Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 2)

What Are Stereotypes, Really? 
(AKA, Know Thy Enemy)

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you're here, it means my previous post didn't scare you off. Hooray! Before we dive in again, let's re-cap.

We've agreed the lack of diversity in mainstream fiction is problematic.

We've acknowledged we, as writers, have the power and the obligation to change this.

We've decided we want more diverse characters (main, minor, and everything in between) in our own writing.

So what now?

I've done a lot of thinking about this. If you're like me, you've spent so long walking on eggshells, it's hard to know where to start. How do you distinguish between the things you should handle delicately and the things that are, in fact, acceptable to print?

Here are just a few of the issues I've come up against in my quest to diversify my characters:

* When writing about racial minorities, do you describe skin color? If so, when, how, and how much?
* If your character is a lesbian, can she have a butch haircut and wear button-down shirts? 
* If your character is gay, how masculine/femme can or should he be?
* Can your villain be a minority (racial, sexual, or religious)?

I realize these may sound silly, but they are all things I've genuinely questioned and struggled with. The last thing I want is to propagate what Ray Bradbury so eloquently called "the terrible tyranny of the majority." I want diversity in my books, but it's not enough for me to simply shoehorn in a lineup of tired caricatures and call it a day.

I want to get it right. How do we get it right?

First and foremost, I think it helps to have an idea how to avoid getting it wrong. How do you know if what you're writing qualifies as a stereotype? Sometimes it's glaringly obvious, but not all stereotypes necessarily sound like stereotypes. At least, not right away. What to do?

Let's start small.

The following is copied directly out of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

transitive verb \ˈster-ē-ə-ˌtīp, ˈstir-\
: to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same
:  to make a stereotype from
a :  to repeat without variation :  make hackneyed
b :  to develop a mental stereotype about

This might also be helpful:

noun \ˈker-i-kə-ˌchu̇r, -ˌchər, -ˌtyu̇r, -ˌtu̇r, -ˈka-ri-\
: a drawing that makes someone look funny or foolish because some part of the person's appearance is exaggerated
: someone or something that is very exaggerated in a funny or foolish way
:  exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics
:  a representation especially in literature or art that has the qualities of caricature
:  a distortion so gross as to seem like caricature

Lest you think I'm deliberately patronizing you, let me explain.

In my last post, I said overly-P.C. language has muddied the issue and confused people. I believe that's a bigger problem than most of us realize or acknowledge. We're so terrified of producing "stereotypes" and "caricatures" that we've lost sight of what those words actually mean.

It's time for some clarity. What is a stereotype, really?

According to the above definition, "to stereotype" something means "to repeat without variation." In other words, if you're writing about a character who is, say, Muslim, and all your descriptions are recycled from media talk shows and the news, chances are your character is going to read like a stereotype. We've all heard this information. You are not providing anything new.

According to another part of the definition, the belief that "all people or things with a certain characteristic are the same" is also stereotyping. We've all seen those pics of the angry Muslim toting a submachine gun and stomping on an American flag*. I hope you don't need me to tell you such pictures are blatant stereotypes, and don't represent the majority of those out there who practice Islam.

*If this resembles a character you have or were planning to write, please visit a local mosque, talk to a few actual Muslims, and call me in the morning.

Now, for caricatures.

I have a love/hate relationship with caricatures. On the one hand, I have a drag queen in my noir romance series who is the most glitter-fied human being you will ever meet. Almost his entire character is caricature, from his bouffant beehive up-do to his pink silk pumps.

Note how I said "almost".

I think you really start running into problems when the caricature becomes the entire basis of your character. True, much of Cookie Mambo is caricature, but there's a lot more to him than just false eyelashes and fuchsia lipstick, and I'm having a lot of fun exploring that.

I'd also argue that there are appropriate and inappropriate usages of caricature. Look at some of the words in the definition: "funny", "foolish", "ludicrous". That suggests humor.

Not all characters are meant to be comic relief. Cookie Mambo is, and as a drag queen, caricature is literally his job. If that's not true for your character, I would avoid caricatures when describing them.

Phew! Still with me? This is a lot to digest, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. But never fear, I won't leave you hanging! There's still a lot more we haven't covered.

Stay tuned for...

Part 3: So What The Heck Do I Actually Write?

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