On Appropriation vs. Representation

This past weekend I was asked to be on a podcast that’s a little outside my usual scene.

I go to an art club called Drink and Draw every month, and many of the people there are more “serious” artists than I am (or at least more talented). Anyway, my friend Eric is the club’s host, and he usually picks me up on his way there so we talk about stuff. This time, we ended up talking about the comic book The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, which I hadn’t read.

It turned out that Eric had seen a Twitter discussion about whether The Nameless City was appropriative, because it has a cast and setting clearly based on ancient China, but it’s written by a white woman. An Asian artist on Twitter was saying books like this and television shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender (which clearly influenced Hicks) are disappointing in a way because it feels like mainstream culture is capitalizing on “diversity” while still not making way for people to make art about themselves.

This is a good point, and Eric and I had a spirited discussion about it. He invited me to come on his podcast the next day to talk about the same thing with his friend Robbie (who I also know but he’s mainly just an acquaintance of mine–we hang out with the same people and he’s been in my house but we don’t really talk much). Of course, first I had to read the book. So I read it at Drink and Draw before doing my art. 😉

The podcast episode I was on is here: Handsome Boys #142.

A review I did of the book is here: The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (review).

Here’s the thing: We all know we would like more diversity of all kinds in fiction, and we all know the only way it can happen is if people make it on purpose. The problems are many, though, and one of the most insidious is that mainstream audiences often think a piece of media is not “for them” if it primarily contains people who are not like them. When we “mark” a piece of media, usually the people who are described by that mark will flock to read it, but it will remain less circulated, undervalued, probably written off as niche, and rarely reaching the broader world. But if the mainstream media actively solicits media featuring characters, settings, and messages less commonly featured, will that help?

Some say it’s really not going to help that much if the creators filtering the message into the mainstream are not telling their own stories. If they’re telling underrepresented populations’ stories through their own lenses, does it really serve the purpose of bringing those stories to light, or is it just people from the mainstream culture wanting to pat themselves on the back for being so inclusive now that diversity is a buzzword?

So what do the underrepresented populations in question have to say about this? Well, as usual, it’s a mixed bag. Some want to know why mainstream authors with plenty of connections want to hijack their narratives and give them to the outside world so they can gawk. Some want to know why they’re not being solicited to contribute work if it’s their perspective that’s supposedly so valuable. And some believe one of the things that actually does help pave the road for that to happen is getting mainstream audiences to understand that work about “the other” can be for them.

Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to get a cartoon onto mainstream television that did not contain a single solitary white person, and it’s definitely got a large cast, too. The names and concepts definitely have Asian inspiration of various sorts, but it is still Fantasy Asia, so the creators get a bit of a pass if something isn’t “accurate.” And its creators are two white guys. They have a ton of Asian consultants and people working on the show, but it’s still a mainstream Nickelodeon show by Mike and Bryan. Perhaps this sends a message to big media companies that audiences can and do accept and enjoy these stories. Will this prompt them to actively solicit shows with actual Asian creators at the helm? Too early to tell.

But it’s clear from most of the dialogue that underrepresented people do not want to build a fence and say “you should not write about us.” There’s a very good reason why those folks are wary of mainstream creators (why do they want to do it? what are they going to screw up?), and they also have good reason to expect well-meaning mainstream creators to do their research extensively. That research can include bringing in test audiences from the population they’re trying to portray, including creators from that background as co-creators or permanent contributors, and consuming media and commentary by those populations.

I want men to be able to write about women, for instance–and I want men who are making creative works about women to help combat the notion that works about us are marked for only our consumption, irrelevant to people who aren’t women–but I’m not going to appreciate it if the way the male creator makes his woman character feel “authentic” is to graft in his assumptions about what women think about. I have seen a male author praised extensively for wow it’s so hard to believe a man wrote this book about a woman, it feels so feminine but I was shocked that the supposed authenticity was literally her worrying about being fat and being obsessed with shoes. I also once read a very popular male author’s book that was from a teenage girl’s point of view and I cringed every time he tried to make her say/do something that reminded us of her gender (“ugh why do boys make us watch their movies? we’re not interested lol because ladies!”). I would ask these men to read books that are by women, to try to understand why we write what we write, and then don’t appoint yourself to tell a Feminine Story About Being Female. You don’t need to tell that story, but yes, please, put female characters in your book.

From a practical standpoint, I think it’s very important for mainstream audiences to start seeing people who are different from them in their everyday media. Without having to deliberately seek it out. Because people who aren’t like you are part of your world. Most media does not currently reflect that. We also need both “issue books” and “incidentally representative books.” The Nameless City was not about what it is to be any of the Asian populations it included, though it gave its own culture to the fantasy world (as it should). So it’s a nice thing if people from all backgrounds can go into a bookstore and see this and think “hmm that looks interesting” rather than thinking “welp, Asians on the front, must be some kind of niche media.”

I remember working at a bookstore and having a woman pestering me to make recommendations for “good books” and rejecting all the suggestions before I could even finish a sentence, and one of those attempts was me saying “You might like Life of Pi. It’s about a boy from India–” “NO.” She immediately wasn’t interested as soon as I said “India.” We also had an “African-American Fiction” section when I first started at the store. Many black readers would come in asking for the section, and other readers were scandalized by its existence–I heard black readers say it was gross to segregate it from the “regular” fiction, and I also heard non-black readers snot about it wanting to know where the white fiction was. (Clue phone: Pretty much the entire rest of the store.) Later it was integrated (along with several other categories) into one big mega-fiction section. Some people said that was the right choice. Some people were frustrated that they could no longer easily browse a section that was for them, and interpreted it as an attempt to take the entire thing away. Both sides are kind of right, but I think I’m personally more invested in my background and other people’s backgrounds all being presented as “for” anyone to be exposed to.

