Those of us that dabble in speculative fiction – more so than standard fiction – have a special duty we need to uphold. And now, more than ever. Gone are the days when you could populate your stories with a single race, religion, or creed and find a welcoming audience. Particularly if you enter the realm of science fiction. It’s not believable. (Unless you handle it well – and VERY few authors have ever pulled it off. Hint: they all involved alien creatures that challenged a human observer’s thought processes). If you pick up a piece written in the past decade, or even the past three years, you’ll notice a shift in the cast of characters.
Some of it done well, and some of it done so poorly, your teeth hurt.
True, some authors write from their background. Which is fantastic! You SHOULD read outside of your experience. It broadens your knowledge base, introduces new concepts, and opens your eyes to cultures you’ve never experienced before. It’s the next best thing to working your way into a friendship with someone of that upbringing. (I know, I know – we’re a bunch of introverts) When you come across those books, the writing is genuine and FEELS impactful. The characters come across as more than a stack of cardboard assigned attributes.
Other writers attempt to do the same, with ZERO knowledge or experience, and it shows. They use language that’s inappropriate, details from Wikipedia, and leave you with hunched shoulders, ground-down teeth, and a desire to beat them to death with their own book. The only thing you learn is the person should have stayed a million miles AWAY from their chosen topic – for the good of literacy.
We’re in the twenty-first century. You NEED to include characters in your work that are diverse. That means different races, different religions, different cultures, different sexual orientations. But when you do it, it needs to feel AUTHENTIC. Never describe a character using words you wouldn’t use if they were your friend (unless it comes from the mouth of an antagonist – and you damn-well better justify it). Don’t have a friend that fits that particular character? GO FIND ONE! Talk to the friends you have, explore their circle. Odds are, someone knows someone who can put you in touch with someone. Talk with them and ask questions. Take notes. Figure out how they like to be described, referred to, and WHY things are done or said certain ways. Become an informed writer – and STAY AWAY from Google and Wikipedia.
Don’t make your writers cringe!
Let me give you a nice little example. I’ve read two books recently that included characters of African-American descent. One was written by an Asian-American woman, and the other was written by two white women. The first book used ordinary words to describe the character – pleasant descriptors that explained the character without hitting you over the head. The second book assigned EVERY character as “black” or “white.” My head hurt, and I winced. (And, as you’ve noted from my photo, I’m as white as they come) It was like getting smacked in the face with a 2×4. I’d NEVER describe my friends that way! As a writer, I have an entire toolbox of words available to me! Why choose the most base words?!
The same happens when writers tackle different sexual identities or preferences. If it’s outside of your wheelhouse – TALK TO SOMEONE! Don’t go based on inference or generality! Do your homework! People ARE willing to talk to you and answer questions (in my experience). They want to see an end to baseless rumor and poorly-written scenes, the same as the rest of us with higher intelligence. Plus, education never killed anyone.
If the best you have is stereotype, EXCLUDE it!
We have a duty to do better than what’s been published in the past. We CAN do better. The world’s changing around us all the time. We can continue to shape and change our writing to reflect those improvements. Look at the names of authors on the shelves. More and more people are breaking through, introducing us to cultures we’ve probably never been exposed to. It’s an amazing opportunity. And if you want to find yourself included among those ranks, you need to open your mind and STOP sticking to the same old pathways. Populate your work with MORE. Explore, learn, and do BETTER.
Let’s kick the stereotypes to the curb where they belong.