Advice you might hear frequently about writing characters who are a part of an oppressed group if you yourself are not in said group is “write about them, but don’t write their story for them”. Great starting thought! But what exactly is writing a group’s story for them? What does that look like? Where’s the line between writing a character who, for instance, deals with homophobia realistically and co-opting a queer person’s story that you should not? I know what I feel uncomfortable with as a queer woman. I have minimal to no point of reference on where that objectionable thread is for anybody else. Ex: Is being gay enough or should you be a gay man specifically to write a gay man’s story whatever that may look like?
And while we’re on the topic, minorities are not a monolithic hive-mind. Ex: I’ve heard many arguments that depicting women who struggle with their hair because it does not align with white beauty standards is damaging, but I’ve also heard the opposite. It’s something I personally have faced and many others; I think it’s a valid story to tell, and if I were to write a mixed woman, she might feel that way too. So related question, how do we decipher what opinions have merit, which do not and when/how we respectfully disagree without being defensive? Is it all touch and go?
The following is my viewpoint. Your’s might differ than mine.
At times, an author can write a character as an expression of a unique individual and at times an author will write a character as an expression of a group.
When your character speaks and acts just for themselves and their development is on a personal level, your character is all about them and not a group.
As a queer woman, you know there is no hive mind, so you avoid pitfalls that might be related to stereotypes and tropes of the lesbian character – and you can do this much easier than someone who is not a queer woman.
You won’t (I assume) crucify a non-queer woman who unfortunately does something like assume all queer women are against dating transpeople, but by making this assumption this writer is turning her character from an individual into a representation of a group. So, you may want to help her understand her mistake.
Yes. For example talking about damaged hair is something that is done more and more … it might be related to a generational difference but these subjects are constantly shifting and the right touch will be different from day-to-day and year-to-year.
Writing diversely is generally not worthy if you are writing for commercial purposes. You will have unknown people saying How you dare to make your main character from a race you are not. Or an orientation you are not.
However, I personally think it is necessary for quality, representation and fairness that there are a similar all races and orientation protagonists.
But I know that the fact that my jam entry is the protagonist or for a Cuban exiled black man or for a Mexican origin woman will make most people don’t even try it.
It’s honestly tough to say. I can name some really bad examples that were probably writing a group’s story for them rather than about them (i.e. Hainly Abrams from Mass Effect Andromeda) but I feel like even that’s pure speculation.
As lame as it is for me to say, I honestly think where the audience determines if the content creator is writing for a minority group that they’re specifically not a part of is how they take criticism to how they depict said group in their fiction.
I think it’s a case by case basis, for every opinion about every topic to be frank.
And as lame as it sounds, I think that it’s important to raise our concerns and treat them all with equal respect without turning it into a competition of who has the hardest life, etc. The focus should ultimately be raising every person’s voice up so that everyone is equal.
Would you like to write a black character, but you’re white? Sure! But don’t try to write about their life or struggles as a part of the black community, because that’s something you don’t understand.
Would you like to write a trans character, but you’re cis? Sure! But don’t try to write about their struggles with gender dysphoria, HRT, or GRS/SRS, because you don’t understand what any of that is like.
If you would like to write about a character from a group that you’re not part of (particularly in a published work), and you want to represent their life realistically, consider getting a sensitivity reader. Find someone from the group you want to write about, and ask if they would be willing to read your character and give you feedback on how you’re representing them as a part of that community and as an individual with an experience unique to their identity.
Sensitivity readers can also be helpful in checking your work to ensure that you aren’t accidentally writing any harmful stereotypes into your characters. Writing about a group that you aren’t a part of is always going to be a challenge, and that won’t change. If someone voices a genuine issue or concern with one of your characters, take the time to consider their opinion and respond appropriately. This may mean apologizing, editing your portrayal of the character, or replacing the character altogether, depending on the situation. You should be prepared, when writing about an oppressed group, to face criticism about your portrayal of that group and the individual, and it’s up to you to decide how you will handle that.
Essentially, yes. You will likely have to do some legwork on how to approach the character’s identity truthfully and respectfully, and even then you may not do it well. It will always benefit you to talk to someone from the group you’re trying to represent when you’re writing the character.
