The recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag that trended on Twitter resurrected that old canard: angst over writing diverse characters. I thought I would offer my own experiences with that.
First, some background. Much (though not all) of my fiction is centered my own identities as a gay African-American. Even though I am marginalized, I, like everyone, have blinders on and am guilty of being solipsistic.
A few years ago, I wrote a story where an editor said that the female character–who was a background character–was portrayed in a sexist manner. (She had a touch of the Manic Pixie about her). My immediate reaction was to get defensive (which I did internally; I believe I said aloud, “Really?”). So, the story lay dormant for a year. When I was invited to a workshop, where at least half of the participants were women, I took this flawed piece there. While the women (and some of the men) did not outright say that the woman in the piece was sexist, they pointed out that my Manic Pixie did not live beyond the page, and had fallen prey to some tropes. Re-reading the piece, I saw what they were talking about. I revisited the piece after I had absorbed the critiques, and fixed the story. Which, by the way, probably still has some flaws. Most art does.
There are several lessons I learned:
1. Everyone has blind spots and unconsciously uses shortcuts and stereotypes.
2. When people call a character portrayal sexist/racist/homophobic etc., they are not always talking about you*; they are talking about the piece. It just means that something from the dominant culture just slipped through, or you have a blind spot.
3. When you have a piece of fiction where you are unsure of the voice or the characters, workshop it.
I can’t stress the first point strongly enough. Some of the most egregious examples of stereotyping come from black authors. (Ever watched a Tyler Perry drama?) African American fiction is rife with skin/food metaphors, full of cocoa-mocha-caramel colored heroes & heroines. Various rape tropes, particularly the pernicious rape=rough sex, was (and maybe still is) a feature of the salacious bodice-rippers my mother used to read (and I secretly read), many of which were written by female authors. So, this isn’t about a “gotcha” moment or moral superiority or “Oppression Olympics”. It’s about refining your craft.
The second point does need a disclaimer; there are writers who are proud bigots*. But most people are not consciously cruel. And here’s another thing: you don’t have to agree with the critique. There are people who can’t separate a repellent POV from the overall tone of the work, people who are lazy readers, and people who miss the point. I view ‘writing diversely’ as another way of saying ‘writing mindfully.’ You already go through the piece word by word, semi-colon by semi-colon, examining everything you have written put on the page. You also need to see what things you’re saying, and examine the subtexts.
The third point: getting feedback on difficult pieces is essential. ‘Nough said.
Finally, a fourth point. Read diverse fiction. I believe that many people who worry about writing diverse characters or fall into the lazy stereotype trap don’t actually read diverse fiction. Make a point to read your genre of fiction (and beyond) from a wide range of authors.You’ll absorb techniques and get insights. You’ll get ideas. You’ll get inspired. Those voices are out there, waiting to be heard.
The recently released Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Daniel José Older and Rose Fox sounds like a good place to start.