I recently sat down (virtually) with my good friend Vinnie Kinsella for a lively and far-ranging conversation. This was the first event of a monthly series hosted by the Story Medicine Community that will address different facets of the topics we cover in my online course, Story Medicine.
We covered so much ground–from such important topics as Star Trek: Discovery, Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and the well-intentioned pitfalls of the trope known as Magic Queer Bestie (you know, just there to sprinkle a little rainbow glitter on the straight protagonist). In case you missed it, I did a bit of a recap of our convo for Jane Friedman’s blog this month, with a post entitled How (and How Not!) to Write Queer Characters: A Primer.
In writing this post for Jane, I was struck by how many of the best practices that will help you write queer characters with integrity also apply to a range of other characters who hail from historically marginalized groups.
Ready? Here they are:
- Don’t Make Them the Sole Representative
When you only have one member of a historically marginalized group in your story, that character is essentially forced to represent that whole group—and however you characterize them, that person will appear to represent your idea of that group as a whole.
The easiest way to avoid this is simply to have more than one character from that same group in your story–and this is especially critical when one of those characters is an antagonist. Because antagonists tend to behave badly, make poor decisions, and generally aren’t all that sympathetic, and you really don’t want to leave your reader with the impression that this is how you view the whole group that they hail from.
When you have a “good guy” from the same historically marginalized group in your novel, you can let both that character and your antagonist simply represent themselves–not their entire group.
- Address Privilege (and Agenda)
To my mind, secondary characters who hail from a historically marginalized group run the risk of appearing to be “diversity accessories” to a protagonist who does not (for example, see the trope of the Magical Negro, and my version in my post for Jane, linked above, Magic Gay Bestie).
One way to avoid this appearance is to actually address the secondary character’s lack of privilege with regard to the protagonist. Meaning, you show the ways that this character has less power in some situations than the protagonist of the story.
The other way to avoid this appearance is to make sure that this secondary character isn’t just there to support the dramas and decisions of the protagonist, but in fact has some drama and decisions of their own,. Meaning, this character has their own agenda, their own goals in the story (and hey, maybe your protagonist might even be able to help out with that, rather than just vice versa).
- Characterize Nonstereotypically
For every historically marginalized group, there are stereotypes: Asians are good at math. Black people have rhythm. Gay men are effeminate, and are really know how to shop. Lesbians are butch, and know how to fix the dishwasher when it goes on the fritz. Etc.
Are there real people who conform to these stereotypes? Absolutely–and let’s be clear, we love those people. But for every character in your novel, you only have so many identifying characteristics to work with, and if all of the characteristics you’ve assigned to a given character point to their membership in a historically marginalized group, all you’re doing is perpetuating stereotypes, and narrowing the perception of what people from this group can be.
An alternative here is to work against stereotype, in whatever way works best for your novel. Maybe your Asian character is a total bookworm, and has always hated math. Maybe your Black character has the physical coordination of a punch-drunk panda.
Another alternative is to just sidestep these stereotypes entirely, and focus on other characteristics with no obvious relationship to stereotype: Your gay male character’s penchant for live action role playing, for example, or your lesbian character’s ironic love of really bad 80s hair metal.
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