Writing the Other
Last weekend, I moderated a panel on “Writing the Other,” whether that Other meant someone of another race, another gender, another sexual orientation, or another species entirely. The panel description asked “Can a man write from a woman’s viewpoint? A woman from a man’s? Should they try?”
The consensus among panelists and audience was that these were very silly questions, and we weren’t going to waste time on them. Given the size and general wackiness of the Internet, I suspect that someone out there is probably trying to say that white writers shouldn’t be allowed to write nonwhite characters, that straight writers shouldn’t try to write LGBT characters, and so on.
There are also people on the Internet saying they’re actually Na’vi (from Avatar), or that the world ended a while back and our ghosts just haven’t noticed yet, or that Publish America is a really good publisher. As it turns out, saying something doesn’t make it true.
Most of the time though, when I hear “We’re not allowed to write _____ characters,” it’s an author talking. Upon investigation, it usually turns out that nobody told our author friend that he or she wasn’t allowed to write these characters; instead, someone criticized him for doing it badly.
Well … yeah. If you write flat, unrealistic, or just plain bad characters, you’re going to get called on that. If all your women exist only to swoon and get naked for your hero (*cough* Heinlein *cough*), then people might complain. They’re not saying you aren’t allowed to write women characters. They’re saying please stop sucking at it.
The panel mainly focused on how to do that. Things like making your characters well-rounded human beings instead of “The Black Character” and “The Gay Character” and “The Christian Character” and so on. Like learning to listen. Like going beyond a single token “other”.
As an author, I do believe I need to be careful about issues of cultural appropriation. Nisi Shawl has written about this far better than I could, and I recommend reading her piece. But I think there’s a huge difference between “Authors should be aware of cultural appropriation issues” and “Authors aren’t allowed to write characters from other cultures.”
Discussion welcome, as always.
March 29, 2010 @ 12:45 pm
My editor and my agent told me that unestablished white writers should not write main characters who are not white because it will not be well-received. Neither told me I didn’t write non-white characters well; they spoke strictly about how the critics would react.
March 29, 2010 @ 4:04 pm
Yikes… who makes up these rule… some writer, not my blog, but I’d say write any character main or otherwise you can write true… and ignore the agent or get another.
And yes, cultural appropriation may be a problem, but Tony Hillerman opened the idea of the Navajo better than most could… was he wrong? I don’t think so.
Jim C. Hines
March 29, 2010 @ 7:31 pm
I wish that surprised me. But just look at the whitewashing of cover art over the past year. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar is probably the best known example. There’s still that fear that non-white characters won’t sell.
Jim C. Hines
March 29, 2010 @ 7:32 pm
I can’t imagine my agent or my editor ever trying to dictate such rules to me. I really can’t. But then, I think I’m pretty fortunate in both my agent and my editor.
March 29, 2010 @ 7:57 pm
The absolute worst thing about this post is that I cannot argue with your assessment of Robert Heinlein. His juvenilia is brilliant. With the possible exception of “Glory Road,” his adult novels are mostly just tacky, especially anything written after “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Makes me wonder if the fellow suffered an undiagnosed stroke somewhere along the way.
N. K. Jemisin
March 29, 2010 @ 8:02 pm
some writer, your agent and editor are making an error of interpretation. Correlation (white writers writing PoC : negative critical reaction) is not causation (white writers writing PoC –> negative critical reaction). I guarantee you that white writers who are criticized for writing protagonists of color aren’t being criticized because they wrote PoC, but because they did a bad job of it in some way, as Jim suggests.
It is possible to do a good job of it, as Ursula Leguin and other white writers (established* and newbie) have discovered. So if this is something you would like to try, I would suggest that you observe to see how those successful writers did it, and maybe see how the unsuccessful ones did it so you can avoid their mistakes, and then read Nisi Shawl’s book on Writing the Other (the IROSF article is just a taste; the book is very, very good). Then write all your characters as well as you can. And get a new agent and editor if yours continue to steer you wrong.
