When Shaun started our latest Blog Chain a couple of days ago, he mentioned he had considered picking race and stereotypes as our topic. I read a book about this recently; I've been meaning to blog about it but haven't done so. So let me dust off my blogging fingers and get to it.
Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is a series of essays and writing exercises by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl, who lead a workshop (or used to; I'm not sure if they still do) by the same name. If you've ever wanted to write about someone who isn't of your own gender/race/ethnic group/sexual orientation but didn't know how to go about it, this book can help. It's not going to tell you everything you need to know to bring that Buddhist Native American lesbian who uses a wheelchair to life, but it will point you in the right direction.
One of the first major points made in this book is that unless otherwise indicated, readers will assume a particular character is in the "unmarked" state. This means that the character is presumed to be white, middle-class, male, straight, able-bodied, etc. if you want more diversity in your cast of characters, you have to indicate that, or "mark" them. But it's not as simple as changing a few names and physical features; people are going to view the world differently based on their backgrounds. Some of the writing exercises in this book will help you get into another person's mindset.
Another essay discusses some of the common mistakes/stereotypes writers make when working with marked characters. For example, the hero may have a friend from a minority group whose main purpose is to suffer/die to save the hero. Alternatively, marked characters may be shown as not being the protagonists of their own stories or may require saving by someone else (in other words, showing them as less competent.) The authors mention books and films that have these types of mistakes; in some cases, they also list books that portray marked characters more realistically. I found this section especially useful.
I don't have the book with me at the moment, so I can't review everything that it includes. But besides what I've already discussed, it includes an essay about borrowing from other cultures and an excerpt from one of the authors of her own work.
Overall, this is a thin book, but it's got a lot of meaty material. The tone is generally meant to be candid and helpful, though it may come across as a bit "PC" at times. Still, I think this is an important book for every writer who wants to create realistic, diverse groups of characters. After all, although some people may feel afraid to write about marked characters for fear of getting them wrong, it's an even worse mistake to exclude them completely from your work. As people travel around the world and settle in different areas, populations are becoming more heterogeneous. If you can't show this in your book, then it feels less real.
(I recently read a paranormal romance set in modern Chicago, and all of the characters, even the minor ones, seemed to be white. Although this wasn't the only issue I had with the book, I think it contributed to making the setting feel flat to me. And since the main reason I bought this particular book was because of the local setting, I won't be reading the rest of the series.)
I bought two copies of this book at WisCon so I could give one away on this blog. So, here comes the contest part of this post:
1. A copy of this book will be given to a person, chosen at random, who comments on this post between now and Friday, December 11, noon CST.
2. No anonymous posts or spam will be considered. Also, any posts that are disrespectful of this topic or of other commenters will be excluded.
3. You can earn a second entry into the drawing by blogging or tweeting about this contest. Please e-mail me (sandra AT sandraulbrich DOT com) the link to your blog or tweet.
4. Although I would prefer waiting until after Christmas to mail out the book, I can do it sooner if you'd like to give it as a gift.
I think that's it! If you have any questions, please feel free to post them. And please feel free to discuss how you write about the other in your own work.