Lately there has been a whole lot of blather on the more… ah… glittery side of the science fiction fence, about how we should stop writing default binary gender; about how it’s evil to write cismales and cisfemales; how our very words oppress those who check the gender box with “chrysalis” or “purple unicorn.”
This would be annoying enough if it proceeded out of true concern, or even out of a feeling of being victimized.
Oh, sure, some of the people echoing this nonsense think they are victims. We have academics with a cushy job and high hereditary melanin, who think they must be victims because everyone told them they were victims and therefore, since they have it pretty good, the rest of the world must have it better. We have young men resenting the fact they were told to man up, as rather effeminate boys years ago, and who carry the grievance in their hearts, and warm their souls to it. We have various flavors of white, female, educated, upper class, imagining their victims because they weren’t born with penises and therefore all their failure must be someone else’s fault.
All of these are old failings, the defect in the human design that tells us we must have it rougher than anyone else because ours is the only voice behind our eyes. (Well, most people’s eyes. There are at least ten of me here. Never mind.) And therefore we’re the only ones who know how we struggle. Other people look so… composed.
But there is a worse failing, and that’s a writerly failing – it’s the people who think they can make their characters interesting, or victims, simply by making them members of a minority group.
This honestly makes me grind my teeth because not only does it betray a basic and fundamental stupidity about society (we’re all victims and most of us are oppressors too) but it also betrays a fundamental lack of empathy. And without empathy you can’t attempt art. Or you shouldn’t. Because you can’t engage feelings you don’t even understand.
Larry was talking yesterday (and has talked before) about how Ringo, and I, and Mike Williamson have all written characters of various odd sexual definitions (hey, I had a gender shifter in Ill Met By Moonlight.) But do we get credit? Oh, no. NEVER. Why not? Because the people demanding we write more victim classes have been conditioned to think of people like that as “victims.” In their script, inside their head, everyone who is LGBT is by definition a victim. They get up in the morning, get reviled by society and go to bed at night in the warm glow of knowing they’re victims.
Shrug. Maybe there are people like that. Just no one I know. And I think if you were really like that, you should take a pill or something – but never mind.
Look – I’ll level with you. We writers, we play with your emotions. Early on, too, we learn that making someone the underdog, making them suffer early on, will make the readers like him. No, seriously. There are reasons for this, and it’s not universal. Certain Middle Eastern cultures think very badly (in the moral sense) of underdogs. But in our culture, the underdog is immediately worthy of sympathy. Because someone is bullied, we imagine him to be good and nice. (Something Terry Pratchett explodes in his books, bless him.)
There are two ways – looks at the door to see if they’re going to come and take her writer’s card away for revealing trade secrets – to bond you to a character forever: one, make him a victim in the first scene, particularly if the suffering is nobly borne. Two, make him a hero. If the character comes in and saves someone else in the first scene, unless he’s a prick about it, you’re going to like him/her.
Human nature, I guess. I’ve used both methods though I think the second is more mature. The first tends to be used by beginners, which is why fanfic tends to be a long slog of hurt/comfort stories.
BUT when you show victimhood, show real victimhood. Just saying “and he is black” or even giving him fake ghetto dialect (and btw that makes the linguist in me want to bite writers who do it) does not make him a victim. It might work within the small subset of people who attended the same colleges and studied the same theories of society, but the rest of the people are either going to be annoyed or yawn.
And btw, that also goes double and with sugar for having your character victimized by stereotypical villains. For instance, I got taken to task on my blog for saying that gay bashing in normal middle-American neighborhoods only happens in stories and movies.
A gay friend of mine, 10 years ago, was annoyed at that meme and groused extensively about it, because even then it was a cliché.
But look, seriously, I grew up in one of the rougher parts of Europe, home to a more ah… macho culture, and I never heard of anyone getting beaten for being gay, much less here, much less at the levels it supposedly happens, if you just look at our entertainment. I mean, Holy bejeebus, if gay bashing happened at the rate it happens in books and movies, gay guys would need police escort to go buy a gallon of milk in broad daylight.
When I said something to that intent, Matthew Shepherd was brought up. There are now doubts that what was happening was gay bashing, something that seemed odd even at the time, given that he lived in a college neighborhood. The doubts might or might not be justified, but I’ll tell you what I thought at the time, reading the accounts. I thought “Good heavens. He was tiny. And he was out of doors at night, with no fear?” Because you know, it didn’t even have to be someone who was gay. Any person – male or female – who is small and slight runs the risk of getting assaulted at night, particularly if they’re not aware of their vulnerability and are not armed.
Be that as it may, what other incidents of gay bashing have been in the news? M. S. died… twenty? Years ago. The only one I read of was a guy walking in an ethnic (I think it was Hispanic, actually) neighborhood in NYC and from the report I couldn’t’ tell if the trigger was gender, race or just “well dressed, flash bastard is not from around here.”
Sure, again, if you turn out the gain you can find others. But even those are never the ones that are a cliché. It’s not Bubba and his friends bullying the nice gay guy on the way from a tractor pull. No, it’s always where you least expect it, like the gay guy in a college who was filmed and bullied by his classmates and committed suicide. The classmates weren’t jocks or Bubbas. They were college students, and “intellectuals’ and part of the reason they were mad at him is that he wasn’t “out” and they thought he SHOULD be.
I’m not saying gay people have it easy, or black people have it easy. NO ONE HAS IT EASY. We’re all discriminated against by other humans. That’s because humans are tribal.
If you’re very rich, you’ll still be discriminated against, but I imagine you don’t care. But barring that, at some point you’re going to be a victim. Someone is going to hate your guts on sight because you have brown hair, or you tan, or you don’t tan, or—
So all I’m asking is that when writers try to write victims they don’t go to a list, look up a victim class, give the writer that characteristic and then lean back all happy, because this, this will engage the reader.
I tell you what engages the reader. Write minorities – gender, class, (oh, yeah, the privileged flowers of academia tend to write anyone poorer than them as morons. My favorite was the mystery that sneered at someone for wearing a Man’s Warehouse suit – which still is the best we can afford, and we’re solid middle class – and then describe the character like an illiterate savage.) – race, beliefs as PEOPLE. If you want to make them victims, make their victimhood come from events in the story, not by dropping a Bubba from the ceiling.
Make them complex. Give them story-consistent motivations. Eschew the easiest setting, and instead craft believable story people.
Of course, then you’ll never win awards. And no matter how many GLBT or even stranger things characters you write, you’ll always be considered a cisgendered normative fascist by the “Smart set”. Don’t worry about that. “Smart” in this case means “wears expensive suit.”
The rest of us will thank you. And more importantly, the paying public will buy it. And our field will grow, making all of us richer. Trust me on this — it’s something you want.