And here’s something interesting.

Wait, what’s that? Is it a children’s book with a same-sex couple on the front? Yeah it is.

This book is coming out later this year. It’s explicitly described in the book summary as a love story–depicted in the comfortable fairy-tale style children are used to seeing in all their other storybooks. There is no sticker on it proclaiming “LOOK, IT’S LESBIANS!!” or anything, but even though some people might interpret the red character as a boy because of how she’s dressed, a basic glance at the information will make it clear that their names are both feminine-coded names (Sapphire and Ruby) and they both use “she” pronouns. They’re in a clear casually intimate pose on the front cover. This is not being designated as a Special Interest book. It’s just going to be released as a storybook. For the regular storybooks section.

Recently in an interview, creator Rebecca Sugar said this about children’s media:

I think if you wait to tell kids, to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!

You have to talk about it–you have to let it be what it gets to be for everyone. I mean, like, I think about, a lot of times I think about sort of fairy tales and Disney movies and the way that love is something that is ALWAYS discussed with children. And I think also there’s this idea that’s like, oh, we should represent, you know, queer characters that are adults, because there are adults that are queer, and you should know that’s something that is happening in the adult world, but that’s not how those films or those stories are told to children. You’re told that YOU should dream about love, about this fulfilling love that YOU’RE going to have. […]

The Prince and Snow White are not like someone’s PARENTS. They’re something you want to be, that you are sort of dreaming of a future where you will find happiness. Why shouldn’t everyone have that? It’s really absurd to think that everyone shouldn’t get to have that!

Based on Rebecca Sugar’s history, it’s clear that she is very invested in portraying same-sex couples as natural, as an everyday part of life, as not worth batting an eyelash at in protest. She tends not to make her works “issue” works, and on her television show she’s included a large cast of non-white characters (as well as coding some of her aliens as having features typically associated with people of color), and she just presents that and lets it be without pointing at it and saying “look what I did.”

Rebecca’s romantic partner (and major contributor to her show) is Ian Jones-Quartey, who is a black man, and most of the voice cast and many of the writers are also people of color. But this is not written as a niche show. Rebecca Sugar hasn’t publicly identified as any stripe of queer as of this writing, and she’s partnered with a man, though I know better than to say that means we know anything–and ethnicity-wise she looks white, but she has demonstrated over and over that she believes racial diversity and queer representation belong in mainstream media, even for–ESPECIALLY for–children. Because, as she said above in the quote, we should all grow up knowing we can have that. That we’re people. That we don’t have to wait until our minds have formed around us being “other” before we’re gently coaxed “back” into society. In the interview, she also said some vague things about how she never watched Disney movies thinking that could be her, though I don’t know in what ways she was unable to relate. But I can certainly say I would have grown up feeling more like the world wasn’t someone else’s place I was just trying to live in if the media I consumed in my youth had hinted that people like me were real.

Now I’ve heard tell that Seanan McGuire has written a book with an asexual protagonist. (The book also contains a trans man who is, I believe, a romantic interest.) The author is bisexual (and as far as I know not asexual-spectrum), and this is one of the only novels out there that has not just an asexual character tucked in someone’s pocket somewhere but an asexual protagonist. This is also not a book about the character realizing she’s asexual, nor have I heard that it heavily features that revelation. It just is. As it should be. The question is, did she do it right?

I’ll have to see, by reading it. And even though I’m an asexual woman, obviously I’m not the decision-maker on whether Seanan McGuire has written an asexual character “wrong.” I would certainly be able to read it and say “I wish that hadn’t been there” or “I wish that had been phrased differently” or “just once I’d like to see an asexual character who isn’t also XYZ.” (I withhold judgment until I read it, obviously.) But I must admit that as an asexual woman knowing a bisexual author has included a character of my incredibly underrepresented background, my first thought was “ohhhhh jeez I hope it isn’t terrible.” I feel bad that this was my first thought, because though I’m passably familiar with Seanan McGuire, I’ve never read any of her long fiction. I have no reason not to trust her, and I trust her more than I’d trust a straight person to write aces. And yet that was my knee-jerk reaction. Because I’m used to mainstream fiction taking people I can relate to and framing them as broken, as cold or confused, as villainous, or as needing to learn more about being human. And it isn’t just hurtful to see yourself represented poorly in a story. It’s hurtful to know this is a mainstream presentation and other people are going to be even more likely to think about me that way. I’ve been taught to expect this when non-asexual people try to show the world who I am.

Right now we don’t have enough characters like us in the media to risk getting a large percentage of them wrong. Just like a straight white male character being an utter douchebag in a movie will not make people think differently about straight white men, there does need to be room for non-majority characters to not be perfect people, but since people are establishing lasting impressions of us based on how media portrays us, we need to ask creators to be sensitive to this when they plan their presentation. If you have no exposure to a group but you see them on TV, you generalize–even if someone else has chosen how that group is portrayed without being part of it. We cannot realistically arrange global exposure to every marginalized group, but we can be responsible with how that exposure comes through our media.

When Authors Screw Up

There are lots of articles out there on what you should do if you screw up. Most of them involve instructions on the basics: stop doing the thing, and apologize (authentically) for doing the thing. But what is your role in this business if someone you admire screws up?

I’ve wondered about that because now and then authors I like screw up on social media and it kinda breaks my heart.

Your first instinct is to defend. Someone you like–someone who created something you might have loved–has sinned. Don’t they deserve forgiveness? Don’t they deserve gentle correction instead of the pile-on they’re experiencing? Isn’t it also important what they’ve done well? Can’t we emphasize that?

Well, the answer is no. Now is not the time to emphasize that.

It is the responsibility of the person who screwed up to try to make right, and the way they do so is going to tell you a lot about the kind of person they are. The way you act is your own biz, and I urge you to carefully consider what you’re getting into–and what it says about you–if you defend someone’s terrible behavior just because you like their work.

