Are You Being Brave in Your Character Choice?

So, I am going to clumsily lay some thoughts down here – clumsy, because I am still learning myself and am always open to interpretation and education.

When I talk about brave character choices, I mean those who don’t fit into automatic assumptions by white readers. So those on the LGBTQIA spectrum, those who are not white, or those who are on the spectrum of Asperger’s/autism.

First of all, if you (the author of the work) are not LGBTQIA or are white, but want to write a character into your novel who is bisexual, say, or Asian, have enormous consideration and sympathy. Do your research. Talk to people. Hire one of the enormously talented sensitivity readers who are able to consider whether you have captured the true essence of those characters.

For the love of God, don’t follow horrible cliches – the gay best friend, the Tourette’s sufferer who merely shouts out swear words. Use these characters as characters – they need to drive your plot forwards, not just be ‘oh woe is me’ about how gay they are. They need to be three dimensional, and representative of real people.

Understand that with this character, you are representing a vast amount of people who live that life ALL THE TIME. They want to feel that someone has ‘got’ them, has shown them well, not that the author has missed the point and hammered home the same old points they see all the time.

I have made this post because I am editing a novel with an autistic character, and the symptoms have been shown subtly as part of the plot itself, but are clear enough that anyone reading it who is autistic would be able to say, ‘this character is like me.’ Their autism isn’t the plot device, it is an incidental part of a well-rounded character who deals with social situations in a different manner to which others might do. It is not played for laughs, or to show how traumatic it must be to have to deal with life as an autistic person. It is to show that there are autistic people in all walks of life, and they should therefore be represented in fiction as well.

Don’t ever be so scared of misrepresenting an alternative character that you just don’t bother – these characters need voices in literature as well, they need to feature on the page. If you’re worried, then do the aforementioned – read and research, talk, use beta readers who are more than aware of what it means to be asexual, or live as a black woman in a CIS white male dominated environment.

Try to avoid having your black characters (for instance) being the evil people. Especially avoid having people being able to identify the place where people come from by the colour of their skin.

Use the correct pronouns in novels, if you are going to include trans characters.

If, after your beta readers have read it, they feed back negatively i.e. you haven’t achieved a sensitive portrayal, then be prepared to pull a project – or accept that it needs a great deal of work to make it acceptable. And be prepared for people to see points that you might not have intended but that inadvertently cause offence – sure, you managed to create a very acceptable polyamorous, feminist society in your novel, but you didn’t realise that your Asian characters were described as exotic, or with almond-shaped eyes. To you, that seemed acceptable, but your sensitivity reader informed you that it could be considered deeply offensive – pay attention! Don’t think to yourself that most readers won’t notice it, because enough will and they will call you out.

It is scary to try to represent characters in your novels that are not like you – the fear of getting it wrong can make anyone pause – but it is desperately important to challenge yourself to think sympathetically about how life might be like. It is even more important to show a full range of characters in your novels. We live in a world with gay men, with asexual women, with black people, with trans people – how can your fiction not represent the same?

Alright, I’m done. And I would love feedback here, concerning anything I have misrepresented or any edits I ought to make because I am also scared about putting a post out there of this nature.

 

2 thoughts on “Are You Being Brave in Your Character Choice?

  1. OK, also clumsily thinking out loud here: Do not be afraid to have non white non hetero characters be not 100% wonderful. They should be characters first, and characters are good an bad and,,,,just like the real people you know, whatever colour or orientation they are. For every character you need to make them..real. If they are your protag, yes they need o be liekable, but they need to be real as well. If you are writing in this world (as opposed to SFF worlds) then real world thing need to affect them, just as they would any other character — it;s just that the things that affect them may be very different, and may also e things you have never thought of which is why beta readers are invaluable,. Also, don;’t feel bad about not realising until a beta reader points out what you’d never thought of..

    Addendum: if you are not POC/LGBT etc, then I think it;s great to include characters like this in your novel; protags. side characters, walk ons etc (it reflects real life after all). I would be wary/do a butt load of research if your novel is ABOUT being one of those things. I’m not saying don’t do it– ( it can and has been done well) but I am saying you really really need to know your stuff and be sensitive. “My mate is X and they think it’s fine” probably won’t cut it.

    Thanks Amanda, good post for us flounderers xx Beat readers gave saved my skin more than once!

  2. If your story would benefit from the inclusion of non-hetero/non-white/autistic/whatever characters, you absolutely should write them in if you can pull it off. In those case, not only is it the brave choice, it’s also the smart choice.

    That said… I think it’s a mistake to believe that all stories would benefit from such inclusions. If you have to weaken your main plot just to work in a five-thousand sub-plot to subtly introduce Character X’s same-sex spouse, or if you need to kill the pacing of a scene to describe exactly how Character Y differs from stereotypical Korean gamers… maybe it’s better to have Characters X and Y simply be regular hetero white males.

    (Of course, while that argument is a valid concern, it’s also a pretty convenient excuse not to even try to be inclusive. I’m certainly going to be taking a long look at my manuscript in the coming days to figure out whether or not I stepped in this particular trap.)

    Also, there’s that whole “if you can pull it off” bit. You need extensive knowledge of (and experience with) a particular background/condition to write a character living with that background/condition convincingly. In practice, it means interacting with people (in person), not just reading about them or relying on media portrayals.

    That means realizing that diversity goes way beyond skin color/sexual orientation/gender/mental states. African-Americans from NYC are not the same as Haitian expats living in Montreal, Canada, or Somalian refugees living in Paris. Heck – there are enormous cultural differences between French-Canadians living in Manitoba, Montrealers, and Quebec City residents. It’s important to be aware of those differences when writing fiction, because believe me, it really shows when you fail to properly portray someone from a particular background. Georges St-Pierre appearance as Batroc in Captain America: the Winter Soldier was hilarious for pretty much every Franchophone around the world, because he’s so obviously Québécois and not French.

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