Stop Writing On The Easiest Setting

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.

43 comments

  1. There are some profoundly insulting implications of the stereotypes of gay characters that straight writers use when they want to be diverse or inclusive or whatever.

    The “proper” gay character was born different, like a mutant or a fairy changeling, and has the difference stamped on his or her forehead like the mark of Cain. He or she is a walking litmus test, separating “good” characters (those who accept him or her as being special and wonderful) from “bad” characters (those who react in disgust. which is inevitably the result of being a cartoon Fundamentalist).

    “Proper” gay characters only suffer at the hands of knuckle-dragging neanderthal thugs. Since they only exist to show how bad prejudice is, everything bad that happens to them has to be traced back to prejudice. If they lose their jobs it’s because of homophobia, not because the plant closed.

    “Proper” gay characters are either in a wonderful relationship (which is kept discretely in the background except when the lover is required for some exhibitionist PDA) or used to be in a wonderful relation that was destroyed by homophobia, or are cheerfully and promiscuously single.

    “Proper” gay characters are walking encyclopedias of the “proper” subjects (Broadway musicals and fashion if male, lesbians get to be specialists in a technical field, but only if it’s a “macho” field like engineering) and charmingly ignorant of everything else. “Proper” gay men, for example, can’t be sports fans or outdoorsmen.

    And most of all, “proper” gay characters have to be 100% gay, 100% of the time. They can’t ever be shown having had a satisfying relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Any heterosexual past has be either played for laughs (if its a gay man) or abusive and ugly (if its a lesbian.)

    1. “or are cheerfully and promiscuously single. ”

      And don’t forget that in every gathering of half a dozen people there will be another gay person who will happily and cheerfully be promiscuous with them.

      1. Oh, yes, and every gay person wants every other gay person, every time, regardless of personalities, histories, beliefs, etc. This drives one of my gay friends nuts. He’s actually more conservative than I, but lives and works in a very liberal milieu and the assumption that if there’s another gay guy in the department they MUST be getting busy drives him nuts. Among other things because he’d never date at work, but also because, like the rest of us, he has likes and dislikes and is not a widget.

    2. Oops. I’d better drop everything and go rewrite that book. ‘Cuz the protagonist just happens to be gay, but isn’t GAAYYYY!!!!! And he gets along well with his sis-in-law and other females, as well as with straight guys. And his valet despairs of ever getting him to dress properly without close supervision. Man, I royally messed that one up. *hangs head, slinks off*

      1. Heh. The most effeminate gay man I ever met was living with a pregnant woman (no, not his – they just shared an apartment) at the time I met him. I guess I should have told him he was a traitor to his orientation.

  2. Also, a “proper” character (gay or straight) has to have political views that correspond in every respect to those currently in fashion in academia (or the “literary” culture that feeds off the political detritus of academia as pilot fish do with sharks), even if the character is a Roman legionary, a Chinese foot soldier from the Xia Dynasty, a Denisovan, or an intelligent plasma creature from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.

  3. True about power of the underdog–I’m currently struggling to read a big-name novel because I’m rooting for the villains–who were written as underdogs, completely outclassed by the noble supernatural creatures they oppose. The tension–I *don’t* want to identify with villains–has completely destroyed my interest in the novel, and now I’m only reading because my morning bus ride is long 😦

  4. 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.

    While I’m sure someone is actually beat up because they are homosexual– just playing the odds, for heaven’s sake– every case I have knowledge of, the supposed victim got beat up because they were a raving ass who would’ve been beat down before that if they weren’t so loud about being homosexual.

    Even some of the hit-the-news cases, if you can find out the back story the “victim” got beat up because they were in the act of sexual assault. (It’s not suddenly OK to grope and forcibly kiss a co-worker just because you are homosexual. Double so in front of their significant other.)

    I don’t think that being a raving ass is enough reason to be killed or even hospitalized, but there’s a wiiiiiiide gulf between “beat the @#$@# out of someone who had been harassing and/or assaulting them for months” and “gay bashing.”

    I’d guess that at some point that wasn’t so, but we’re… what, better than half a century into people spitting in folks’ eye and then complaining about how society is hateful if they react?

    1. “(It’s not suddenly OK to grope and forcibly kiss a co-worker just because you are homosexual. Double so in front of their significant other”

      It is however hilariously funny to watch a somewhat shy coworker’s wife try and figure out what to say when another coworker’s girlfriend (drunk enough to be speaking in that ‘carrying’ tone of voice) suggests she gather her husband up and come home with her, and she’ll show them both a great time.

