Representation: Imagining VS Listening

My apologies for being absent for a little bit. Job hunting had to take precedent and I wasn’t home for a lot of last week.

Telling stories is a lot of fun. Among other reasons why, because we get to make up characters that never were. Sometimes these characters are very clearly based on people we know in real life, and other times, we’re making up people “from scratch.”

(I put this in quotation marks because I firmly believe that all believable characters are based either on people we know, characters we’ve seen in media, or versions of ourselves with the values we’ve endowed in our characters.)

Getting to imagine characters and feel out their stories comes with a lot of upsides. You don’t need me to tell you what they are; there are literally thousands of benefits to having our own characters to play with. A unique downside to imagining our own characters is that we can stop seeing types of people as analogous to who they are in the real world, and start seeing them as extensions of our own characters. Stereotypes, if you will.

It may look over-the-top to mention that I have a Chinese friend who looks over my rough draft for each chapter of Mutual Benefits, but it’s for the sake of responsibility. If I say that my character is a second-generation immigrant, I have the right, but I’ll look silly to portray that character as clearly not a descendent of people born from that country. At that point, someone familiar with Chinese-American values might shake their head and ask themselves why I made Quinn Asian in the first place if I was going to get so much wrong. So it’s in my best interest, as a writer, to be well-versed (or have a peer editor who is) in the character I’m writing.

If that leaves anyone asking, “why did you make Quinn Chinese-American, anyway?” the very unsatisfactory answer I have is that he just is. When I started to imagine the events of the story that later became Mutual Benefits (and fun fact, originally it was a small part of lore for another story), Quinn was Chinese-American. That’s just how it was. I then realized that his story was similar to a story of my own in grade twelve, and the pieces fell into place.

Milo is very similar. I was faced with the challenge of attempting to write a trans character with the respect he’s due, but also without making him this righteous character that everybody likes and he’s always right and he’s cooler than everyone. That would be patronizing, and also a clear message that you can’t write trans people as humans with flaws, no no – you must write every marginalized person as better than human. Plus, high school is high school. People were jerks to the few trans kids in my high school. They shouldn’t have been, but they were. To portray the trans kid as of equal standing would sadly to be, at time of writing, to ignore a lot of the very real bullying and unequal treatment trans youth are going through.

Originally, Milo was a lot more extreme as a figure. More events happened to him, and he said and did more extreme things. I had another peer editor that underwent a similar transition, and he helped me point out that some of the things I wrote were just not things that trans kids even did, and that I was making a character “Based on what I think trans people are, as opposed to what trans people are.” That quote is the basis of this entire blog. It’s true, I have no idea what it’s like to be trans, and can only speculate about their lives. This doesn’t mean I can’t do it, of course, but it does mean that to someone who has lived that life, I will be less informed than them and will inevitably not understand some parts of the lifestyle, either as a stereotype or as a person.

This translates to everything, not just hot-button social issues. Bald people, gamers, introverts, conspiracy theorists, people with one arm, people that stutter, musicians, Methodists, you name it. People who walk a certain kind of life or grow up with a certain trait or factor in their life will have their whole life changed, perhaps in small amounts, just around that one trait.

Take bald people, the most inconsequential-seeming trait on the list. I’d genuinely want to interview a bald person before writing one, because off the top of my head:

  • I bet they take way shorter showers.
  • I bet they’re more comfortable looking around versus people with long hair since they never have impaired vision caused by suddenly turning their head.
  • If they bald early on enough, they’re teased and bullied for it, and that doesn’t get as noted as being bullied for other traits.
  • It can affect their self-confidence.
  • There might be more parts of their life that are completely changed as a result of being bald that I don’t even know about.

A few closed-minded people believe that I wrote Mutual Benefits to score diversity points, and that’s the only possible reason someone could want to include a Chinese guy and a trans person in a story. (Of course, this basically means they’d think anything but a white protagonist is only chosen to deliberately stray from being white, so they see white as the default and anything else as tokenistic. That’s just textbook racism.) The reality is, my story is just the story that plays out, and, surprise surprise, it’s not just white cisgendered people that live in my imagination. I’m not writing this story to get “diversity points,” whatever those are – in fact, my case is closer to the opposite. I’m worried about misrepresenting or potentially contributing to the harm of a group by portraying negative stereotypes. It’s why I want to put in the effort of having a peer editor who knows better different walks of life than I. It’s part of the responsibility of being a writer, and of being an ally.

Being an ally is not about inserting as many half-baked demographics as possible. Representation is about making people feel seen, not about making them mentioned in passing. I hope to continue to work on this to make as many people (whether you’re Asian-American, trans, introverted, left-handed or, yes, bald) feel seen as possible. Every person reading this deserves to find a character that makes them smile, that makes them murmur, “they’re just like me.” It makes us feel good, and my number one goal as an author is to make people feel good. I’ll talk to you all next week, and happy pride month.

One thought on “Representation: Imagining VS Listening

  1. Some interesting points there. It’s not up to me to criticise your choices, and I would absolutely applaud your desire to be both accurate and sensitive.

    That said, and avoiding (or evading) the issue of stereotyping/borderline racist behaviour, I sometimes wonder about the desire to get everything right. An example would be describing someone’s walk through London, or someother well-known city, and suggesting two landmarks (museums, bridges, whatever) are in the wrong position with respect to each other. Would this spoil the story? It shouldn’t, any more than Shakespeare giving Bohemia a coast or making Richard II about ten years older than he really was! But for some people it would (and it certainly makes work for critics).

    One reason I enjoy science fiction, at least occasionally, is precisely because the author doesn’t have to worry too much about what is really ‘real’ or possible (although some SciFi writers take tremendous pains to be ‘accurate’). But coming closer to home, I would be interested to know, for example, who was the first person to go public to complain of the portrayal of Shylock as a stereotypical Jew? At a very different level, any performance of the song ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones is guaranteed to bring down condemnation of the song as inciting violence (fatal at that) against women.

    Right back on topic, I find Milo a bit weird but I have absolutely no frame of reference to set him against so that’s not a criticism. I certainly wouldn’t plan to use him as a frame of reference if and when I encounter young transgender people. Quinn comes across as borderline stereotypical but, as someone who spent much of his working life in multinational environments, one thing I can attest to is that many ‘national stereotypes’ have more than a grain of truth in them!

    So, well done for considering these points carefully, but don’t let a society perspective put you off writing what you want to write, in the style that is right for your story.

    Liked by 1 person

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