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Why Authors Should Write Characters from Different Cultures August 12, 2020

As I wrote in April, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone after getting burned by multiple "dumpster fires." Yet like a moth, I keep going back periodically to peek at the dancing flames.

One day last month I visited the site on my computer for a couple of moments. In the first moment, I found recommendations for a cool book series I hastened to reserve at the public library. In the second moment, I glimpsed multiple writers declaring with pride, "Because I'm not a person of color, I only write books about white characters now."

WTF mates? In the short period of time I stayed away from social media, how did everyone manage to completely invert the goal of #ownvoices—to increase the representation of minority cultures in literature—into a righteous dictum that white writers should never ever try to represent characters from minority cultures in literature?

The twisted logic, from the few tweets I scrolled past before noping out that day:

  1. "No white writer can write a minority character well."
  2. "White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."
  3. "That's not your story to tell."

While each of these arguments sprouted from a grain of truth, their ultimate conclusions are nonsense. Let's examine what people are really saying when they make these assertions.

"No white writer can write a minority character well."

The grain of truth: Every adult has a unique set of personal experiences and unconscious biases they've picked up over decades. Recognizing those biases and pushing past them to write about people with different experiences takes a lot of hard work.

Another grain of truth: Faux diversity runs rampant even today. I've seen publishing experts declare making a book "diverse" is super easy—just change minor character names like Brittany and Sean to Latisha and Juan!

Both of these grains can sprout into equally inaccurate conclusions:

  1. "People of color are sooo different, white people could never understand them."
  2. "People of color are exactly the same as white people, just with funny names and noses."

Believing one or the other is how authors end up writing bad books about people from other cultures. To write well, you have to find the balance in the middle. Culture can affect the way people think and express themselves in subtle ways. But also regardless of culture, people everywhere are fundamentally the same: same emotions, same needs, same basic desires and interpersonal conflicts.

If you have a background of privilege, writing a marginalized character is difficult. But so is writing from the perspective of a woman if you're a man, or vice versa. So is writing from the perspective of a hard-boiled police detective when your only experience with law enforcement was that one time you got a ticket for speeding. Or writing about characters in Alabama when you grew up in Oregon, writing about a gorgeous Manhattanite with an exciting dating life when you're a reclusive bookworm, or writing about foraging for nuts and berries in prehistoric world of wizards when you're comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.

I recognize my own limits as a writer. After reading Angie Thomas, I know it's beyond my capabilities to write from the first-person perspective of a Black teenager in contemporary Atlanta. After reading Sandra Cisneros, I wouldn't dare to write the story of an immigrant Latinx family.

But I'm not going to write nothing but books about half-German-Irish, half-Chinese-Singaporian librarians from Southern California for the rest of my life, because only that narrow type fits my specific personal experience. We all need to stretch, carefully and conscientiously, to create fictional worlds full of unique and interesting characters.

"White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."

The grain of truth: The publishing industry has long pushed aside talented authors of color who wrote their own stories, and instead rewarded white authors who wrote clumsy POC stories for white audiences. For decades publishers told Mexican writers their stories of immigration "wouldn't sell," and then they lavished money and praise on American Dirt. And crafted barbed-wire centerpieces for a dinner party to celebrate its publication.

Barbed-wire-themed centerpieces at the Flatiron dinner party for American Dirt

Yeah...not a good look.

However, if all white writers stopped writing about marginalized characters, what would happen? Would publishers rush out to find new marginalized writers because OMG there's a void of color we must fill ASAP? No. Publishers would continue to buy the works of white authors with established platforms and impressive sales records, only now those works will have all-white casts in them.

For white writers to actually give opportunities to writers of color, they'd have to stop writing completely. None of the self-righteous authors I saw on Twitter offered to give up their publishing contracts. They're still writing and busily promoting their books. They're still taking up those coveted slots. Volunteering to "stay in their lane" does nothing but fill the shelves with Caucasian, neurotypical, heterosexual characters from the Christian tradition.

