Writing Diverse CharactersThere was a time when most science fiction writers were geeky white guys with military experience, so most of their characters tended to be geeky, white guys with military experience...including often the aliens. What are some of the tricks to creating diverse characters? What are some better examples of fiction with diverse, well-written characters?+Kameron Hurley
– author+Mary Soon Lee
- author+Walidah Imarisha
– editor “Octavia's Brood” activist “All activism is scifi+Grá Linnaea
– author/editor activist bi/queer rights
Randy Henderson (whom I'm unable to tag, for some reason) – author “straight white male representative” Kameron observes said member always must point that out.
Kameron, moving the panel away from the straight white male, wants to ask “what is a diverse character”
Walidah: lives in Portland, the land that loves diversity “that you can talk about diversity and talk about nothing” talks about Portland's liberal coded language and diversity as representing everything from alt culture to PoC. When people ask how to bring PoC into their org, she says make it more of a just organization rather than bringing “PoC into their hot mess”. Warns against tokenism and the PoC as someone who's just there to be there and save the white protagonist.
Grá would love to throw out the title of the panel and feels like if you're writing actual human beings you will be writing diverse characters. That it's learning something in relation to people who are not you.
Mary says that there's a representation of characters who are less powerful in fantasy and that can be reflective of varying levels of privilege.
Kameron asks how do we write about people who are not like ourselves, when that narrative of the default white guy is so prevalent.
Mary says “well, how do women write about men” says it's really just about daring to do it, and that research has its place, but just starting it is important. Walidah says the research is really important, said when she wrote about a quantum physicist she didn't think she could just wing that. That a default man setting a book in 15th century Spain wouldn't just assume he would know that was like, and that people should have that same respect for marginalized individuals as characters.
Henderson says respect is the key, that you can't know another person's life, but you can look for primary sources of people who are disadvantaged and try to treat it with respect. Grá observes you're likely to fuck it up anyway.
Kameron asks if we screw it up, will the sky fall and will we be immolated in the street, Walidah says “Yes.” Much laughter.
Walidah reads from Ursula K. Le Guin: “I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in—and how much this meant to them, particularly as adolescents, when they'd found nothing to read in fantasy and science fiction except the adventures of white people in white worlds. Those letters have been a tremendous reward and true joy to me.
So far no reader of color has told me I ought to butt out, or that I got the ethnicity wrong. When they do, I'll listen. As an anthropologist's daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance.”
MSL has one, too: “What happened in the 17 years between Farthest Shore and Tehanu was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older, and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.
From a woman's point of view, Earthsea looked quite different than it did from a man's point of view. All I had to do was describe it from the point of view of the powerless, the disempowered - women, children, a wizard who has spent his gift and must live as an "ordinary" man. The same place, but how changed it seems! Some people hate the book for that. They scold me for punishing Ged. I think I was rewarding him.”
Grá says he's scared of screwing up, he doesn't want to hurt anyone or be yelled at. But the only way to not write “default” characters is to try, screw up, do the best you can, learn and go forward. MSL says she has trouble writing another culture and having a villain from another culture and casting aspersion on them.
Kameron loves the idea of seeing criticism of your work as a favor to you. Cites an example from her work where a line was problematic towards trans women, how someone pointed it out to her and she went from indignation to realization and gratefulness, and the line was corrected in subsequent versions.
Henderson says if you've hurt someone you can't argue that their truth is not true, you can only apologize and try to do better.
Walidah says you have to expect that person may be coming from somewhere they've never seen themselves represented in a positive fashion. Talks about Avery Brooks and how it was so important to him to be a representation of a PoC in the future as a successful, good human being. To tell children that they have no future is an act of psychological aggression.
Audience objects to claim that there's no demand, Kameron and Grá point out that's obviously false; points to packed room
Kameron asks how do we check our privilege, suggests first readers, Walidah also says readers are a resource, but reading works by people who are “diverse” themselves is invaluable. Grá thinks just asking people is a good idea, but wants to point out that those people don't owe you an account of their experience, either. Henderson observes that no single person can give a representation of a culture as a generality. Says when he was writing about Iranian peoples he reached out to people who would read for him. Walidah says that reciprocity is important, and that if people are helping you by being this kind of resource you should consider contributing back to what is valuable for them.
Kameron gives the author recommendation call. MSL points to Ursula K. Le Guin. Also points to Guy Gavriel Kay. Llyn Flewelling (warns it's not high lit). Later comes up with Ann Leckie. Kameron recommends Tobias Buckell, Aliette De Bodard, Nnedi Okorafor. Walidah point to Octavia Butler, warns against authors who slot characters into black, asian, immigrant, gay and that OB writes about people with intersectionality.
Grá says that it's important to understand the consequence of how your diverse characters will have an effect on the culture and people around them, and that ignoring the consequences of a diverse character base is lazy.
Asks if writing outside your identity is an advanced, beginner, or intermediate skill. Grá says that it's important to experiment and not worry too much about how precious your words are. Kameron says she started writing with default males, and it wasn't until later she realized she wanted to write mostly about women and not just white people, and that it was emulating what she saw in media. Walidah says she wrote her first fantasy novel as an 11 year old to capture a book where there was a character like herself; “writing herself into existence” as an act of survival.
“How do you deal with these issues in a fantasy world that isn't supposed to relate to this one?” MSL says that in what she's currently working on (joke that “purple people are underrepresented in Fantasy”) that she uses a shortcut of recognizable names from Earth cultures. Randy says that you can't just paste fantasy elements on top of marginalized groups from our world and assume that's not going to be offensive. That when borrowing you need to keep that respect in mind. Kameron emphasizes imaginative worlds. Walidah observes that often we're writing about power disparities, privilege, and that these are relationships that are in our world and that we need to remember both this world and that one when writing. Points to N. K. Jemisin as an example of that done right. Grá says there's an exercise where you write 10 endings to your story, and that to represent a culture in your work, try writing a bunch of versions to get the crap you see on TV out of your system.
Question about pushback from publishers. Grá says “Writers of the Future” wanted him to gay things down a little bit...but they're run by Scientologists.
As consumers and readers what can we do to find diverse authors and works with diverse characters. MSL says poke around on Goodreads. Grá says go to a community that shares those interests. Kameron says that as readers of this stuff we need to spread the word so others with that question have answers.
Closing words from Octavia Butler via Walidah: there are no borders or limitations in SF, that any that are there we put there. And another from Ursula K. Le Guin, again, who said “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.”#sasquan#worldcon2015#panelnotes