Writing Diverse Characters

Before you read today’s post, please note: This can be a sensitive topic. It’s one in which someone may find offense, so please, please know that everything herein is from my own personal search. I offer my words with the utmost regard for individuals and groups involved, and with genuine curiosity about how to portray characters outside my own experience with respect, realism and authenticity. If I give offense, I promise it is unintentional. I offer apologies, and ask that you help me to recognize and correct my mistakes by pointing them out (nicely, please!).

• • • • •

A few months ago, I began to toy with a short-story idea about a transgender character. As the concept took shape in my head, it occurred to me that I know nothing about how to portray a believable trans person. Do they think about things the same way I do? Where are our relationships similar? Where are they different? How do they interact with society? Do we love the same way? Get angry? Grumble about our work? How are we the same? Where do we diverge?

Now before you mumble something about stupid questions, hear me out. As a cisgender female, clearly there are some differences between myself and a transgender individual, but I suspect those variations go deeper than the obvious. Different lifestyles usually forge different cultures. For example, my beautiful, loving cisgender sister-in-law is Christian. I am not. While we love each other and share many things, a common culture is not among them. We think in completely different ways, but since I was raised in a Christian church, I understand that culture. I know (for the most part) how it works. I know what to expect from it. I could write a believable Christian character with little effort above and beyond the challenge inherent in writing any interesting character.

I’ve never been transgender. I’ve also never been Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, African American, Columbian or Japanese. I’ve never been a man, or emigrated to another country, or lived in a mansion. I’ve never been paralyzed or epileptic. I’ve never been pregnant. Characters written for each of these circumstances or backgrounds would embrace quite different worldviews and necessities of daily life. Some of these groups of people couldn’t care less if I write about them. Others might, unless I do it very, very well. So if I want to write a character who is or has been any of these things, I will need to do some intense research—much more than a search on Google or Wikipedia, though I might start with those.

For instance, if I want to write a transgender character, I need to enlist the assistance of transgender people, as many as I can manage. I must ask them those stupid questions I listed above, as well as others. I must ask them to read what I’ve written and provide feedback as to authenticity and sensitivity. Without their input, my story and my character will never go deep enough to feel real. However, approaching people from these cultural groups may be awkward.

I read several blog posts on writing transgender characters when I first began to ask these questions. One blogger said trans people are tired of being poked and prodded in this way, as if they are aliens or some newly discovered species. I can understand that, and will absolutely respect a trans friend who says “bug off” when I ask for their input.

In a workshop on this very topic led by Erin Beaty at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference this year, someone in the discussion pointed out that in movies, it might be difficult to find trans actors to play trans roles, because the pool from which to draw is still very, very small by comparison with the cisgender pool. I hope it won’t always be that way, for actors or for writers. In the meantime, the same blogger (above) said that trans people are tired of being portrayed in victim roles, that they want to be shown as regular, everyday people because they are. The more they are depicted this way, the less “foreign” the idea will seem to people who resist their presence in the larger social setting.

I was fortunate to find one transgender ally so far who agreed to read any story I wrote and provide feedback, which I appreciate. They said, though, that they would not normally read such a story in a magazine unless it was written by a trans writer. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it makes me wonder—must we wait for trans writers to provide us with trans protagonists? And if so, does that apply across the board to all cultural groups? How will any of us write a character whose life we haven’t lived?

As I said, this is a very touchy subject. At the conference, I mentioned to a fellow attendee that I was headed to the Diversity workshop. Her reaction, one of anger and disgust, caught me completely off-guard. Why would you want to take that class? Why would you even want to write a trans character? Her emotions stemmed, she said, from her belief that diversity has become such a “huge deal” that the molehill has become a mountain, and it’s getting in the way of writers’ creativity because they feel they need to be inclusive, when they should just write and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t agree, but to each their own.

For the record, this post isn’t just about writing trans characters. I’d been contemplating the subject of writing outside my own paradigm for quite some time. Some folks say “write what you know.” I say the heck with that! There’s a whole world full of things and people and places I don’t know – far more than what I do – and why should I avoid writing all those wonderful, heartening, inspirational stories simply because they require research? What better way to learn and grow and understand than to reach beyond the narrow confines of my own experience? As long as I tell a great story with respect and dignity for the characters and communities I intend to represent, perhaps my own learning can be shared through my words.

There is so much to say on this subject, and I am only one in a long line of people to join the discussion. A simple Google search on “writing diverse characters” brought up a long list of articles; check out some for yourself, and know that just like any subject on how to write, opinions run the gamut. Take what works for you. Leave the rest.

But I still say this: Ask. Research. Get input from the community you want to represent. And treat those communities with honor, with dignity, and with respect.

