The Underserved Population Of Readers

You’re going to go right now and read Kameron Hurley’s ‘We Have Always Fought:’ Challenging The ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.'”

No, seriously, go read that right now. It is one of the finest essays I’ve read in a long time on challenging the expectations of women inside (and to some degree outside) of fiction.

It’s smart. It’s self-deprecating. It doesn’t point fingers while still making a clear case for how we need to adjust our thinking and ask questions precisely when other people think we should be quietly accepting answers. It’s great. Have I said that enough? No, really. It’s great.

Whenever I read something like this — something ostensibly targeted at writers and storytellers — I like to try to break it down and say, okay, what’s the takeaway? What’s the practical path forward after reading something like that (assuming, that is, one wants to course correct). I have a bucket of ill-formed thoughts on the subject which is usually the finest time to get onto a blog and start barfing up half-digested thought-nuggets (sarcasm duly expressed), but hey, that’s what I do here sometimes. Sometimes it takes talking through an idea in a public space.

So, that said, this is a warning: this post will contain none of the elegance or wit (or talk of llamas) put forth by Kameron in that wonderful essay. Her essay should win her an award for something. This post will win me nothing except maaaaaybe the quizzical stares of those who pass by my Plexiglas enclosure.

Anyway.

I used to work at the public library. Libraries are of course where the books live but that’s only a part of what they do and one of the things they do is a very important function called: serving the underserved population. (Note: underserved, not undeserved.) I specifically worked with a department whose goal was to find the folks the library Just Plain Wasn’t Talking To and then Talk To Them. Are we helping blind people? We’re helping children, but are we helping seniors? What about African-Americans? Or people trapped in low-income brackets? And so on.

This is largely antithetical to the way Capitalist Anything works, because unless you’re willing to excel within a very specific niche, aiming your services toward an underserved part of the population isn’t the way to a dragon’s hoard of gold coins. But that’s why public services are great (and why it’s a tragedy that library budgets are having their throats slashed in favor of Congress ordering more tanks for a military that expressly doesn’t want them). Public services ideally aim to serve all portions of the public: not just, say, rich white jizzballs who think such services are non-essential because they don’t use them.

All this is a bit circuitous, I’ll admit, but my point is that libraries being eager to serve the under- or not-at-all-served is a huge thing. Huge!

And I think that’s the practical takeaway from Kameron’s essay —

Writers could do more to serve the underserved.

We’re not talking to our entire audience.

Maybe we think we are. But one of the ways, I think, we serve the underserved and speak to the unspoken is to take those conventions and expectations Kameron talks about and purposefully challenge them in the pages of our work. This is true of how we present characters who are women, or who are gay and lesbian and transgender, or African-Americans and Africans and Asian-Americans and Asians and —

— well, basically, everybody who isn’t a fairly comfortable white dude.

Whether you believe in so-called “white male privilege” or not, it’s still pretty easy to take a quick look around the halls of pop culture and see that for every Katniss Everdeen there’s a fucking army of Luke Skywalkers and Neos and John McClanes and Smoldering Glittery Vampire Douchewangs. For every Black Widow and Nick Fury you get an Iron Man, a Thor, a Hawkeye, a Hulk, a Captain America. (And, okay, a Maria Hill. Cobie Smulders!)

White dudes are everywhere.

We’re like robins during spring.

Did you see Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip? Where she asked her fans and followers to reimagine the covers of books by flipping the author’s gender? It’s a helluva thing to see.

Point is, white dudes got it pretty sweet. Particularly middle-class-and-up white dudes.

And so it behooves us as authors of all shapes and designations and genital configurations (oh and I’m talking to you, too, publishers, if you’ll listen) to look deep into the hearts of our stories and to see if we’re leaning on lazy archetypes, stereotypes, conventions, historical myths or outright buckets of bullshit. I’m not saying that every book has to be some lectern-pounding exercise in social justice but damn, a little bit of social justice can’t hurt. Why can’t we talk to those we don’t normally talk to? Why can’t we serve the underserved and challenge the expectations of what has come before us? Ask questions instead of assuming answers. Why can’t we write books where we have complex and atypical female characters? Gay characters? Does your gay character have a keen fashion sense? Is your female character a mother figure or a rape victim? Is your African-American character a gangbanger? Is that Muslim character a cleric or worse, a terrorist? That’s not to say you can’t have these characters be complex and interesting — but take a long look and you might start to see some lazy, damaging, damning patterns.

