These thoughts coalesced when I heard about Brown and Smith’s experiences with an agent asking them to make a gay character straight in their new novel.
I was not the most socially aware teenager. That’s not exactly uncommon, especially for an introverted (and self-absorbed!) straight white cis upper-middle-class dude. I had plenty of issues to work through to get comfortable with gender concepts, but those are subjects for another post when I feel like more direct navel-gazing. Today is a day for indirect navel gazing! Possibly for gazing at other people’s navels, if they are okay with that.
My point is that when I discovered that I could expand my social life using the internet, I subsequently discovered that there were a bunch of awesome people out there who were rather miffed at being mis- and underrepresented in modern fiction on the basis of their demography: anyone who identifies with any parts of the QUILTBAG* array, anyone with black or Asian or aboriginal (North American, South American, Australian) or basically any kind of heritage other than Caucasian, and it does go on. It turns out that there are a lot of people out there with identities and perspectives dissimilar to mine – and, probably equally disturbing, people who are incredibly similar to me but get told they are not, because of differences like the above.
People talk about how difficult it is to write someone ‘not like them’. A couple of weeks ago my dad remarked to me about how it’s “known” that it’s hard to write a female protagonist; I’m not clear on whether he mentally meant ‘it’s hard for men to write female points-of-view’. A year or two ago I chimed into a conversation by noting that I had a difficult time getting into the heads of gay male characters. (I was, thankfully, met with askance views that gently, Socratically pointed out that this was almost definitely due to remaining latent homophobia on my part. I am reasonably sure that was true – hopefully no longer.)
Also spurred by Brown and Smith’s article, s.e. smith wrote at Tiger Beatdown about the problem of fiction with ‘minority’ characters being automatically characterised as ‘issue fiction’. (This is as good a time as any to note that I love Tiger Beatdown with a deep and abiding love. Garland Grey if you are still looking for a roommate I am sure we could work something out.) To drastically summarise smith’s article, there is a difference between ‘fiction about lesbian issues’ and ‘fiction, which contains women, some percentage of whom are into women’; there is a difference between ‘black fiction’ and ‘fiction, the author of which happens to be black’. There’s a difference between ‘issue fiction’ and ‘fiction which does not completely erase the people who show up in issue fiction’.
I have no interest in writing issue fiction. I would be terrible at it; my intellectual empathy** is rubbish much of the time and I have no applicable experiences in any of those areas. But I do want to include lots of people who are not straight white cis male etc etc people. (The many benefits of doing so will be explored in a follow-up post.) My only option is to write stories which include bisexual people and South Asian people and third-gendered people and such and basically treat them like any other character.
This, ultimately, is not that hard. There is never going to be a single right way to write Florica (the artful thief who slowly ascends to deityhood by infusing herself with more and more mystic spirits) or Chaz (the brash young doctor who helps the rest of the cast stay both practical and compassionate during the End of Days) just because Florica’s lesbian and Chaz is trans. There are plenty of wrong ways to do both, this I know, and this I worried about for a long time, until I stumbled into a particular discussion regarding badly-portrayed fictional women.
If there is one thing I am always ready to believe, it’s that there is something vitally important that I need to know and don’t. (About anything. All things, at all times. Apparently this is typical of Enneagram Type 4 – again, a subject for a future post.) So I was all sorts of ready to find out what subtle misstep this author had made in writing a female character. It was kind of anticlimactic when this person explained that the problem was the way fictional woman had responded to workplace harassment: excitement, anticipation, calculation as to how she could best profit from her harasser’s behaviour to get financial compensation and preferential treatment. No fear, no horror, no powerful desire to escape the situation, just chessmistressy cogs clicking away.
Essentially, the character responded in a way entirely unlike any reasonable human being.
Mental note: female people should be written on the assumption that they will act like people. (Shocking twist?)
That was the ‘secret’ I needed to learn: the secret to accurately portraying other types of people is that there is no secret. Figure out who a person is, figure out what circumstances they live in and have lived in, and then write them on the assumption that they will act like people. It’s exactly the same process that applies to writing a white straight cis guy like me, if I’m trying to do a good job of the character and not a slapdash caricature.
The ‘problem’ I wonder about now is to what degree it is possible to avoid getting exiled into the Issue Fiction cornfield. I just grabbed a whiteboard and wrote out the cast list for the story featuring the aforementioned Chaz – out of the first twelve characters to come to mind, three are straight white cis guys, and of those three, two are relatively minor characters and the third is literally Satan incarnate. (I’m not sure whether Satan should count as straight either; he’s leaning more toward asexual.) And the whole thing is steeped in Christian premillennial dispensationalist mythology and deconstructed morality. I find it hard to imagine anyone would not categorise it as ‘issue fiction’; the fight would be over which issue shelf it should go on. Presumably, once they read enough to realise how thoroughly it rejects the whole Rapture-y Tribulation-y business, it would end up on some agglomerated ‘LGBT Interest’ shelf, at which point I would bust out my counterarguments involving the demography of the main characters (mostly straight PoC) and its theological relevance to other major Christian denominations.
Basically I’m saying I see no reason to make life easy for anyone who’s overly fond of declaring things to be ‘issue fiction’, and I hope to one day get some entertainment out of their consternation.
*Reminder: Queer/questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/transsexual, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay. Since I didn’t fully understand what ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual’ meant until a couple of years ago, it also took me a little while to grok that, for example, a woman who’s born with a male-associated body but is attracted to women is both transgender and lesbian. Life got easier when I adopted the Census-Taker’s Rule: “You tell me who you are; I don’t tell you who you are.” I think I got that from someone at the Slacktiverse, but can’t find whom at the moment.
**The way I recently heard it explained, ‘intellectual empathy’ is the ability to understand what other people are thinking/feeling and why they feel it, and ’emotional empathy’ is the tendency to care about it. A sociopath has excellent intellectual empathy (which allows them to manipulate others to get what they want) but no emotional empathy (which allows them to not care about how those manipulations might hurt anyone). An autistic person might have no intellectual empathy (other people’s minds are basically sealed units) but very strong emotional empathy (if they do understand another person’s suffering, it tears them apart). I lean heavily toward the latter side of the spectrum. I encourage friends to tell me if I’m being a jerk, lest they think I know I’m being a jerk and I don’t care.