One last note: I would love to read a story about a trans character written by a trans writer. If you have a great one to suggest, please share the title and where it can be found below. Thanks!

Finding My Niche

Last week I attended the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. It was my fifth year at that event, where I always learn something new. This year, I finally realized I’m not the only one who feels awkward at those sorts of things. Oh I’ve done large events plenty of times, years ago when I was the organizer for festivals and conferences. Back then, I was too busy to feel out of place or geeky. Wearing that “staff” badge gave me the luxury of an enormous buffer and made people hesitant to approach me (unless it was to lodge a complaint).

Being an attendee is different. Scarier. There’s nothing between me and the rest of the conference-goers except the space I create around myself. The first few years at this event, I left immediately after the last breakout session of the day rather than stay back and get to know my fellow writers. Even the last two years, when I went for an hour or so to the Friday night social, I stood on the sidelines watching everyone else mingle and network. I know it sounds silly to someone who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed in large crowds. You’ll just have to take my word for it—the emotional and psychological drain for introverts in such a situation takes a toll.

This year, I took my Kindle with me and planned to find a quiet corner and read during the three hours that separated the Writer’s Boot Camp (an awesome new addition to the conference) from the regular Thursday evening session. But that isn’t what happened; several of my fellow Boot Campers hooked arms with me and dragged me off to the bar for $5 hors d’oeuvres. (Okay, I might be exaggerating on the whole dragging part.) Once there, we were joined by a few other conference-goers, and dinner turned out to be a delightful affair.

The next night, I managed to stay through the whole social and met some truly interesting fellow writers standing beside me on the sidelines. Instead of being my usual shy self and wandering off alone, I leaned over and commented to one of them that I always seemed to wind up at the edge of the room each year. She laughed and said she did too, and we struck up a conversation based on our common ground as writers and introverts. Soon we were joined by other sideliners until we had our own little party going on. It was fun, and it opened my eyes a little bit.

But my breakthrough didn’t stop with the social. I actually enjoyed a short while of Open Mic afterward, where I was treated to insightful readings by others from the conference. I even signed up to read a bit from my own short story, “Upshot”; but when they hadn’t called my name after an hour, I had to admit to saturation and head home. With yet another day of mingling ahead of me, I opted to conserve my remaining energies. I heard the next day that the Open Mic’s facilitator, Michael Khandelwal of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, had called my name five minutes after I left. Figures.

Every breakout session I attended taught me something new. No surprise there; this conference is always packed with great teachers, presenters, speakers and literary agents. I think my favorite regular session this year (it’s hard to pick just one!) would be the workshop on Diversity in Writing, led by Erin Beaty. I’d already been kicking around this issue in my head, so the timing was perfect. Close runners-up would include one on getting published in literary magazines, by Meg Eden Kuyatt, and best use of tenses, by Dr. Meriah Crawford. And of course the keynote speakers, John DeDakis and Austin Camacho, were fantastic. I didn’t win with my short story, but the contest judge for my category wrote outstanding feedback on my copy—so helpful!

In the end, though, I think my biggest takeaway was the confirmation that I need to surround myself more frequently with these like-minded souls. Writers are my Tribe. We share a common bond. No matter how we may differ, in this we are the same: we all struggle with the challenge of the blank page, the rewrite beast, and the search for fulfillment—however we define it—from this odyssey.

The Stone Sky

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2017
ISBN: 987-0316229241
Paperback, 464 pages

A change is coming. Whether for better or for worse, Essun cannot tell, but she has a plan to nudge astronomical events toward the side of humanity’s survival. She knows what it will mean for her, but no price is too great to pay. After a lifetime of anger and resentment and resistance, she has finally found a home among the ragged remnants of Castrima with people who care what happens to her.

Nassun also sesses the change. She, too, has a plan. But at the tender age of not-quite-eleven, Nassun has already learned that sometimes a broken thing cannot be fixed. Sometimes the best solution is to put an end to the suffering. She knows what it will mean for her, but after a lifetime of being used and mistreated and hated, Nassun believes wholeheartedly in a merciful resolution.

When mother and daughter come together on the other side of the world, the Change is imminent and the world hangs in the balance. The strange, white Moon looms overhead. Schaffa lays dying. Nassun has already set her plan in motion. And Essun must make the hardest decision of her life.

In this nail-biting conclusion to the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin brings every thread from the complex Stillness narrative together in a seamless and breathtaking tapestry. From the ash-covered Rennanis high road to the deadly desert crossing, from the terrifying trip through the core of Father Earth to the clean, near-empty ruin of Corepoint, we travel alongside Essun, Nassun and Houwha as they hurtle toward convergence, the tipping point where the fate of all will be decided.