I’ve often relied on that kind of thing myself. I do it without thinking. A too-easy crutch, a crummy shortcut — a confirmation of what seems like the status quo but is really just a muddy trench in which we’ve all mired our boots. We can all try to do better. I can do better.

And that’s the takeaway: do better.

Speak to those you haven’t yet spoken to.

Serve the underserved readers.

76 comments

  • I will never be able to sing the praises of libraries enough. They were my sanctuary as a kid. A library was the scene of my first date in high school. It was the source of internet access when we were too poor to pay for it. As an adult, it’s quite often the place I go to work when I can’t stand the inside of my house and can’t afford an afternoon at a coffee shop. (incidentally, I’ve also done a lot of writing at McDonald’s — $1 drink with unlimited refills, how can you beat that.)

    Anyway. Yes — recognizing and then subverting or twisting or tweaking stereotypes is vital. It’s difficult sometimes to find the line, too. Like, you run the risk of “whitewashing” a character if you swing too far and try to remove all stereotypes. Which is why honesty and life experience is so important.

    • “Like, you run the risk of “whitewashing” a character if you swing too far and try to remove all stereotypes. Which is why honesty and life experience is so important.”

      Well, stereotypes aren’t really what you’re worried about. Stereotypes are almost universally lazy — it’s fine if you don’t want to ignore cultural realities. Cultural realities are vital to embrace (though I think it’s also important, as per Kameron’s essay, to actually try to discover the real cultural and historical realities, not the commonly-accepted ones). Stereotypes aren’t that, though: they’re surface-level short-cut judgments often used to hand-wave away any deeper look of any group of people.

      IMHO YMMV, etc.

      — c.

      • Sure, sure. And “stereotypes” is probably the wrong word for what I’m going for. Just…like, for a simple example. If you’re writing a story about inner city poor kids, but you don’t want to make any of them black or Hispanic. Or you do include the inner-city black kids, but you don’t want to make them poor. Or have any of them ever be affected by gang violence.

        In other words, substituting the wish-fulfillment stereotypes of political correctness in for the negative bigoted stereotypes of bigotry.

        • And to clarify, the examples above are only relevant to contemporary/realism stories, not fantasy. There’s no inherent reason why the poor people of your fantasy universe need be dark-skinned (and, indeed, having your poor people BE dark-skinned for no reason is problematic)…but if a good chunk of the poor people in the actual world of the story you’re writing are dark skinned, but you refuse to mention them, that’s a completely different type of problem.

  • Hey, Will Smith was the studio’s first choice to play “Neo”. But when they cast Carrie-Anne Moss as the love interest, they scrambled to find a white guy for the role.
    Then again, there’s that whole “sexual orientation” thing for Shepherd’s character in “Mass Effect”, so *something* has to be changing.
    As far as challenging stereotypes goes… Well, I’m all for it. I just wish that I could get over my rather introverted nature and figure out how to, y’know, talk with folks outside of my shallow experience. Maybe that’s one of the things they should teach in creative writing classes: less ink-slinging, more social skills?

  • Once you start looking for realism instead of “realism” it can derail your perception of writing worth for a while. I have a first draft of a vampire novel where I wanted to avoid the sexual politics of both traditional horror and paranormal romance; when I pick it up to edit I keep getting drawn away from the plot as entertainment into counting female to male ratios in positive and negative roles, checking to make sure I neither rely on stereotypes nor make someone unique for the sake of fitting my assumptions about the “real” spread of personalities.

    I am hoping that I can work through it and emerge from the other side in some Zen-like transcendence of inherent bias. However, for the moment, my best/easiest to write/most praised by audience/realistic fiction is written without thinking about exactly what message it contains.

  • Yes! All of this!
    When it comes to avoiding stereotypes, whitewashing, and cardboard characters (hey, I need my heroine to get mugged! Here’s a Black gang member!) I write the zero draft with very little thought to these matters. Then, when I edit, I try to stamp these issues out with an iron foot. Writers always get another chance to make things better. We have no excuse not to.

  • That essay was brilliant, thank you for linking. Avoiding stereotypes is one of my hobbies but it’s hard to keep the balance of having well-rounded atypical characters and rubbing diversity in the readers face like skin lotion after a sunburn.

    (Also: I find archetypes — not stereotypes though — ridiculously helpful for mapping out characters.)

  • One of the things I’ve always tried to do is write the books I want to see. There aren’t enough books out there with women in the main roles, both as heroes and villains, who are treated with the same complexity and respect as male characters. So I try to write them.

