Writer Awareness

Last week, I wrote a post about some of the problems the publishing industry, specifically traditional publishing, currently faced. There was nothing new. The Twitter mob screaming howls of outrage, the traditional houses having to figure out how to deal with the fact their corporate offices are mainly populated by whites, etc. There is a related problem to all this that we, as writers, need to be aware of. It’s a problem that has several important facets. One we as writers can deal with by simply being aware of what we’re writing. The second isn’t quite as easily dealt with.

The first is quite simple. We need to be aware of what we are writing. Who our characters are. How do we present them to our readers.

I know, I know. I can hear you guys now saying something along the lines of, “But, Amanda, we know who our characters are. So what are you saying?”

I’ll be honest. I felt the same way until this past weekend. That’s when I had a discussion with several fellow writers about the controversy surrounding “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. One of those present for the discussion stated they didn’t need to worry because they never write stories where the main characters could be viewed as being of a different background/ethnicity/whatever than they are. While I understood what the writer was saying, the truth of the matter was they were wrong. They are currently working a book where the main characters, both of them, as of an Hispanic background. When this was pointed out, the writer looked gobsmacked. It was very clear they had never given any thought to anything beyond the setting and making sure the names of the characters fit the setting.

The discussion then turned to books the rest of us had written. One of those present pointed out I have a main character in a series with a very Hispanic surname. I’ll admit, I had a moment of pause. No, not because I hadn’t realized it. How could I forget Mackenzie Santos? But in this day and age of perpetual butt hurt, I’d be a fool not to pause for a moment to consider how I’d handled her background and how she appears to the reader. I also realized that I modeled her without realizing it on someone I know, someone who can trace her background back to early Spanish settlers in Texas but how also has roots in Ireland, Germany and Scotland. My friend considers herself a bit of a mutt, sort like Mac does. And, like Mac, she speaks English but knows enough Spanish and Gaelic to be able to cuss and order coffee or ask where the bathroom is.

And that led me to the second thing we need to keep in mind when considering how to “cast” our characters. If we choose to have a main character, or any character really, who is different from ourselves, we need to be ready to face possible condemnation for it. That means growing a thick skin. After all, no one wants to hear their baby is ugly. Nor do we want to be attacked for appropriating someone’s culture. Then there’s the whole “you can’t understand what we go through” sort of argument that often comes up.

While you shouldn’t be pushing stereotypes, unless the character calls for it, no one should be prevented from writing a character simply because the author isn’t share the same background, sex, sexual preference, etc. If that were the case, no man would ever be allowed to write a female lead or vice versa. No straight could write a gay or bi or trans character. No normal could write paranormal (okay, I made that one up).

There are all sorts of possible solutions being bandied about by those on social media and writing in the trade rags for this “problem”. They range from the “never buy a book by a white cismale”–and fortunately those are the minority–to don’t write about cultures you aren’t part of to demanding publishing houses become more diverse. That is not just in what books they are publishing and what authors they are buying but in the makeup of their staffs.

In short, it is a mine field to navigate if you are a writer who wants a career in traditional publishing. You have to worry about more than just the quality of your work.

By going indie, you take at large part of the mine field out of play. But you will still have the naysayers who will condemn your work because you don’t fit whatever mold the reader has in their mind. I had that happen not long ago when someone condemned “Sam Schall” for writing a female lead. After all, how could a man write a woman main character? This person didn’t bother looking at the Amazon page where my name is right there next to Sam’s. They didn’t look at the copyright for the book, which is in my name. They didn’t even consider the fact “Sam” could have been a nickname for “Samantha”. They simply saw a male name with a female lead and jumped to conclusions.

I laughed it off and thanked the fan who corrected the critic. But it made me think about how quickly some folks will jump to conclusions about your work based on factors that have nothing to do with the quality of your writing. This is why you develop a thick skin, only respond to them when necessary and even then you do so in a professional manner and you get your best revenge by writing well and selling book.

