Tips for Writing Marginalized Characters

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Writing marginalized characters, whether you are marginalized yourself or not, can feel somewhat intimidating when you care about getting representation right. The burden of responsibility, especially at first, can feel especially heavy with the knowledge that getting something wrong can harm our readers. Of course, erasing marginalized characters from a narrative entirely—the alternative to writing marginalized characters—is equally damaging, especially because it happens so often. Which leaves writers who care about respectful representation and not doing harm to their readers left to navigate how to get it done right.

So where do you start?

  • Listening. The truth is the process starts long before you start actually writing any marginalized characters—and that's with listening to marginalized people. It means boosting their voices and paying attention when they talk about damaging tropes, stereotypes, and messages perpetuated in the media. It means listening and trying to understand when they say something has hurt them and why.

    Writing marginalized characters respectfully begins with listening to marginalized people in real life and educating yourself on all the ways the media—books, TV shows, movies, etc—has failed them in the past so you can try to avoid those pitfalls yourself. And that means listening when it makes you uncomfortable, and listening when you're tempted to disagree, and listening to a variety of voices in every community because opinions vary and no one community is a monolith.

  • Researching. So you've heard about damaging tropes and stereotypes from listening to marginalized people—great. Now it's time to dig into those and do your own separate research to see what other things should be avoided, whether it's one wording over another, a trope you didn't realize was a trope, etc. It also means finding examples of representation done right and understanding what it is about that particular example that worked so well. What did they do that the represented community was happy with? What could they have done better? These are all things you can learn from to better your own writing.

  • Read #ownvoices books. You're not going to get a better education that books featuring marginalized characters written by authors who share that marginalization. Read as many #ownvoices books featuring characters who share the marginalization(s) of whatever characters you're writing as you can.

  • When you've finished writing and revising with everything you've learned—hire sensitivity readers. Writing in the Margins is a great database, and Twitter also has lots of sensitivity readers who tweet about their services, which you'll come across if you're following plenty of people in Book/Writing Twitter. I like to hire sensitivity readers to check not only my protagonist and love interest, but other major characters as well, if I can. For Into the Black, for example, I worked with four sensitivity readers to check different aspects of marginalization for three characters. Truthfully, the more you can get checked, the better—and always, always thank your sensitivity readers for their time and do not argue with them if you disagree. Seriously, don't. Sensitivity readers are there to help, they have the expertise you don't, and it's your job to listen to them.

  • Know you may very well do all of this and still get it wrong. And if that happens, your job is to go back to step one—listen—then apologize and do everything you can to do better next time.

What tips would you add?

Twitter-sized bite:
Want to include marginalized characters in your writing, but not sure where to start? @Ava_Jae shares some tips. (Click to tweet)

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