The Siren’s Blog

WRITING DIVERSITY 22/6/2020

I’ve probably picked a rather controversial topic for my first real blog post, but here we are.

Today’s Twitter writing community controversy is about whether an author should write characters, especially main characters, outside of their own race, gender identity, or sexuality.

We already know that minority voices are woefully under-represented in publishing. If anyone should be telling their stories, it’s them. At the same time, authors are being encouraged to write more diverse characters and to be more inclusive in their work. Of course, this comes with a whole different problem in terms of using appropriate language. A writer must be careful not to fetishize skin colour, or gender identity, or sexuality. In these times of Twitter mob mentality, no author wants to find themselves the subject of a ‘call out’ tweet.

So what’s the solution? Should an author play it safe and avoid any depictions that might get them into trouble? Or would they be accused of racism based on their lack of diverse characters? It can sometimes feel like a no-win solution for authors, but maybe there is an answer.

Firstly, just because you can write something, doesn’t mean you should. Its not appropriate right now for a White author (as an example) to be writing fiction about a Black person’s struggles with racism. There are plenty of Black authors who are trying to break into publishing with their own stories on the subject. They are the ones who need to be heard, first and foremost.

But what if your story doesn’t involve a controversial subject matter? In this case, it’s important to realise that any minority group will have been shaped by their own life experiences, by the attitudes of people around them, and by the way society has treated them. Would I– a cis, White woman–be able to write a Trans character and portray them in a true and comprehensive way? The answer is ‘probably not.’ I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but again, ask yourself if you should be writing this story when so many Trans people still aren’t getting past the biased publishing gatekeepers. However, there might be a legitimate reason why you want to write a particular story. Maybe you want to tell the story of someone who cannot tell it themselves. Maybe they want you, as someone they trust, to write their story for them. There are always exceptions to the rules, and things are rarely black and white. This is where things get confusing. Sometimes, a character’s race, or gender, or sexuality is incidental to the story. Meaning, it’s never the focus of the plot. This is usually the case with side characters. In terms of main characters, you’ll likely encounter this scenario more in science fiction or fantasy, rather than real-world fiction. As an example, you might’ve written a space opera with an MC reminiscent of Lando Calrission or Zoe Washburne. In this case– and I know some folks will disagree with me– I think it’s okay to write your diverse characters however you want (use your common sense, I mean).

This brings me to the issue of using appropriate language. Most authors know what words to avoid, but sometimes it isn’t clear-cut. This is because there isn’t a general consensus as to what is and isn’t okay among the groups that might take offense. One Asian author I spoke to takes no issue with ‘almond-shaped eyes’ as a descriptor, while another considers it stereotyping. This has led to many authors being ‘called out’ for use of inappropriate language. Often, what one deems offensive can vary county by country, not just person by person. For example, I have a Romani friend who has no problem with the use of the term ‘gypsy’, but another considers it a racial slur.

In all honesty, sometimes there isn’t a solution. But, if you want my advice, here it is. If you’re concerned about writing the wrong things, you probably aren’t the writers we need to be concerned about.