Scenes from the ancient past in Syl Anagist—where Life is sacred—lead inexorably to the breaking of the world, and the answers to all our questions. Not all at once, you understand; Jemisin metes them out in masterful storytelling style, a bit at a time, each piece full of promises that lead the reader further and further down the path to an exciting and not-quite-predictable end. By the time I reached the climax of the book, I could not put it down.

Stone Sky, and the entire Broken Earth trilogy, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of greed and self-absorption, of what happens when the advancement of the world rests solely on the repression of one group by another. The horror of the Seasons in the Stillness, and the shocking obscenities that occurred in Syl Anagist, remind us that building on the backs of others carries an inescapable price. Whether we pay it ourselves, or shunt it down the line to our ancestors, the scales will balance themselves. The only question is whether or not we are ready to accept responsibility, and do what is necessary to make things right.

Jemisin’s scenes are vivid, yes. But the thing I find most compelling about this trilogy—and this book in particular—is her visceral conveyance of emotion. When Hoa takes Essun’s offering, we feel her mixed emotions, her shift from revulsion to understanding, her sudden epiphany of where it will lead. When Nassun traverses the core of Father Earth, we share her terror and grief and loss, and the numbness that follows. When Essun faces Nassun at the climax of the book, we know what is in both their hearts, which makes the decision all the more painful for characters and readers alike. Stone Sky is a true vicarious escape into an adventure beyond anything I could ever experience here in my own world, and I am perhaps better for the journey.

Stone Sky is not a standalone tale. You must read the series from the beginning for it to make any sense. But believe me, that is not a hardship. The Broken Earth Series is an excellent tale, told in masterful style. I have no doubt that this newest book in the series will win its own Hugo, and probably others as well.

Connecting With My Tribe

This week is the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference, an event I always attend. Between the guest speakers, publishing agents, breakout sessions, contests, critiques, and networking opportunities, it’s worth every penny. While I’ve been attending these for a few years, it’s only been in the past year that I’ve begun to seriously query agents and seek a publisher for my novel, and only in the last ten months that I’ve been writing short stories. As a writer who has yet to sell her first work, I am always in the market for new learning experiences, as well as a chance to talk to other writers who are in a similar position or who have actually found an agent and are now among the ranks of the published.

Even so, as someone who prefers the shadows to the spotlight, two-and-a-half days of non-stop interaction with all these other people in a high-energy atmosphere is exhausting, and more than a little overwhelming. By the end of the conference, I am fit only to slump on the sofa with a glass of wine (or more likely a shot of Sambuca) and say in my oh-so-eloquent way, “Wow. Just ….wow.”

This year, the conference planners have added an optional four-hour “Boot Camp” to the first day on the agenda. Of course, I signed up. I expect it will be worth the additional sensory overload, and hopefully will give me a boost toward polishing my work and finding my niche.

I did enter one of the contests (I’ll let you know how that turns out), but I didn’t enter the critiques this year. I’ve been selected every other time I’ve attended, so I thought it might be nice to take a break this year. I did sign up for pitch sessions with two of the agents, even though I’d already sent a query letter to another rep from one of these groups earlier this year. If this particular guest (who happens to be the owner of the agency in question) isn’t interested in my pitch, I can use my 10 minutes to ask related questions—like what is the best way to draw positive interest to my query among all the hundreds in the slush pile? Or shouldn’t the narrative of a story fit the tale and its lead character? In other words, does a story have to use eloquent prose if the protagonist is someone who speaks in plain, ordinary language and wouldn’t know how to use Big Words or evocative turns of phrase? Or how does an agency and the publishing industry feel about self-published works? I know what they have said in the past, but with works like The Martian and Sleeping Giants finding not only a huge market for their originally self-published works, but movie rights as well, is that opinion changing to any extent?

In past years, some of the breakout sessions have included writing exercises; I hope this time will be no different. Writing prompts can really break me out of a rut and give me a whiff of new idea that might turn out to be a great short story.

I am not one to seek crowds large or small, nor am I fond of small talk and ice-breaking. The shy side of me dreads these encounters, while the writer in me looks forward to conversations with like minds for months. I always come away from interactions with other writers excited, enthused and inspired. I’m sure next week, you’ll hear all about my experience. In the meantime, wish me luck with my pitches and that contest entry!

Learning by Doing

Most targets for our submissions, whether they be online zines, print magazines or book/novel publishers, do not offer any sort of feedback when they send rejections. I understand why. With so many queries and submissions, and slush piles that may sometimes seem to rival Mt. Everest, there isn’t enough time for staffers to send personal feedback to each and every would-be contributor or author. It makes sense, but it’s so frustrating to not know where I’m failing! It feels like doing your best through a whole year of school, then finding out you failed but not knowing why or which subject shot you down; or maybe it compares to taking a trip somewhere without a detailed map, then getting lost and not knowing how to get back on course. Without any specific guidance, how are we supposed to improve our craft?

