Who needs issues when you have whole subscriptions?

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.

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6 comments on “Who needs issues when you have whole subscriptions?

  1. Pthalo says:

    I follow the blogs of several agents (because one day I hope to get published, and i’m hoping to absorb some knowledge over time so that when I do eventually start querying, once I finish the novel, that is, I won’t be a total n00b. So it was really refreshing when right after I started hearing about the “make the gay characters straight” scandal, several agents I follow immediately posted things like “our agency never mentioned this on our submissions page, because we thought it went without saying in this day and age, but we’re happy to have GLBTQ characters, but now we’re going to mention this explicitly.” So that really lessened the sting for me — there are some homophobic agencies out there, but clearly not all of them are homophobic, so yay.

    And I think you’re spot on about books that get a certain character wrong. it’s hard to write women if you think of women as those flighty, over-emotional creatures and have them going into hysterics every few pages. I’ve read too many stories written by men who seemed to have never spoken to a real live woman, despite claiming to be married with children.

    Have you read the Wheel of Time series? Robert Jordan was clearly trying to have strong female characters — he did have a lot of them — but they were all so alien to me. They weren’t like the woman I am or the women I knew. Then he died, sadly, and Brandon Sanderson was hired to see the series to its completion based on copious notes the author had left on his deathbed. And the difference in female characters is amazing. Without changing their personalities too much, he made the female characters come alive, and turn into the likeable, smart, strong female characters that Jordan was trying for. Compare all of the female characters in the Gathering Storm to them in the preceding book. It’s like a breath of fresh air, after ten(?) books of smoothing skirts nervously and pulling their hair in frustration and being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

    Anyway, if you started WoT but gave up somewhere in the middle where there are a few books where not much happens, catch up on wikipedia and skip to the Gathering Storm.

    As for issue fiction, I like it sometimes if it’s done well, but sometimes it just feels like an after school special and it makes me cranky. I really do prefer “This is a book about taming dragons and saving the world and the protagonist happens to be a lesbian” than “This is a book Sally, the lesbian.” Or “This is a book about Sally and Jane’s marriage, and struggling to keep the flame alive after ten years, and ultimately falling in love with each other again.” instead of “This is a book about Sally and how hard and tragic it is to be a lesbian.”

    Example of this done really well: Marshall’s character in The United States of Tara. He’s gay. And his character’s growth arc is “shy young teenager exploring his nascent sexuality and navigating his first relationships to older teenager who is more confident in himself and his preferences.” and the show isn’t about being gay at all. He’s just gay because he likes boys and that’s okay.

    You’ll do fine, Will. And if you’re worried, you can ask a female friend, a gay friend, a transgendered friend to proofread it for you. :)

  2. Will Wildman says:

    I haven’t read Wheel of Time, because I am unabashedly prejudiced against bajillion-volume series of doorstopper novels, and because I had been hearing for years that Robert Jordan had hugigantic issues with gender. I was really happy to hear Sanderson would be finishing the series, not least because his previous works (like the Mistborn trilogy) seemed pretty solid in terms of female characterisation (if maybe a bit low on representation). I’m just not sure I want to leap in at book 12 of 15 and have so much catching up to do. But since I inherited the first seven or so volumes from a roommate, it might not be too difficult to get a sense of what it was like pre-Sanderson.

  3. I loved this post, Will.

    I really feel your pain on the fiction writing and including people who are Not Like Me. I’m in the midst of writing a fairy tale novel that is set in Italy in the 1400s, but I decided that if I was going to have *fairies* walking around in broad daylight cursing people, I was also going to have a completely multi-racial society and I was going to have characters who were black. Why? Because I’m tired of fantasy always being so dang white-washed in the name of “historical accuracy” or some such silliness. Because fairies are historically accurate, amiright?

    I’ve had SO MUCH ANGST over my black characters. Am I portraying them right? Am I using the right language? Am I being subconsciously racist at all? Am I keeping them as *people* and not cardboard cutouts or mary sues? Am I writing Epic Fail without realizing it?

    Thankfully, I have an online writing partner (who is the nicest sweetest kindest person in the world to put up with me) and she happens to be black, and she’s been kind enough to point out when I get details wrong, like how to appropriately describe skin color without sounding like an idiot or how her hair texture differs from mine. I’m so grateful because though it’s most definitely not her job in life to point out my ignorance, she’s been willing to do so and that’s so kind of her.