After all, it isn’t the publishers and agents who determine the success of an indie author. It isn’t the random critic who decides to take a dislike to your work for some external factor. It is the quality of your work, whether you are writing books readers want to read and how well you promote yourself. But, you must be aware of what you are writing. Who are your characters? How are you presenting them to your readers? Are they believable or are they nothing but cardboard cut-outs? You have the hard work but you can do it. . . with a little work.

Until next week.

37 comments

  1. No normal could write paranormal (okay, I made that one up).

    Too late, you taunted Murphy, some Otherkin is going to object to “How to Train your Dragon” for idealizing slavery and appropriating Dragon Culture.

      1. That “we like being miserable” line in the intro to the first movie was utterly perfect and I will fight anyone who says that it doesn’t give them carte blanche for whatever else they decide to do from now until the heat death of the universe.

    1. Didn’t I already do the “as someone who has long identified as a Bolo, a Necron, a Dalek or one of Saberhagen’s Berserkers, I am deeply offended by that one story that suggested that the phrase ‘I identify as an attack helicopter’ is transoffensive”? I’m certain I didn’t get around to handwringing about about how badly traumatized Mr. Knighton must have been by the kerfluffle not to have been ‘muh identity’ posting here non-stop.

      In theory you could have someone identify as an abstract construct, such that any depiction of ‘the other’ that is /not/ presented as relentlessly hostile to the mainstream/majority is inauthentic and personally offensive.

      ‘Gays not presented as homicidal to straights’? ‘My identity.’ ‘Women not cheerful mass murderers of all men’? ‘My identity.’ ‘Some non-white population presented as anything other than cannibals who wish to exterminate all whites’? ‘My identity.’ The standard seems to be that personal identity found within a small group trumps personal identity found within a large group in terms of compelling accommodation. One is the smallest practical group, though positions no one actually holds might trump that.

      How do we navigate this larger problem?

      One answer is that we only accommodate groups that it fits a leftist agenda to accommodate.

      Another is not accommodating anyone.

      Another is that the smallest group always wins, and we might not be able to justify continuing to imprison Gary Ridgeway.

      Another is that past a certain size, we can flat out ignore the complaints of a small group, and maybe even force them into mental health treatment if it makes them shut up.

      We don’t need a definitive answer for MGC’s purposes.

      If a writer’s sense of verisimilitude does not well match the sense of verisimilitude of enough readers, the writer will not sell.

      1. My nonhumans are all bunched up behind me like they do when they’re horrified by human behavior. However, this is the first time I’ve seen them start checking their weapons.

    2. Go ahead and write minotaur. Write as good, write as evil, write as hero, write as villain, write as workaday… write as smart.. well, semi-smart, write as bumbling… just, please, do not write as boring.

  2. Thing is, I understand people who complain about having characters who are part of their identity groups being one-dimensional villains. I’m a conservative Christian Southern white male, I can empathize. What is frustrating, however, is that these same people will actively applaud when members of identity groups that they don’t like are presented as one-dimensional villains.

    1. “You can’t know what it’s like.”

      Right?

      But yes, most people can. That’s what empathy is. Nearly anyone has had some experience that can be extrapolated into “how would I feel if”. And a whole lot of other people have a directly analogous experience and know just exactly how it feels.

      The one-dimensional problem happens any time that a character isn’t an individual. When a character represents an identity group they stop being themselves. And that’s where we end up with a cast of Bob who is intense, Kevin who is laid back, Steve who is quiet just until he’s not, Roy who’s a joker hiding depths, and Lee who is Asian.

      I sometimes wonder how many heads would break on a show with check-mark casting if they had TWO black males on the crew. (*cough* Dark Matter *cough*)

  3. I’m an old, fat, straight, white dude, and some of my favorite characters to write are strong female characters. This whole “you have to be it to write it” is a bunch of hooey.

