After last week’s post I had some people asking me to explain the concept of aromanticism further. If after reading the post and the included links you are still feeling a bit confused or unsure, don’t worry there isn’t anything wrong with you. Unfortunately, it is a subject much like gender; you only truly ‘get it’ if you experience it. Which is why I’m writing this week’s post on a slightly different subject; knowing when a story is not yours to write.
This post is going to frankly discuss sensitive subjects that some might find triggering. Please read with caution.
I’ve discussed many personal things on this blog in the hopes of helping others gain insight to how some of us interact with the world around us. It is my sincere hope that these posts are not only informative and entertaining, but that they help you gain a greater understanding of your characters and more importantly; people who you might meet in your life.
However, there will sometimes be things that simply cannot be explained, they must be experienced to be understood. Even as a queer individual, I know that my experience is different than others. There are some orientations and gender identities I cannot comprehend because my brain is not wired that way (I don’t understand gender itself on my best days which is why I’m nonbinary). What I’m encouraging you to do is; be willing to learn about others but if something doesn’t click, don’t get frustrated. We can still try to be understanding and open-minded. But how do we know if we are straying into someone else’s lane?
Staying in Your Lane
Writers love to learn, but some things cannot be learned they must be experienced. I could tell you about my experiences growing up as a queer and gender confused child but unless you have experienced the dissociation, frustration, loneliness, and heartbreak of feeling othered by family and friends alike, there is little I can do to fully impart the knowledge. You might be able to empathize but true comprehension isn’t something I’d actually wish on anyone. This could make writing a character with a background like mine challenging for you. We all get lonely, frustrated and heartbroken but my cause for those feelings might be something incomprehensible for you. And that’s okay.
What’s not okay is writers who assume they understand and proceed to write characters who they think I should be like. Characters ‘triumphing’ over their queerness or being miraculously cured of their mental illness when Mx. Right comes along.
Jami Gold mentioned this last year in her post Shining a Light on Diversity and also in her post One Step to Better Writing and More Diversity. In both articles she mentions not defaulting to stock characters to fill perceived quotas to make our stories seem more diverse. Though as she says in Shining a Light on Diversity; even doing our research and having diverse beta readers and other help might not be enough.
In short it might not be our story to tell at all.
But how can we know if the story we want to tell is something we can do with good indepth research and interviews or if it would be best left to an author of that particular background? There are plenty of blogs out there telling you how to write with diversity. The push for diversity is very much needed and should be actively sought and encouraged. However unlike some other bloggers I am going to tell you right now: Not every story is yours to tell. I’m sorry for being blunt but it is the truth. We must learn to check our priviledge and to stay in our lane to avoid traffic.
What does ‘check your priviledge’ mean?
Simply put, this means that we may, unknowingly, have certain advantages over others. And this is only because there are aspects of our identity that society values over others.
When someone asks you to ‘check your priviledge,’ what they’re really asking you to do is reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage—even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it—while their social status might have given them a disadvantage. (http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-checking-privilege-means)
So how do we know if we are in the correct lane? Let’s look at a few questions we can ask ourselves.
NOTE: For this I’ll be focusing on the gender and sexual identity portion. As a white person it is not my place to comment on racial issues faced by minorities. For help with racial diversity I highly recommend Writing With Color which is maintained by several people of diverse racial backgrounds.
- Do I have a personal understanding of what this character might be facing? Can I truly sympathize with them or do I find it difficult to understand where they are coming from.
- Do I find myself defaulting to stereotypical actions becasue I don’t fully undersand or comprehend how they might act/react in certain situations?
- Am I struggling with the basic definition of their orientation or gender identity? Do I find it difficult to understand their viewpoint or do I find myself making excuses to write them the way I feel their orientation/gender identity should be represented?
- Is the major part of their character arc about their race, gender identity, sexuality or mental helath? If so, do I share their experiences or can my experiences contribute to my characterization of them? If not, will research and interviews be adequate for their chararcterization?
- Will my writing this character ‘talk over’ a writer from a diverse background? If I am not sure, have I asked someone of that background?
- Am I being honest with myself about why I am writing this character and have I truly put aside any preconcieved notions or assumptions?
- Is the story’s focus on their struggle with their race, gender identity, sexual orientation or mental health? If it is, do I identify as part of that diverse group? If I don’t, why do I feel the need to write about it? Do I feel as though I need to write this character to make a point? What point am I trying to make and why?
- Have I read similar characters written by a writer from a diverse background? If not why do I feel qualified to write this character? Has a minority writer already written a similar story? Would I better serve my readers by promoting that author?
If we go through and candidly answer these questions we might find ourselves a little uncomfortable with the answers. It’s alright. This is your conscience telling you that you might be straying out of your lane.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to write someone different from ourselves, I wholeheartedly encourage it, the caution comes when we realize we cannot fully grasp the character’s situation or that our motivations for writing the character might be misplaced.
There is nothing to be ashamed of if this is the case. It just means that we should look for other ways to write this particular character or show our writerly humility and not write the character at all. This is why I rarely write traditional heterosexual romance and erotica. I don’t understand it.
I’ll be quite honest, when I read a romance that has the heroine gladly jumping in bed with the hero a short time after meeting him, I’m very put off. I cannot comprehend being able to have sex with someone within minutes of meeting them. I find the thought repulsive, but that is for me personally and I understand other people think very differently. They might find my lack of romantic and sexual attraction equally confusing and disturbing.
The wonderful thing about writing is that we all have stories to tell. No one can write like you or from your viewpoint and world experience. Don’t feel limited by that though. Please do read, research, explore, learn, and write with diversity. Just please also remember that even though your lane might not be wide, it’s just as long as you want to make it and don’t be afraid to let it intersect with other lanes. Just make certain you stop to check your priviledge first.
4 thoughts on “Going Over the Rainbow: There is No Fast Lane”
Love this post! “Staying in our lane” is such a fantastic perspective that I’ve heard more and more often recently.
To me, the concept applies to writers by saying we can tell the stories we want (travel in our lane) as long as we’re not hurting others to do it (weaving into other cars) by resorting to stereotypes, misrepresenting, talking over, “othering,” treating groups different from ourselves as a monolith, disrespecting, etc. Not sure if that captures ALL the nuances of the phrase, but for me, it’s a good beginning point of understanding and reminding myself to question my story plans. 🙂
If I can’t get enough into a character’s head to make them into someone I respect as an individual, I’m hurting the cause of diversity. “We need diverse books” isn’t helped by putting MORE misrepresentations or *ist books out there. Thanks for wording it so well! 🙂
Hiya and thank you stopping by! I couldn’t agree more. Misrepresenting diverse characters can do more damage than not having them at all. I felt the analogy of ‘staying in our lane’ works quite well since we are all heading toward the same goal as writers; writing the best book we can for our readers. ^-^
Great article! This is one reason why I think it’s important to make the distinction between, for instance, gay fiction and gay romance. As a straight woman, I don’t feel qualified to write fiction about the experience of being a gay man. But I do feel qualified to write gay romance, because romance is about the experience of falling in love, something I do understand.
Hiya Andrea! That is a great distiction to make!