    I’ve come to the realization that many of my favorite authors don’t stick to an all-white-cast out of racism but because they fear failure. It’s easier to simply exclude others in your writing than to try and fail badly. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD thing.

    And, really, it’s only “easy” if you don’t want to be error-checked by someone. So, I’ll tell you what, if you ever have any “womanly” questions, don’t hesitate to email me and I’ll answer. But I get to ask about cis-straight-males in return because I’m not sure I can write those believably at all. *grins*

    Although now I’m going to angst because there are only three people in my (very small) cast that might be non-straight. And since their sexuality hasn’t really come up as a plot point, readers will probably cast them as hetero. I wonder if I should edit or just leave be?

  4. Will Wildman says:

    Ana, I would reply directly to more of the stuff you’re talking about, except there should be a follow-up post or two to this one (on the weekend, maybe?) that will go into Even More Too Much Detail about my thoughts/experiences with exactly what you’re talking about – arbitrary ‘historical accuracy’, retroactively diversifying casts, or trying to make decisions about how much of a character’s life to explore for the sole purpose of highlighting their demography. (This will be the post to explain Dead Gay Wizard Blood Curative Elixir mentioned in this blog’s intro, so… yay?)

    I am boggled to imagine what straight-cis-male stuff you could want to ask about, since we’re swimming in a culture that assumes such a person is the definition of ‘normal’, but you are of course welcome to query me at any time.

    [Edit]
    I would, however, love to know what advice your friend shared on describing physical features properly. In particular, I’ve heard people talk about ‘textured’ hair, and that just sets off all sorts of hold-it alarms, because everything has a texture, so what this seems to come down to is ‘textured’ = ‘textured in a manner other than Normal’ = ‘exotic and strange’.

  5. anamardoll says:

    Haha, yeah, I kind of meant the cis-straight-male thing as half-irony because we ARE steeped in it, but at the same time it’s half-not-irony because you do get a fair amount of stereotyping done to you as well. Or is it true what I hear that you are all completely, 100% controlled by the urges from your genitals? *eyeroll*

    With my story, the two biggies so far was that (a) I was gently cautioned to use either “black skin” or “dark brown skin” as descriptors, but not “dark black skin” because the latter term is a little confusing / loaded, and (b) I have sketches of the main cast but their sketches are based on pictures of people with modern hair products available and my friend pointed out that one of the black women was wearing a weave AND that she probably wouldn’t be able to gently push her hair behind her ear in the manner I was describing. So that got fixed as well and the hair-brushed-behind-the-ear scene was reworded. *sheepish*

    My biggest concern now is that of my cast of 8, my black characters are only 3, and they aren’t really front and center characters. This is partly because the 5 front and center characters are all either HORRIBLE PEOPLE (depending on how you look at them) or WILL DIE HORRIBLY, and I didn’t want my first foray into writing a black character to be either Villain or Victim. Which is probably racist in its own way because there’s a voice in my head saying, “Ana, minorities can be victims and villains, too! Share the love!” *hangs head*

    I’m going to be a little more ambitious in the next novel, but I do feel bad that I didn’t reach for the stars more here.

  6. Alynda says:

    I wrote a short story for an English university course once (well, I wrote several stories for said class, but one in particular comes to mind). It was about a young woman at her (female) lover’s funeral, and included a review of her historical bad luck at funerals. It was funny, it was somewhat insightful, but one of my classmates (we peer-edited) said she’d shown it to a friend of hers who is gay and that they decided my story was not reflective of “The Gay Experience.” I sat in my sneakers, jeans, boyfriend blazer, and t-shirt with short cropped hair, minimal jewelry, trimmed and unpolished nails and thought, ‘Huh. Well, that’s making an assumption not typically made of me’. What I felt (and what I, the actually straight person confirmed later with the not-closeted-homosexual professor) was that the end of the story wasn’t reflective of the Human Experience because I as the author had shied away from emotions and a part of myself that I wasn’t ready to explore. Not adding anything to your post, really; just sharing a humorous anecdote to say “I agree with your point.”

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