3 Critical Tactics for Diversifying Your Cast

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, Story MedicineLeave a Comment

A picture of a graffiti-ed wall with the words "Unity in Diversity" in red

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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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Big news! (And a big giveaway!)

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, Story MedicineLeave a Comment

It’s taken me the better part of both 2021 and 2022, but it’s FINALLY done: Story Medicine–the course for writers who want to use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

I’ve been an editor and book coach for over a decade now, and in this course, I’m sharing some of the most critical things I’ve learned about how to create compelling, emotionally affecting long-form fiction.

I’m also sharing some key craft techniques for diversifying your cast, and for “engaging with the issues”  without coming across as preachy or didactic–two things that I really think all of us who write fiction need to be doing right now.

The problems we face as a culture have never been bigger. And while it can be easy to feel powerless in the face of them, I believe that, as storytellers, we actually have a great deal of power.

That’s why I created this course–to help writers like you claim that power, and tell stories that will change the world. =)

Story Medicine is the very first course of its kind, and those of you who’ve been with me a while know that I launched the beta version of it last fall. The response was HUGE, and I got some amazing feedback from the first few cohorts to go through the course.

I could have left it there and called it good–but this course is such a key part of my life’s work, and so close to my heart, that instead I chose to spend to nine months perfecting and refining it.

Story Medicine 2.0 includes more videos, more nuts-and-bolts craft exercises, and more resources, on things like common racist tropes to avoid, case studies in revision, and techniques for creating invisible backstory.

It also now comes with access to the Story Medicine Community, a Facebook group where we’ll be discussing the material in the course, and exchanging homework exercises, starting Monday, June 6. You can learn more about the course, and register for the June cohort, here.

And to sweeten the deal, I’m offering Your First 50 Pages consultations FREE to four newsletter subscribers who register for Story Medicine by the end of May.

All you have to do is register for Story Medicine using the same email address you use as a subscriber to this newsletter, and then shoot me a message (susan@susandefreitas.com) with the subject line Subscriber First 50 Giveaway. Four winners will be chosen at random.

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If the Problem’s Not Your Plot, What Is It?

Susan DeFclasses, craft, fictionLeave a Comment

two panel image with a cat on the left with a caption "What it looks like" and a tarsier on the right with a caption "What it is:"

There are a few major reasons people come to me as an editor and a book coach, and this is something I’ve been reflecting on as I prepare for the class I’m teaching for Jane Friedman this Thursday, Maybe It’s Not Your Plot.

Generally speaking, people come to me because:

  • They have an overwritten novel (sometimes hugely so; I’ve worked on novels that clocked in north of 200K words) and can’t figure out what to cut in revision
  • They’ve put their novel through a million drafts, and they know something is still wrong, but they don’t know what it is
  • They’re writing speculative fiction, and they’ve gotten so lost in the world building that they can’t seem to work out the actual story
  • They either can’t seem to figure out the ending of their novel or know that the ending they have isn’t quite right
  • They’ve reached the end of Draft One and just don’t know what they need to focus on in revision
  • They “pantsed it” with their first draft, and now need to figure out how to structure their novel
  • They’ve received lukewarm reader response, or
  • They’ve had their novel rejected by agents and editors

Here I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I help people solve all of these problems (and many others they’re not even aware of) by doing the exact same thing, and that’s helping them build a real character arc for their protagonist.

Which is to say, all of these issues might APPEAR to be problems with what happens in the story, when in reality, they’re problems with why it happens.

Plot is generally what’s obvious to us, as both writers and readers–familiar, like the cat in the graphic above.

Character arc is more like the tarsier, in that it’s not so obvious and familiar, because it operates on a deeper, more subterranean level. As readers, we’re generally not aware of character arc at all (at least until the end of the novel).

What we are aware of is the effect that character arc has on us, which is the effect of making us feel.

Character arc is often treated like a discrete element of craft–on par, say, with conflict, dialogue, or voice–when in reality, I believe, it’s a structural element, foundational to the story itself. That’s why it’s such a powerful tool for cutting through thorny plot problems.

Don’t know what to cut in revision? Look at your character arc; if the event or subplot doesn’t intersect clearly with the internal journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

And this is hugely helpful when it comes to the endless possibilities presented by a fascinating speculative world: Think of the possibilities of that big world as a field. Putting the protagonist through a clear internal journey cuts a path through that field–which is to say, an actual story.

As for a novel’s ending, there are many ways that the events of the plot could conclude, but there are only a few ways that will deliver the moment of truth required by the protagonist’s character: The moment when they will finally see what it is they’ve been missing, or failed to understand, get out of their own way, and change.

Moreover, character arc is what determines the emotional quotient of the story: how invested the reader gets in it, and how much they care about what happens to the protagonist. So it’s often the key to turning around lukewarm reader response, and *crickets* from agents and editors as well.

I’ll be digging into all of this in further geeky detail this Thursday, April 14–so if you’re working on a novel, please! Save yourself some time, effort, and frustration by joining me for this class.

I promise I’ll break all of this down in a way that’s intuitive and easy to understand. (And if you need further incentive, there will be more cute animal photos like these. =)

Until next time,


PS. If you can’t make the live event, no worries–you can catch the replay later.

How does transformation begin?

Susan DeFcraft, fictionLeave a Comment

fresh shoots of green plant in the dirt

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on transformation–in art, and in life.

This week found me back in Portland. After two years away, due to the pandemic, it’s been a deeply meaningful time of connecting with old friends.

I’ve known one of these friend since my midtwenties. Like me, she’s a graduate of Prescott College; like me, she’s had a career as a freelance editor and book coach. Over lunch, she shared that she’s now transitioned to working with clients in a capacity that’s akin to a spiritual life coach.

That’s a transition that might not make sense to some people, but it made sense to me. This friend used to coach people writing self-help books; now she’s actually helping people transform their lives.

One of the things she noted about this work was something she termed “seeding”–making a small suggestion to a client, rather than a large one, about a way they might see things differently. Just floating an idea about change, without making a big deal about it, then moving on.

This, she said, is a big part of what helps the client actually make that big shift later on. Because they can have their resistance, their push back, to the small suggestion, rather than to the whole idea, the complete reframe. Which means that the next time this idea comes around, they generally have less resistance to it, more curiosity.

Seeding an idea in this way, gradually, sets the stage for a real breakthrough later on.

All of which couldn’t help but remind me of the way character arc operates in novels: The story can’t push the protagonist to see their internal issue all at once. Rather, it pushes them this way a little bit at a time–from this angle over there, and then that angle over there.

The story gives the character time and space to push back and resist–and in fact, as readers, we must see that person’s resistance to change if the eventual transformation is going crack our hearts open via the magic of catharsis, and really feel convincing.

In the end, the work my friend is doing with her clients and the work I’m doing with mine is very much parallel: We’re setting the stage for a convincing, affecting, meaningful internal shift. And in so doing, maybe even helping to heal a bit of our broken world, one human heart at a time.

This month for Jane Friedman, I wrote about some strategies for setting up this kind of transformation for your protagonist in the opening pages of your novel, while also serving to draw your reader in–so if you’re interested in creating this kind of “story medicine” in your work, you’ll find some very actionable tactics for that here.

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