I think I’ll have to disagree with some of the comments in this topic. I believe saying you should’t try writing about the struggle of a particular group because you’re not a part of it is a bit extreme. Yes, you can’t have the same experiences but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn about it. I believe talking to people on those groups is the best way to approach this. If you’re open to criticism and are willing to learn and change things when people point out parts where you misrepresented them I don’t see why you shouldn’t try. It’s no guarantee that your story will turn out any good, but at very least will have learned a lot about the struggle of the group and you might grow as a person and writer. Anyway, that’s just my two cents.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. One thing I’m really starting to appreciate, especially now that I’ve spent some time on the forums, is how little I really know about and understand other groups besides my own (and how poorly equipped I am to speak for my own groups, even). It’s been really healthy for me, and I’m glad to be here in a community that’s so inclusive but also patient and understanding while I stumble around trying to get my head together.
One thing I would ask is whether representation and inclusivity change between NPCs and PCs. I feel like offering the option to play as any gender or sexuality or race is super important, and something I want to offer. But I also worry that by offering the choice to play as any group but my own, I’m fundamentally doing a disservice to players who want to be something else because I can’t write that experience from the eyes of the PC, that I can’t write them in a way that the reader can relate to - and I’ve certainly run into stories (not necessarily here) that put me incredibly off because I felt that they were ignoring or overlooking how I felt as a member of my own groups. But I don’t want to not include the option at all, because that’s hardly inclusive, either.
Overall, I think I agree with what a few people have said - I like to think at least that as long as you approach these issues with respect and a willingness to listen and accept some criticism, then you’re probably in a good place. I’m not sure that’s enough - obviously putting in effort to Educate Yourself is important - but I think that’s at least the mindset that will point you in the right direction. But I’m still working on it myself, so…
I think the line lies in how much of the story you have written, and how much is contributed by other people who have lived that experience. It’s near impossible, in my opinion, to write about a minority group and completely ignore the ways that they experience oppression because it’s a part of their lived experience and therefore a part of their character.
But the authenticity comes from having lived the experience. If you have not lived that specific experience, my advice is to listen to someone (hopefully, several people) that has.
This is a prime example. As a biracial woman myself, I often find that media representation of multiracial individuals fails to accurately portray that experience - and usually, writers operate under the assumption that it’s easy to write multiracial characters without research.
And while it’s true that minorities are not a monolithic hive-mind, that makes it all the more important to listen to multiple perspectives, even from within the same group.
If you’re adjacent to that group, it’s easier. As a bisexual woman, I feel comfortable writing about the experiences of lesbian women - they face similar oppression to my own experiences. But do I have the authority to write an entire story about a gender non-conforming butch lesbian’s experiences navigating our modern society? Probably not.
As a Korean-American I feel comfortable writing about the experience of Chinese-Americans, possibly even enough to write an entire story about them with proper research. But if I were to write about an Iranian immigrant family I’d have to call some friends. Elements of the experience are the same - xenoophobia, forced assimilation, alienation and generational gaps - but for the gaps in my experience it’s best to talk to people who have lived it themselves.
I’ve seen this issue brought up before, specifically for the inclusion of non-binary PCs. Some people feel that merely giving the character different pronouns doesn’t account for the fundamental difference that a non-binary person experiences when interacting with other people. If you want your pronouns recognized, you have to tell people, rather than just letting them assume - but games where you can just set your own pronouns ignore this, and other characters just pick up your preferred pronouns right away. The argument is that this feels like just reskinning a cis person (same argument could be made for gay, non-white, etc. PCs).
For me, and for a lot of other players I’ve talked to, we’d prefer if our games took place in a world where there isn’t sexism, racism, or homophobia, so those conversations wouldn’t need to come up. We’d much rather inhabit a world where we are just inherently accepted for what we are, rather than having the same battles in-game that we have IRL.
If you want to write a game that accurately represents the world as it is, you’ll have to put a lot of work into handling issues like prejudice and identity gently, while also making the representation unique and accurate for each variety of PC.
