On Representation and Research

Photo credit: Steve Goodyear on Flickr
So I’m taking this Creative Writing class focused on the short story. Which has been interesting, because, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often write short stories. Anyway.

In this class, we critique each other’s work (I know, shocking, right?). And semi-recently, one of my classmates wrote a story focusing on a character with mental illness (OCD and possibly depression) and we had a class critique. 

And some of the suggestions for how the writer could make her mentally ill character more realistic? They made me cringe. Visibly. They were physically painful to my ears you guys, because they were so horrifically stereotypical. 

Not wanting to jump into full lecture mode in the middle of class, I nicely suggested the writer do research before adding anything in. A lot of research. 

I’m going to say here what I couldn’t really get into in class. 

I am of the firm belief that representation of all types of minorities in the media is incredibly important. And I totally 100% encourage writers to do their darndest to represent the world we live in, not the white-washed able-bodied neurotypical world so often portrayed in the media. 

But the thing is, there’s a right and wrong way to do representation, and trying to write a minority without doing tons of research is, quite frankly, disrespectful. And damaging. And painfully obvious.

Look, writing about any kind of minority group you’re not a part of (or hell, even one you are a part of) is scary. And it’s tough. And the thought that someone might read it and call you out on things you got wrong is terrifying. But you know what? People will call you out if it’s obvious you didn’t do your research, and they should. 

I don’t care what you’re writing about, but if you rely on stereotypes to inform your writing, not only are you doing it wrong, not only are you being lazy, but you’re damaging the community you’re attempting to represent. Perpetuating stereotypes is not something to take lightly. Ever. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying your representation has to be perfect in your first draft (I mean, is anything perfect in the first draft? Obviously not). I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t bother attempting to include diverse characters in your WIP, or that it’s impossible for writers to get it right. 

I’m not saying any of that. 

What I am saying is you need to do your research. And a hell of a lot of it. You need to do whatever you can to learn as much about that community as possible—learn about the pre-existing stereotypes, learn about the things the media often gets wrong, learn about the realities of whatever minority you’re writing about, and don’t stop. If possible, try to get feedback from the community—many writers do specific calls for certain types of beta readers to help with that exactly. 

Because the truth is whatever community you’re trying to represent wants you to get it right. We all do. But you need to put the work in, and you need to be respectful, and you need to understand that your perspective on that community may not be entirely accurate. You also need to understand that even after all that research and even with your best intentions, you might still get things wrong. 

But most of all, don’t for a second think you can accurately portray any sort of minority without doing a ton of research. It’s not a step you can skip. The stakes are just too high. 

Have you ever written diverse characters into your WIPs? What suggestions or tips do you have? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
.@Ava_Jae says you can't "accurately portray any sort of minority without doing a ton of research." Thoughts?  (Click to tweet)  
Writer @Ava_Jae says there's a right and wrong way to represent minorities in your writing. What do you think? (Click to tweet)  
When diversifying your writing, "perpetuating stereotypes is not something to take lightly. Ever." (Click to tweet)


Heather said...

This is a really good point, and one I know I struggle with. One of my characters is of a mixed race and I have two friends in the same position, one who it doesn't really bother and one who believes it is probably the biggest problem when people do such horrible things against mixed-race people.

I think my biggest problem is that it's hard to know how to do research, or what to ask other people... If I'm on Google or interviewing someone else, it's hard to find the right questions to ask in the right way. Not just because you don't want to offend them, but because I don't know how much information I'll need.

Such is the life of a kid in a mostly-white suburban area...

Ava Jae said...

I totally understand the difficulties with research—it's something I definitely have to keep in mind with a couple of my projects and will be trying to handle, too. I've found there are some great IAMA reddit forums that allows people to ask others in certain situations (whether disabled, a particular race/religion, etc.) which can help, and there's also @_DiversifYA that has round-table discussions on their blog as well as Q&As for writers on Twitter, which can be really really helpful. I also think if possible, trying to find some betas who are part of the community you're trying to represent would be especially helpful.

