One of the things I did at the Nine Worlds convention over the weekend was run a workshop, Writing the Other (well two of the things really, since there was a repeat session on Sunday morning for those who couldn’t get in on Saturday). Writing the Other is intended to help writers learn how to identify and avoid harmful tropes, stereotypes and associations when creating characters that depart from the dominant paradigm; and to write with greater accuracy, sensitivity and insight. Many thanks to all the attendees – you were engaged and interested and lovely, and I learned at least as much from you as I hope you learned from me.
The reference text is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which for the purposes of the workshop I summarised, Anglicised and crammed into just under ninety minutes. I ended with a checklist of some of the tired, offensive and oft-repeated devices that serve only to reinforce unfounded prejudice, unearned privilege, and unquestioned presumption. I’ve been asked to post my notes on this section; so here is my plea to …
DON’T. JUST DON’T:
- Cast heroes/villains exclusively along lines of race, religion, sexual orientation or any other form of ‘other’ – a classic example is embodied in the line “The dark hordes attacked.”
- Use the issues which affect a minority/marked group to reemphasise the importance of, and say generally positive & uplifting things about the majority/unmarked group – Glory syndrome
- Create a marked secondary character whose sole purpose is to validate or create a motivation for the central character – i) the cool sidekick phenomenon, ii) “fridging”
- Reinforce power imbalances; often done even when characters are beautifully and sympathetically drawn, but nevertheless and for example: all the Asian women just happen to be timid & obedient; all the black men just happen to be sexually promiscuous; all the poor people just happen to be uneducated. This is a subtle form of victimisation, but it’s still victimisation.
- Cast the unmarked-state hero as saviour of the marked-state victims.
- Fetishise difference, by an unmitigated focus on the characteristics of otherness. Examples include: the Noble Savage; the simple-minded spirit-worshipper; the ‘beautiful flower’ sexual stereotype of Asian women.
- Use a specific instance to imply a general truth; where an assertion or action of one member of a group is taken as representative of the entire group.
- Be disrespectful with dialect. I don’t hold with the view that the marking of accents and dialects in the text automatically deprivileges them by flagging them up as nonstandard; pretending variations don’t or shouldn’t exist is just as deprivileging. But the careless use of dialect, diction and language is a very easy way to be unintentionally and terribly offensive. Be careful.
- Emphasise evil by ramping up innocence – the Saintly Victim trope. The target of racism does not need to be honest, quiet and hardworking; the child who is abused does not need to be the most adorable infant ever born; the rape victim does not need to be a nun; for racism, child abuse, rape to be abhorrent.
- Use abuse as a catalyst for positive transformation – for example the rape victim who emerges stronger, smarter, better from the experience, with the implication that it was the thing that finally ‘turned them around’, made them ‘get themselves together’, etc. ad nauseum. (To say nothing of the victim who falls in love with his/her rapist. Really? Don’t.)