All of this about research and fear to even dare to touch an experience different from the individual group you are. I think is limiting the scope when the objective is doing a piece of FICTION that has nothing to do without the struggles of a certain collective. if you are writing about an astronaut who just happens to be black or native or Hispanic and the story is, not about the collective always you are treating the character as a person with the identical care and without bigotry that should be okay. If not great pieces of literature would have never been written Like Huckleberry Finn.
Perhaps. Overthinking is the enemy of creativity, no? But I also believe that effort and research is worth it. Particularly in interactive fiction people will want to play a character than they can express themselves with and, often, be themselves. Either to live in a better world like @ItsAidrian mentioned, or to acknowledge their struggles (off the top of my head, I think in Fallen Hero there are some options to do so).
Putting in that effort to accurately represent someone means valuing them and giving them the voice they deserve. I think this is a great thing about this forum because they shine a light on individual groups that you might not know much about otherwise. @Jayffel really took the words from my heart there: as you get to know other experiences, you realize your own limits of knowledge. The games that accurately portray these struggles or feelings not only acknowledge people with these experiences, but also allow people unfamiliar with them to broaden their horizons
If you want to write a story that includes a diverse group, ask yourself this question: “why are these characters diverse?” If the answer is “because I think it’s interesting to have them be that way (for all the various reasons it can be), and/or so I can explore the outlook of a different set of people,” then go for it.
However, if your answer is “if I don’t include diversity, then I’ll feel as if I’m doing a group out there a disservice,” then stop. There are millions of stories out there, with different characters. Don’t force yourself to write something you’re not comfortable writing.
By all means, write for as diverse of a group as you’d like to. You just need to make sure it’s coming from a place of authenticity, rather than trying to tell someone else’s story just because.
Whole-heartedly agree. I am puzzled on where the line of “they are writing this speaking towards the group vs. this character/particular situation” should be at times though. Example, the originally intended back story on Jack Sparrow was apparently that he got arrested and branded a pirate for freeing enslaved people on a British ship. Watching the deleted scene where an officer jabs at him for it, I thought, cool, makes me like the character more. One of my friends said ugh, more white saviorism. We still don’t see it the same way.
The grey area I see though is that a lot of queer women will argue non-queer people writing a lesbian who individually is against dating bisexual women for instance is automatically the same as assuming at least for the purposes of the work that queer women as a whole are biphobic simply because they are not queer. But there’s also those who don’t think that in the same community. So…which opinion is valid here? Should a detail be yanked on one person’s word? One hundred? There’s seemingly infinite questions to mull over, you know? Similar to the conversation on should a writer never write gay people as villains solely because it can also be a damaging thing in separate contexts or does it depend on how it is written and/or if there’s straight villains also present in that story/other stories, etc.
That’s fair. I think it can sometimes be difficult to know how to handle criticism that you disagree with however. Using the hair thing as an example, if I was told it was damaging to the community for me to write about my own experiences, I’d disagree. And I wouldn’t be taking it out either even if I decided to change it somewhat. If their opinion is that I don’t care about the community because I didn’t take it out, then am I not taking criticism appropriately? It’s complicated of course, and I suppose I’d be getting more slack as a minority vs. someone completely removed, but still.
Agreed. But how does one go about equally considering all opinions when many opinions are directly contradictory? Examples:
It’s offensive to write a queer woman who is “manly” because it’s a stereotype that devalues the femininity of women unless they align with men’s sexuality.
It’s offensive to write a queer woman who is “ultra feminine”, that assumes queer women should behave a certain way which is derived from patriarchal, heteronormative views.
Both summaries of opinions I have heard.
Is there a difference in writing a character who faces struggles being black and writing a story revolving around the struggle of being black though? For instance, the ongoing conversation about making characters have realistic problems and be meaningfully a certain gender vs. swapping pronouns on the same character who thinks the same thoughts and has the same experiences in IF games. The latter is often considered fake representation that shouldn’t be included at all.
Or were you saying with the next statement that in those cases when you are writing for realism and not wholly escapism, use a sensitivity writer? Because in that case, ideally, they’ll be able to find those resources or shelve the idea for a period.