*(Does this make a difference? Lately I’ve seen mostly established white authors being chastised. Though that could only be because the unestablished authors aren’t well-known enough to elicit a lot of reader response yet.)
Jim C. Hines
March 29, 2010 @ 8:03 pm
I’ve been told that he did. Don’t remember if it was a stroke specifically, but there was some sort of health issue, and there’s a noticeable change in his writing at that point.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Heinlein, so I’d have to do some digging to say anything more. Right now I’m working on memory and old conversations, neither of which are 100% reliable, so please take this comment with a chunk of salt.
Jim C. Hines
March 30, 2010 @ 7:28 am
I have no hard data to back this up, but I wonder if part of the reason for the trend you describe is that the newer writers, in general, are more likely to be involved in the online communities where these issues have been discussed. Even though a lot of those discussions have been painful at times, I think it would still drive home the need to be aware of the issues.
It’s interesting. When I mention “Writing the Other” as a panel idea or discussion topic, most of the younger writers immediately went to race/gender/orientation. Whereas when this has come up in discussion with more established writers, they went to “You mean like writing aliens, right?”
Just anecdotal, but something I was thinking about. And it’s morning and I’m tired, so of course I had to babble on about it…
March 30, 2010 @ 9:34 am
The impression that I was given wasn’t that non-white characters wouldn’t sell (one of my books has a black character on the cover) but that non-white reviewers would pan the books. I was told that if I were a well-established author this would be much less likely to happen.
March 30, 2010 @ 9:37 am
Jim, I feel pretty fortunate in my agent and editor too. Perhaps it’s a matter of different genres. And perhaps you’re considered an “established writer” and I ain’t ;).
There’s a certain blogger widely-read (not you) who is continually scolding white writers for not writing main characters of color, and I do wonder how she can be talking to people so completely different from the people I’m talking to.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 8:25 am
It’s a big industry. I could joke about how the protagonist for my first trilogy was blue, but what it comes down to is that different people have different opinions. Some people think putting a nonwhite character on the cover will kill sales. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous on a number of different levels.
I obviously don’t know your editor or agent, so I can’t speak to that. But if either of mine told me not to write a nonwhite protagonist because the critics might not like it, I would have to seriously reevaluate my relationship with them.
If they told me I was risking some negative backlash if I messed up, or that there would probably be some people who were upset about a white man writing a nonwhite protag, or things like that, sure. But it’s my career, and I’m the one who decides what I’m going to write. (Worst case scenario, the editor is the one who can decide not to buy it, of course…)
March 31, 2010 @ 2:43 pm
I was criticized simply for writing a trans character when I was cis. It was NOT because I had done it badly (the book wasn’t even released yet, so no one could judge if I had done it well or not) but simply that I had done it at all.
I have been questioned not for writing a black character but for the role I planned to give him in the story (Elijah the Carolina Giant). He ended up becoming Marvello the Magician instead, because if one friend is upset by it, a percentage of the reading public will be too.
Jim C. Hines
March 31, 2010 @ 2:52 pm
This is why I said “Most of the time…” in the blog post. I do believe that occasionally there are people who do simply state flat-out “You are not allowed to write characters of ____ group unless you are a member of ____ group.”
I don’t think it happens often, but I believe it does happen. In which case … well, those individuals are entitled to their opinion.
April 1, 2010 @ 7:03 pm
I run on the premise “don’t feed known trolls” when dealing with those types of individuals. The person in question is a known troll and has criticized respected activist transfolk for not being trans enough. (I learned all this after the kerfuffle)
I had a cover artist present me with two white gym bunnies on what was supposed to be a Cherokee/white trucker romance. I did get the cover changed, citing that there is a market for interracial romance and we didn’t want to miss it.
Jim C. Hines
April 2, 2010 @ 7:28 am
That’s the third cover whitewashing story I’ve heard in the past few months. I’m glad you were able to get it changed.
April 2, 2010 @ 12:51 pm
The truck got white-washed too. It’s a black truck and I specified that on the cover request sheet. I think it was a case of “the artist did fast read and slap together” more than a deliberate whitewash. Once I said something, it got changed very nicely.