Here is a list of stuff to keep in mind when this happens.

  1. Liking someone’s work if they have behaved in an unacceptable way does not make you guilty by association.
  2. Liking someone’s work even if it has problematic aspects does not require you to find a way to excuse those aspects before you are “allowed” to like the work as a whole without being a bad person.
  3. You can and should accept that your heroes can believe bad things and can be spreading terrible messages. If they do this, you are not required to abandon them as one of your favorite content creators.
  4. You can and should be able to be critical about your heroes. You can and should be able to agree with those who are calling them out, and if you have something to say on the matter, you may even want to join them in echoing the callout.
  5. If the creator (and perpetrator of the bad message) is worth respecting, they will learn from this experience, not judge critics as bullies and dig their heels in while doubling down on a bad message. You are in the same boat.
  6. It is actually okay to decide you no longer want to support someone who believes/says those things. It may lead you to look at their older work in a larger context and like it less. It may not. Both responses are okay.
  7. You cannot completely separate a creator from their creation. If someone believes racist things, they are likely spreading racist messages even if they don’t mean to, and you may not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it or aren’t sensitive to those messages because of your background. It IS important.
  8. You should look at the actual statements the person made. And you should look at several criticisms of the statement the person made to try to understand why there’s a problem if you don’t immediately see why. You don’t have to agree with the criticism, but you should definitely listen to it before you try to defend.
  9. If someone you like is getting dragged and your knee-jerk reaction is to assume they don’t deserve it, please do not announce that the real problem is the PC agenda, oversensitivity, or people looking to be offended. You must understand that the outrage is real, even if you can’t feel it. Chances are the person who Said the Thing doesn’t understand why it makes people upset either, and judging the group as hysterical, unreasonable, overreacting, or guilty of mob-mentality witch hunting is not going to stop this from happening next time.
  10. It is possible for someone to have worthwhile messages to contribute while having absolutely no business speaking on certain issues. It is possible for an author to say wonderful things about racism while being tone-deaf to the sexism in their work. It is possible for an author to spread great messages of religious tolerance and support while supporting hateful erasure and discrimination toward disabled people. Intersectionality is a thing and if someone is wrong or ignorant about one thing, it is not appropriate to say we need to ignore their ignorance because they’re doing it right on another axis.

I am not going to name names here, but keeping all this in mind, this is how I’ve reacted to bad behavior committed by some of my favorite authors. When an author I enjoyed said a casually racist thing in a very public context, I observed his sincere apology and decided I could still read and support his work, but I remain baffled by his poor judgment and certainly wouldn’t defend it. When an author whose work I was just getting into said something really tone-deaf about women, I decided it was gross (and explained a lot) but that it wasn’t egregious enough that I wanted to disown him from my library or stop reading his books. And when an author made some terribly ignorant, strongly worded statements about the lack of need for diversity in books because we already have all we need and pushing diversified characters is an unnecessary agenda, I observed her unrepentant reframing of the situation and her protest that she can’t be wrong because she has diverse characters too, and I quietly removed several of her books from my wish list. If she thinks the book world is fine the way it is and refuses to listen to the people who don’t feel represented, I’m sad about it, but I don’t want to invite more of her world view into my brain.

I absolutely agreed that all of these people did bad things. They left a terrible taste in my mouth after I enjoyed their work and had no idea they thought like this. The way they react to being called out has a lot to do with whether I want to continue to see their writing. I’m okay with ignorance, especially when the ignorant party acknowledges their ignorance and says they’re working on it. I’m okay with mistakes, especially when the mistake-maker draws more attention to themselves by saying “I did this, it was terrible that I did this, I apologize in a heartfelt manner and I have learned from this.” I’m not okay with buying more books by an author who repeatedly declares that other authors’ voices and other readers’ needs are irrelevant.

And for the record, analyzing and acknowledging problematic aspects of work you like can actually make it more enjoyable. You do not need to defend the parts that are awful (regardless of how intentional or egregious those parts are) to enjoy the rest of the work or the work as a whole. You also do not need to agree with the public outrage to respect that people have a reason to express said outrage. And if you still want to support someone who’s done something bad, that does not require you to defend what they did wrong, nor should you diminish its importance or point at people who are doing worse things.

Look at what the person did and ask yourself, “Do I want to pay this person to talk to me? Will the fact that they believe this infect the other messages they’re sending me? If I was part of the group they’re insulting with this message, would I find it less acceptable?” And it’s okay to be conflicted about it. Like I said, it can be heartbreaking when one of your idols turns out to believe and say horrible things. Your actions regarding how you react to their work post screw-up are up to you, but don’t make the mistake of considering these controversies irrelevant. We do shape the literary world by reacting passionately (for better or for worse) to messages that inspire strong feelings. You should not dismiss or scoff at the importance of these explosions just because you think they don’t really affect you.

Chances are, if you think they aren’t relevant to you–if you won’t learn from others’ mistakes–then they could be you one day.

Why do you write?

“You just want attention.”

Recently I had the misfortune of interacting with someone who claimed my “desire for attention” was the reason I write. In context, the suggestion that I “wanted attention” was an unflattering description; it was framed as being childish, needy, silly, and narcissistic to “want attention” for my work. And it was also suggested that I write as a substitute for “real” human interaction.

Whew! A lot to unpack from that, huh?

Most of what that person said was so ignorant and pointlessly oversimplified that I just didn’t care and remained mildly irritated but mostly just baffled. Really? It’s only immature attention-mongering desires and inability to interact “normally” that can explain why I write? And enjoying when someone likes my work or benefits from it is evidence of self-centeredness or a poorly conceived attempt at a social interaction substitute?

