So I’m 27k into the first draft of my current manuscript: Gaydreaming. And I’m encountering some real-time (and welcome) struggles and challenges as I go.
This is my 6th YA novel, and with all of them, representing the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender flavors has been an important aspect for me. Because of my own experience and life and goals, you see. I mean, I’m kinda queer. (Okay, okay, fine…I’m way gay.) I was married for a whole lot of years and have two amazing, phenomenal kids. I’m now with my partner of 4+ years in a state that’s still currently on the wrong side of history. I live in and understand a lot of the nuances of the LGBTQIA community and culture. What I don’t understand, I seek to. So, the orientation thing—I can comfortably speak on it & write about it.
I grew up in NC, admittedly as a not-like-the-rest-of-us-closeted-artistic-weirdo. To be sure. Still, I’m a white dude who started life in a microscopic, closed-off-to-the-world NC town. Later, I joined the Army, then my nomadic self kept me moving around a lot. Seven states. Multiple cities & towns in some of those. I’ve lived in random places and enjoyed a ton of experiences. I’ve met amazing people all over who greatly opened up my worldview and augmented my micro-town upbringing. All that to say, I’m comfortable writing about queer characters and experiences.
In some of my previous books, I also chose to dip my toes into racial & cultural diversity. (Apologies in advance. The word conscious is probably going to appear a lot in this post.) At the outset of this current manuscript, back in my meticulous plotting stage, I made a conscious effort to give this facet of diversity the same attention I’ve always given gender identity and orientation.
Right away, I knew that choice would start with a setting, a real-life geographical region which inherently possesses a diverse population. That would give me a strong, natural starting point I could (hopefully) build a cast and their stories from. I knew I wanted this story set in NC. Because home. But the one-stoplight-99%-white village I lived in until 4th grade wasn’t really gonna cut it! So I went a-researching for the most diverse metropolitan area in the state.
CITY DATA at http://www.city-data.com/ hooked me up.
The site contains a wealth of stats of all sorts, interactive maps, tables, and charts. Seriously, play around with it and see what it can do. So, Gaydreaming is set on the edge of the Research Triangle Park. For thematic reasons in the novel, I slid the setting to the southern edge of this diverse region, to a sort of limboland between Raleigh and Durham. (Perhaps fictionalized a ~little~ and given the regional name Umstead. I AM, after all, a writer.) Using the City Data info, I created my characters to accurately represent the population in this geographic area.
The base characters were in place! The basic foundation for a diverse cast was laid!
Then the more difficult part came. A million tweets and articles and conversations all swirled inside me: things to avoid, things that must be handled gingerly. In random order—just some of the snippets from personal experience and informal, online education—here are a few cautions and goals that are still thrumming through the process. It’s far from the exhaustive list. Maybe not even the most important items. But it’s a snapshot of some of the Post-its stuck to my mental walls.
- FFS, don’t compare skin-tone to food. This link, If White Characters Were Described like People of Color in Literature, proves the point perfectly: http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/if-white-characters-were-described-like-people-of-color-in-l#.xwMBQdv1D
- Hell! Avoid mentioning skin-tone or any non-essential appearance markers altogether! But then, my brain fights back, will the diversity be clear enough? Not feel glazed over? Then it swings to: well only mention such things if it matters to the POV character. Which, again, circles back to difficult. Would my pair of MCs, teens who grew up in a diverse community & are themselves POC, even make note of such things in their stories? Would they even notice?
- An old lesson bubbled up: an article I read years ago about the crutch/stereotype/plot device of the “magical negro.” (If you don’t know what this refers to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro) I confess, completely unconsciously, I created a character that was too close to fitting that mold a few novels and years back. Not exactly all the way, maybe only 33%, but that felt like too much. I’ve since revised that character. Because I learned, and I revisited my own characterization from way back then. There’s no risk of this particular error in my current WIP, but it’s still one of the Post-its. (And, maybe, you can add it to yours? Just in case.)
