Othering and You

I've been talking a lot about creating interesting characters in disparate conversations the last couple of days. On Twitter, I've had a little back-and-forth with some of Brad King's digital storytelling students at Ball State University (he just inflicted my Beyond the Brunette talk on them.) My pal @bluinkalchemist wrote a couple of posts on how to write female characters, from a male point of view. And just today, @ChuckWendig chimed in on the same topic

I'd encourage you to read all of those posts -- including the comments, there's some great conversation going on. But as long as I'm doing so much talking, I thought I'd cross-post or expand on some of the things I've been saying. First up, this was my comment on the Wendigatory blog: 

Not every work *has* to pass the Bechdel Test. A lot of very fine works of art don’t, and couldn’t be made to without losing something for it. The point is more to underline broad patterns, in media and in your own work. If you never, ever pass the Bechdel test… maybe you should think about why. But shoving unnecessary women into your mid-century boys’ boarding school coming-of-age story isn’t doing anybody any favors, either.

And: I actually think a lot of bad female characters come from that self-consciousness, the idea that women are some fundamentally different, alien race, who like shoes and shopping and go hormone-crazy. That’s nonsense. Female characters are human beings, and you should write their internal motivations as such.

The way you can trip yourself up with the othering, though, and make a bunch of white/male/straight/cis/etc. characters who are allegedly diverse but don’t ring true… that’s when you’re creating a character without adequately reflecting on how the world treats that kind of person, and how they’ve been shaped by and react to that treatment. Or when you make a bunch of assumptions about motivations (like “all girls love shopping,” “all fat people are always eating and never exercise”) that don’t actually reflect the authentic experiences of people in those positions.

Beta readers are good for this. Have women read your female characters. Have teens read your teens. Have Koreans read your Koreans. If you screw it up and go down the path of shallow, offensive, or just plain wrong, they might be able to help you to fix it before it’s too late, and they’ll point out the unexamined biases you need to ditch so you don’t do it again in the future.

So! Let's say that you have a story and you've suddenly discovered it doesn't pass the Bechdel test. What do you do? I'm not in favor of introducing new female characters just for the sake of having them; I like lean fiction, where everything serves a purpose. But what else is there to do?

Or let's say you have a story and you've realized, egads, all of your characters are white! Well, look, there are stories where an all-white or all-male cast are necessary to the story you're trying to tell. But you should be absolutely sure that it's because that's your story, and not because you never questioned your default settings.

So. How to fix it?

If nothing else, look very hard at your existing characters to see if there's a compelling reason they're all male or white. Odds are you can do some gender and race-bending and come out with the same story, but more proportionately representative, now. Remember that judges, lawyers, cops, politicians, soldiers, gamers, scientists, all also come in female flavors, and in all ethnicities.

It shouldn't be a direct conversion, though. You're going to have to think about how gender and race affected that character, and sometimes that's going to mean addressing or incorporating racism and sexism, and that character's history with it. Being gender-blind and color-blind is a fast track to writing characters that simply don't ring true, because they're not rooted in the deeper truths of the world we live in, which isn't post-race or post-gender, no matter how much we may wish it is.

Otherwise, you wind up with Pete Ross' mom in Smallville: she was a black female judge in small-town Kansas, and yet somehow, this isn't noteworthy enough for anybody to ever mention? It's not unbelievable that a black woman could be in that position, but it is unbelievable that it's completely unremarkable.

This is hard work. This is not the easy way to do it. But hey, if you've read this far, this means that you care, and you're trying, and as they said in G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle. You'll get there, don't worry.

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