It would be absurd to demand all writers from one ethnic group sacrifice their careers for writers of another. The problem of under-representation isn't caused by writers in the first place, but by publishing companies that long offered limited slots for books featuring people of color, claiming that "Black children don't read," "Asian fantasies don't sell," or "White women over twenty-five don't want interracial romances."

Why are writers blaming other writers for producing "too many" stories about people from marginalized backgrounds, instead of demanding publishers make room for all stories? It's frustrating to see Twitter meekly accept that shelf space for non-white or LGBTQ+ books is limited and fight over who deserves to fill it. It's like we're in a sci-fi show about a post-apocalyptic society that allows only ten percent of the population to live in a purified bubble city, so we all started murdering each other to establish who's worthy of The Bubble, instead of protesting for the government to build more bubbles.

"That's not your story to tell."

The whole seed packet of truth: Western Europeans have a centuries-long habit of colonizing other cultures, taking over their lands and governments, and retelling traditional stories with an imperialist twist. We all grew up reading and watching beloved classics told from the European settlers' perspective, portraying "explorers" as brave heroes and other cultures as exotic, primitive, and in desperate need of rescue by nice civilized Christians: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Disney's Davy Crockett, and so on.

Even today the most popular books and movies about different cultures place blue-eyed American protagonists in the center and people of color in the background for set dressing: The Help (2011) stars Emma Stone as a journalist writing about the lives of Black maids, The Great Wall (2016) stars Matt Damon as a mercenary who saves China from monsters, Green Book (2019) stars Viggo Mortensen as a chauffeur who repeatedly rescues his jazz-pianist client from racist bullies. The positions of characters on the official posters show whose perspective Hollywood considers most important.

Movie poster for The Help Movie poster for Great Wall Movie poster for Green Book

Stories have been told this way because (a) privileged novelists and scriptwriters default to writing from their own point of view, and (b) privileged publishers and producers believe audiences share that point of view. Those publishers and producers believe the white majority aren't interested in stories about people of color unless they're blockbuster tearjerkers about how much those poor, poor people suffer because their cultures are so backwards and violent. See: American Dirt, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Kite Runner. Have you ever seen a bestselling adult novel in the U.S. with a happy Middle Eastern protagonist?

Seeing all this, it's tempting to say, "White people aren't allowed to write about other cultures anymore. They'll write some colonialist nonsense that capitalizes on other people's pain for profit. From now on only writers of color have the right to tell these stories."

However, that way lies gatekeeping.

If you try to make a rule that only writers from group A can write about group A, and writers from group B must stick to group B, to enforce it you must sort all writers into groups A or B. So what happens when a writer is part A and part B? When they're genetically A but adopted by a B family? When their faces and names aren't stereotypically A enough to seem "authentic"?

Then online mobs attack a mixed Black and Native American author for "misappropriating" Navajo legends in a fantasy novel. Publishers tell an aspiring Nigerian novelist her book about an anime-loving teen doesn't feel "authentically Nigerian." A poet in Indiana figures out he can slap a Chinese pseudonym on his work to sneak into journals and anthologies, because all that matters to gatekeepers is the appearance of #ownvoices.

Gatekeeping is inherently racist. It assumes all people from an ethnic background look the same on the surface, have the same life experiences, and express themselves the same way. Anyone who doesn't fit those preconceived notions of POC-hood is "not really a POC."

The solution is more stories, not fewer.

The problem people are attempting to solve by dictating who can write what is the poor representation of minorities in books published today. So let's address that problem the right way: through education.

When a well-meaning writer attempts to write a story from a marginalized point of view and gets it wrong, we point out the mistakes in critical reviews and discussions. When a publisher promotes an exploitative tearjerker about poor, suffering immigrants, we promote other books that portray immigrant experiences in more varied and nuanced ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story":

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

We're not fighting racial stereotypes by saying, "Everyone who doesn't fit a racial stereotype, shut up!" We can fight them by showing people how reductive and harmful those stereotypes are, through both candid conversations and representations in fiction.