    I would like to see more writers take risks with their imaginations and write books where things are different. Take fantasy, for example. The standard thing is to write a fantasy based in some part on a historical period of our modern world where women, brown people and anyone not a rich white man is basically treated as subhuman, then excuse yourself with ‘realism’. But you’re making it up. Why can’t you make up a fantasy world where a society evolved differently? Why do women and brown people have to be the victims?

    Remember that they are people, not plot devices.

    And yes, I get the difficulty in deliberately trying to write to avoid your own inherent biases, that can suck the joy and creativity out of it for a while. So instead of that, write what you normally would, then race or gender-swap some of the characters without changing any of their traits. It’s a great way to mix it up and to boost variety and inclusivity without stressing yourself out.

    • I started writing a character once and realised – hey, I’ve done this sort of character (kinda manic pixie nightmare girl) before, Why not swap the gender? And actually, I think the character’s much more interesting for it.

      • I’m debating doing the same with my secondary character. Currently male, passive and quiet and very self contained (to contrast with the main character, who is very wild and impulsive) and I thought I could make him a her. I still haven’t decided, mainly because he’s one of only two or three important male characters.

  • I agree wholeheartedly. I was thinking about this just the other day while watching Mamma Mia (bear with me). I was wondering why it was such a fun experience, and realised, on reflection, that it was because it was made by people who actually liked women. All the women in it are whole people. Flawed, young, old, in-between, successful and less so, married, divorced, unmarried, deserted, pretty and ordinary. And THEY ALL GOT TO DANCE. (I subsequently discovered that both writer and director were women.) It’s not unique, there are some others like it. But there are many that are not like it. So, so many, where women exist almost entirely for decoration. So as a female writer, you can bet I try to write women-friendly stories. Of course, given that I am a female writer, whatever I write will probably have an uphill slog to be read by men (not least because of the cover issues) but at least it might make some of the women readers happy!

    Of course, being a woman doesn’t make me immune from the other prejudices. I’m still white and comfortable and it does take effort to think and write outside that comfort zone – certainly to do it well. It’s an effort I’m committed to, though!

  • Great read! Felicia Day just posted something similar on her blog about the new Star Trek movie and the roles women seem to hold “in the future.” I read it and saw the point she was making and think it was a valid point. A lot of my favorite characters in movies, T.V., and books are the strong females who do the things females aren’t suppose to do, at least according to current storytelling standards. I haven’t delved into why I like, but I do (introspection will occur off-blog). I also know that a certain trope (I detest that word, “trope”) was in play with Star Trek since it is based off of a series from an era in our past when people thought it was revolutionary to have an african american female in a very visible role. In general, the comments on the page were supportive and I didn’t find any trolls lurking under her blog-bridge.

    Then I stumbled onto an IGN forum called “LMAO Felicia Day so butthurt over Star Trek Into Darkness.” I read the first couple and just thought they were stupid, but then I saw that it went on and on and on. There were a few voices of reason, but damn! The overall maturity level of that forum dipped into the negatives. Men (I have to assume they were men, I sure hope no women were involved) were pulling and straining just so they could make a comment on how worthless she (or women) were and how, as one very eloquent jackrod phrased it “Every God damn thing you have was GIVEN to you by WHITE MEN off THEIR BACKS.” What’s with the rage? What’s with the implied superiority? What’s with the historically inaccurate statement? What’s with being all douchy-human? I think some little IGN forum boy needs to talk to a shrink…

    That’s it. Just thought I would chime in. Need coffee…

    Day’s Blog:
    http://feliciaday.com/blog/start-trek-musings-etc-and-spoilers-so-no-complaints#comment-27440

    Shame Inducing “Man, I hate being a man, man…” Forum:
    http://www.ign.com/boards/threads/lmao-felicia-day-so-butthurt-over-star-trek-into-darkness.453040145/#post-474159857

  • May 22, 2013 at 8:04 AM // Reply

    What a wonderful post, thank you, Chuck! And yay, libraries!! Esp public libraries. Help fight for their funding in your community, they can use every bit of help.

    Great quote from Kameron Hurley’s post: “I’m passionately interested in truth: truth is something that happens whether or not we see it, or believe it, or write about. Truth just is. We can call it something else, or pretend it didn’t happen, but its repercussions live with us, whether we choose to remember and acknowledge it or not.”

