Are you afraid of writing Black or queer characters? Or generally, who have different skin-colours, sexualities, religions or cultures than yourself? You are not alone with this. It depends now, however, on what you are going to do with this fear. Will you succumb to it and not even try? Or are you ready to learn? Let’s talk about the two main obstacles of writing Black or queer characters, about the WHY and HOW you should write them, and how to deal with mistakes.
1: Ignorance and Tokens
You don’t want to be ignorant, but word forbid you don’t want to use Black or queer characters as tokens.
The answer to this side is clear – do more research. Just because you are straight, white and/or able-bodied doesn’t mean your whole world is. Look around. If you found your way to this article, I’m sure you realise not everybody around you has the same skin-colour, migration background, body or sexuality. Now, take a look at your story or your books. Are all characters by media definition of beauty pretty or white or straight? If it is so, that is a narrow-minded perspective of the world.
A character filling the quota. They stand out in either being the only Black/queer character or character with disability playing a side role or they are a stereotype. There is so little thought behind the character, that it feels like the author only put this character as a token in the story to not be called racist/homophobe/ableist. An example is the Black guy in a horror movie who dies quite early in the movie.
2: Are you allowed to tell someone else's story?
You want to be inclusive. But are you allowed to tell someone else’s story?
You feel like you’re woke but always hear people say to give Black or queer or people with disability the stage to tell their story. You therefore feel hypocritical since you are not one of them. Maybe you don’t want to tell a story that’s not yours. Or you have read some Tweets firing against authors who have written Black, queer characters or people with disabilities or migration background, while they are not part of them themselves.
Why don’t they let THEM tell their story? You probably know the answer already. Because the white straight person has the privilege of a voice, that is being spread. Obviously, as a good ally you should spread the word, support marginalised voices, give them the stage. But you’re helping them by including them in your stories, too. Just don’t write stereotypes. Don’t write American Dirt.
Why should I write Black or queer characters when I’m straight white?
I’m not saying you won’t get published. Find some conservative publishers and you will be. I’m also not saying you won’t have readers.
But I’m saying you’re excluding people. If you are discriminating a minority, you still speak to the majority. Although you might speak to the majority, don’t expect that this majority doesn’t notice your ignorance. I am an ally and I will not give a good rating to a story, that is exclusive.
And I am not alone.
Also, think about what books are to people. They are stories, that make us slip into different worlds and perspectives. They teach us about the world. We grow up with them and they are playing a big part in our education.
In the future, your story might be a historic artefact of the way our society is thinking. Do you want to be the author that is frowned upon because they did not consider minorities in their stories like they never existed? A book that is more backward than our reality?
Or do you want to write books that show people that there were straight white authors in our time with an open mind? Because in the future, minorities of now will face less discrimination. Though there are always some set-backs, generally, our minds will open up more and more. Things will change over time because we are fighting for it.
Yet there’s no time to rest, it’s our job to keep fighting for it, and writers of all kinds are given the possibility and responsibility to help opening up your readers minds.
How can I write less stereotypical?
Research is key. As a writer, it is your job to do good research. There are lots of writers, who have written about a place they never visited and people who live there still recognised their home. Of course, it would be better, if you move there, live there for a while, get to know the people. But seriously, who has the time and money for that?
Don’t underestimate your research. Reading some tourist guides isn’t enough. Open Google Earth, look at the streets, you are writing about, read community blogs and news, get an understanding of the different quarters.
It is similar with a character. If you’re writing Black or queer characters, read stories from their perspective. Read articles written about their experiences, get an understanding for the problems they encounter socially, which are different to those of white or straight people. For example, Black people are often asked, if someone can touch their hair. It’s one of the shittiest question you can ask. Just because it’s different to yours, you cannot touch it! Plus, you’re putting the person into an annoying position, in which they often just say ‘yes’ because they are too tired to explain racism five times a day.
Since we are already talking about hair, there is much to research on it. You cannot write a Black character with straight, shiny black hair on an adventure in the woods or on a pirate ship. If you are Black, it takes hell of an effort to straighten your hair, of which the structure is very different to white folk’s hair. You can read more about this and 8 reasons against stereotypical writing in my other article.
At first, it might seem characters with a different sexuality than yours are easier to write than characters with a different religion or cultural background. While religion and culture require a lot of informative background research, sexuality is linked to feelings.
Yes, the research might be easier for you, if you just exchange genders in your mind. However, don’t underestimate the effect on the relationship you are writing about. If you are writing about a world, in which homosexual, bisexual, pansexual people are just as socially accepted as heterosexual people, alright.
However, in most cases, even in fantasy, there is mostly some historical background, that queer people once was not as accepted as in the time you are writing in. This means, there are always people around with backward thinking. And this means, queer people still are conscious of their surroundings when they’re with their partners.
Think about your queer characters. Are they easily scared of societal sanctions? Then they probably don’t dare to touch their partner in public. Is your queer character a daredevil? They might kiss their partner even more in public than normally. And don’t forget their partner: Are they annoyed by this or do they find it funny?
Or do they just want to live their relationship like others, still touch and kiss but are always evaluating in the back of their brain, if they can trust the people around them? This includes friends. Are their straight friends slightly uncomfortable? Don’t they care? Or do they always shout “Awww you’re so sweet together!”, just to show off how tolerant they are?
By the way, that just makes queer people feel less normal, unless you’re just that quirky kind of person and are very, very certain, that you’d be just as enthusiastic about this with straight people. Otherwise, it can feel like you’re pointing a finger at two animals in the zoo.
We're human, we make mistakes
All of this will not protect you completely from criticism. Because there are always people, who will have a problem with your decision.
I have written straight white stories before I started to read non-fictional books about racism and intersectional feminism. I was afraid, I wouldn’t be able to do justice to them, of being too narrow-minded and write stereotypes. This is why I’m always researching. I am afraid to be stereotypical in my book in ways, I don’t know of yet. I’m even afraid that this article is too superficial. However, I can either be afraid forever and do nothing, which inevitably makes me ignorant. Or I could do my best listening, learning and TRYING.
When I’m talking to ‘you’ in this article, I’m also talking to myself. Because I’m still trying to do better myself.
If you aren’t sure of the way you write Black or queer characters or characters with disability, ask someone, who has a disability, is queer or Black. But never forget to publicly mention them for their help.
If you have made a mistake, apologise. Mean it. Promise, that you will do more research, listen more and the most important thing: Thank those who have made you see this mistake.