It struck me to wonder after I was faced with this question, though: Hey, why do I write, anyway?

Because I have ideas.

That’s pretty much it.

I had an idea. I wrote it down. I liked writing it down. I like making stuff up.

I like creating worlds. I like creating characters. I like the actual experience of writing. I like entertaining myself with the stories. I’ve gotten ideas for things since I was a tiny child. I didn’t even show the majority of them to anyone at all, though some of them got shown to parents or friends. I just like writing stuff.

But then there’s another layer of enjoyment from sharing a story, sure. If I’ve written something and I entertained someone or they learned a lesson from it or they got valuable information from it or it helped them feel less alone, that’s great. It’s not what motivated me to write, but I’m not going to say positive feedback and knowing I helped someone is irrelevant.

I do think it’s VERY disingenuous to claim that if I appreciate good feedback or like feeling that I helped someone, it’s therefore a hobby I engage in because I’m needy and I have to do this to feel fulfilled.

Not to mention that if writing was the one way I could access approval and self-worth, who the hell would you be to tell me it’s inauthentic, mock-worthy, or pathetic? If something that makes you feel good, needed, productive, or happy is working well for you, it seems kind of mean-spirited and even vindictive to barge into someone’s life and tell them they’re not doing life right. This is irrelevant to me because I do not write for those reasons, but coping mechanisms are a thing, especially for people who are sensitive or have particular needs. There’s no reason to say people who do write because they enjoy the attention and approval they get should be torn away from it through belittling comments about how that person should be striving toward fulfillment. Especially if you’re not a writer and you don’t understand what could be rewarding about it.

It’s just so gross to imagine that anyone out there wants to characterize something like writing as a cry for help from a desperate person who wants “empty” attention, or that people like this want to shame people who have different or less-than-perfect coping methods. What exactly is so bad about attention? Why is it so frequently categorized as vapid or even pathological to want something you do to get attention?

Actually, don’t assholes also frequently make fun of people who don’t get attention (or the “right” kind of attention), characterizing you as a social failure or a hilarious loner regardless of whether you desire whatever is considered a “normal” amount of social contact? (Because if you’re not very social and you’re fine with that, they’ll still assume you would be interacting with friends more than you do if you had any, and make fun of you for not having enough friends or not being likable.) I can’t even tell you how often people see that I like to read and write and do things on the computer and react to my choices with “HAHAHAH IT’S FUNNY THAT SHE PRETENDS SHE’D RATHER BE HOME READING THAN OUT AT THE CLUB, BUT SHE DOESN’T WANT TO ADMIT THAT SHE’S TOO AWKWARD OR WOULD BE EMBARRASSED AT HOW NO ONE WANTS TO HIT ON HER ETC.” You know, because if I actually do want to spend the evening at home, I’m making excuses because I know I would fail at being coveted and popular in a social setting. What I get from this is you’re supposed to flourish from getting attention, but you’re never supposed to be seen deliberately doing anything that suggests you want it.

I think it’s pretty cool when people like what I’ve written. I don’t do it because I’m desperately hungry for their attention and have nothing else worthwhile to live for in my life, no. But writing things people like and appreciating it when people like them is not ridiculous.

I can certainly think of some worse ways to spend one’s hours on the planet. Particularly, spending a bunch of time criticizing how others spend THEIR time.

Just Didn’t Connect

Sometimes when someone doesn’t like a book, they can explain exactly why. They might have a problem with the content or the message. They may have thought the character motivations were unclear or preposterous. They could have found the writing style awkward or dense or simplistic. And sometimes, when this someone is a person evaluating your work, it can be helpful to you if they explain their why.

But the most difficult thing to hear might just be “I just didn’t connect.”

Sometimes this a euphemism for “I thought your book was terrible for X reason or Y reason, but I either can’t or am not willing to relay those reasons to you, either for fear of hurting you or for fear of looking like a jerk (or both).”

But more often, it really is what it sounds like. The person just doesn’t like books like yours. Maybe they prefer books they can personally relate to, and yours isn’t relatable for them. Maybe they have trouble suspending disbelief for your science fiction concept, or don’t find romances compelling, or can’t drum up any enthusiasm for whether your fantasy novel’s questing party can recover the world-saving artifact. Maybe they have a particular difficulty connecting to books that are written in third person, or in present tense.

And this “I just didn’t connect to it” response goes all the way up to editors at big publishing houses and all the way down to readers deciding what to buy.

We all have preferences. It’s doubtful that anyone who reads is going to say they are equally interested in all well-written books. And unless you personally continue to “give a fair chance” to books that open with action that doesn’t grab you and books whose descriptions sound pretty boring to you, you should understand why this happens. Agents and editors frequently have to re-read books they sign multiple times, and both types of publishing professionals are gambling on whether readers will like what they like, because agents don’t get paid at all unless they sell the book to a publisher and publishers won’t make back the money they spent on producing the book if readers don’t like it enough to pay money for it.

Publishing works the way it does because readers work the way they do. Except for situations like school reading or other assignments, we generally don’t have any obligation to read things we don’t want to read, and publishing industry professionals are in the same boat. If they don’t want to read it, they probably won’t be able to convince others that they want to read it.

So don’t go into publishing, into story-writing, into creative careers in general if you think subjectivity doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. Don’t expect “equal” or “fair” treatment, or for anyone to humor you. No one is obligated to read a predetermined amount of your book before deciding they don’t want to read more, and no one is obligated to defend liking a book that you think isn’t as good as yours. People will like things for reasons you don’t agree with or don’t understand or don’t have in common with them. It could be you’re writing stuff that not many people are interested in, or it could be that you’re writing it in a way that doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with, but either way if you’re encountering lukewarm interest and “didn’t connect” responses every time you attempt to engage readers, you might try asking yourself what makes YOU connect.