Books Are Not Movies May 21, 2020

I haven't written a word of Kagemusha 2019 since 2019. I've been telecommuting since my college shut down campuses in March, but the extra time I get from staying home goes into my home: doing extra cleaning because I cook twice as much, working on the yards because I need to get outside, fixing the many problems I see now because I'm here when the sun is up.

This week I dipped my toe back into the literary world by visiting Scribophile. I'm not up to writing my own drafts yet, but I will happily dispense unqualified advice on others'!

Reading the chapters and short stories people have posted, I noticed a pattern. Many authors tend to write as if they're describing a movie or TV show in text. But what would make for an interesting viewing experience makes for a very dull reading experience.

Here's a pastiche, imitating multiple stories equally.

The soldier sat patiently on the wooden bench outside the general's office. The hallway was old and shabby, with unattractive orange wood paneling and a threadbare gray carpet. A painting hung by the office door, portraying a rural town at sunset. The soldier gazed at the deep oranges and purples, wondering if the town was a real place once. No town had known peace since The War began.

The office door opened. A surprisingly small and wiry man stepped into the hall. The soldier knew he was the general by his standard-issue heavy blue uniform, with the three badges signifying his rank pinned under his left shoulder.

"Officer James?" the man said.

James sat for another moment, taking one last look at the painting. Then he stood up. With a start he realized he was a head taller than his superior. He arranged his face in a deferential expression and greeted the general with a curt bow. "You wanted to speak with me, sir?"

The general blinked. "Yes, I did. Come in."

James followed the general into the office, which was as small and worn as the man himself...

This isn't a good opening for a novel. It's a scene the writer (me) envisioned through the lens of a camera and wrote down in the most boring way possible.

Excessive Description

Let's say this is the first chapter of a novel. I have one page to grab readers and get them excited for the next 250 pages. And I spend it describing what a hallway looks like.

In other story openings I've seen detailed descriptions of dystopian cityscapes, exotic deserts, fantastical airships, and quaint village bookstores. To the authors, they're creating a riveting establishing shot—that cool drone footage of the vast landscape that sets the tone for the story. To readers, they're slogging through dull description.

Describing scenery isn't world-building. It's picture-painting. Those dystopian cityscapes in CGI would be breathtaking, but words as a medium can't produce the same effect. An exotic desert on film makes audiences gasp, "Wow!" The word "sand" in text makes readers feel very little.

Reactive Characters

Agents and editors complain about protagonists waking up in chapter one, but more often I've seen them sitting. They sit, they wait, they analyze, and they realize (suddenly!) they're in the middle of doing things.

When they do take action, it's to follow stage directions. They step into halls, walk down streets, climb up or down stairs, move through Room A towards Room B, turn left or right to examine a clue and spin around to look at another character.

This works fine in TV shows. A handsome actor sits on the beach at night, gazing out at the waves. Enter another handsome actor who steps out of an intimidating black limousine and walks down the sand towards the first actor. Close-up of his hand holding a mysterious USB flash drive. Plots ensue.

Or a stunning actress walks down a busy city street in high heels, her face hidden under a hat and sunglasses. She enters a glimmering skyscraper and hurries past employees in crisp suits to the elevator doors. She exits on a higher floor and approaches a receptionist. She dramatically removes her hat and glasses. Close-up of her pretty face. The receptionist looks shocked! And so on.

In text, these purely external descriptions of people sitting, walking, and holding things is boring. So are close-ups of characters making expressions and blinking. How often modern book characters blink! They blink when they don't know how to react. They blink in bright lights. They blink away sadness and unwelcome thoughts. They blink to fill space on the page before speaking.

Temporal Cues

The plague of blinking might arise from writers attempting to recreate "beats" on the page. Moments pass. Characters pause before acting. They fill seconds by considering, mulling, choosing words carefully, and blinking.

Time is flexible in writing. Readers don't need (beat) specified between lines. Writers can control the pacing of a story in many interesting ways, but temporal cues are not one of them.

