Invisible no more: rooting out exclusion as a storyteller

McCraken-quoteYesterday I wrote about queer invisibility in movies, television, books, and other forms of cultural expression—specifically why being annoyed at us for trying to find hints of our existence in such things contributes to the culture of oppression. Comprehending that requires understanding decades of discrimination, the consequences of straight male privilege, and finding a way to empathize with people who have lived with the alienation, rejection, and oppression that results from the aforementioned discrimination.

Which can make the whole thing seem overwhelming.

But each of us who creates art and stories can contribute to the solution. Queers aren’t the only ones who are marginalized—or excluded completely—from most stories. And no writer is immune. For example, many years back at my monthly writer’s meeting I was receiving feedback on a chapter of a book I was writing. Another member of the group asked me why there were no women in the book. I’d read a number of chapters by that point, and it just seemed odd to her in a story where my protagonist was a middle school student that there had been no female characters, at all.

My first reaction was denial…

There were a number of female characters in the life of my protagonist, I said. And I started going back through the earlier pages. I found only three references to any women: one reference to my protagonist’s favorite teacher, Mrs Blankenship who taught science; one reference to my protagonist’s Aunt Linda; and one reference to a supporting character’s mother. References, only. No actual appearances or dialog. And each of the women that had been mentioned were all defined, so far as the reader knew, by their relationship to a male on-stage (as it were) character.

I was shocked.

I don’t know if I was aware of the Bechdel Test1 at the time, but I did think that I was better than that. As it happened, the very next chapter (which the group hadn’t seen, yet) did include a female character actually having dialog, but it was fairly brief, and didn’t really contribute to the plot. But it was quite a ways into the book for a first appearance. In my defense, this particular book was a story I had begun writing when I was 14 years old. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before, the one where one morning while re-reading what I had written the day before I was horrified to realize that two male characters seemed to be flirting. In a panic that my gayness would be discovered, I literally burned the pages of the book and started another story in which I shoehorned mentions of both the unrequited love of my young male protagonist for a young woman of his acquaintance, and multiple mentions of his faith in god for good measure.

It’s a lame defense. Fourteen-year-old me could be excused for constructing a story in which the only female characters that appear are cardboard and superfluous to the plot. Thirty-five-year-old me, who had decided to try to turn that old story idea into a book, should have known better.

It was a few years later, I think after writing a blog post about the Bechdel Test, that I went through a bunch of my stories to see how they did. And I was very embarrassed at how few of my stories passed the test. Here I was, an out queer man, a feminist, and a firm believer in diversity, yet I was writing stories straight out of the chauvinist playbook.

So how did I change? The first thing I did was to go through one of my stories in progress, and for each character ask myself why had I made them the gender they were? Is there any particular reason, related to the plot, that this person was male? The question was just as important for the female characters. Did I make that character a woman for a good reason, or was it something lame, like “the character is a nurse, of course she’s a woman”?

As a gay writer, I don’t have to ask myself why there aren’t more gay characters. But, I did notice that more of my gay characters were men than were lesbian, and there were more lesbians than trans characters. In the stories I had in progress at the time I did my first self-survey, I realized there were a lot of characters whom I thought of as bisexual, but it never came up in the story.

Getting racial diversity is also important. Since most of what I’ve been writing lately has been fantasy with many non-human characters, I have a slightly trickier situation. In one book there are literally only two humans who ever appear on stage. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely off the hook there, either.

Yesterday, I quoted Andrew Wheeler’s article, Dear Storytellers: Gay Characters Aren’t Going to Show Up ‘Organically’ In Your Stories, You Have to Put Them There, where he pointed out that a lot of writers and movie producers, et cetera, give the excuse that their muse simply hasn’t inspired them to include gay characters. And he doesn’t suffer than excuse lightly, pointing out that writers decide who to put in their stories. There’s no magical delivery system in play, and no gods of narrative will punish you if you re-imagine a character after you first think them up.

But it’s not just unconscious bigotry or laziness that hold some writers back. Others have a legitimate fear of not being able to write characters from other races or different sexual orientations than their own. In an essay called My Writing Process: #diversity and #amrevising edition, I.W. Gregorio addresses that question directly. She suggests a three-step solution: Empathy, Research, and Engaging Diverse Beta Readers. You should check out her specific suggestions.

Empathy is really the key. Nobody is surprised when I, a gay man, include straight characters in my stories. And it never occurred to me that I couldn’t write them. I know lots of straight people, and the process of creating a character is a murky thing in the subconscious involving the part of the brain that trie to predict how people we know will react to things. We imagine what they would feel in a particular situation. Similarly, very few people assume that a male writer can’t include women in his stories, nor that women can’t write male characters.

So don’t let the excuse that you don’t know how to write a particular kind of character stop you. Particularly if you’re a writer of science fiction or fantasy. Are you seriously going to tell me that it’s easier to write an alien or an artificial intelligence or a goblin than it is to imagine how someone from a different ethnic group than you might react in a given situation?

It’s pretty simple, really. All you have to do is decide to include more diverse characters in your work. The rest is just good writing.


1. The Bechdel Test is named after Allison Bechdel, the artist who drew a comic strip called Dykes to Watch For. In one of those strips, one of the characters explains to her new girlfriend that rule that she has adopted about whether or not she will see a movie. She will go to a movie if the movie has to have at least two women in it; who talk to each other; about something besides a man. The punchline is that the last movie the character went to see was Alien, because the only two female characters in the movie have one brief conversation about the monster.

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