Representation vs Exploitation, Part IV: A Matter of Perspective

Writing characters who are different than ourselves in some way is a fundamental task of fiction. We get inside the minds of characters who might literally be aliens, and make their struggles compelling and accessible to the audience. But actually, the person writing the alien or the sea monster has a distinct advantage– they’re creating the character’s fictional perspective from scratch, devoid of the blinders we all have about the experiences of other humans around us.

As I’ve explained before, we all live with our own ingrained biases about how the world works. Most of the time, this allows us to navigate our lives with a minimum of effort as we glide through familiar routines and cultural assumptions. In writing fiction, especially when writing a character whose life experiences are radically different from our own, this ease can be a trap if we rely on ‘truthiness’ and assumptions over actual research and actual conversations with people who have lived the experiences you’re writing about.

Another, subtly different, pattern I’ve noticed in both fiction and news reporting is the assumption that ‘we’re all the same inside’ (the race-specific variant being ‘I don’t see color’). Besides the fact that each and every human has a unique personality and set of experiences, there are also deep differences in how we view the world due to the culture in which we were raised. Ignoring these differences when writing will deprive your characters of believably for members of the group you’re writing about and may also leave them seeming bland and false to others.

Once again, I’m not suggesting that we never write outside our own experiences. That would be dull and counterproductive. Rather, we all need to think critically about our motivations and techniques when we write the ‘other’. That we write with empathy and a desire to tell an authentic story that introduces the audience to fresh ideas and experiences,  rather than regurgitate comforting stereotypes and narratives that coddle and affirm the perceptions of the privileged.

Other people do not exist so that we can ogle and exploit their life stories, their cultural heritage for our own amusement. If you’re writing out of an exploitative impulse– ‘[Ethnicity X ]men/women are so sexy’ or ‘disability makes the story really poignant’ or ‘[racial slur] are exotic and being half [YIKES RACIAL SLUR] makes my MC interesting’ or something similar*– please step away from your writing tools for a moment and reconsider. Writing about people who have experiences different from our own is inevitable; writing about difference badly is highly avoidable if one applies uses both research and empathy. Sometimes you’re not the right person to tell a particular story, and that’s okay. Creativity is a renewable resource. So go find your story, and tell it.


*These are almost verbatim from a writing forum I used to frequent, with appropriate deletions.



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