TFOB Part I – Writing Heroes of Diversity


I finished the Tucson Festival of Books.  Whirlwind experience, so much to see and take in. From the pavilions, to the big name authors present, to the “Cowboy For Bernie” walking among the throng, it was something to see.

Sadly, some things didn’t happen.  I never managed to get face-to-face with Chuck Wendig and thank him for his insane-yet-insanely-helpful ramblings on his blog.  Also, I wanted to ask authors residing in the state if they had considered a “spec fiction writers of AZ” association, or even one for the southwest.  Outside one brief discussion, the opportunity didn’t materialize.

(Muse:  They probably have one and just don’t want you in it.)

That would be safest for everyone!

I got to sit on some great spec-fiction panels.  The first one on the first day was titled, “Writing Heroes of Diversity.”  The panelists were Austin Aslan (The Islands at the End of the World), Beth Cato (Clockwork Dagger) and Jon Proudstar (Tribal Force)–hereafter referred to as AA, BC, and JP, because I just spent a day on the road and am feeling even lazier than normal.

It was interesting.  As I suspected, a lot of the discussion centered on the idea of writing from a cultural or gender perspective other than one’s own, and cultural appropriation.  The central question: can you do the first and avoid the second?  I found this topic timely, considering J.K. Rowling being under fire just last week for this very topic.

All three kind of hedged their answers, saying you could, if done with care.  I got the impression they wanted to say, “No,” but as they all had done so, they really couldn’t.  AA said the best way to approach it was with humility, to do your research and talk to people living those perspectives.  BC and JP basically agreed, the later saying,  a good writer “spills their own blood and will give to get.”  Or in other words, nothing comes to those who sit on their ass.  Sweat equity in your research will reap rewards in terms of authentic representation.

JP made an interesting observation.  He said that while writing Tribal Force, he found himself writing about characters that all looked like him, omitting the pale people, and that he didn’t want to go down the same road so many authors did.  I thought that notion kind of profound.

A question from the audience came on avoiding stereotyping.  BC recommended seeking critique readers from various backgrounds.  AA simply said the best hedge against that was that all characters–good, bad, and ugly–should be three-dimensional, and not flat representations.

So all this got me to thinking: how diverse is my writing?

I write a lot of second-world fiction but the ones I set in our world, I usually don’t mention race at all.  Often, I don’t even describe the physical appearance of the characters, aside from genders.  Is that worse?  Better?  I’ve heard both opinions.

And on gender, I looked at the last dozen short stories I wrote.  Exactly half featured a female protagonist.  Pilgrimage to Skara has a male protagonist but features strong female movers and shakers.  Princess of the North has dual female leads. One is Andoyan (essentially Scandinavian), the other half-Andoyan and half-Darzish (essentially Arabic).

I guess I have yet to write a gay or trans protagonist.  No reason, other than it has never come up.  No, I lied, I wrote a horrible story with a gay protagonist a few years ago.  It was execrable and I have never let it see the light of day.  Not because of the lead character but because the plot sounded much better in my head than it came out on the page.  And yes, that character’s orientation was essential to the plot.  When that’s the case, I make note of these things.  The rest of the time, I usually don’t bother and let the reader draw the characters in their own head.

Do I need to do more?  Austin said-

(Muse:  You said you were going to use initials.)

Shut up before I stuff you back in your hole.  Austin said, “Beware of writing diversity for the sake of diversity.”  That’s what I thought I was doing, or not doing.  Now I wonder if was working with big ole fat blinders on.

So now I am really confused.  Should I write more diverse characters or shouldn’t I?  Or…should I just write what I write and worry less about this topic, and let it sort itself out?

Anyway, it was a good panel and I am glad I chose to attend it instead of the other one in that same time slot that had caught my eye.

(Muse:  It was a good panel because it left you with more questions than answers?)

Sometimes, just having something to ponder is enough to keep you searching for the answers.  And that’s life’s great journey, isn’t it?


2 thoughts on “TFOB Part I – Writing Heroes of Diversity

  1. I guess when you read enough calls for submission that say “we actively support diversity in our selection process” or some such you start thinking “hey, maybe I need to get on that diversity bandwagon.” But diversity is more than the color of a skin or sexual orientation. IMO diversity is about the cultural experience of living in that skin or that sexual orientation. And those experiences do not cut across all cultures and time periods.

    For instance (and picking out the most extreme example I can think of) in some city-states in ancient Greek civilization is was quite common for older, wealthy men to compete with each other socially for the attentions (read sexual favors) of young men (teenagers in our venacular) even to the point of making agreements with the boys’ fathers about what the young man would get out of the deal. A relationship with the right mentor (yes, that is where that came from) would set up the young man for life in social and business connections that he wouldn’t have otherwise.

    This hits so many wrongness buttons for us (and indeed for many scholars in diverse time periods since) that we have very strong words to associate with pedastry.

    Yet, the Greeks that engaged in the practice didn’t consider themselves homosexual, and the young men, once their beards grew in were expected to marry and have children. (And please, I’m not advocating this, just providing an example.)

    If you are writing second world, dystopian and/or futuristic sci-fi its very possible that your written universe does not mirror the one we, as writers, live in. The culture and issues we face daily may not be the cultures ad issues you are writing. So then is the color of the skin or sexual orientation relevant? Does it reflect true diversity?

    While it is very possible to write stories that do reflect our cultural experience in another setting (which is why The Handmaid’s Tale hits women so hard and men not so much), if you are writing about another experience just throwing in a different skin color or sexual orientation does not serve the complexities of diversity in our writing.


  2. Those are fair points, Beth. I understand it is not just about the superficial trappings of diversity (skin color, etc.). At the same time, I was also once accused of (If you’ll pardon the expression) of whitewashing racial issues in a story because the characters of darker skin were not treated the same as they are in our world.

    So I don’t think there are ever any easy answers on this subject.


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