Telling

Writers seem to think they're "showing" by slipping information all casual-like into dialogue or paragraphs about other topics (E.g., "No town had known peace since The War began.") Or by sending a protagonist running across the rooftops, looking down at the people fighting over scraps of food because of The War. This is still telling readers what's going on, instead of allowing them to figure things out for themselves.

In a screenplay you might write, "A dirty dystopian city in the near future. People fight over scraps of food on the streets. A newsboy shouts wartime headlines. OFFICER JAMES runs across the rooftops, in hot pursuit of a criminal."

But like establishing shots, establishing information in writing doesn't have a strong impact on readers. There's a war and people are starving, okay, cool. We're not immersed in the world, and we don't have much reason to care.

How can we fix it?

The sample passage I wrote can't be salvaged, because the very idea of the scene is boring. This theoretical story should begin later, when Officer James undertakes his mission. We don't need a doddering general to explain who the bad guys are beforehand.

To fix smaller flaws like long descriptive paragraphs, stage directions, and characters blinking moments away, we need to change our thinking. We write this way because we see scenes in our heads, and we think we need to communicate our visions precisely: how long characters paused before speaking, what they looked and sounded like, where they moved and what they were wearing.

We're trying to capture everything a camera would show. That's just not possible. We can't invoke the same emotional responses movies can through sight and sound, and trying wastes valuable space on the page.

Instead, we should embrace the primary advantage books will always have over visual media: interiority. Getting inside characters' heads is the one thing a movie or show could never do as well as a written story. They can try with voice-overs and flashbacks, but those techniques are overused and much-hated.

If you want to describe scenery, do it through the lens of the protagonist, not through the lens of a camera pointed at the protagonist. Infuse the description with voice and character to engage readers. Preferably, incorporate description into actions that move the story forward, instead of making characters sit still and look around.

Instead of dragging out conversations with empty fillers like characters pausing and moments passing, think about how we tell stories naturally in real life. Imagine a friend calls you and says, "My boss called me into her office today. She sat down behind her desk and took a moment to gather her thoughts. I sat down too and stared out the window at the birds in the blooming magnolia trees, and the people eating lunch in the courtyard below. Then my boss took a deep breath, and she said..."

You'd probably think man, this person doesn't know how to tell a story. Get to the juicy stuff already!

Few people talk like that. Your friend is more likely to say, "My boss called me into her office today. I was so nervous, like, what did I do? Am I gonna get fired? I wasn't sure if she looked angry or what. Then she said..."

Fiction will always be artificial, but we can take hints from natural storytelling to figure out what interests people. If someone blathers on about boring details, people cut in, "Yeah, but what did she say? Why did she call you in? How did you react?" We care about interpersonal interactions, conflicts, and emotions, not what kind of trees grow outside the window or how deeply someone breathed.

Fiction is Not Reality April 6, 2020

"People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile."
- from Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Earlier this year, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone. This past week, cooped up at home during the coronavirus outbreak, I wandered back onto the platform to amuse myself between manic bouts of home renovation. I quickly remembered why I quit.

Twitter adores outrage.

With the economy plummeting and everyday life rapidly evolving, many people feel unstable, afraid, anxious, and bored. It's tempting to say they're only picking fights online to vent their frustration and uncertainty.

But Twitter has ardently devoted itself to manufactured conflict since long before the current pandemic. Social media rewards content that generates intense emotion: shock, fear, and anger. When Twitter can't find anything to be afraid or angry about, they'll invent something and whip themselves into a frenzy over it.

Example #1: In January a romance author aged 60+ opined that using profanity in fiction is lazy. The #writingcommunity responded that she's a judgemental fucking bitch who needs to grow up, because in the real world every mature adult adores profanity. How dare this puritanical cunt try to sanitize literature?

Example #2: The same week, a writer posed this question ostensibly for discussion, but transparently for drama: "Is it okay to write a main character who's a misogynist? Or are people today just too sensitive?"

When others responded a sexist hero is a bad idea, the writer and his friends railed against censorship and cancel culture. They argued many men today are misogynist, and shouldn't art reflect real life?