    Yes, you do have to be thoughtful and careful when writing characters of different backgrounds, genders, races, etc. But that’s in order to make sure those characters are more than just two dimensional (or maybe even one dimensional) stereotypes. Really, how is that different than a modern-day writer writing characters in a medieval fantasy setting. Willington of Penn might be an old, fat, straight, white dude — just like me, but totally NOT a Mary Sue, I swear — but I’ve never lived as the Senior Court Wizard in a world where the ambient magic was increasing to dangerous levels, and wizards were accidentally immolating themselves trying to light candles with the simplest of cantrips. However would I write that? OH YEA! I think about it and then write it.

    Interestingly enough, that’s the same way I write a character named Jill Yeardon, a teen-aged girl from an agrarian colony world who is perusing her life long dream of becoming a starship pilot by working in a shipyard, fulfilling the flight-time requirements for her starship pilot license a tiny bit at a time, ferrying ships around the shipyard because she doesn’t have the connections to get an apprenticeship. Jilly is a neat character, and other than the agrarian bit — I grew up on a small farm — has almost NO characteristics in common to me.

    I have been accused of writing a female character who was just me “with a girl’s name, a handbag, and a dress”. This was hilarious to me, because no handbag was ever mentioned in the story. Although the same reader also complained that she couldn’t see ME doing the things that the character did, and wondered out loud why the character was so concerned about which dress she should wear when I’ve never once in my life been concerned about which dress I should wear (and no, the dress thing WASN’T overdone. It was two scenes, one designed to show the dynamic between the character and her overbearing mother, and the other to show that, in spite of being the heir, the girl was still a real person.

  4. One thing I’ve always tried to avoid is writing characters who belong to two or more groups whose experiences differ greatly from my own. Back when I wrote a historical novel based on the Mongol invasion of Hungary, I figured that I might be able to write a thirteenth-century Englishman or a modern Hungarian, but making the main character a medieval Hungarian would be a bridge too far. I had to jump through some strange hoops to get my English architect to Hungary…

  5. You want to find the greatest number of people “appropriating” a gender, class, race, etc. look at on-line gamers. In fact, whenever faced by people screaming about your writing appropriating anything, I’d suggest telling the critic to refer back to the on-line gaming world. This isn’t just a write once and publish. These are people doing it every damn day! Sic ’em on the gamers. Because gamers are notorious for either flipping the butthurt back on the complainer, or laughing them out of Dodge for the fools they really are.

    For new writers, the goal is to write the story to completion. Don’t worry about “appropriation” beyond plagiarism. Heck, I’d be happy to have the vituperation of the offended masses if I was able to get beyond the vignette writing stage. Once you’ve successfully published, trad or indie, THEN you can worry about snowflakes.

  6. IMO, the cringiest stuff seems to come from people trying to “help”.

    I agree it’s important to get things right though. Or at least make an attempt to create characters that are the product of their upbringing. Sticking some culture clash in would probably work and improve just about any story. What are the assumptions that one character has that the other character doesn’t have? There’s more than one factor that goes into that. Where you grew up, at what economic level, lots of things.

  7. There are three “solutions” to this “problem:”

    1) Never, ever allow any of your characters to have a race, an ethnicity, a sex, or (for that matter) a name. Just refer to them throughout the story by their assigned roles: e.g., “Protagonist,” “Love Interest,” “Antagonist,” “Secondary Character Included To Support Backstory,” and “Unimportant Background Figure.”

    2) Consciously and with malice aforethought “beard the lion:” Make all your characters complete stereotypes, according to whatever plays on your stereo.

    3) Give up writing altogether because you can’t please everyone.

    I tend to prefer option #2.

      1. Why do “research?” To appease the “cultural appropriation” ghouls or to placate the “racial and ethnic stereotyping” crusaders?

        Write what you damned well please, and “cock a snook,” as our British cousins would say, to the carpers from the PC crowd. If there’s a better reason to be grateful for the indie movement, I can’t think of it.