What is it about the books you love that made you keep reading them after page 1? What is it about the books you love that made them work so well for you? What was it about the books you love that makes you call them the books you love? How did those authors draw you in? You might think you’re doing the same thing they are, or doing it as well as they are, but actually look at what they’re doing. What do they do on page one? What do they do over the course of their story? What do your favorite authors have in common? You may be skipping some steps. You may be including or not including elements that turn people on or off.

Or you may be showing it to people who just didn’t connect and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You should always look at your material first, think about what you might be able to improve, but it isn’t always your fault. It isn’t always an actual flaw or problem with your work. You should be open to the idea that it might be, but not eternally convinced that it must be if some readers tell you they don’t connect.

There isn’t one right way to write a book, but if your first tries aren’t getting you the results you want and you’re determined to reach those results, try doing what worked for the authors you like. It works a lot better than blaming your audience or throwing up your hands and quitting. And it feels a lot better too. I promise.

Compelling Characters

Sometimes when a book (or other form of media) completely rocks my world, I think about what core elements inspired that reaction from me and what I can learn from it that I can apply in my own writing. On rare occasions I’ll admire a creator’s skills in setting and worldbuilding and artistic medium choices (word artistry in books, art style in visual media), but first and foremost, a work that grabs me is almost always about the characters.

So I just put together a short list of five things I enjoy seeing in characters–things that make me stay for their stories and hang onto their words.

1. They have a past. 

Good characters, for me, never feel like they started living when the author began typing page one. They have a past, and the fact that they have a past is clear from how they act and interact (even if we, the consumers of the media, do not know what that past is). They have grown from birth to their current position in life affecting and being affected by their reality, and you can see evidence of that. And it must not be one-dimensional, like a disaster defining the entirety of who a person is as a trauma victim or a person who thinks of nothing but revenge. Their past must be complicated and formative, and must be woven into who the character is.

2. They have a future. 

Everybody I want to hear stories about wants something. They’re going somewhere. If they aren’t sure where they’re going, they have something to say about that, too. Good characters are being framed in the context of their media at what is theoretically the most interesting part of their life–when they’re going from now to later, for better or for worse, and they are showing us how they’re moving forward. Good characters imagine their futures and have opinions or aspirations about getting there.

3. They have relationships. 

Stories are rarely about one person who doesn’t interact with others (and has never done so). Good characters should have history and current feelings regarding other characters and those relationships should be complicated. That is not to say they have to be messy or negative; it’s just that organic relationships in real life are an amalgam of many factors, and fictional relationships should be similar. Authors should know (though not necessarily reveal) how every important character met every other important character, what they like and dislike about each other, what important things they have done together, and what they want from each other. And the real skill comes in (hand in hand with item 1 above) when authors make us feel what those relationships are in the spaces between the words without spelling them out necessarily (though sometimes explicit explaining happens). 

4. They have quirks, attitudes, opinions, thoughts, and actions. 

In real life, people have inside jokes; they have gestures; they have favorite foods; they have hobbies; they have political affiliations (sometimes); they have religions (sometimes); they think and do certain things in their lives that reflect what’s going on in their heads. A good character always has a mental life as well as a set of actions and words we can observe. And even if we are not partial to that mental life, evidence of it must exist. That is not to say people have to fall into traditional boxes or that all opinions have to be consistent with other opinions (cheese knows we all know inconsistent people in real life!), but people have to internally make sense and externally reflect that they are alive. They might have speech patterns that differentiate them from other characters, or fashion preferences, or always wear a certain item of jewelry, or have a talent or a challenge or an allergy. These parts of good characters flow naturally from who they are as people; they’re never just collections of attributes stuck together on a stick figure. Good characters have these quirks, etc., and they make sense with what we learn about them in the story.

5. They change.

Hand in hand with number 2 above, as good characters go toward their futures, they are changed by what happens to them, change themselves, or try to change themselves. Even very settled, established characters who exude stability by not changing very much in a story still need to demonstrate that they can learn, or might be changed in small ways by helping others change more radically. Completely static characters aren’t just boring; they aren’t realistic as people. We love seeing people change, even if it’s not for the better and can’t be called inspirational. We tune in for other people’s stories because we want to watch them move from one place in their personal journeys to the next, and we are unlikely to enjoy the ride if the travelers learn nothing and end up back where they started.

There are other less generalizable elements of characters that I tend to personally latch onto, but these are the boiled-down simplified versions of character traits I can identify in pieces that have moved me in extraordinary ways. If I’m just not into a story, there’s probably no one in it who feels real to me, and the above five items are what I think makes a character feel like a person. If I believe in a character, I might care about them even if I don’t like them, and once that happens, I’ll likely tune in to watch them do whatever they’re doing . . . no matter what it is.

Video: Critique of Romance Tropes

Here’s something a little different from my usual: I’m offering a video about romance tropes in fiction and how they can sometimes send damaging messages to people about what real-life romance is and what place it should occupy in our lives. Informed primarily from an aromantic perspective–meaning that I’m a person who rarely sees herself in fictional narratives and is affected more negatively by certain messages about romance the way it is currently handled in fiction.

The big takeaway from this video is that we need more important friendships in our fiction! And fewer assumptions about the inevitability of romance and the heteronormative assumption!


Writing the Marginalized

Here’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to: writing about characters from marginalized groups.

With the (somewhat) recent push for more diverse literature (see We Need Diverse Books and some great interviews at DiversifYA), it’s clear that the landscape of publishing is tilting toward a desire to include both characters from underrepresented backgrounds and authors who are of those descriptions themselves (regardless of whether the characters and stories they publish feature narratives that mirror their own lives). But I have also seen, almost across the board, a message to “majority” authors: don’t be afraid to write The Other, and don’t always default to writing People Like You (because it is NOT a neutral choice to do so) . . . but if you try to do it, you have a responsibility to do the research and get it right to the best of your ability.