    Truth is the magic mojo in the middle of the story, and I believe gives the greatest power to our stories. So, the more truth, the more specific and soft and non-cannibalistic the llamas you capture in your tale, the more entertaining your tale, and the more powerful your impact. Magic mojo indeed.

  • Hell yeah, Chuck! Entertainment plays a huge role is crafting stereotypes and steering people towards certain views. We might not be able to single-handedly right every wrong in the world, but we can at least each offer a piece of, as you said, social justice. We can break expectations and play with convention.

    The best part is it’s so easy to break out of the lazy choices. Not every book has to be a statement on sexual inequality or racial prejudice, but it takes nothing to break the moulds and add depth and variety to your characters in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race and religion.

    • You’re not wrong. Which is why, in part, I sneak in that note to publishers, too — because they’re at the front lines of this.

      And the hope is that if enough writers start writing to all the traditionally ignored parts of the audience — even if in a small way — then maybe those barriers start to crack and chip a little.

      Plus: hey, self-publishing. I’m always saying that so-called indie pubs aren’t taking enough risks with the material; here’s a good way to do it.

      — c.

    • ” Try selling it.”

      The assumption that “default, middle-of-the-road white guy” will always outsell anything else is what led many Republicans into the hard-locked assumption that Romney was going to walk away with the last election. I think we all recall how that worked out.

      Perhaps, like the electorate, the buying public has also changed….

        • I have believed – and said – that the buying public has been ready for the different for years, but the publishers were just chicken-hearted. I guess that’s their call – it’s their money. But I, for one, hope that the rise of good self-publishing will show them how much they have been wrong. And that the digital space will continue to provide a home for the edgy and different, even if the market for it IS small!

    • That’s the tricky one, there. My feeling on it (as an unpublished writer, so pinch of salt) is that if more people write like this, more publishers will take it on. The smaller ones, probably, to start with, but in time it’ll change if people stick to their guns.

      Also, it’s probably easier if you write easily-accepted stuff with a few minor changes and start doing the really in-your-face stuff when you;re established.

      Says the woman writing a pretty simple adventure fantasy that just happens to be female-centric.

      • Well, my feeling is that there are probably a lot of readers out there *eager* for the books that will serve them, and if those books get published (assuming they’re any good), they’ll sell. And maybe sell a lot. Because, you know, us ‘minorities’ are actually *not in the minority*, generally.

        • Oh, yeah, with you on that. Like I said earlier, I write what I want to read. If there were more fantasy books that featured,complex, noncliche, four-dimensional women in main roles both heroic and villainous, I’d devour them like some kind of book-devouring beast. I’m sure other people would also devour books that spoke to them as people too. When I do find books like that (actually rarer than you’d think) they quickly become favourites.

          But publishers can be conservative, and until there is proof that things’ll sell they don’t take the risk. But I do see it changing, self-publishing and the rise of the small publisher have done a lot to help that. It’s just changing slow, like all these things.

          But the more of us writing it, and more importantly, buying and reading it when it’s published, the better.

    • Sigh. We have a long, long way to go. Hell, it’s nearly impossible to sell a YA book that is about a female character with agency who ISN’T at the center of a ridiculous love triangle. When that’s considered on the fringe, what hope is there for the non-white, non-cis-gendered, non-traditional role character? Yes, I keep banging my head against that particular wall hoping that something will change before my brain is smashed to a bloody pulp.

      • Haha, whenever I see the shirts that say TEAM PEETA or TEAM GALE I’m like, uhh, how about TEAM WHO GIVES A SHIT SHE’S A CHILD SOLDIER THAT’S FUCKED UP.

        — c.

        • A child soldier who doesn’t want any children anyways because of the Hunger Games and absolutely has no real inclination to have a boyfriend, which gets her in all sorts of trouble with the stupid boys who want her.

          But that part people forget.

          Though I love the ending, I kind of wish she stayed that way.

          A young woman completely happy and satisfied without a romance in her life? BLASPHEMY!!!

