Wednesday, August 28, 2013

People Who Aren't Us

by Riley Redgate

Almost two years ago, I was lucky enough to catch the show Seminar on Broadway. The show is brilliant as a whole and deals with a creative writing seminar taught by the crotchet-iest of professors. It is about many things, but one subplot that particularly stuck with me went something like this:

A girl writes a book. The crotchety professor takes one look at the first page and not only criticizes every facet of the main character, but implies that the girl herself is exactly like that main character. The girl protests, and she hypothesizes that the professor is only uninterested because of what she is like as a human being. So she writes pages and pretends they are autobiographical pages from a nonexistent friend, a gay illegal immigrant amputee from South America, rather than from her own head. Crotchety Professor Man gushes over them. She takes this as a victory at first, but comes to realize that the professor has won: he has forced her to stretch her comfort zone and write from the perspective of someone who is nothing like her, someone whose story is far more high-stakes and creative than her own hyper-personal story.

That's not to say that a narrative can't be utterly brilliant despite how "normal" or "underwhelming" it may seem on its surface: look at the simple, down-to-earth concept of Mrs. Dalloway. Also, the prospect of misrepresenting, and thus offending, an entire demographic of people—a different race; a different gender; a different sexuality—is horrifying and daunting in equal parts. But I think that as citizens of a larger world, we have a responsibility to write also about people who are utterly unlike us in race, gender, sexuality, background. This responsibility is not only to those demographic groups as people who deserve representation, but also to ourselves as human beings, in order to aim for a larger worldview and heightened empathy. The important thing is how to go about portraying those perspectives. I believe there are two vital points to keep in mind:

1) Research. Research trends and statistics and understand their implications—but dig deeper, too. If you're writing a character who lives in extreme urban poverty, for instance, look up as many stories as possible from people who have lived in urban poverty, and people who are still living that life. Individual stories can tell you so much more than percentages and overall trends and general impressions, than graduation rates and unemployment rates. Reading individual stories will help humanize the people you're writing.

Otherwise ... well, for instance, if you the author have always been well-off, patchy or solely-trends-based research means you may run the risk of your characters just having a thin veneer of Ideas About Poverty over a personality that is driven by deeply-ingrained patterns of behavior that you, the author, have had your whole life. Research conscientiously so you can write conscientiously about people who aren't you, who don't think like you, who have never thought like you and will never be anything like you. (I'd argue that playing at those opposite perspectives is half the fun.)

2) Implications. One of the issues with minorities in fiction is that minority depictions can easily be misinterpreted as being the author's concept of the minority as a whole. It's the same messed-up principle that drives society to demand that women answer for their gender as a whole—as in, if a man is bad at driving, he's a bad driver; if a woman is bad at driving, it's because women are bad at driving. When a person of a marginalized demographic appears in fiction, he, she, or they may be held up as an Example for that demographic, even if the author never intended that to be the case. Subsequently, it's often hard for the character to shrug off that stigma and be seen as a multifaceted human being rather than "the black character!" or "the gay character!" or "the fat character!" Which is, of course, all the more reason to include more of those marginalized characters, to be sure they're not being pigeonholed.

It would be lovely if this weren't an issue, and luckily the world seems to be veering toward a world where it's less of an issue, but as it is, we still have to be hyper-conscious of the implications of these depictions. And by "as it is", I mean, "as we are currently dealing with shameless whitewashing of major Hollywood films," or "as the number of LGBTQ characters in well-publicized lead roles is hovering around zero, except in films that are explicitly About Gayness And Being Gay," or "as the number of incidentally fat teenage girls in lead roles is also hovering around zero."

Both of these points are seemingly focused on inhibition. Research excessively. Fact-check constantly. Police yourself. That sounds unappealing, I know ... but when it comes to writing the unfamiliar, I truly believe this is the right approach. We live in a time where people, bizarrely, hilariously, have started talking about being politically correct like it's a bad thing. If me policing my portrayals is going to make a trans* person more comfortable with reading my writing, or is going to make it easier for people of color to read a piece I've written without feeling excluded, then yes, I'm willing to put in extra time and effort to be "politically correct." Frankly, I don't view it as "political correctness"—I view it as obsessive honesty, because writing any group of people into a tiny box of conceptions is dishonest, a slap in the face of realism. The real world is diverse, and huge, and to get a taste of that in fiction should be utterly normal, really, rather than a special feature.

Sure, there may be readers who couldn't care less about the so-called "P.C."—but I feel like if I'm writing for public consumption, that means I'm writing for the entire public. And that includes those who are easily offended. No, I don't believe authors can please everyone, but I definitely believe we can write fearlessly and push the envelope while still being careful enough not to hurt people. In my opinion, Chuck Wendig's blog,, is a great example of this. He's "offensive" in the sense that he curses constantly and has a crude sense of humor, but I don't know anyone who has read his pieces and come away from them feeling like they've been targeted. I think the same is true of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. It offends sensibilities, but it doesn't offend people, not on a deep personal level.

I don't know how popular this opinion is; it's simply my own approach. I'd love to hear what your approach is, or your opinion!

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


SC Author said...

This seriously is one of the best posts I've read all year, because I've been inking about this FOR SO LONG and I think people need to do this! I just never had the thought to blog about it. But it is SO important to get personal situations right and true.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Riley! Research is so important and stretching ourselves is so rewarding!

JeffO said...

Beyond the research, a bigger tool in the writer's arsenal when writing people unlike yourself: empathy. You really need to be able to get inside your character's skin, and while the research can help you with certain details, the ability to empathize will help you more with the feeling.

Matt Sinclair said...

Nicely done, Ms. Redgate. Nicely done.

Debra McKellan said...

I like the distinction you made between PC and accuracy, because I think people go too far with the need to be PC and inclusion for the sake of being PC sometimes, but I also feel like a story/movie/tv show supposedly in a diverse setting need sto portray the diversity.