- (FEAR INTERJECTION POST-IT: What if I ruin this? What if I get everything wrong? Screw it all up? Make bad decisions? F%&k s#*t up in this attempt?! Maybe I should just stick to the stuff, the experiences, I know firsthand. Maybe I should stick to gay, white characters, who grew up cowering in the closet. But the entire cast can’t fit that description…This story is so much more than that. Ugh ahhhhhh…)
- Not making my characters diverse just to be “diverse”, but because representation is important. Because readers are important. Because we all have stories to tell. Because we’re all made of emotions, and wishes, and hopes, and fears, and dreams. Because even fiction, or maybe especially fiction, should echo and mirror and trump reality. Because #WeNeedDiverseBooks
Like I said, this is only a portion of the massively long list I’m consciously balancing. Beyond the struggle, though, I believe I’ve also (possibly?) found some creative solutions, ways to portray a cast of diverse, well-rounded characters without tumbling into the pitfalls. (God. I’m going to be honest here. This feels like doing jumping jacks naked in front of all of you. I’m not sure about any of this. But I’m damn sure giving it a go.)
- UPDATE: I (thankfully!) stumbled upon the Writing With Color Tumblr http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/ WOW. Great info & dos/don’ts from a PoC’s perspective. Multiple moderators answer writerly questions and provide positive examples & guidance. This is a beautiful resource, which is, I believe, the reason it exists. I’m soaking up every drop.
- Character names can help, right? First names, surnames. This obviously has to be handled carefully, too. Because stereotypes can slip in. Just to make it harder on myself, because of the real-life stats for fictional Umstead, a lot of families are culturally blended. It’s an international region. Still, I believe carefully chosen names can help in a subtle way.
- There’s one kid in the friend group who is an aspiring chef. His family owns a restaurant/hangout place the characters frequent. I don’t know if this is going to work (because I haven’t gotten there in the draft yet) but Adrian’s character study says he likes to expand his skills and dish repertoire and asks for family recipes from the other characters. IDK? Maybe? That might be another subtle way to introduce the characters’ cultural backgrounds without being overt? (I’m trying here, guys. REALLY trying!)
- Along the way, even in this first draft, I’m giving things a shot. Experimenting, I guess. (Insert that conscious word again.) I include a bit of description or characterization that’s hopefully just enough but not too much. I weigh it, take it out, put it back in, tweak it. All this will get edited again and again (and again), but I want even the initial draft to be carefully beautiful in how representation is handled. Not just for the queer or POC characters, but for every.single.character.
The point in me sharing any of this (because, seriously, it’s scary as hell) is to show that I’m trying, that I’m being conscious of my writing & characterization choices. I’m genuinely making an attempt. This story would be (get this) easier if I just didn’t worry about this aspect, right? But I do to care about it. I want to do these characters justice. I must.
So, yeah, my anguished junk’s laid bare. And, at this point, I have no idea if this attempt will be a success or a complete and utter failure. I’m hoping, expecting, for the first outcome in that list.
In case it’s not clear enough, my struggle with writing with diversity in mind begins and ends with a single word: conscious. But I guess a similar word, conscience, is in there , too: the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.
*stops doing naked jumping jacks*
*hopes something in these confessions helps somebody else, too*
Honest and… yes naked post.
I have recently written about this topic also and (as you know having helped me with a male gay scene in my own current WIP) I have often second, no… more like seventh guessed each and every word, character, very piece of dialogue and inner thought shared by my characters, and also like you, I have grappled with terms like mocha and olive referencing skin-tones.
Yes, it’s a little different here in Australia, for a start olive skin has a slightly different meaning here than in the US (e.g. I have light – substitute pale – olive skin & I’m not sure I could say that in the US and have people understand my meaning)
I love you for using the word(s) conscious and conscience. So very true. We need sexual, social, economic, cultural, geographic, age (et.) diversity but we need to respect those were are representing in our writing and art. I am beginning to see more and more “token” and cliché characters and it frustrates and frightens me. Conscious endeavour to represent with respect and research!
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I think as long as you love your characters enough to portray them as real human beings and not cardboard cutouts, you have nothing to fear. 🙂 You’re obviously doing that, so no worries. Now get dressed before you catch a cold! 😀
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I do definitely shoot to make all my characters well-rounded enough to breathe even off the page.
I don’t know – I have in one of my WIP – “her skin was smooth coffee bean”, and another character as having a “caramel complexion”. I think as long as it’s complimentary, exploring ethnicity and comparing it to real things we identify with (including food) should not be so taboo. I guess it’s really the editor’s job to tell you that, and I’d say to write what’s in your heart, and let the publishing police shoot you down if it doesn’t work. Maybe you’re overthinking it. Or maybe I’m under thinking it 😉
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Maybe check thos out from the POC perspective http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several