  • I find it comforting to know that there were women involved in all wars in combat because I know that if war came to my street, I’d be out there bashing heads with anyone who’d bash heads with me. Knowing that I personally don’t choose to be a victim, and that if I do become one it won’t be through lack of bashing heads, makes me think that there must be plenty of others like myself out there. At least two of my (female) friends are people I would not mess with in a dark alley, and they’d be my choice for Zombie Apocalypse bandmates because of it. I like strong women, I respect them, and I want to write them myself, but there are other truths out there – the truth that men do victimize women disproportionately in domestic abuse and rape, that women in the military face rape by their male colleagues, that women raising children struggle to do most of the housework and hold down a job which continues to pay less, generally speaking, than a man doing the same job. These are also realities that need to be highlighted, but we don’t have to highlight them as acceptable or accepted by our female characters – or our male ones. Sure, make your general a woman, but there really is no need to force childlessness on her because of it. Or to shy away from the issue of rape or domestic violence because you don’t want her to appear like a victim. Boys and men face rape and domestic abuse too. It’s a tricky thing to write, someone who does not consider themselves a victim when society tries to make them one.

    • On the other hand, I don’t want to write rape or domestic abuse because I don’t want to fall into the trap that many people do of doing it to make your character vulnerable. I hate that, loathe it, and as a survivor of sexual assault, would find writing any such scene distressing.

      So, not writing these tbhings is fine, too, if you want it to not be a part of your fictional world.

  • One thing I really want people to do is try to avoid demonising the ‘traditionally feminine’ when they write their ‘strong female characters’. Just be aware of that, it’s atendency I dislike, and it turns up a great deal in YA work. Sure, write your free, strong woman, but don’t imply that she’s better than all those silly child-rearing, house-cleaning, pretty-dress-wearing sheep who aren’t doing anything important.

    Sorry, just something that bothers me.

    • Someone once made a comment on a message board that housewives make lousy characters in a story.

      I replied, “Really? You mean like Carmela Soprano?”

      Stay-at-home-mom. Fantastic character. Yeah, living in a world most housewives don’t inhabit, but still… And that context of wife and mother was precisely one of the things that made her so interesting.

    • I agree. One thing that bothers me with the “strong female characters” in many YA Fantasy/SF is that the character takes on all the traditional characteristics of alpha males (ninja warrior, can’t have feelings, can use guns, swords, bows, etc.) but happens to be in a female body and have a female name.

      I try to write female characters who are vulnerable but still strong, who do think through and feel the contradictions of things like taking a life or doing harm (even when necessary) and a belief in not harming others. Life is not black and white, and we should not write characters who are. There is strength in the feminine that should be celebrated instead of the belief that in order to be strong, the female must become male in all characteristics except biology.

  • There’s a practical reason to avoid cliches and stereotypes, and it goes back to one of George Orwell’s rules of writing: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I would extend that to use of cliches and stereotypes. Use them, and your writing becomes less vivid, more predictable, more… boring.

    If you want to make your reader’s eyes glaze over, use those cliches and stereotypes. If you want to keep them engaged, you might want to do something different.

  • Thanks for the shout-out to libraries, Chuck! Well-put. We need more people out there articulately stating just what value we provide.

    And I should work harder to be one of them.

  • I agree that it’s sad that having diverse and different characters and/or writers is such a big deal. It shouldn’t be a thing at all, but it is. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household with a shit ton of books by anyone who could write one well. Didn’t matter that I was lower middle class white suburbia, my parents both had such a voracious appatite for books, SF and all other kinds as well, being awesome was all that mattered.

    So I admit that sometimes it catches me off guard that it’s such a big deal when the lack of universal incluesiveness of our genre is thrown in the forefront. Being awesome is the only criteria that should matter and I do my damnedest to make sure I practice accordingly.

    Sometimes though I think that being such a Big Deal is a vicious cycle. I think awareness helps a percentage of people who might be totally oblivious, but it riles up that minority of assholes who will never change and continue to be dicks no matter what. And assholes tend to be loud. And some people will tune out the entire debate just to avoid the loudness. Then the Big Deal remains a Big Deal.

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t I guess because you can’t do nothing.

    What’s doubly unfortunate is that I think new writers in particular can benefit from writing characters as different as possible as themselves which would just add more variety to the landscape. Fundementally a good character is built with the same techniques no matter what but a character that’s different from the writer forces the writer to stop and think. My writing got better when I wrote women protags. If characters are too much like myself, its easy to gloss over important bits.

    So I guess this is just more thinking aloud but its all stuff that needs to be thought about.

    • That “people will tune it out if everyone gets too loud” argument is what the LGBTQIA community has to deal with constantly. I assume you mean well, but being lower-middle-class doesn’t exempt you from the privilege you bear. The people who are going to get their panties in a twist will always be there, shouting about something taking away their right to deny other people rights.