    2. “every case I have knowledge of, the supposed victim got beat up because they were a raving ass who would’ve been beat down before that if they weren’t so loud about being homosexual.”

      I didn’t come up with this, but I think it applies here – “The love that dare not speak its name is now the love that won’t shut up.”

    1. I’d have to ask my husband. He was the one who read it. He has the charming habit (not) of waking me up to read me passages that either interest him or upset him. Eh. After almost 30 years, it’s ALMOST endearing.

      1. Don’t know about “Men’s Warehouse” but a couple of Mercedes Lackey novels had sneers about Sears clothing. [Frown]

        1. Which was all we could afford when we got married. Hell, that was our “for best” — now we get better brands because we have an AMAZING thrift store near us, that gets name brand donations.

  5. Oh, I can see it now. The fury that is going to come from this is going to be epic. I have a point to make here, but gimme a minute. The left is going to blow up over this post and I can’t wait to watch. I’m going to get some popcorn. I thinK I’ll grab a Coke, too. I’ll be back.

    Ok, I’m back.

    As a white, heterosexual, Christian cismale who rides a bus to work everyday because he can’t afford a car, who pays child support as a “primary breadwinner” (and in Michigan that means a significant increase in financial responsibility) even though the mother of his children makes three times what he does (and I had to work two jobs to achieve THAT) because of his gender I can assure you that I am _NOT_ privileged. As a matter of fact, I believe in calling the privilege argument what it is: Bigotry.

    Seriously. “White privilege” is just another way of saying that white people are worthless assholes who have never earned anything in their life and, in fact, are incapable of doing so because of their lack of pigmentation. That’s what it is. The fact that I have a penis makes me of even less value than non-penis having members of my race also because privilege. But that’s not even what angers me. It’s not.

    Look, no one is stating that minorities haven’t gotten a raw deal in this country historically. I have a degree in history and I got it at a liberal institution, (Oakland University class of 2010). Believe me, I’ve had it shoved in my face more times than I would care to count. But screaming “White Privilege” isn’t about helping minorities, it’s about tearing white people down. Seriously.

    If someone out there is whining about White Privilege they’re wasting time and effr that could go toward fixing things. Think about it. Why waste time printing pamphlets about how lucky white people are when you using that time, effort and money to maybe…ummmm… Improve conditions in a poor school district? (Notice I didn’t say minority. Last time I saw figures, and it has been awhile so I admit that, Detroit Public School were in the top seventeen or eighteen percent of per student funding in the state of Michigan and had the highest overall budget. Two miles north of Detroit Madison schools, which were in a white neighborhood, were in danger of going into receivership.) Why bother printing it? Because the entire Leftist/Marxist ideology is based on hate.

    It’s simple really. Marxism, in its purest form and as written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto et al. is mainly about about hatred of the rich. Really, that’s all it is. Race doesn’t really enter into it at that point. Gender does, because Marx claims that men exploit their wives and children. (That includes the male ones, FWIW.) The “hate whitey” angle of the left is a more recent development.

    People need to realize that hatred doesn’t fix anything. Just hating on white people does nothing to address the real problems this country has. I’m Irish. When my ancestors came here they were poor, downtrodden and indentured. That’s right. Enslaved for a period to pay their way. Irish people were beaten and sometimes killed, looked down on and kept in tenements that would be torn down today due to code violations. They overcame that. How? Not by whining about WASPs and their privileges (keep in mind that the Irish were not considered to be white 150 years ago. They were also Catholic which was a major disadvantage most places then.) but by working at it. Get a job, keep a job, help your kid find a better one. Educate your kids. If your school sucks get them a library card. Make them do the work on their own. Some won’t do it. That’s life. People are people. Parents have to be responsible for their children. White privilege arguments are holding minorities back. If minorities want to fix their problems they need to look not at whites, but to themselves to do it.

    1. The other day I walked into a bank and said, “Look, I have a penis!” and instead of giving me large bundles of cash, they called the police. The nerve of some people…

      1. I figured out what you did wrong. It’s all your fault. you were supposed to give them a note that says “Give me all your money and I won’t hurt anyone with my enormous penis.” THEN it would have worked.