        1. Or, like Ian said, you do your research in order to avoid basic factual and cultural errors.

          If I’m writing about another culture, I want to make sure I get it right. Not to appease the wokescolds, but because getting it right is part of writing a good story, and actually examining how people from that culture would react to certain situations offers opportunities for taking the story in a direction that the reader may not be expecting but will still enjoy.

            1. Another fun one is acting like Protestant denominations have to take orders from the Pope ‘because all the Christians have to obey him, right?’

              1. Tell that to the Free Kirk of Scotland and the Hard Shell Baptists. I’ll be over here eating popcorn, behind the blast-proof transparent-steel wall.

                1. The person who told me that rally seemed to take such pride in their ignorance. They also once assumed that in case of a emergency that non-Muslim refugees would be allowed to live in Mecca without problems.

            2. The sad thing is Chuck Austen was almost two decades ago, but compared to what’s being done to the Marvel characters in the CURRENT comics line, he’s almost quaint. I completely gave up hope when they had the Grant Morrison created Kree anti-hero Noh-Varr, whose ENTIRE CHARACTER is that of the angry rebel who rejects Earthling culture as innately corrupt lecturing people on his pronouns and the need to be politically correct.

            3. Or the fairy tale retelling – I think it was the Swan Princes – with an appropriately medievaloid setting and a totally inappropriate portrayal of what a bishop in that setting would be.

              The author was Mormon, and I assume, assumed she knew.

              1. I tend to give a lot of leeway for abuse-of-religious terms in historical stuff, since there were regions/times when it was obnoxiously rampant, but ouch.

              2. And this is why the first step is not so much researching as reading lots and lots and lots of history — preferably primary source.

                Not so much to learn stuff as to knock your block off so you will wonder in time to research before you write.

    1. Are you thinking of research as in “sensitivity readers”? I think everyone here means normal research. As in: if your character is Protestant, you don’t have them counting the rosary. If your protagonist is a Chinese woman, a kimono is not “traditional” for her; your Persians will speak Farsi and not Arabic, etc.

      I love the “EarthCent” series as popcorn sci-fi, but I was thrown right out of the story when Aisha appears, because she’s supposed to be Hindu. I grew up with South Asians, and I’ve never once encountered a Hindu with a “Muslim” name. It’s … not a thing. Even small children will be quick to object to that error. Very, very quick.

      Michiganders were irritated when “Designated Survivor” had the male Republican governor of Michigan round up all the Muslims in episode three. At the time, Michigan had a male, Republican governor. But, if you live in Southeast Michigan, the idea that he could do this roundup even if he wanted to is hilarious on its face. As if all Muslims live in Dearborn, and they look alike and dress alike, and no Mideasterner or North African comes with blue eyes or red hair — yes they do, Courtney Milan!

      The “research failures” for Designated Survivor were extraordinary to me. But, par for the course if a Hollywood writer doesn’t know that Chaldeans (aka Babylonians!) and Maronites (Lebanese Christians) exist. Oh, AND assumes Republican = rabid racist. I almost wish Gretchen Whitmer had been the governor when that show came out, because I’d love to see if they would have a progressive Democrat woman as the villain. It would be change of pace if nothing else.

      Regardless, all these research failures were avoidable. None of them struck a blow for the anti-PC cause, but to varying degrees they could turn a book into a wallbanger. Even if the reader isn’t an SJW trolling for mob-hate victims. If the goal is to transport the reader, and not the book, then some [normal] research is necessary.

  8. I gotta dissent slightly on ‘research gives verisimilitude, which avoids pointlessly ticking off readers’.

    Current project, I’m not really worried about ticking off readers. A fanfic cannot be sold. More importantly, a reader unwilling to meet me half way on the corners I’ve been cutting in my research probably would not be pleased by any version I could reasonably deliver.

    The verisimilitude is for my sake. Saves on accidentally finding out a detail mid implementation, and killing the project because I no longer find it plausible.

    I enjoy light disorganized research. Additionally, saves on invention, inspires things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen the need for.

    If real life does not contain what I need, I can create it, and call it something else.

