not among their more stellar works. 

  22. M
    13/06/2011 at 7:16 pm Permalink

    John, the issue you point to is a simple reflection of my third variation above: “… if readers hold an impression that ‘Great works that address my identity exist, yet they are unrecognized,’ then the blame is not on the author, or the establishment, but the fact that more individuals who share that identity have not involved themselves in the selection process.”

    Readers, as a gestalt, will always gravitate to works with which they can identify. To change the demographic of an award pool, you need to change the makeup of the gestalt that places works on the ballot, and that ultimately makes the selection.

    Is that good, or noble, or elevating? No, and I doubt anyone would pretend that it is.

    Is it honest? Assuredly so. Overwhelmingly so.

    So how do you change the makeup of the Hugo Award selection gestalt? Quite simply, get more attendance from a wider demographic for Worldcon. “Minorities” are, quite literally, a minority presence at most major genre conventions, but the attendees determine which works receive consideration.

    How do you change the makeup of the Nebula Award selection gestalt? Encourage more writers to focus on professional sales, as recognized by SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), so that they can join. A single recognized professional sale will qualify any writer for Associate membership.

    How do you change the makeup of the Locus Award selection gestalt? Encourage more readers to avail themselves of the online ballot, which happens to allow write-in nominations. Locus allows anyone to vote, provided they are willing to complete the brief survey at the end of the ballot, and provide a unique e-mail address.

  23. John Remy
    13/06/2011 at 5:21 am Permalink

    Jaym, I think you’ve highlighted one of the main messages of Morgan’s post, that writer and audience do not exist in isolation from one another, that each is engaging the other, and that there are responsibilities to each other in that process. I’m glad that you elaborated on the reader’s perspective. 

  24. Anonymous
    13/06/2011 at 8:20 pm Permalink

    Though there’s a really awesome awesome AWESOME discussion going on, I’d like to reply to the original post directly <3

    I'll take each point you make individually. Also note, that when I say "you" I don't mean you specifically, M. I mean a generic "you" as in everybody.

    RE: "You should always make your characters appropriate to the story you are writing."

    I don't think I ever said otherwise. In fact, I specifically went out of my way to say that the goal is not about quotas or about making a Rainbow Coalition. I specifically said this isn't about slapping character traits on characters for the sake of diversity when I asked if someone's skin color was merely "painted on." Absolutely the characters must be appropriate to the story told.

    Which then leads to the question of… what kind of stories are you writing? Are you writing the kind of stories where everybody is white? Are you writing the kind of stories where everybody's the same? Are *all* your stories like this?

    As I said, took a whole paragraph saying, this isn't about an individual work. This is about the holistic view.

    RE: "If you construct a character from a perspective you do not understand, with no good reason, you run the risk of doing more harm than good."

    Absolutely. I think this is an excellent extension/reduction of my paragraph saying you have to consider the WHOLE person/culture/etc, not just bits and pieces. My whole section of how you have to immerse, to really get the whole of the culture you're representing, before you represent it. In a previous draft of this, I'd added that you WILL make mistakes, and you WILL offend people, and that's part of the process.

    RE: Honesty vs Elevating

    There's a difference between writing about subjugating things and writing in a subjugating way. You can write about a "liberated" woman which is still done in a way that keeps her oppressed. You can write about an oppressed woman in an incredibly liberating way. It's not in the story, but the treatment of the character.

    Let me explain that one in a recent example. Yesterday I saw XMen: First Class. Mystique has this whole SPIEL about not loving her body but wanting to but not being able to because she's told she looks weird. Eventually she comes to accept it, and be "Mutant and proud." Awesome! Liberating! Really crazy-great! Right?! Except for the part where she could only accept it after being nailed by a normal-looking dude who told her she was beautiful as she was. Her self-acceptance hinged on the approval of a white straight cis male, instead of her own internal strength. Go team.

    The things that I stress about characters are not that they need to be good or powerful. In fact, I hinted that this isn't really the right solution. These characters need to not be "characters" but real people. They need to be the star of their own story, and have a track that could go on without any other character in the story.

    And so I, too, will reiterate…

    Absolutely have your characters be fit for the story you're telling. But make them real, full, fleshed out, and try telling more than one story.

  25. M
    13/06/2011 at 9:02 pm Permalink

    Morgan, in that light we are very much on the same page! Your last sentence is a nice summation.

  26. Anonymous
    13/06/2011 at 9:03 pm Permalink

    I like comments discussions. Lets me fix the parts where I didn’t quite nail it in the post <3 Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

  27. Lynette Benton
    30/12/2012 at 10:14 am Permalink

    We often act as if people different from us are invisible, then make them so.

    It always startled me that shows like Seinfeld (in NY) had very few people of color in them, or Murphy Brown (in DC?), which had no people of color in any episodes I ever saw.

    So, I was glad to read your post. It’s time to take the blinders off.


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