        1. Only if the teller could see through her tears of laughter to punch the correct code into the vault.

    2. To be fair… being Irish isn’t quite as apparent from a distance as is being a racial minority. (Granted, that’s probably one reason that people who are Irish make darn sure you know!)

      1. Hey, I take offense to that! I haven’t told anyone I’m Irish all day.

        The fact that most Irish have considerably more disdain for the ‘privilige’ argument than your average white cismale just proves their inherently privileged status.

    3. I remember once going head to head with some idiot going on about White Privlege and institutional Racism and so on (I think it was before “Microaggressions” came into vogue or that would have been in there too) and they were insisting that my White Guilt was so baked in that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

      Basically, they set up the argument such that there was no way for their own goals to win. Racism was permanent and eternal and unfixable and so on. They really didn’t like it when I concluded that well, if there’s nothing I can do to change The System and that I was so steeped in racism that trying to do something about racism was racist itself, then there was absolutely no point in worrying about it. If you’re telling me I can’t fix it, then I won’t bother trying.

      They don’t like it when you follow their arguments to their logical conclusions.

  6. “We’re all discriminated against by other humans. That’s because humans are tribal.”
    Amen. Shame too few of the left understand this.

    “Write minorities”

    A story I am working on with my sister has a MC who is agnostic and 3/4 Japanese. We didn’t do it to play any ‘minority’ games. We did it because it fits the character to be agnostic and helps explain why she owns a 150 year old katana. {it is inherited.}

    Does it get used against her? Sure. But she plays the bigotry back. (hint, don’t ask her if she speaks English. She’ll answer in an affect southern drawl that she only speaks Swahili, or something similar.)

    Someday it may even see the light of day. Like when I quit finding excuses to put off the second draft.

    1. I do that. People ALWAYS ask “do you write your books in English?” My answer “No, Mandarin Chinese. It’s a pain because I don’t speak it, so I have to pay someone to translate them back to English.” 😛

    2. Never mind a novel. I do this in real life.

      Being a white male who works with the public I get stereotyped _a lot_. A couple of examples follow:

      1.) I was working at a restaurant waiting tables. A black man was sitting at one of my tables. He had had a couple of glasses of wine. Dude looks at me and says, “You’re a big white guy. I bet you like hard rock and ride Harleys.” (For the record: No and No. I prefer hip-hop and I’m too big of a wuss to get on a motorcycle.)

      The woman with him: “Why would you say that? I’m sorry.”

      Me: “No worries. It’s not the first time I’ve been stereotyped.”

      Man: (offended) It’s like I don’t even matter.”

      Yep.

      2.) Waiting tables once again. There was a table full of all black people. We had been having a great time. This was a big party, probably 10-15 or so and I had been taking it by myself, so the fact that they were cool was awesome. Waiting on that many people can be intense, so the more laid back they are the better. Inevitably, the end of the meal came and I dropped the bill on the table. The host of the party looked at me:

      “Hey Jim. The money’s all in here and we threw and extra fifty dollars in for you. Are we good?”

      Me: (calculates. Realizes thats about a 30% tip.) “That’s awesome!” (not that I could have said anything else, but I really did mean it this time.)

      Old woman from the other end of the table: “See how greedy they are?” (Yes, I’m assuming who “they” meant. Anyone care to argue? I mean, it is technically possible that she wasn’t speaking of my skin color. Then again, if enough force were applied in the right fashion the sun could rise in the west tomorrow. so that’s technically possible too.)

      Man: “Umm….”

      Me: “Don’t worry about it. I’m used to it.”

      That shut that old lady up. I had a couple of my co-workers who overheard it laughing too.

  7. Many of the early Irish in the Americas would have been delighted to be indentured. They were just plain slaves.

  8. There’s a great post here – http://www.timworstall.com/2014/04/16/get-a-sense-of-proportion-would-you/ – that sums up the problem.

    Sexism in Britain is more widespread than in any other country due to a ‘boys’ club culture’, a United Nations official has concluded.

    Rashida Manjoo, a South African human rights expert, was charged by the UN Humans Rights Council to monitor violence against women in the UK and report back to them.
    ”’
    Dear God. There are countries out there where it’s routine to slice the clitoris off young girls to make sure that they’ll not enjoy sex too much. Places where women are jailed for having the temerity to try to drive. Places where female babies are routinely aborted for there’s a preference for sons.