I’m thinking about this now because I wrote a story about a trans girl a few years ago and I recently started submitting it to magazines, and it just got accepted.

Why do I, a cis woman, want to write about a trans girl? Especially since the story is almost entirely about her quest to be recognized as a girl by her alternate-world gender-segregated culture?

I mean, that’s not my struggle. That’s not my narrative. Why was I led to “hijack” that story as my own for purposes of fantasy coming-of-age literature and use it to forward my publishing career?

That’s obviously not how I was thinking of what I was doing, but I’m sure if someone wanted to ask leading questions about my motivation, they could sound like that.

My reason, I think, is that I have a fair number of trans people in my life and in my community; as an asexual person who’s active in asexuality awareness activism, I see tons of interaction with and intersection with trans folks, some of whom are also asexual. And what I’ve seen is that there isn’t much science fiction and fantasy (or much literature at all) that puts trans people at the center of their stories. They’re almost always a symbol of something, or a learning experience for someone else, or a background character, or (worse) a joke. When I wrote my story, I was (and still am) dedicated to hearing more trans people talk about their experiences, and I have both sought those viewpoints out (in literature and in blogs/videos) and listened to my friends talk. These were the people and messages I was surrounding myself with, so it seemed natural that out of the more than two dozen short stories I’ve written, a trans person would pop up in one of them.

Old sketch of the protagonist at age 8

But I do worry, as a cis person who has written a trans girl’s story, that when my short story is published, it may let people down or disappoint them. I don’t worry about this the same way I do when, say, I write about male characters as a female author, because male people are not generally a group that is oppressed for their maleness (unless it is in association with another identity, like how black maleness is processed as more dangerous than white maleness in so many of these tragic stories in the news lately). I worry about doing it right in the case of writing a trans girl because the last thing trans people need is a cis person repackaging their struggles and getting all the nuances wrong.However, I do know that some readers will automatically turn their noses up at anything that doesn’t mirror their experience and tend to have outraged reactions. I even had this with my asexuality book in the editing stages even though I was writing as an asexual person; one of my readers in particular wrote me a heated letter accusing me of presenting my own experience as the only true asexual experience because my introduction (the only personal content in the book) gave some of my background, and one of my later readers implied that I was “appropriating” language (from my own community?) because I just wanted to make money. You absolutely can do everything right and still have people go into reading your work absolutely certain that you must have screwed it up. But because I am far more concerned with actually doing a good job than I am with getting my Feelings Hurt over people thinking I suck, I would rather listen to even the criticisms I find uncharitable and see if there’s anything I can learn to make my work better.

I don’t know if people are going to read my story about a trans girl and get mad that I as a cis person want to tell a trans person’s story (especially since her transness is so central to the story), but I do hope they understand I am not presenting her experience as universal. (Especially since she lives in an alternate world where there’s elemental magic.) Everything she sees and feels in association with her trans experience is something I’ve seen expressed or explicitly stated by a trans person more than once, and the traits and presentations I’ve chosen for my character are kind of a mixture of typical and less typical.

Here is a weird little self-analysis of elements of my story divided by how common they are in stories about trans people.

Pretty typical: 

  • The protagonist, Lihill, was identified as male at birth based on genitals, but knew from early childhood that she had a feminine gender identity.
  • Lihill prefers to play with girls and does very typical “girly” things like playing house, playing with dolls, enjoying cooking and sewing, and liking hair accessories.
  • Lihill feels very strongly about having her hair long.
  • Her father is aggressive and many of his appearances in the story involve him shaming Lihill for her tendencies. He’s not portrayed as a nuanced character; he’s an uncomplicated, blunt man with strict ideas about gender.
  • Her father continues to misgender her even after her identity is public and established. Her grandmother makes reference to how she “used to be a boy.” Her sister expresses that it’s weird to not have a brother anymore.
  • Her mother misunderstands her identity, believing she just doesn’t want to be a “tough guy” like her dad rather than the reality that she isn’t a guy at all.
  • She doesn’t fight the binary her society is divided into; she just wants to be sorted into the other side.
  • While thinking about things she hates about her life, she does once wonder whether she actually hates herself.
  • She gets bullied at her school (though it is based on a misconception that she is making the other kids in her class look bad by association rather than directly because she said she wanted to go to the girls’ school).
  • She’s terrified of maturation because she doesn’t want to get a beard.
  • There’s no specific indication of what her sexual orientation is, but because of a couple places where she seems really disturbed at the idea of having a wife, she seems to assume she is straight.

More nuanced/less typical: 

  • She does not try to change her name (“Lihill” is a masculine name in her alternate world culture) and doesn’t have a “secret” name for her girl identity.
  • She never expresses that she hates her body.
  • She doesn’t like the “born in the wrong body” idea–it just doesn’t sit right with her.
  • She actively enjoys some of the things her culture tells her are masculine, like climbing trees. She also gets in a fist-fight at one point and feels like she did pretty well considering she was outnumbered.
  • When presented with the idea that she might want to help other trans people once she finds her own way, she admits to herself that she doesn’t want to be “inspirational”–she just wants to be left alone to be a girl.
  • The story’s ending suggests she will continue to have a difficult life and that being read as a girl will become more difficult as she gets older. (There is no medical transition available.)
  • Every ally Lihill has, no matter how sympathetic, misunderstands at least one thing about her and makes mistakes; she has no one perfect supporter.
  • Lihill is not automatically a natural at everything feminine she tries to do, and she is actually good at some masculine things she is assigned to do.
  • Apparently in her society the possibility of a child being born intersex is more widely accepted and acknowledged than the possibility of a child being transgender.
  • Lihill doesn’t buck the system consistently right from the beginning; she goes through a pretty long phase of survival-oriented going with the flow while becoming more depressed about it.
  • Though she does say she can’t picture herself even having a future sometimes, she doesn’t explicitly consider suicide or self-harm. (“I’d rather be dead than the wrong gender” is certainly something some trans people think about, but it didn’t fit this character at all–her idealism and desire for survival was too strong for her thoughts to veer that way.)
  • Instead of there being one “male” set of ways and one “female” set of ways, there are actually four in this society, associated with elements. Two of the elements, Fire and Water, are the extremes of masculinity and femininity (respectively), and Air and Earth are the center-masculine and center-feminine (respectively) elements. Though there’s no neutral in the society, they do recognize gradations. (However, Lihill actually identifies as the “most feminine” element; she doesn’t consider herself an “in between” or “middle” identity.)

