There’s a lot being said these days about the importance of including people from many different corners of humanity in our writing (for example, see this essay from Daniel José Older on Writing the Other). Like many writers, I’m coming from a position squarely in the middle of society: white, middle-class, cis-gendered, educated, American, Christian. How can I bring different kinds of people into my stories, without in some way trying to co-opt or trivialize other people’s stories? Here are three ways the characters in my current story break from my own experience, and how I’m coping with it (with varying degrees of success).
- My main character, Kay, is very much like me. Aside from being decades younger than I am, the main way she differs from me is that she’s a drifter with no fixed address, someone who bounces from job to job and mostly lives out of her car. So not quite in the comfortable middle-class world that is mine, but not far out. I have no trouble imagining her and clearly delineating her world view. One of my critique partners made me very happy when he mentioned casually that a particular event would be particularly disturbing to Kay, since she’s one who always wants to get out and run. That’s exactly how I think of her, and it’s nice to know some of that came across to this reader.
- Two of the important secondary characters, Naia and Alex, are in a lesbian relationship. That’s the way the characters presented themselves to me, and I’m very comfortable with them this way. So comfortable that their relationship is not mentioned in the story at all for the first ten chapters, because there was so much happening fast and furiously that it just never came up. Finally, at a peak of tension, when Naia goes out of their place of relative safety to scout for trouble, Alex tells her to be careful and they exchange a kiss before Naia says, “Always am. I’ll be back.” My critique partners loved this, finding it a quick way to emphasize the danger and heighten the reader’s emotional involvement. The jury is still out on whether I should go back and their involvement clearer in earlier sections, or whether this can be a good place to reveal it. I think I may compromise and drop some hints earlier that, in retrospect, indicate their relationship, but have Kay not pick up on it because, seriously, there are Other Things Going On!
- Naia has another characteristic of the Other: she’s Black. This is the area where I’m on the shakiest ground, and not at all confident about how I’m handling it. There are two reasons for her ethnicity. One is that I’m one of the many people concerned about increasing representation for people of color in books, so I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. The other is that one thing I do as I’m developing characters is search the Internet for photos that seem to fit the person I’m imagining, which I can look at as I’m writing to keep me grounded in their different voices and visions. The photo I found for Naia happens to be a Black woman, lovely and confident, with a big happy smile and a mop of unapologetic dreads. She’s the kind of woman who goes out to slaughter horrible monsters from another dimension with a big freaking sword and enjoy it. But my critique partners scolded me for describing her “coffee-colored” skin as a cliché. They ask me why I’ve named her ethnicity but not the ethnicity of anyone else in the party. They point out the times when I’ve mentioned another character’s eye or hair color, but not hers. I find myself described by Rule 2 in the article about Writing the Other that I linked to above: I suck. Naia’s ethnicity is feeling, to me and therefore to my readers, as something glued on, not an integral part of who she is, and quite possibly patronizing.
How do I move forward? There are two paths I can take. I can buckle down and do a better job of bringing Naia’s ethnicity to life. To do that I’d need to do a thread analysis in revision, where I search for every mention of Naia and track how she’s introduced, how she’s described, how she acts, and how others react to her. I’d have to make this whole thread consistent, with her ethnicity integral but not central. Then I’d ask my friends and colleagues who are themselves women of color to read those sections and give me honest reactions. My other choice is to acknowledge that I’m not ready to write a convincing, authentic person of color, and backtrack to make her white, like me. That feels like a failure, but it might be the most honest choice.
I’m wrestling with this concern right now, and will be until I finish this revision pass, at least through the end of the year. Then I’ll have to make a choice.
I’d love to hear what you think. Any advice will be most helpful!