    And we’re the sexists?

    1. More sexist than Morocco? Iran? India? China? Dayam I might have to become a Brit. I mean, they’re the world’s worst country, I’m the world’s worst person. It might be destiny.

  9. Odds and ends…

    I don’t remember the name, but there was a story floating around several years ago about a gay high school student that had been shot and killed by a fellow male student. And the usual people were up in arms. However, doing very basic research into the details revealed that the gay kid had been essentially sexually harrassing the other student, who was straight and completely uninterested. And further, one of the faculty members appears to have been encouraging the gay student’s behavior. The observation I made to myself was that if the shooter had been a female student instead, we’d probably be getting a TV mini-series about it, with her as the oppressed young woman forced to take things into her own hands when the cruel and uncaring male-dominated school hierarchy wouldn’t help her.

    One of my college English professors used one of the books that we read to encourage us to look at how authors try and mess with our feelings toward the characters. And the book he used was “A Christmas Carol”. I was amused at the time, and still am. And given the book, it was an appropriate (ungraded) excercise.

    One of the books that I read a few years ago (Brandon Sanderson’s “Warbreaker”) has a minor bit of seemingly protagonist-centered morality, until he explodes it quite nicely mid-story in a rather horrific fashion. Two words – “mercenary humor”.

  10. Just read a recent review of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Good review. Except it kept interjecting things like “actually made the characters from this class (upper) sympathetic, which is so hard to do.” Nothing like assuming the fellow-traveller aspect of your readership.

    1. Well obviously. Everyone knows that upperclass people whose last name doesn’t start with a ‘K’ and end with a ‘Y’ are complete and total snobs who look down on everyone else. Look at that Romney guy, for instance!

      *cough*

  11. Look I’m an Englishman. I know I won the lottery of life as a result. I can’t help it and I pity the rest of you lesser breeds who either have to pretend you are superior or cry into your soy milk lattes about your inferiority. But the burden of my superiority is that my people are forced to be Hollywood villains or mocked as foppish upper class twits (or both). This persecution in popular media is a terrible, terrible burden, one that would cause a lesser breed to suffer depression and contemplate suicide.

    1. If y’all survive the “delecacies” of English cooking, nothing can touch you.

      Plus, awesome accent. And a really good chance of being in the dictionary next to “dapper.”

      1. I do remember an Englishman introducing me to the delecacies of ‘lard-bread’ one morning while camped on the Santa Rosa beach.

      2. “dapper” at least when spoken by an American (and I strongly suspect Australian) is not a compliment, by the way.

        1. Depends on the American– makes me think of my banker grandfather. (Who was sorta English– his grandfather and all that grandfathers brothers got kicked out of England, Ireland and France before moving to America, changing their names and swearing to never speak to each other again. That still counts, right?)

          It’s a descriptor. Beats the heck out of “metrosexal”!

    2. Speaking of a country’s population committing suicide, I am reminded of a gentleman who posted some things about German perspectives on Americans and American Foreign Policy on According To Hoyt.

      I was torn between jokes I wanted to make. One is pretending to be offended by the idea that Americans would be satisfied by killing only twenty people. The other being, if they really think the stuff is true, why don’t they kill themselves in despair?

      I think I may have managed to accidentally offend him too much before getting to that point.

      Really, all fun aside, some national stereotypes are based on truth, and some are because many of us don’t really audit our opinions rigorously.

      The media depiction is probably tied to the general stereotype of the English being effeminate.

      A while ago I was being the least useful person on a storm clean up team. MVP was a was a good hand with a chainsaw, who I gather was originally from England.

      Would feelings be hurt if I used Chavistan for a future version of England?

      1. Nothing wrong with chavs. Well that’s not true, there are many things wrong with chavs but I prefer them to grauniad reading (or writing) metrosexual hipsters.

        But I don’t really expect there to be a Chavistan – if by that you imply a state with propensity to submit to a certain religion of “peace”. In fact chavs are why I’m not remotely concerned about England joining a EUropean caliphate. They like drinking, and they like fighting, and they will certainly fight to be allowed to drink.

        1. I was aiming more for ‘Land of the Chav People’, the future nation being a Chav monoculture in fact and name.

          Yes, I don’t know enough about Chavs to describe that well. I originally came up with it as a short description, to describe the Bizarro world flavor of that world’s international scene.

Comments are closed.