Envisioning the Other in Your Speculative Fiction
The powers of a writer’s imagination are vast. There’s a magic to people who can create whole worlds from nothing. Magic is dangerous work, though. It’s critical, when you set about casting your spell, to consider what the consequences might be. Just ask the sorcerer’s apprentice. The essential question isn’t always ‘can I do this?’ it’s often ‘should I do this?’
Calls to diversify the face of fiction have been long-standing, and many well-meaning people are taking strides to include characters from different backgrounds and of different identities in their stories. But this isn’t just a textual problem, it’s also an issue of justice for the individuals and communities who are underrepresented, underpublished, and underemployed in the industry. The question of how our community can best address systemic inequality is far from simple.
Before you decide to write a protagonist whose marginalized identity/identities you don’t share, it’s important to stop and think about all the different angles of the situation. As an artist, you want to make sure your story is as powerful and meaningful as it can be. As a person, you want to be sure you’re doing more good than harm.
There are people who oppose having this conversation at all. There’s a tendency to frame the issue as being one of people imposing “rules” on what others write. But this isn’t about rules, it’s about relationships like writer-reader/creator-consumer, creator-industry, and the relationships between peers. No one can impose rules on what someone else writes. What we can do, and what we all must do, is decide for ourselves what content we think is worth publishing, reading, and supporting.
Remember that when someone asks you to consider your choices, it’s not an attack. It’s an opportunity to reflect, and to grow.
‘The Other’ in Speculative Fiction
Genres that deal with the marvelous, and experiences impossible in the real world, force their characters and their readers to confront ‘the other’ constantly. When science fiction and fantasy ask you to react to (and, hopefully, empathize with), sapient non-human species, they’re relying on the specter of ‘the other’ to shape your experience as a reader. The best speculative fiction asks its readers to examine their knee-jerk reaction to the other, forcing us to confront our assumptions and our biases as part of coming to better understand the invented world.
However, there are dangers with this relationship to ‘the other’. Working in genres that deal with xenophobia and oppression as tropes and plot points can both reduce an author’s sensitivity to the mechanics of real world oppression and, ironically, lead them to believe they’re an expert in aspects of oppression that they’ve never experienced. There is also the tendency to conflate invented difference with real world difference. If you can imagine the experiences of an entirely different species, why can’t you imagine the experiences of someone whose race or sexuality is different from your own?
This thinking obscures a lot of issues at play in the creation and the sale of fiction. You invented your fantasy species, you’re basically their god. Nobody understands them better than you, and no one could write them better than you. They’re also not real. There are no elves trying to sell books about elves in our highly competitive fiction market. Your book doesn’t hurt their chances. None of that is true of real world marginalized folx.
Examining Your Motives
Why you do something is important. Even though it doesn’t determine the final effects of your actions (we’ll talk about intent versus impact a little later), it does influence your assumptions and decisions as you proceed. In the end, motive is critical to the success of your project. How you envision your role as a storyteller in relationship to your subjects is often unexamined in fiction circles, but it’s an essential component of writing with intention.
Let’s talk about some common motives for choosing to write a protagonist whose identity you don’t share, and some of the pitfalls and advantages that come with them:
Avoiding Criticism: Let’s get this one out of the way. Some writers throw marginalized characters into a novel because they’re tired of being told their stories are too homogenous: too straight, too white, too male. This kind of defensive maneuvering is rarely done in good faith, and, as such, usually produces bad characters. Bad characters who then draw criticism. For now, let yourself off the hook here: Since you’re going to get criticized either way, write stories that are comfortable for you and don’t try to use your marginalized characters as shields. Maybe, instead of just reacting to criticism, you can take a more honest look at why your fiction is the way it is, and what that says about your place in the world.
I Want the World of My Story to Look Like the Real World: It’s honestly refreshing how many people are acknowledging that the real world can’t exist without the perspectives and experiences of others. However, the danger here is how story- (and thus self-) centered this motive can be. If you’re just trying to perfect your art, it’s easy to forget the real people and communities you’re weaving into your novel and how your actions can affect them. Proceed with caution, examine your decisions, be open to unpleasant revelations about your process and your story, and to making changes when you find you’re on the wrong course. (I feel like I’m writing Representation Horoscopes, here. I wonder if there’s a market for that?).