      The trick to progress is not to say “They’re going to shout and make people back away and therefore nothing will get done” anymore than the trick is to shout over them. The trick is to keep pushing forward. Write minorities as accurately as possible. Write LGBTQIA characters. Write women. And if the publisher tells you to wash it down with the foul taste of stereotypes and BS. Tell them no thank you and publish it yourself. Tweet and blog and leave bookmarks and flyers at libraries and book stores and conventions… market the shit out of your REAL novel. Prove that no matter how loud the asshats are, your story and these people’s realities are louder, without ever shouting back.

      You can’t back away because a Big Deal may always be a Big Deal. Progress is made by putting in ear plugs and continuing despite it all, because my rights as a half-hispanic LGBTQIA woman are just as important as your rights as a white man.

      (and anyone wondering about the alphabet soup, it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Questioning/Queer, Intersex, and Asexual.)

  • May 22, 2013 at 2:30 PM // Reply

    The essay was friggin’ brilliant! It’s been my observation that the value a woman has in society (at least in the U.S.) correlates directly to whether she can give men around her a hard-on. Because if not for sexualization, what are women for, anyway?
    It’s about damn time the marginalized are given a voice. The “Other” deserves recognition. I’m in the beginning stages of a story that does just that.

  • I loved the essay. At the end of day these attitudes will continue. What’s most important is to be aware of them. If you know they are out there you can catch yourself falling in them.

    I fall into them as well and my main character is a kick-ass woman who writes poetry. Awareness is always the key.

  • I haven’t read the essay yet, but will after this comment.
    I’ve often wondered why when someone in a writing group writes, say, a gay Chinese man as the protagonist, there will inevitably come a time when the question will be asked, “So how does his gay-ness and his Chinese-ness figure into the story?” As if willfully ignoring stereotype was nothing more than a plot device!

  • Have you heard of the “Hawkeye Initiative?” It’s the same sort of thing, for comics – for every female posing awkwardly, replace her with Hawkeye doing the exact same thing.

  • It’s a struggle to write characters of color in genre fiction. It’s a struggle to be a writer of color. It’s a double struggle to be a writer of color who writes characters of color. And maybe a triple struggle if you are a woman. You have to dig hard to find your audience. Meet a lot of folks face to face so they understand what you are trying to do. Literary fiction seems to embrace diversity more, but genre fiction is about the masses. That’s why it’s so exciting to work in the genre world. C’mon, people, let’s join the party! Jump in the pool! Let’s change the waters a bit. It’s been too lonely in here.

  • A while ago I was discussing a movie with a friend called Songcatcher. It’s about a woman at the turn of the 20th century who travels to Appalachia to record the folk songs of the region. There’s a subplot about her sister, a teacher who is also having an affair with the other female teacher who works in the school.

    My friend commented, “I liked the movie but don’t see why they had to make those characters gay. It seemed unnecessary.”

    (Actually, it was a very important plot point.)

    The thing is, I’m pretty sure my friend is not homophobic. But I do think there’s a perception that characters don’t “need” to be gay unless they fit some stereotype (like a fashion designer, or the gay best friend, or whatever).

    There has been similar complaining about the characters of Renly and Loras in the TV series Game Of Thrones. Their sexuality is only implied in the books, but is made explicit in the series. Again, a lot of comments saying it was unnecessary to make the characters gay, or at least unnecessary to take that subtext and make it part of the text.

    I had a similar experience with a different friend who read a story of mine and asked, “Does that character HAVE to be Black?”

    Well, no, she didn’t, My friend simply couldn’t understand why I made her African American without a “good reason.”

    Yeah, it’s dispiriting.

    • I read an interesting article many moons ago now (no hope of finding it again, apologies) talking about the stages of acceptance of fringe culture or minority groups into the broader culture, and how such things as lampooning or making a character funny (see the funny gay friend as an example) are one step up from threatening – in other words, it’s part of the process by which we desensitize ourselves to difference, something that was previously frightening now becomes funny and so not as threatening. The next step would be where no-one asks ‘Why was that person gay?’ because it doesn’t matter. I can see how this works, but I also see the process is by no means uniform. For every funny gay character, we’ll have a villain whose villainy is reinforce with ‘sexual deviance’. This is so true of female characters. Our strong women can’t also have ‘good woman’ characteristics – they have to be alone or lonely, they have to be sexually promiscuous, they have to be in abusive relationships with men etc. That is my problem with trying to make a ‘strong’ female take a man’s role. That misses the point. You make a good female a strong character. That’s how you do it.