I am a lesbian woman, and therefore will be using that as my perspective. I would say the line is on how prominently you are featuring their narrative and the oppression they face as part of their narrative. There’s a big difference for me between having a character who happens to be a lesbian, and writing a story featuring “the lesbian experience”.
As a queer woman, you probably have a pretty good idea of what homophobia from the average straight person looks like and could easily be advised on more lesbian-specific experiences of it and I wouldn’t worry too much about it as a reader.
Trying to write a story about a woman coming out as a lesbian, where prominent story features involve her wrestling with comphet and understanding the specific type of complex relationship many lesbians have with gender because they are only attracted to women? There’s the line for me.
I mean, I feel like to some extent it is kind of touch-and-go still and honestly I have no idea on the respectfully disagree bit, but there’s definitely some pointers I look for.
Quantity: When you do research and look for opinions from people from that group, how mixed are the opinions? Actually count, because it has been established that when coming from a place of privilege people tend to perceive equality while the minority group is still vastly outnumbered + confirmation bias. If you’re looking at like 60-90% of people from that group having that opinion, go with that one.
Response Range: Maybe you don’t have a clear majority for a single view point, but what does the range of responses look like? We’re going to use “Do women think ‘get back in the kitchen jokes’ are funny?” as an example.
There’s certainly going to be a few women who do think they are funny, and some women who are aggressively opposed, but the majority is probably going range from “They’re Okay, I guess” to “WTF”. If a practice appears to be largely regarded as Neutral to Harmful, don’t do it. If a practice appears as Neutral to Positive, you can probably continue.
Source: Generally, I don’t recommend ignoring the opinions of people within the group for things like kindness or response quality because that can frequently end up being classist, ableist, and ignoring of the societal trauma experienced by marginalized groups BUT if the dissenting opinions within the group seem to only come from transphobes, white supremacists, etc. then you can ignore those.
I think this one is about not making the ONLY minority representation in the story be the villain (or has tragic ending). If there are others representing the same minority in the same story that are explicitly not the villain, it “feels” less like the minority can only be the villain (or has tragic ending). Writing straight villain in that instance is not as helpful as the inverse, because majority representation is already much more varied.
As for not sure between contradictory opinions (I struggle with this too, when I don’t always know even what “my community” agrees on, or that I fully disagree with some in “my community”), I think it is okay to change your mind later. (people change, times change, societal attitude shifts, etc.) So, choose the side you believe in and go with it for that specific work. Later if you think differently, write differently.
My rule of thumb is this: if you take out everything in the story intended to make the representation more “accurate”/“true to life”, do you end up without a story or do you end up with a minority character from a more escapist piece of fiction? Some people might claim the latter character would end up flatter or make less sense after the change, since their development and personality would still be affected by originally having had the oppression in their story. But in the story mentioned above, the MC literally wouldn’t be the same person and the story would break, because the story is all about the struggles that rise from her oppression as a lesbian woman.
My thought on the old(ish) adage “don’t write X group’s struggle with oppression” is much the same as my thoughts on other common writing advice like “show don’t tell”, or “kill your darlings”: it’s an oversimplification, one that people read and naturally attach their own context and connotations to. When I see “show don’t tell”, I sometimes assume that everyone who’s reading it is interpreting it the same way, but they never are.
(Note that the way I personally have chosen to interpret this advice is through my lens as someone who is trans, bisexual, and disabled- and white, because that’s important to note too.)
The advice OP mentioned is often interpreted in such a way that says, “Write your XYZ character as a person first, which means you have to completely disregard aspects of their identity and struggles that objectively shape who they are.” My bisexuality isn’t a character trait- it’s an aspect of my identity that has absolutely shaped my personality, colored my experiences, and helped me navigate through interactions with others. My disability has shaped my personality even moreso- you cannot write a disabled person without considering how their disability affects them in their day to day lives, and considering that requires you to toe the line between respectfully writing about a character who is different than you and writing a stereotype. For instance, if I read a book about a character with epilepsy who didn’t have a little anxiety about holding something valuable and breakable, like an antique vase, someone’s favorite mug, or a baby, I’m going to assume that the author didn’t really want to write a character with epilepsy or thinks writing that is going to be too much work/stress.