As an author who thinks it’s important to write about those with marginalized identities, I consciously chose to avoid some tropes while incorporating some very common trans narratives, and I was aiming for a good balance of both (rejecting some overdone “tragic trans person” elements while adopting certain bits that many many trans people whose stories I’ve read have described as part of their lives). I agree with some others that it’s very important that authors don’t consider ourselves restricted to writing only viewpoints we’re personally living or have lived. We do need to step out of our comfort zones and consider presenting characters with minority or marginalized identities as worthy protagonists with stories that aren’t just “for” reading by those with the same identities. We need stories by those with marginalized identities too, and we need to make room for them since they are guaranteed to have perspectives that will be valuable and probably new to those who don’t have their experience. But I think it would be wrong to say only trans authors can/should write trans characters, and those authors who attempt it without personal experience simply need to do their best to present it responsibly and sensitively. I hope my story has done that.

Very few of my stories involve autobiographical viewpoints. In my short stories, I have only ever written one asexual aromantic protagonist (and she’s in a queerplatonic partnership, unlike me). That one’s in consideration by a magazine right now and we’ll see if it hits. This story about a trans girl just got accepted and will be published soon. My other two stories that have found success have a protagonist whose gender is not revealed (with a focus character who is agoraphobic), and a protagonist whose orientation is probably bisexual–maybe homosexual demi-heterosexual would be more specific? (with a focus character who is lesbian).

I also have a fair number of male characters and romantic characters and characters who have beliefs I don’t share and people far younger or older than I am and characters who are married or engaged or are parents. Some of those identities didn’t require much “research” because there are so many presentations of them in our society that any one I choose will probably be pretty close to accurate and won’t reflect on the group as a whole as a rare representation of those identities. And some of them did require more reading and checking for understanding with readers who have lived those experiences. It depends.

But I do want to say for the record that I don’t write characters with diverse backgrounds because I’m trying to do the right thing for diversity in a trend, or because I feel like it’s my cis able-bodied neurotypical white girl responsibility to champion these voices in mainstream venues, or because I have a weird outsider’s/ally’s fascination with any one of them. It’s because I know people with these identities who are part of my daily life and whom I love, and because they are part of the fabric of my reality, it naturally occurs to me sometimes that my characters might be like them. Some of my decisions about how to frame my characters have been deliberate and some have just evolved from how I understand the people in my life and in my communities. However, at the end of the day, characters are their own people, and they are never explicitly based on people I know. Experiences my friends and acquaintances have moving through the world with less common and marginalized identities do help inform my understandings of their challenges and triumphs, but I don’t outright appropriate them to tell some kind of hijacked, oversimplified, distorted amalgam of their stories. I am still telling the story of a fictional character every time I write something like this.

But I know ignorance can cause good intentions to do more harm than good sometimes, and it’s hard to know what you’re ignorant about. I guess what I’m saying by expressing my anxiety about this is that I acknowledge that I’m not perfect, and that my story may not be perfect, and that I understand why some trans people can be wary of cis people writing trans characters, and that I know better than to guarantee that my story isn’t one of the bad ones. I also think the story legitimately isn’t about much beyond an “issue story” of my character fighting to be recognized as her gender, though I do think we need explicit “issue stories” as well as stories in which characters are just incidentally trans. I hope it’s valuable to readers, or that it at least entertains and does not actively damage.

I guess I’m probably overthinking the importance of this, but as I’ve said before, some of us are our own worst critics.

On Character Names

Fantasy names!

We see a lot of fantasy and science fiction authors choosing names for characters that are literally out of this world. Sometimes they’re just weird made-up names and sometimes they’re attempting to reflect nature/symbolism and sometimes they’re “futuristic” or something. Sometimes I see folks online–usually people who don’t like to read SF/F–mocking or rolling their eyes at fantastical names and laughing at the authors for the choices they make. Some of them seem to think the far-outness of the names indicates immaturity or silliness or wish-fulfillment author fantasies–like we name our characters weird things to make them mysterious, majestic, exotic, and cool. And that’s kind of irritating to me.

I write a lot of SF/F. About half the time, I give the characters unusual names. I don’t do it just because. I do it if it makes sense. Basically, if you have characters on another world or in another dimension who have never met people from our world and don’t speak our language, they’re not going to use the same names, but then of course critics might say “well, if you’re translating their moon language into an Earth language, why not translate their names to the equivalent? In other words, if you have a character whose name is common in their language, what’s wrong with naming them Bob?”

Indeed. What’s wrong with naming your alien characters Bob?

Here’s what I think. Unlike most words, names are specific labels for individual people. They almost always have a history–very few names are just an island of cool-sounding noises–and giving a name to a person (or, in fact, a place) indicates a connection to that history. Bob isn’t just Bob. He’s Robert, whose name has Germanic roots. If you don’t have a Germany in your fantasy land, Robert doesn’t really come from anywhere. And while it’s fine to base a fantasy world on ours and therefore have some shared names, it’s also fine NOT to.