So...yes. Not the easiest thing. But absolutely essential.

Jim Heskett said...

I agonize over trying to write overtly racist characters. That may be the trickiest of all.

Ava Jae said...

Is it sad that I've found the jerk characters (in that respect) relatively easy to write? Not because I agree with them or anything, but because unfortunately I have plenty of IRL observations to pull from. Blah.

Jen Donohue said...

I think I hesitate to write a lot of diversity into my books because I'm a white girl from New Jersey without many of the difficulties a lot of people have faced. I understand there is quite a lot of territory which is not MINE, and I don't want to get my handprints all over it and offend people.

Does this mean if a character really SPEAKS to me, I wouldn't write him or her? Nope. But my branching into diversity has been somewhat selective. And, for some people, being a female writer and having female characters is diverse so I can kind of ride on the coattails of that, right? ;)

S.E Dee said...

Re Ethnic Minorities:

I have multiple feelings about this. One being that I've never felt the need to research a white character and I'm not white. It makes me feel weird to think someone might need to do research on an ethnic minority as though they are still exotic and live so far from us on planet Ethniconia. If a person wants to get to know ethnic minorities, I'd say simply get out more. If you have very little to no friends that are non-white, you have yet to live. If you haven't opened your eyes and paid attention to just general knowledge out there, then I don't know what to say.

The research, in my opinion, ought to be done more on the writer and their own perceptions. If you're worried about how YOU are going to portray ethnic minorities, then the problem is with the writer and their own vision.

Research should, again, in my opinion, only be done if you are writing a character whose ethnic background is important to the story; if you're writing something contemporary that has to do with race in some way. But if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi and your setting is on a world far, far away, then you're thinking to hard.

Personally, I'm not interested in reading any kind of book with an ethnic character whose ethnicity is key to the story because I rarely have to read books with white characters whose ethnicity comes into play. To research an ethnic minority is to imply there is something homogeneous about them that will stay true no matter where in the world they are. And there is, the colour of their skin will stay true, but that's about it. If you were to take two ethnic minorities of the same background and put them in two different countries, you're going to have two different people. No matter what. And that's diversity.

My point is, researching diversity is hard because it's so diverse. You'll never get all of it and you don't have to. You're character can be unique, and that's a good thing.

S.E Dee said...

I think Ava gave some sound advice. Push for experiences with real people and bare in mind that you'll never find one answer that will enable you to write a diverse character. And that's good! Get them beta's in when you're done and look for a consensus in their answers. I wouldn't even say change anything based on one persons feelings no matter how relative you think their opinion is to the story. Always get more than one CP or beta reader.

And don't do too much research or, I reckon, you will end up writing a stereotype LOL

Ava Jae said...

Yeaaaah that's part of the reason why I think it's helpful to research what stereotypes are out there—so you then know what to avoid when writing.

Ava Jae said...

I totally get the fear thing—it's absolutely a risk you take when you write diversity, but I personally think this is such an important thing that it's worth the risk (as long as you go about it carefully, respectfully and thoughtfully, that is).

Ava Jae said...

Lots of interesting thoughts here.

As far as the writing a white character goes, I don't think you need to do any research to write a white person because...well, white people aren't a minority. White characters are the default and if you don't mention anything about any minority statuses, then your characters will be assumed to be white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical characters.

Now as far as research goes, thinking about it, I think it's mainly important when representing cultures, disabilities, mental illnesses, religions and some sexualities (for example, genderfluid or non-binary characters if you don't know too much about them) etc. where the facts are important. I also think it's really good to know what stereotypes already exist for whatever you're writing so you don't continue to perpetuate them.

All that said, I think you're right that it's equally important to remember that no two people are alike and no one character can represent an entire minority. Characters aren't comprised of their minority status, which is something that's absolutely important to remember. In the end, your character should definitely be unique.

So...I agree with a middle stance. I think research is important, but I also agree that you can overdo it/think too hard. There needs to be a balance.

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