"Realism" seems to be the favored excuse for bad morals and plain old bad writing. Whenever writers face criticism for writing unethical lessons, racist/sexist stereotypes, or language that needlessly upsets readers, the common response is, "But those things are realistic."

Fiction is always artificial.

Art does reflect real life, but only one tiny slice of it at a time.

When painting, a visual artist decides which details to emphasize and which to discard. Too much noise clutters a composition. Even when taking photographs and videos with a high-resolution camera capable of capturing every individual bump on the wall and thread in the carpet, the artist decides what to focus on, what to blur, and what to crop out of the frame.

Similarly, every writer decides what to represent on the page and what to leave out. The goal of fiction is to entertain, and/or to communicate specific themes and lessons. If the goal were to reflect reality, characters would take bathroom breaks once an hour, spend half of the book doing mundane chores, and speak in fragments with meaningless filler words.

A realistic adult conversation looks like this.

"Sh..."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Tell me."

"Nothing, I said. Really just, uh, stupid..."

"That again?"

"Just, yeah. My brain just keeps...you know?"

"Well, stop."

"Yeah, yeah."

We don't write fictional dialogue like that. We mimic natural speech; we don't transcribe it. Our characters fully articulate what they're thinking without the clutter of unnecessary adverbs.

Much of the profanity I see in contemporary fiction is equally unnecessary clutter. Characters use "fucking" like an edgy version of "really." I fucking hate this. This is fucking boring. She's fucking pissed at you right now.

If the people who vehemently defend extraneous "fuckings" were truly devoted to realism, they'd be equally incensed by the idea of cutting out excessive repetitions of "really" and "actually." Yet they're not, because realism isn't their real problem.

The defense of "realism" is usually about pride, not art.

People flew off the handle over the sexagenarian romance author's comments on Twitter not because she threatened literature, but because she threatened egos. Writers felt like children scolded by the English teacher, so they lashed out in the name of defending artistic integrity.

Similarly, people who use realism to excuse bad morals in fiction are usually battling a perceived threat to their self-image.

When people expressed anger about Chinese stereotypes in Somewhere Lies the Moon, the author asserted that she studied Chinese history for seven years, and therefore those offensive passages were accurate, not racist.

When readers objected to a rape scene in the historical novel Voyager (the third novel in the Outlander series), the author responded that consent is a "useful fiction" constructed in the last fifty years. Real people of the time period wouldn't have called the encounter rape, Q.E.D the hero did nothing wrong.

Both of these authors cited "historical accuracy" as justification not because they're passionately devoted to scholarship, but because the criticisms called their ethics into question. From their angry and self-righteous responses, you can see both considered themselves highly intelligent and enlightened women. The implication they could ever write something racist or sexist seems deeply unfair.

Did people have a different definition of rape the 18th century? Probably. But that's clearly not what the Voyager author was thinking about when she wrote...

Half-dazed, he fought to keep her under him, while groping madly for something to say to calm her.

"But—," he said.

"Stop it!"

"I—"

"Take it out!" she screamed.

He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of.

"No," he said defiantly, and shoved.

When the author asserts this is a portrayal of a totally-not-rape sexual encounter in 1746, she isn't fighting for her right to teach history through fiction. She's fighting against the obvious conclusion that when she wrote this book, she thought "forced seduction" is fun and sexy.

Fiction exists for an audience.

According to the Voyager author's Facebook rant, the hero had admirable motivations: he was trying to show the girl a good time, he believed she was only panicking because she was a virgin, and he was convinced the hysterics would drag on all night if he didn't get it over with.

The scene she actually wrote gives readers a different impression. (That's a lot of supposed thinking for a man who couldn't dredge up a coherent thought.) Contrary to the willful belief of writers everywhere, we don't get to decide how readers interpret our publications. If many people read a scene and say, "This idealizes rape," then the scene idealizes rape. If we feel compelled to explain that our intentions were different, then we failed as writers. It's our job to communicate clearly on the page, so readers will see what we want to show them.