I considered this a lot while naming characters in my fantasy worlds. In Bad Fairy, there’s a fair amount of crossover between my made-up world and our world, but they’re not the same world. It’s kind of a mish-mash, and they have some of the same gods and goddesses from our mythology, but others are completely made up (or, rather, they’re maybe recognizable deities that have been renamed). Similarly, there are plenty of names we’d recognize in the story–nearly everyone has a name that would work in our world–but a few are made up but still digestible by our aesthetic standards. There’s the protagonist Delia and her mother Gena, her friends Fiona and Drake, and her rivals Chloe, Livia, and Beatrice–but there are also a few people in her class with names like Leahan, Kagen, and Briony. I think it kind of gives you a reminder that it’s a slightly different culture in a slightly different time, even though they aren’t important characters.

In a short story I sold last year (which still hasn’t been published), my characters have symbolic names. There aren’t many named characters and names have a really important meaning in the culture of the fantasy characters because when they partner with others their partners give them new names. My protagonist, oddly enough, does not have a name. Her daughter, the focus of the story, is named Iris; I picked a flower. A boy in the story is named Briar. New names for people in the story after partnering include Grace and Laurel. Nature names made sense for the world.

And in a story that I just got an offer for (yay!), everyone, without exception, basically has a nonsense made-up name. And their names aren’t even particularly intuitive to pronounce by English standards. So why did I do that?

Yes, there was a reason. I had created a culture that’s strongly gender segregated, and the protagonist is transgender (though I don’t use the word “gender” anywhere in the story). Now, you spend the entire story in the protagonist’s head understanding her as a girl, but her culture understands her to be a boy and reads her given name, Lihill, as a boy’s name. She also wants to do things girls do in their culture and has to deal with a LOT of pushback, but we don’t have the same “NO THAT IS NOT FOR BOYS” attitude toward the things she wants to do. I thought the whole thing would acquire a more sympathetic vibe from the reader if we had no knee-jerk feeling that this is a boy’s name and those are a boy’s things. I have to wonder if the average person would be as willing to set aside preconceived notions about her gender if I’d named her Bob.

Probably not.

Names are way more than a jumble of sounds. And as writers, we’re supposed to be word artists. We make choices about how we use names, and though most of the time when I set a story in the real world my characters have pretty ordinary names, there are times when ordinary names would be way weirder in context.

Treating It Like a Job

Stephen King has a couple quotes about being a writer that I see tossed around fairly often. And to some extent, I agree with him. At least in spirit.

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work." --Stephen King
"Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." --Stephen King

Both of these sentiments target the reluctant writer–the people who don’t treat writing like something they have to do, and may be making excuses for why they “can’t.” Now, I really hate excuses. I have definitely met people who think writing is this sacred thing that they completely cannot be expected to do unless they’re in a rare, delicate frame of mind completely unburdened by other cares and free of restrictions on their time, isolated from distractions and inspired besides. But these folks have probably been told some lies about writing, and don’t understand that they do have more power than they think they do. Sitting down to write when you don’t feel like it isn’t the same as forcing inspiration, and it isn’t a guarantee that you’re going to write garbage; you sometimes have no idea what’s going to pour out if you sit down and transport yourself.

That said, I didn’t want to write this week, so I didn’t. And it wasn’t because I was “waiting for inspiration” or not taking my writing seriously (rendering me an amateur). I’m not a big fan of the narrative that creative jobs are jobs that we can/should always be able to suck it up and perform, the way you might drag yourself to the office when you’re feeling under the weather or push through writing your term paper when you’re sleep deprived. There are also jobs you shouldn’t try to do when performing them poorly can have consequences to your health and the quality of the product, possibly leading to more work for you in the long run or damage to your ability to perform it in the future. There are some kinds of “I don’t want to/feel like I can’t” people can push through, and there are others that you can’t or shouldn’t. You might still play in the basketball championship with a cold, but not with a broken leg. You might still work on your novel when you’re not inspired, but not when doing so requires mental health sacrifices that lower your functionality throughout other aspects of your life.

Not to mention that building up guilt over not being able to write can be damaging by itself. If everyone tells you there’s no excuse for not sucking it up and pushing through it, you might end up even more stymied. Sometimes it really is okay to not produce. Especially if you don’t have a deadline and/or your deadlines/goals are set by you.

We can learn to determine our own limits and figure out what we can realistically push through. I am very, very serious about my writing and I don’t think anyone doubts that, but sometimes I don’t feel like making time for it/dredging up the energy for it. I simply wasn’t in the frame of mind this week that I felt was conducive to continuing on the project I’m currently writing, and there are a number of reasons for that. I’ve been preparing for a talk I have to give next week in Minnesota. I’ve been editing a friend’s book. And I’ve been thinking that the next chapter I intended to write isn’t actually ready to come out yet; I think there’s something missing. I might need to reread the book and figure out what else to tie up before I dive in and write that gigantic, catastrophic chapter that will bring the book crashing to its conclusion.

Those things are not excuses, and they’re not reasons I “can’t” (or reasons I think I can’t). They represent choices I made, and priorities I set in my life. There are legitimate situations when people “don’t have time” for something–some lives are indeed incredibly busy, especially those that involve caring for others–but a lot of “don’t have time” is actually “didn’t choose to make time.” I don’t want to feel like I have to apologize for not making time to write sometimes, and I absolutely don’t believe that I am rendered an amateur if writing is not my top priority every single day.

But yeah. If you’re waiting for inspiration or won’t write unless you “feel like it” . . . you might consider seeing what happens when you write anyway. Provided it will not hurt you in an unacceptable way. Do it because you love it, and do it because you can, and do it because sometimes it just feels good, but don’t do it because other people say you have to or else your authenticity as a writer is in question.