    The constraints of realism and plausibility also make contriving absurdity more fun. If I say ‘Billy Graham, recognized as a Saint by the Russian Orthodox Church’, your first reaction may be that I am ignorant, careless, or have an AU where he was Russian Orthodox. But if I can show that I understand how improbable that is, I can perhaps persuade you of the world where that happened, Russia is the 51st state, and re-enacters are about celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.

    1. Yeah, that comment of mine should have been dropped.

      I did not realize at the time my thoughts still complete at ‘verisimilitude is important for readers’. Because I cannot test whether an ambitious bit of persuasion work without a reader who isn’t me. Yes, I might only be after a narrow audience, but there are people for each project whose response I care about, and those folks are often researchers, in many cases better and more thorough than I.

  9. Last LTUE, I had a lovely conversation with a fellow writer, we discussed that “Subject Matter Expert” and “Sensitivity Reader” were one and the same thing, when handled correctly by the author. Unfortunately, a great many ‘sensitivity readers’ seem to be presented as a go/no-go check, instead of a resource to assist in “this will make the character seem more authentic to that culture.”

    But then again, what you get out of a subject matter expert can merely be a go/no-go, if that’s all you ask them. On the other hand, if you ask them, “How would I? I want the character to be able to get to this point…” You get a lot more info.

    Both are subject to the limitations of their experience: if you ask a SADF veteran about something military, you’re going to get a different command structure and culture than if you ask a US Marine. Peter has gotten criticism from readers because his military scifi are… British, not US Navy or US Army, and therefore, ‘you’re doing it wrong!’

    I’ve seen where a sensitivity expert gave completely wrong information, contrary to historical fact and photos, insisting there was segregation and barring non-whites from National Parks when that is plainly untrue. And I shrugged, and noted that just because someone has experience with being a minority in a particular city in the world right now, doesn’t mean they’re an expert on how their minority has been treated historically in other locations. In fact, skin shade doesn’t grant anyone expertise on any other time or culture.. or even, necessarily, on their own.

    In the end, I don’t care what you call ’em, but I endorse using them in order to make the work more alive, and to entertain readers. If you don’t have them handy, do the research, and take your best shot at it.

    Because if you’re writing only for yourself, you don’t need to entertain anyone other than yourself. But if you’re going to publish it, you are perforce declaring that you want to entertain other people.

    And when inevitable someone gets their knickers in a knot, well, were they right? Or were they just offended? If they’re not right, FIDO. IF they have a valid point, contemplate that, and adjust course for future novels so you can do it better.

    1. Peter has gotten criticism from readers because his military scifi are… British, not US Navy or US Army, and therefore, ‘you’re doing it wrong!’
      Conversely, Burroughs used U.S. experts when writing Tarzan and the “Foreign Legion”; so, no body noticed that the RAF has no colonels.

    2. As a general rule, “expert in X” does not mean “expert in X history.”

      I was once in an online discussion where someone got to lecture the doctor about how when, in a book, a woman had undergone an operation, that had meant she was deathly ill, because it was after asepsis and anesthesia but before antibiotics, so they would only have operated if they were pretty sure she would die without it. (The doctor took it graciously, to be sure.)

    3. Yeah. There is an area I’ve been formally trained in. Picked up some history of it by accident, but have never made a serious study of its history.

      I’ve started doing some reading in its history, because I hoped it would help me put some of the concepts together.

      Not sure about that, but it seems to be paying dividends in understanding the implications of some of the more recent history of the field.

  10. I’ll just leave this here…..

    https://www.dailywire.com/news/barnes-noble-cancels-plan-to-offer-diversity-editions-of-classic-novels-after-woke-backlash

    America’s largest brick and mortar bookseller, Barnes & Noble, has canceled a plan to offer “diversity” editions of classic novels like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Romeo and Juliet” after a backlash from progressives and social justice warriors who criticized the effort as “fake,” given that the characters in the books are still, for the most part, white.

Comments are closed.