Our Responsibility as Writers

I wrote Shimmer in the month of November, 2009. In the space of those thirty days, it went from a ten-point-plan, to the longest thing I’d ever written. Fifty-three-thousand words. The most I’d ever done before was around 12K, and that was over the space of a much longer period of time, and resembled an embellished plan rather than a readable novel.

Shimmer was raw, yes, but apparently still readable. I myself have never read it through from start to finish, instead jumping around different chapters the way a writer often does, keeping an eye on the way different ideas played out. I’d never read something I didn’t write that way, but here it was okay. That’s not why I consider it readable.

Earlier that year, I’d taken the then-unusual step of showing my writing to other people – not just people online that I knew wanted to read things, but people physically present in my life. Little scripts, ten to twenty pages at the most. The part that surprised me was they always wanted more. The difference between those, and a NaNoWriMo, was that usually the scripts were done over the space of a few weeks. I had time to edit, re-read, adjust. NaNoWriMo gave me an opportunity, one almost every NaNoer agrees is a STUPID idea. I would write, and every so often, print off what extra writing I’d done for them to read.

I had people beta-reading my first NaNo novel, as I was writing it, and they always wanted more.

That’s not the point of this post – I’m just setting the stage (and now it is). Shimmer has a character who’s tough. He’s one of the supporting characters, an older tough guy who doesn’t really like the protagonist that much, but that eventually warms up to him. Mott was not an untapped archetype. Most of his attributes were physical, but in the form of age, and muscle, and those scars an old muscle-head always seems to have. I’m sure it was unintentional, but I never gave much of an indicator about his appearance beyond that. I know I’d always pictured him a certain way (though for the life of me, can’t really remember how anymore), but it was amazing to hear from my beta-readers how differently they’d imagined him – one saw him as a Michael Clarke Duncan, and another saw him as a Jason Statham.

He could have easily been either, and instead of putting the identity of Mott into the reader’s head, it wouldn’t have taken much for me to definitely say he was one or the other, or someone else entirely. It wouldn’t have taken away from the story at all to have him as a PoC, and you could argue that if the casting was so easily interchanged from person to person, it couldn’t add anything. Is it better that a character can only have their race identified by their appearance, instead of their actions and personality? I don’t know where I sit on this.

I did start a rewrite of Shimmer, though changed the protagonist from a man to a woman. I enjoyed writing from her perspective, and felt like it gave fresh air to an idea I’d breathed for too long. There were no plans to have her get pregnant, or those other events that male authors tend to throw at their female characters. From memory, I hadn’t written pages about her breasts, and certainly not about her being self-conscious. It felt like a different story with her in the lead, but I wasn’t sure if it was better or not. I did like the character, and it almost felt like a waste to push her into that setting when the character could have had a bigger impact in a different story. I also wasn’t sure if even making the character a her was a gimmick that merely pandered an addition to the mostly-absent  heroines of science fiction. Can I write an sole female protagonist effectively as a man? I don’t know where I sit on this.

Lately, it’s been Trail. Trail has two protagonists, one of each sex. They share ‘screen time’, and I’m happy with their relative strengths and weaknesses. The woman does start out as pregnant, but it’s not an event for the sake of making something feminine happen, but to push her role along further. It’s definitely not an attempt to pigeon-hole women into ‘ye must be mothers in the end’. I was speaking to a friend, Cecilia Ryan, about that, about the representation of PoC and LGBT in fiction. We talked a little about how well Bioware tends to handle such things, and I mused a little about whether any of the characters in Trail could fit that profile. Now, I tend to write fairly asexual characters as it is – they might slot into gender roles at times, or be attracted to others, but for the most part sexuality isn’t at the forefront of what I write. Even so, I know that one of the characters in Trail could easily be gay.

He doesn’t suddenly become effeminate, and honestly, the character is kind of a bad-ass. Him being a gay character would not change any of that, and as far as my writing tends to go, it’s not going to lead to any added smut. Whether I should do it is another question. As the writer I can do whatever I want to the characters, and I don’t think it changes who they are. Personality traits, making a character untrusting, or naive, or cynical – those change things. In the end, it would just be a characteristic. I’m starting to get an idea of how I would approach all of this.

I only really write fantasy, science-fiction, or somewhere in between. It’s easy to whitewash a setting, but race doesn’t have to be an issue. You can have still do socioeconomic prejudices, or magic-mundane ones, or military-civilian ones. I’m not saying that every story needs to throw in someone that isn’t white, or that’s LGBT, or that has a disability, or any combination of these. Tokenism doesn’t help. Neither am I saying that this is a battle for all straight white cis-male authors, that we need to take up swords (or pens) on the behalf of everyone else.

Be open. You have the ability to include all people in what you write, and you can do it without reaffirming social prejudices. I may not have experienced racial issues to the level at which they’re prevalent in America, but Australia is pretty screwed up with race. Not really going to go into that here, but to use an epithet, I’m half-wog. I could potentially write a protagonist that wasn’t of the dominant race. I know I’m not at the stage where I’d be comfortable writing a protagonist that wasn’t straight and cis-gendered – I’d never be disingenuous or disrespectful in how I wrote, but my life experiences aren’t such that I could write a character like that accurately enough that it would stand up to the added scrutiny a protagonist would receive.

It isn’t about being the voice for those without one. They have one. You’re not doing it for them. It’s about being responsible, because every feather of acceptance and understanding adds something. Our drama, our conflict, and our pain should come down to the differences we can control, not the ones we can’t.

4 thoughts on “Our Responsibility as Writers

  1. This is such an interesting post. As a female (amateur) writer, it’s intriguing to hear about a man’s experience of writing a female character. I always had this vague idea that because women have always been exposed to more male experiences through the media, that it is easier for women writers to find a male voice. But having said that, there are plenty of male authors who write female characters that aren’t just mothers or sex objects, Garth Nix being the first to spring to mind. I like how you write about a character’s sex or sexuality not being at the forefront of their personality (as it were). I totally agree with this sentiment, in writing and in life.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post and for liking my post, too! All the best with your writing ventures.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Sometimes it can feel like a no-win scenario when writing characters outside your immediate experience, especially if it’s one of the major characters. There’s no denying that there needs to be a wider variety of characters in fiction, and it feels like the clincher between whether it’s right or not, comes down to motivation.

      Since writing that post, I’ve become more determined to increase the diversity of my casts (even if I don’t think I could write a ‘minority’ in a main role well enough to do it justice), not because I feel it’s my job to fight a battle for anybody, but because it’s something that shouldn’t even be a question.

      The responses I got elsewhere from this varied, but a few asked about whether there was plot justification for using a woman, having a character be a PoC, or homosexual. That lead to the (rhetorical) question – when was the last time someone asked that about a straight white male character?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s