  • May 22, 2013 at 11:35 PM // Reply

    Gah, it’s late at night and there’s no way I’ll be as eloquent as I want to be about this topic.

    1) While it’s true that the languishing, helpless female is common in fiction today, so too is the strong heroine (without rape). Take Tamora Pierce’s books. Her female characters are strong, independent women who DO things. Several books I’ve read have characters like this, to the point where it’s impossible to find a NORMAL person who isn’t ridiculously strong or weak.

    2) I don’t think gender or skin colour or anything should even MATTER. That’s part of the reason I’m gestating a story where the protagonist simply… is. It’s told in first person, and like Invisible Man, you don’t know the name of the MC. Unlike Invisible Man, you also don’t know age, or gender, or race. You simply know HIM (used in the grammatical sense, not in the “it actually is a him” sense).

    I don’t know. Sometimes I think people put far too much stock into worrying about gender and race and all of that, on either side. In an idealistic world (or at least the one I imagine), people just wouldn’t CARE. So WHAT if the character’s black or gay or a woman or whatever the fuck else. It doesn’t define him, any more than the fact that I have a cat and a dog defines me.

    The idea of a “strong female character” irritates me. Just give me a strong character, period. And by that, I mean, a character whom I can believe in. Whether he’s passive or aggressive or somewhere in between, make him REAL. Unlike some others, I don’t give a fuck if it’s “implausible” to what I’ve been shown in “real” life. As long as I can believe in the reasons behind his actions and reactions, I can believe in HIM.

    And for the love of all things covered in cheese, let’s all just try to write books that touch people’s hearts, minds, and souls, regardless of their demographic. I DO NOT WANT TO WRITE FOR WHITE PEOPLE. OR COLOURED PEOPLE. OR WOMEN. OR MEN.

    I SIMPLY WANT TO WRITE FOR PEOPLE.

    (Sorry for the caps. As I said, it’s late, and this topic always makes me a bit tetchy.)

    • okay, quickly before anyone gets bent out of shape about it – Will, are you South African? Just a heads up that the term ‘coloured’ is considered derogatory in the States, but it is a common term for ‘mixed race’ in my home country.

      • May 23, 2013 at 8:55 AM // Reply

        I am not. The use of the term coloured was simply to imply ALL races that have more pigmentation than Caucasians. Although, I did spend a portion of my youth in Tanzania, where the term was also used widely; similar to my tendency to gain a Southern dialect when I’m angry despite only being farther south than Virginia twice in my life, it could just be something I picked up without realizing it.

        • Ah, I wondered since you spelt your ‘color’ with a ‘u’ 🙂 I tend to sound more British when I’m angry, although friends tell me I’m getting a Texas drawl now. Depends who I’m talking to.

          • May 23, 2013 at 1:33 PM //

            I took to the European spelling of most words at a young age. It just looks better! There’s also the fact that I have an unhealthy desire to be Australian 🙂

  • Just read the essay, it´s great! I do see that some people have the “white dude´s guilt trip” going on. There are lot of blacks that ride on those tanks, and it´s honorable profession. Reaching out, doing public service is essential, but at the end of the day is up to each individual once they get the information to either use it or not. And I talk from experience on both points. Stay Frosty.

  • Aaa, I forgot. It´s also essential to be understanding but at the same time strong and pushy sometimes to get the message ingrained in whoever many people end up listening That life is not fair and get your shit together stay out of trouble and start working hard. It worked for me. Having a mentor outside of the family is also quite helpful, but again is up to the individual.
    P.S There´s also quite a lot of uneducated white dudes and dudess running around. Call them trailer trash or whatever. Just pointing it out.

  • The best way to serve the underserved is to give them role models. I’ve recruited several new genre readers by intoducing them to Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkins.

    More than showing them characters the reader can relate to, the underserved need to see that there are writers that can relate to as well.

  • Good essay about an important topic.

    I want to briefly mention an extremely underserved population — bisexuals. In print as well as other written media, if we’re presented at all, it’s on a continuum from confused to unstable to predatory. Hey, I know that the point of this essay wasn’t to generate a laundry list of populations, but your phrase “who are gay and lesbian and transgender” sort of caught my eye due to who was missing.

    Anyway, good work here, and I hope that you see my comment for what it is — a vote in favor of what you are talking about.