Reality check: no art exists in a vacuum. If you want to successfully convey a message, you must keep in mind who will receive it.

Many people have a visceral negative reaction to profanity. Strong swear words disgust them. If you sprinkle "fuckings" around like "reallys," you will alienate those readers. If you're writing a story that might appeal to those people, ask yourself: Is it worth it? Is the de-stigmatization of angry four-letter words an important battle to pick right now? Or will profanity unnecessarily limit my audience and muddy up my message? The answers are up to you, but "those readers need to stop being so sensitive" is not an option.

Many more people hate misogyny. You want to write about a hero who looks down on women because it's realistic? Go ahead, but you can't act surprised and hurt when readers assume you're a misogynist.

Fiction communicates ideals.

Readers will interpret a book within the context of their experiences with other books, TV shows, video games, etc. And those experiences will have taught them that protagonists represent our cultural ideals.

Protagonists can have relatively minor flaws. They can have anger management issues, or self-esteem issues, or hard snarky exoskeletons to protect their soft golden hearts. But they must be relateable and sympathetic, and in most genres they must ultimately act heroically, the way readers want to believe they'd act in the same situations.

Misogyny and racism are too abhorrent to be minor character flaws, and they're still too prevalent to be obviously villainous traits. Murder has been taboo for millennia, so when you write from the perspective of a serial killer, everyone knows you're not trying to say murder is okay. But because many people today say sexist and racist things all the time, readers will assume a sexist/racist protagonist must have been written by someone who wants to promote those views.

Bias shapes what we call "realistic."

People say depressing literary fiction and violent thrillers are realistic, but romances with happy endings are not. They say depictions of selfish anti-heroes are realistic, but nice heroes and heroines are "unrealistically perfect."

Humans fall in love and get married more often then they get violently murdered by psychopaths. Most people I meet are nice and civil, not bitter and self-destructive. Even the angstiest teens can't brood 24/7—they have to take a break for sandwiches and cat videos eventually. Everyone has issues, but they rarely go to the extremes of despair and moral failings portrayed in fiction.

Yet we stubbornly insist dark subjects are "real" and light ones are not. Our long tradition of misogyny in literature has much to do with it. Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck are classic geniuses, but Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott are a waste of time. Or, as Hawthorne himself put it, they're "a damned mob of scribbling women" ruining the exalted art of wordsmithery with their sentimental tosh.

What is realism in fiction?

To sum up so far...

  • Fiction is never completely "realistic," and it shouldn't be.
  • People tend to twist the idea of realism to excuse content that upsets readers and teaches bad lessons.
  • Western culture considers misery more "real" than joy.

None of this means realism in fiction is a worthless concept. When it's not used as a weapon to beat down "too sensitive" critics and damned mobs of scribbling women, realism is a valid goal for writers.

But if realism isn't romanticized rape, offensive cynicism, or shocking rude words, what is it?

There is no objective definition of realism, because realism is all about feelings. A story either feels real to a reader, or it doesn't.

When readers can identify with characters, place themselves in the same fictional world, and experience the same emotions, they'll say a story feels real. Think about books like the Hunger Games series, The Handmaid's Tale, or any Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King novel. The premises are objectively outrageous. Yet thousands insist the stories are "so real it's scary," because the experiences of the characters resonate with them so strongly.

Does Katniss Everdeen say "fuck" in every sentence to prove she's a real teenage girl? No. Does Peeta make sexist comments because "locker-room talk" is common among boys his age? Also no. These characters are highly idealized, but to young adult readers, they're real. Not because they use current slang or make sarcastic pop culture references or any other minute details writers obsess over, but because they have relateable emotions. Peeta gets scared and hurt. Katniss gets angry at the numerous structural injustices hurting her loved ones and ruining her life. Both feel trapped and lost in a messed-up world run by selfish adults. What fifteen-year-old couldn't relate?

To write realism, we need to dig deep. Deeper than mimicking verbal crutches, deeper than facts we learned in history classes, and certainly much deeper than "people do bad things." Realism is creating the illusion of humanity on the page.