Interest: So, you read an article about a small ethnic community somewhere in central Asia. It was the most interesting thing you’ve read all year, and you’re determined to learn everything there is to learn about these people’s lives and write the best ever urban fantasy novel set in the streets of their town. Take a deep breath. See what you did there? You’re treating these very real people’s lives like the lore from your favorite game world. You can’t collect your way into this community, and intellectual curiosity is not a shortcut to embodied understanding of their experience. Fetishization is the core danger of writing from this kind of enthusiasm. It’s the commodification of other people’s lives and cultures for the consumption of strangers. If you really respect and care about people, you can’t jump right to using them to fuel your art and improve your imagination (and your earnings).
Representation: At the heart of your decision is a sincere concern for what your fiction means to your readers. You want the face of literature to look different. To be more accessible and diverse. Okay, but… there’s still a longer conversation to be had here.
Let’s Talk About Representation
We’ve all got a pretty good grasp of the basics when it comes to representation. When our imaginary worlds are defined by white, straight, cis, abled people and spaces, it requires marginalized readers to do extra intellectual and emotional labor to connect with a world that inherently excludes them. It builds and reinforces a cultural landscape where nothing is ‘for’ them, and it reinforces all the messages their privileged peers get about how their experiences are the most important.
So, what are the potential drawbacks?
First, you need to remember to stay humble. When your goal is to change the world for the better, it’s easy to develop a savior complex. It’s important to think of what you’re trying to do as human decency and care - you’re just doing your small part of a much bigger work. You’re not a hero. No one owes you gratitude or deference.
Second… Okay, I promised we’d talk about intent versus impact. In the conversation about representation, your potential impact is two-part. Let’s start on a textual level. No matter how much research you do (we’ll talk more about research, too), no matter how much care you apply, when you are borrowing someone else’s identity for fiction, you are always in danger of making mistakes. You may avoid all the worst long-standing tropes and stereotypes, but miss more recent trends in language or character building that are in the process of being incorporated into the patterns of oppression. Ironically, you might write the character with too much caution, preventing them from developing human flaws or finding a fully realized place in your narrative. No matter how good your intentions, there is a good chance that your portrayal will unintentionally amplify harmful or reductive ideas.
Moving outside of the world of your text, your potential impact becomes even more problematic. Marginalized authors of all kinds are underrepresented in publishing, generally, and main stream publishing particularly. Publishing, like most media production, is about gambling. It’s about guessing what people will and will not buy. And gambling with money is a position that encourages conservatism. For centuries, books about straight white men by straight white men have sold successfully. So, that’s what publishers are most comfortable with. (The fact that this is self-fulfilling prophecy escapes most executives in pretty much every industry). Books with diverse characters are seen as “riskier”, books by marginalized authors are also seen as “riskier”. With the growing social pressure to publish diverse books, selling books with diverse casts written by straight, white authors can seem a way to offset some of the imagined “risk.” Basically, you have to ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the possibility that your book will get published at the expense of an Own Voices author, not because it is better, but because you are more palatable to a publishing executive.
Determined to Press on? Still Considering Your Options?
If you’ve taken all that in, but you’re still pretty sure you’d like to diversify your cast, it’s important to have a plan. If you’re trying to do this “right”, it’s going to entail a lot of work, both practically and personally. The first step is to get practiced at asking yourself the sorts of hard questions this article struggles with. Don’t develop glib answers, never let yourself get comfortable in the project. Comfort leads to complacency, complacency leads to carelessness. Never take this work for granted, never take the people you’re dealing with for granted.