  • Loved Kameron’s article and also loved yours, Chuck. Especially your call-out to publishers. When Tony Hillerman tried to get his first Joe Leaphorn book published, publishers at first wanted him to lose “all the Indian stuff” because Americans won’t read that. But fortunately someone had the guts to go for it. Now, I get some readers who want Hillerman novels when I’m writing about urban mixed-blood Natives who are isolated from their tribal communities. Fortunately, my publisher was willing to go for it.

    I love what Lucie B. said. “Writers always get another chance to make things better. We have no excuse not to.” Need to put that on the wall over my desk.

  • The problem isn’t stereotypes, because stereotypes are based on fact. It’s just that it’s lazy writing. I agree with that. Otherwise, I don’t see the point to the article.

    Female characters (all characters) need to be constructed in the context of the culture. I have a female character that’s a martini-drinking lawyer. I have female fortune tellers in New Orleans, I have a woman prosecutor. I have women in roles that I see women in, and they act like the women I have seen in those roles.

    In another novel, my publisher wanted me to make my character more dashing and more appealing to women. I told them I don’t know what that means. I don’t write for women. I write for smart readers. Man or woman doesn’t enter into it. What you want I should do? Make him sparkle when the sun hits him? Isn’t that stereotypical from both ends? You want a stereotype of a man that women will like based on your stereotype of women.

    The bottom line is to write realistic characters that are like people you know or have seen. There will always be an element of stereotypes, but there must be variation. Some may consider a writer a misogynist because of one thing or another. Maybe he wrote that she had nice tits, or was a good cook. But so what? Maybe she bitched all the time. So what? I’m a good cook and I bitch constantly, and I’m trying to keep the man-boob thing under control. But if that’s what the character is, then that’s it. And it’s all quite believable. I might add that If you’ve ever used the word “misogynist” in a sentence, you’re not my audience, otherwise you will find cause to use it in another sentence.

    The problem is publishers, not writers They market to demographics, which by definition are stereotypical. What is chick-lit, after all, if not stereotypical women in stereotypical woman scenarios? What is “Women’s Contemporary Fiction?” Or “Women’s Commercial Fiction?” Why does the word “women’s” have to be there? Guess.

    Finally, I disagree that it’s our job as writers to address any under-served population, whatever that is. It’s our job to write good stories that hopefully have something to say.

  • One of the more fascinating things for me has been to watch my husband write his novels. He is uncomfortable writing your average Caucasian male; they are either goofballs, psychos, mercenaries, gang members (of all skin colors), etc. Instead, he puts all the strength and brains into his female characters, making them far more complex and giving them more growth opportunities in his stories. Unfortunately, some people just can’t handle these strong women, labeling them with the unimaginative name of “Amazons” simply because they kick butt and take names. It’s hard to fight stereotypes when lazy readers just want repetitions of what they know and are comfortable with.

  • My female protagonist is reserved. She’s repressing grief over the death of her son. An agent thinks she ought to be more emotional. This is a female agent. Perhaps I am misreading the advice, but it sure sounds like the agent wants my character to respond the way people imagine most women would to trauma.

  • This is really interesting. I wrote my first novel between ages 13 and 17 that followed 4 female protagonists. Almost everyone in it was female. There were only 3 men of note – father dies chapter 1, bad guy, and male best friend/love interest gets kidnapped in chapter 1. Hell, *spoiler alert* at the end when she rescues him, she finds out her female best friend is now evil and has to have a face off! (Possibly the fact that I went to an all-girls school and boys were mythical unicorns helped in that I just couldn’t write their POV)

    But when I finished it, I was a bit less.. idealistic. I’d taken a writer’s craft class; finished high school and it was full-fledge Pottermania. I looked at the story from a marketing POV and my first thought was that boys wouldn’t read a story just with female protagonists. And losing 50% of the population was too much but that girls would read it if there was a male protagonist. And I just eviscerated myself and my novel deeming it not good enough because the lead role wasn’t male. I even tried to rewrite a year later, with 3 main characters, one male, one female, one female nymph and I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t enjoy the story where she was the girl out for revenge but instead of leading the group, she was at odds with a male who was assigned to the mission and therefore de facto leader (and also a bit of a cocky git). It’s still sitting on a file and it still makes me sad because when I wrote it, I imagined 4 stories, each letting one of the women take lead so they could combine relics and power to take down the bad guy.

    This makes me want to dredge it out in its original form and let it do what it was meant to.. be about independent women who don’t need a male protagonist to help them out. At the very least my roller derby girls would support it.

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