Being a Good Ally and Activist in Fiction

It's no secret that I have some strong feelings about sexism, racism, phobias and prejudices of many varieties. Naturally, I want to bring this perspective to bear on Felicity and make a point of including people-not-like-me in the work. It's turned into a thorny creative question for me, as it happens.

As previously noted, the main theme of Felicity has to do with the deep unfairness of life. So Felicity has to have a lot going on for her; she's the picture of privilege, right? Lindsay, on the other hand, was conceived as her counterweight. Originally, that meant he'd be The Unluckiest Person in the World.

After a little thought, I realized that wasn't workable. The truly unluckiest person in the world would either be dead before any story got going or would be enduring a degree of suffering so intense that I wouldn't be able to tell a fun adventure story with him in it. So Lindsay isn't the absolute unluckiest person in the world, he's just a person to whom a higher than average number of bad things happen.

Here's where I start to go off the rails. I was noodling about the characters I'll need, trying to think about pointedly including people-who-aren't-like-me into Felicity as prominent characters, and of course I looked to Lindsay. Surely it's unlucky to be certain religions and to look certain ways; it's unlucky to be gay, disabled, transgender, and so on. So Lindsay could be some combination of these things and that would be very unlucky indeed, right? Eureka! I'm being a good ally by making an important character some sort of muffin basket of oppression. Righteous smugness rises within me.

...But actually that's a really problematic approach. It implies that being any of these things is unlucky in and of itself, missing the part where it's unlucky because of the framework of hatred that people with these attributes are exposed to. In the real world, the unlucky thing isn't being black or Muslim or trans. If I made Lindsay these things, given the overarching themes of this particular story, I might well be saying something about who he is instead of just what happens to him. And that wouldn't be the message I want to convey. 

There's another issue with this approach, too, and that's one of appropriation and of sensitivity. Lindsay is the voice with which I'll be telling much of the story. I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that I can include diverse characters in my work, even as major characters, and do them justice. I am less convinced that I could tell a story from the point of view of, for example, a young man who is black and Muslim, and not get it so wrong that everyone would hate me. And I don't want that to happen.

It's a fine line to walk, that line between trying to make people visible in your work who often are not, and pretending to speak on behalf of groups you're not a part of. Probably I'll get it wrong, in this and in future works, but meanwhile I am at least thinking about it real hard. Practice makes perfect?


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