Do Your Research: If you can spend three days reading non-stop about agrarian patterns in coastal wetland communities, you can spend at least that much time on your Black protagonist’s hometown. Or her hair care needs. Prioritize your character’s identity and community in your research, put it right near the top of the list. Ideally, research like this would be an outgrowth of an ongoing familiarity with a community’s interests and needs. If you think somewhere down the line you’re going to want to write a trans character, start doing your research now. Five years from now, you’ll thank me. If you haven’t kept an ear to the ground for your character’s news and interests for years, you’ll have to focus even harder in your pre-writing work. Research is important for authenticity. It’s also important so that you know what harmful narratives you’re trying to avoid when depicting your character.
Use a Diversity of Research Methods: Familiarize yourself with the community’s writing, first and foremost. Read nonfiction about their history and their lives, but keep an eye on what writers you’re reading. You want your scholars, especially, to be from the community. Always find people within their own words. Don’t just read traditional nonfiction sources. Seek out Own Voices media, read and watch and listen to the art they produce. Familiarize yourself with their literary canon. Read lifestyle and culture blogs produced by and for the community. Follow community social media accounts and observe the conversations held in those spaces. Critically, while there’s no reason not to read any public materials, don’t insert yourself into community conversations. Remember that not every space welcomes you, and not every space belongs to you. Do, however, take part in conversations the community specifically invites outsiders into. Get experience talking to the community about their issues, while always, always respecting their boundaries.
Never Claim Expertise: You’ve just done a lot of research, but remember, you’re not an expert. You cannot speak for the community you’re writing about. Accept that. When people ask you questions, your answers should always direct them back to those Own Voices sources you’ve read. Amplify the work of your teachers, because you are, in the end, a student.
Provide Bibliographies: If your book mentions specific elements of a community’s history or traditions, it never hurts to point your readers back to the sources you used to ground yourself in those topics. Even if your publisher won’t drop it in the back of the novel, consider hosting it on your author’s website. Take every opportunity to send more money and interest back to the community whose work has enriched your story.
Accept Your Social Responsibilities: Don’t be too comfortable with free sources. If you’ve read 10,000+ words of someone’s blog, you’ve benefited from a huge amount of their labor. Consider supporting their Patreon for a month or two. At the very least, drop some cash into their Ko-fi account. Since you’re using a community’s resources to bolster your work, consider dedicating some portion of your income from that novel to the community’s activists, and the causes that directly affect them. Honestly, if you care enough about this community to be writing about them, you should already be investing in their wellbeing.
Hire Sensitivity Readers: I’ll go over the issue of sensitivity readers in depth in an upcoming article. For now, let me just say that paying someone to give you a pre-publication preview of how the community might (because, of course, no one reader speaks for their entire community) receive your work is a good deal at any price.
Accept Critique Gracefully: You’re going to get things wrong. Even if, miraculously, no huge errors arise in your text, you’re going to hear from people who feel you should not have written the story. It is absolutely their right to express this opinion. Authors who get defensive when challenged always say things a decent person will regret. They hurt their own career, and more importantly, they hurt the impacted community.
Get Good At Apologizing: Apologizing is a fine art, simple in its details but exhausting in its execution. Accept criticism, admit fault, promise to do better. Don’t defend yourself, don’t quibble. An apology isn’t about you, it isn’t about your work. It’s about the people who were hurt by you and your work. Center their speech, get out of the way, and do better in the future.
Don’t Expect or Accept Public Praise or Accolades: Hey, all I’m saying is it’s a little gauche to let people give you awards for writing a character whose identity you don’t share. It also, whether fairly or not, will always raise questions about your sincerity and the purpose of your work. I’m not saying you can’t accept any awards, but use your common sense. Don’t accept too much praise, publicly, for your portrayal of the character. Always use these opportunities to highlight the community’s Own Voices artists.
Accept Some More Social Responsibilities: Be an ally and an advocate for your colleagues from the community. Hold the metaphorical door open for your marginalized peers. Get comfortable asking uncomfortable questions like “have you considered seating an Artist of Color on this panel?” Never miss an opportunity to hype their work. Don’t take salaried work that you know would be done better by members of the community - and when you turn down these opportunities, be clear about why.
Representation as a part of your practice isn’t just putting a character in a novel, it’s a commitment to a community. You’re telling your readers that you care about how they live, who they are, and what they need. You have to be sincere.