Writing the Other: 4 Not So Easy (But Doable!) Steps | Jane Friedman

Writing the Other: 4 Not So Easy (But Doable!) Steps | Jane Friedman

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author and book coach Samantha Cameron.

Most writers know the importance of portraying underrepresented characters in their work but are anxious when it comes to writing about an identity other than their own. There’s pressure to get it right, and so many ways it can go wrong.

If you feel uncertain in any way about representing an underrepresented community in your work, I want you to pause, take a breath, and embrace this anxiety.

Wait, you might be thinking, aren’t you supposed to be giving me a pep talk about how this is going to be okay?

I will. In a minute. But first, I want you to embrace your anxiety about this issue, because it means you care. It means you understand that representing people whose experiences are different than your own is a meaningful responsibility. Of course you want to do it well, so that you don’t hurt people. and some part of you is worried about backlash if you “get it wrong.”

Because the consequences of getting this wrong can be significant, it can feel overwhelming to even approach this issue. So, some writers shut down and decide they don’t want to approach it at all.

Perfectionism is trying to save you from the dangers of criticism, which feeds you the lie, You’re better off not touching this. Let someone else do it. So, the first important thing to recognize is that there is no such thing as perfect representation. You’re never going to create a character that everyone universally agrees is perfect representation just like you’re never going to create a perfect book that everyone universally loves.

That doesn’t mean you stop trying. Just like you still strive to create a page-turning plot even though you know it will never be perfect. Rather than focusing on doing a perfect performance of what “good” representation is, your focus should be on creating three-dimensional characters and minimizes how much harm you do.

Okay, so how do you even do that? Although there is no formula for “perfect” representation, here are four steps that will pave the way to better representation—and better writing!

1. Conduct wide-ranging, deep research.

The first step is to conduct research about the community you are trying to represent. As much as possible, strive to see this community with inside eyes, rather than solely an outsider’s perspective. If your research about what it’s like to be transgender is exclusively from the New York Times, you won’t have the full picture or the same perspective as you would get by reading The Washington Blade, an exclusively LGBTQ+ newspaper, or by reading GLAAD’s reporting.

When you’re doing this research, start with sources that are already available—books, podcasts, blogs, etc.—rather than immediately turning to the people in your life who identify with the community you are trying to represent. I’ve been guilty of this, and I’m grateful to the friends who have indulged my questions and sent me resources before I knew better. Some of your friends and loved ones might be happy to talk to you, but it can be a lot of emotional work. They may not want to unpack that with you. Besides, there are plenty of other people who have made it a part of their paid work to educate people about these topics. Go to those resources first.

2. Engage the help of beta or sensitivity readers.

No matter how much research you do, you might miss something. So, seek feedback from sensitivity readers. They will specifically focus on your representation of a particular group. Some guidelines:

  • Have multiple sensitivity readers with a wide range of experiences. No group is a monolith, so a “pass” from one sensitivity reader does not guarantee your manuscript has avoided all harmful tropes.
  • Look for areas of consensus. If most or all of your readers say that a certain part of your manuscript makes them feel a certain way and it’s not the way you wanted them to feel, that’s an indication to revise.
  • Sensitivity readers are usually described as people who are from within the community you are trying to represent. I read an interesting piece from Brooke Warner in which she points out that while that kind of feedback is useful, you can get very good sensitivity readings from people outside of a community, and not very useful feedback from within. Basically, she’s pointing out that people can internalize tropes, biases and stereotypes about their own identities and not necessarily be aware of how that manifests on the page. Or, a particular person might not be bothered by a trope that really hurts a lot of other people in the community.

3. Cultivate your awareness of bias and tropes.

Back in 2019, one of my friends pointed me to an excellent Harry Potter podcast called Witch, Please! The hosts are lady scholars who are fans of the series but evaluate it from a critical lens. Before I listened to this podcast, I had very little awareness of anti-fat bias. In the podcast, the hosts discuss the ways that Rowling uses fatness as a shortcut for moral degeneracy. She is able to use these tropes because she can count on her audience to have the same biases. The pervasiveness and invisibility are what makes tropes and stereotypes so pernicious.

I realized when I listened to this podcast that I had a character in one of my books where I’d done basically the same thing. I’d used his fatness as a shortcut for characterizing him as villainous. So, I went and reworked that character. Instead of making him fat, I made him muscular and conventionally attractive and had to rely on other ways of communicating to the reader that this was not a trustworthy guy. In addition to removing that particular anti-fat trope, reworking this relatively minor character made him much more compelling and scarier than he originally had been. Which leads to my next point…

4. Make your characters more than their marginalization.

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes—and so should all your characters. We are all affected by facets of our identity, but that isn’t the whole sum of who we are. So, any time you are adding characters to your cast with an eye on “diversity,” treat them the way you treat any character. This means that you make sure these characters serve a purpose. They aren’t merely there to check the diversity box or be the butt of a joke, but to play a role in the story. They should matter such that their removal would alter the story. It also means making each character distinguishable by traits other than their race/sexual orientation/gender/body etc. So, if you have a gay character, they should also have other traits that distinguish them from other characters the same way that you would distinguish straight characters from each other. In addition to being better representation, this is better writing.

Finally, it’s okay to show your characters grappling with their own biases.

Many writers export the pressure we feel to be perfectly informed, anti-biased creatures onto our characters. For kid lit authors, this pressure is especially acute since our characters serve as role models to children. But, it can be more realistic, not to mention a much better learning experience, to show characters who are genuinely confronting their own bias.

Consider this example from Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon is a closeted gay teenager who has been exchanging anonymous emails with another closeted boy at his school. In this scene, Simon is at a Halloween party with his friends:

“Leah, did you know you have a really Irish face?”

She looks at me. “What?”

“You guys know what I mean. Like an Irish face. Are you Irish?”

“Um, not as far as I know.”

Abby laughs.

“My ancestors are Scottish,” someone says. I look up, and it’s Martin Addison wearing bunny ears.

“Yeah, exactly,” I say as Martin sits beside Abby, close but not too close. “Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”

“If you say so.”

and Nick’s are from Israel.”

“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”

So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.

“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know…” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.

“West African. I think.”

“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”

“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.

and fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.

There are several reasons why this scene is so effective.

  • First, Simon’s biases are explicitly called out, giving Simon—and the reader—a chance to learn from them.
  • Second, the call out isn’t just a random attempt to educate the reader. It is specifically relevant to the point of the book, which is about the ways that our assumptions can be misleading.
  • Third, this moment is a plot clue. Several times in the narrative, Albertalli draws attention to Simon’s blind spots about Black people, because it is relevant to the plot.

How’s your anxiety?

It’s possible that you’ve read all this and now feel more anxious and less confident than you did coming in. You might read this and think, this sounds like hard work.

Yes, it is.

Writing a book is hard work.

Taking care in your representation may not make anyone’s life easier, but at least you reduce your chances of hurting someone or making someone else’s life harder.

So, roll up your sleeves. This work isn’t easy. But you can do it.

Samantha Cameron

Sam Cameron (she/her) is a high school history teacher, YA author, and Author Accelerator Certified book coach specializing in kid lit. She writes the weekly Substack Truant Pen where she shares actionable advice for stuck writers. You can take Sam’s free quiz, “Is my manuscript LGBTQ+ inclusive?” on her website.

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