Today I’m going to be talking writing craft one-on-one with a few writers, and one of the day’s key topics will involve the question of how best to write people from other demographics.
My answer to this, on the surface, is pretty simple: Write people!
But in practice, writing is an emotional exercise, and so, writers are well-served by viewing what they’ve put on the page as an in-progress conversation with themselves about the story they’re trying to tell. Instead of seeing early drafts as failure, then, we can evaluate their contents to get a better handle on how comfortable we currently are with aspects of the craft. Are we plunking down massive chunks of worldbuilding information or technical detail, bereft of character and plot? Well, perhaps that’s because we’re still trying to process how the world works ourselves, or haven’t yet figured out the right narrative voice for this piece. Are we relentlessly adding to our speech tags, to the point of distraction during read-through? Well, perhaps that’s because we’re still not confident that the dialogue itself is getting the point across.
Similarly, we can learn a lot about our ability to write different subject-positions by studying how they presently manifest upon the page. I encourage all writers to stretch themselves in this manner, because it’s vital that our stories reflect the fullness and richness of our world. However, I also know that this is emotionally loaded literary terrain — the fear of failure, the defensiveness in light of what we might learn about ourselves in the process — so to help fellow writers on this journey, I’ve written a list of eleven key points for contemplation, as you go.
May the experience of listening to your own work be enlightening.
And may you forgive yourself for any such writing mistakes made to date, so you can focus all your energy on doing better going forward.
11 CONSIDERATIONS WHEN WRITING CHARACTERS FROM OTHER DEMOGRAPHICS
Know your intentions. Are you including characters from other demographics because those identities are integral to your story, or simply because you want “diversity” in the text?
If the latter, why?
No, really: be honest with yourself. Is it because you feel that “diversity” is trending and you suspect your work will “only” stand a chance of being published if it’s “diverse”? (If so, please do read the industry reports. This is just not true.)
Or is it because you have a keen interest in learning how to write the world? Do you want to be the kind of writer who can tell nuanced stories well?
Whatever your reasoning, you’ll still need to make each character convincing to your readers — so make sure you know full well why every identity is integral to the story.
And if it isn’t? Leave it out.
Don’t rely on the judgment of your “one [X] friend” who liked the work, or who didn’t (tell you that they) have a problem with your use of their demographic.
This is another form of prejudice, in which we treat one person from a different demographic as a stand-in for the whole group. In so doing, we act as if everyone within that demographic is part of a singular hive mind, rather than a body of distinct individuals with certain overlapping exposures and concerns — but also, plenty of dissenting points of view.
So, sure, use a sensitivity reader if you can pay for one — but even then, do so carefully, remembering that a singular voice is never going to be definitive. Your best bet is to learn to write each character with as thorough and richly nuanced an individual life as possible — and to listen to as wide a multiplicity of answering voices as you go.
Relatedly, don’t seek out your “one [X] friend” and make them give you their verdict. This is a sure-fire way to place your [X] friend in the upsetting position of deciding how much mental energy they want to risk on you.
Will they have to hold your hand through any distress you experience when you realize how poorly you’ve depicted the demographic?
Will they be able to get over the pain of learning how misguided your view of their demographic really is?
It’s a tall ask. Leave your friend out of it.
Pay for a sensitivity reader (while keeping in mind #2) if you must.
Ideally, though, you should know how to look for oversights in your stories all by yourself. And if you don’t? Make training yourself in this skill as critical as any other in the writing sphere. Why is this so often an afterthought in writing discourse? Why are so many of us keenly interested in learning how to improve our beginnings, our action sequences, our dialogue… but somehow, “writing all people as real people” is regarded as a later add-on to solid literary craft?
These are rhetorical questions, of course, because we know the reason why.
It’s just not good enough anymore.
To this end, when training yourself to catch your own subjective gaps, start at the beginning: with the basic story concept. If you imagined your story first, then added in other demographics, you have to go back and interrogate how a different identity changes the core idea.
Because it does! There will always be distinct cultural resonances attached with seemingly generic storylines – like a love plot, or a divorce plot, or an abandonment plot.
Make sure you’re aware of them, when foregrounding other demographics in your work.
Look at where these other-demographic identities manifest in your story. Are they positive attributes, something that enriches the character’s inner and outer life? Or do they only exist in negative associations?
HUGE RED FLAG: Do historically marginalized identities only emerge in ways that flesh out the characters with identities treated as status quo? Do these “other” identities primarily serve to allow status-quo characters to perform their prejudice toward other demographics?
Where is your character’s community? Why aren’t there other folks with similar identities in your story? Does this “othered” character recognize that they’re living in diaspora, or otherwise at a remove from folks more like them? How does this make them feel? When and where is this negotiated? And is it negotiated for their own benefit, or (as seen in #6) for the development of those characters treated as status quo?
Look at the character’s journey. How much of a load have you placed on a marginalized character to realize that the problem they were facing was internal all along?
What kind of systemic issues are confronted in your text, and how many of them are reflecting the needs and nuances of your characters from historically marginalized demographics?
What have you done to ensure that this character’s behaviour feels coherently shaped by the different subject-position they would have inhabited all their life inside your world?
Don’t half-ass it. If you’re going to introduce another demographic, especially a traditionally/historically marginalized identity, don’t just gesture at it vaguely, in the hope that you’ll be safer from criticism if you don’t pin down exactly which group you’re trying to include.
No, your characters don’t need to stand and proclaim “I AM X!”–but there are other ways to code identity concretely in the work. Use them.
You are not “safer” from making mistakes by treating all identities other than, say, white, heterosexual, or able-bodied as amorphous and interchangeable.
More often than not, this is worse.
Accept that you will screw up.
Because you will. You will!
We’re human, what it means to be human in different demographics is in constant flux — and so, we’ll always be learning as we go.
But you will screw up a lot more if you’re not: a) honest about intentions, b) aware that you can’t just swap in other identities to a core tale, and c) committed to learning what you don’t know.
And lastly, even though you will screw up:
DO THE WORK ANYWAY.
Recognize that this isn’t easy, that you probably won’t be rewarded for “getting it right”, and that you will be critiqued for “getting it wrong”. Why? Because this is all just part of the process!
However, rest assured: Over time, with refinement, thinking about these critical elements of writing the world well will come as naturally to you as any other aspect of the craft.
As it should.
For now: Good luck, and better skill, whenever you next “converse” with yourself about these issues, and how they currently manifest within your work.
M L Clark encourages writers to explore how they’re writing other subject-positions, by taking 11 considerations into account.Tweet
M L Clark is an author of speculative and science-fiction stories (some of which you can find at Clarkesworld and Analog), and a reviewer of SF&F books and films for Strange Horizons. Clark’s four-novella SF-mystery series, Menagerie Mysteries, is also now available for download or pre-order. Third Planet Falls Down released on December 14, 2020, on kindle , Kobo, and Gumroad. Book 2, The Moon Is Not My Name, launches January 12, 2021.