I attended a science fiction workshop at The Muse Center (in Norfolk, Virginia) a few days back and came away excited, motivated and inspired. (Thanks, Jason, Matt and John!) I also came away with some new resources, which I’ll be adding to my links page soon.

One of those new potential targets was Metaphorosis, an online magazine for short fiction. I’ve read some of the entries on the site; they’re good. The zine pays, but the best part of its submission system is this: the editorial staff offers feedback if you ask for it.

I asked. And I learned.

The editor, B. Morris Allen, rejected my story, but at least I know why. First of all, my story’s concept was familiar enough they could predict (accurately, I might add) the ending. Morris suggested if I’m going to use a familiar concept, I have to do something new with it. Okay. I can deal with that. Second, Morris (and/or his team) rated my prose for that tale 3 out of 5, which basically means my prose was functional, but not exceptional. Could use some work. No problem. Now that I know where my weaknesses are, I can work toward improvement. In fact, the Hampton Roads Writers Conference (coming up later this month) offers several breakout sessions for improving prose. I’ll be attending as many as I can.

The “overly familiar concept” thing is something I’ll have to figure out. I stopped reading altogether for a long time, because I figured that if I was reading, I couldn’t be writing, and I wanted to spend ALL my “extra” time writing. Wrong. Erroneous thinking, and this is an excellent example as to why. If I’m not reading, I don’t know what other story concepts have been done. I thought the concept for “Switch” was clever. Shows what I know, and the only way to fix that knowledge gap is to fill it. By reading. And reading. And then reading some more.

As you know, I’ve been posting a book review every single week for a while now and while that alone shows I’m reading, it’s also keeping me so busy with novels and other full-length books that my new issues of Analog have been languishing. Bobby suggested I might review short stories, or particular issues of magazines. This makes sense, and I’ll probably start doing that as soon as I finish reviewing the Jemisin series I started last week (and continue this week). I’ve read many online stories, trying to get a feel for what various target magazines want, so there’s a lot of material to be had.

In the meantime, I’ll be sending Metaphorosis something else to read over. Maybe they’ll offer more input I can use. You should check them out – and if you like what you see, support them through Patreon. Zines like that one are good to keep around.

The Obelisk Gate

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2016
ISBN: 978-0316229265
Paperback, 448 pages

Essun never thought she’d want to settle anywhere for long. But Castrima sits like a jewel, deep underground, replete with air, lights, water, food, and a comm full of survivors in a land where the comless don’t survive a Season. Essun begins to think she may—may—find a home here. With Alabaster honing her skills, at least life has a point. Then an enemy approaches their gates and stirs the age-old hatreds, and suddenly Essun has more of a goal than she ever wanted.

To the South, Jija takes Nassun to be “cured.” But Nassun isn’t sick, and she knows it. Instead of “healing,” she finds the training to sharpen her already considerable orogeny, despite her father’s fear and growing hatred.

Essun knows what’s at stake. Nassun knows only that it’s all so pointless. Between them are the magical threads, the obelisks, and the Stone Eaters, whose motivations are as shadowy and hard to read as they are. With a seemingly innocent whisper, mother and daughter land in opposing camps in an ancient war whose winner will decide the fate of the human race.

In this, the second book in the Broken Earth series, Jemisin continues the excellent worldbuilding she began in The Fifth Season. Castrima over once again comes alive with boilbugs, falling ash and dying trees. Castrima under deepens with the layers of drama played out against the backdrop of its jutting points and crystalline shell. In Jekity and Found Moon, we see a satellite training station, unsanctioned by the Fulcrum, where the ashfall is still light and hope is not yet dead.

Most of the characters in this part of the tale are familiar, though Nassun and Jija we knew only by their connection to Essun in Fifth Season. Here, they are active participants whose threads begin to weave through the already complex storyline. It wasn’t hard to dislike Jija—look at what he left for Essun in the first pages of the last book—but here he fleshed out my contempt in spectacular fashion, and I found myself understanding why Nassun evolves the way she does, even empathizing with her, despite some alarming twists in her character. Schaffa surprised me most, I think; I saw some of Essun’s development coming, but not Schaffa’s. I’m quite intrigued to see where Jemisin will take him in book three.

So much happens in the pages of this book! Its intricate plot is layered with foreshadowing and peppered with details that each play their own role. Jemisin sets a masterful pace between the contemplative, slower passages and exhausting, nerve-wracking scenes, leaving this reader enthralled, and eager to read the next book. The Broken Earth series is no ordinary tale; it’s a sweeping dystopian epic and possibly a warning for our own times. Winner of the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Obelisk Gate continues the tale in true Jemisin fashion. You won’t want to miss it.