TLDR: Understand that a character’s personality/characterization and their “story” are not always separable, so don’t be afraid to dive into the experiences your character will have based on being XYZ and how that’s going to affect their personality and character arc. But don’t write a whole book whose main plot is about the struggles of being XYZ, and make sure your character has room to breathe and doesn’t exist solely to be your mouthpiece on issues that aren’t your own.
This is actually a very interesting topic! For people coming from outside of the experience of XYZ I think, usually, it actually just comes from a place of ignorance. And, yeah, we can acknowledge that ignorance about a lot of these things typically comes from the inherently ableist, racist, homophobic, etc. society, but when that was not the intent then it can feel very mean and unjustified to them when you respond (understandably) not in the nicest of ways or interpret it as a negative intent.
I am saying this not to minimize the harm that this ignorance can cause, but to maybe ease tensions and help people communicate with each other better because in the end mutual understanding is part of what’s going to make diverse representation better.
Disclaimer: I have never written a character with epilepsy so idk maybe one of the first things that comes up when you google How to Write a Character With Epilepsy is that they should have a small amount of anxiety when holding delicate things and this topic may seem unrelated, but it has been my experience with other things and so felt valuable to bring up.
My example, as someone with PTSD, is going to be PTSD. I know that because of how media portrays PTSD and the things that come up when you google for information about PTSD that the knowledge of people’s practical experience having PTSD are not well-represented or usually even considered. So, for me, when I consume media, I know that if you did some decent research from reasonable sources you should discover that flashbacks are not hallucinations and I will expect you to write them as such.
But I jokingly call it “spicy PTSD knowledge” whenever writers acknowledge that you don’t just magically snap back from flashbacks perfectly fine. There’s like a whole internal emotional process and sense of vulnerability that happens after you experience a flashback. I’m pretty sure it’s just something that does not occur to them like 90% of the time, though sometimes it does feel like sacrificing representation for the sake of the plot line.
Which, I suppose, all this is really just an argument for having sensitivity readers for your writing to help you find the knowledge you don’t have or know where to look for.
You can not definitively decide that “all opinions from X are invalid, unless Y” (or replace valid in the same equation). There is no magic formula that will determine how you should take criticism. It is entirely up to you to decide how you act when someone criticises your work. It is also worth noting that someone’s opinion does not become invalid when another person has an opposing opinion. If you feel that someone is criticising your work with genuine intent, see what you can do to fix the issue. If you doubt someone’s motivation in criticising your work, try to start a dialogue with them about it. Find out why they’re saying that, and what remedies are available for the situation. Decide how you act from there. You will never have an answer to every situation, and you will never be able to make a decision that appeases absolutely everyone. You are the only one who can decide which issues need fixing, and which issues are misunderstood. If you find that someone brings up an issue that you don’t want to fix, try finding some other people with a similar point of view to the critic that you can discuss it with. If you still don’t want to change it, you can choose to address it publicly, so people know you aren’t ignoring them.
I happen to know a game developer who is currently seeking legal action against some people that have made an internet campaign to slander them, their team, and their players over perceived injustices. The claims these people have made are wildly untrue, but they continue to spread these claims under the guise of revealing prejudice and actual crimes. These sorts of things really do happen, but they won’t always be so clearly wrong. You will only be able to judge on a case-by-case basis.
I don’t think that these opinions are directly contradictory, but they are very extreme viewpoints. I think this is less of a concern when you’re writing characters that are well-developed, rather than having a token “chapstick” and “lipstick” lesbian just 'cause. Again, it’s a case-by-case judgement to make.
I don’t understand the distinction you’re trying to make in the first question. In both cases, you have created a situation where you have to write a realistic depiction of the life of a black character, struggles and all. In both cases, you need to put effort into finding resources and people that will help you make this representation honest, real, and inoffensive to actual black people. If you’re going to write a character who faces real black struggles without any experience or outside help, you’re going to have a bad time.
Yes, if you want to write true-to-life representation for a identity that you don’t have, you should be using a sensitivity reader who has the identity you’re trying to represent. That will always help, and will likely help you in addressing criticism from the public, too. The best thing in any situation where you’re not sure what to do is to ask for help from someone more experienced, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to writing as well.