Writing Minority Characters

I don’t usually identify minority characters in my fiction. As of this writing, i recall only doing it twice in regards to race. Once in terms of neurodiversity, (which I share with the character.) Once I alluded to but did not directly explore a budding queer relationship in a subplot.

I have written female characters quite often, and even wrote a first-person novel from the point of view of same.

So far, however, most of my characters can probably be seen as belonging to any given minority that isn’t otherwise stated. That is because the plots and action of the majority of my fiction are not affected in demonstrable ways by minority status. In many cases, I truly feel my characters could be any given race the reader envisions without difficulty.

Don’t misunderstand me, however. This is not a denial of minority statuses and experiences. Rather it is an issue of context, both in fiction and in life.

If I am playing chess with someone, our respective races are essentially irrelevant to the situation.Yet if I’m exploring best public policy or taxation or law enforcement with that same person, our races are very much relevant to the situation.

Put another way, I am not “color blind,” and anyone who claims to truly not even notice or consider the race of someone else is in fact not being logical. Yet within my fiction, even the fiction that involves exciting plots and high stakes, the characters are for the most part involved in “chess.” That is to say, there is nothing about what most of them do that requires an identification of their race. The reader gets to envision that.

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Matt bought a pack of gum and a Red Bull from the black clerk at the store. He held the door open for an Asian woman on his way out.

Who cares? The clerk may be black, or they may not  be. But in such a scene, they are playing chess.

But let’s go further than just “playing chess.” Do I, or any white authors have the right to compose characters of color in their fiction?

The short answer is yes. I’m a firm believer that authors ought to be allowed to write whatever they wish to write.

Still, just because one is allowed, it doesn’t mean one should. So as a white author, for instance, I have a lot of research to do before I feel comfortable writing a character of minority status in a situation that depends on said status. And if that character is my protagonist and not just a secondary character? I have even more work to do.

I have the most work of all ahead of me as a responsible author if that minority character is the protagonist, to whose thought the reader is privy.  Exceptional discretion should be exercised. So much so, that unless a story idea struck me to the center of my very essence, I doubt I would undertake diving to the appropriate depths of sociology, history, psychology, etc required to give a minority character the consideration they deserve.

I would be more apt to do so the farther away I am in history from such a perspective. An African gladiator in Ancient Rome for instance, is more likely to show up in my fiction after proper research than would an inner city African-American single mother living in modern Chicago. That experience is a current living experience of millions that I must accept I cannot fully understand without possibly years of investigation; I do possess latent white privilege to a degree, and I must accept the limitations I may have in bringing proper life to such a scenario on the page.

To avoid the appearance of whitewashing my fiction, I feel moving forward that I will more often make at least a passing mention of a character’s race more often. I consider this not out of guilt, but out of a desire to be broad in my appeal, so long as my characters are only playing chess.

Will I go beyond that level? That is difficult for me to say right now. Because unlike a chess board, not everything is simply black and white.

 

 

Take a Break From Patterns, If You Can.

I look for patterns. Even when i don’t look for them with my conscious mind, my subconscious is at work piecing them together.

So is yours, by the way. It’s intrinsic in the human mind to detect patterns– sometimes even when they are not actually there. And if we don’t see one at all, we move to make one.

It’s deeply evolutionary, and probably on some level has kept us alive, out of the jaws of whatever prehistoric thing. But as useful as patterns were to our ancestors, and to us, even now, a detectable pattern, plan, or form is not always the most desirable outcome.

You may assume at this point that I’m speaking of the perennial pantsers vs. planners debate. In a sense I am, but indirectly. That old literary chestnut relates to how an author goes about composing a full-fledged story arc–a means to a finished product. A finished product with, yes, a pattern.

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We go beyond the simple matter of pants or planning, however, when we talk about pure experimentation with our writing.

Experimenting with your words, your use of language, even the shapes your sentences make on the printed page is  a significant exercise of the imagination. Throwing things out there, breaking all the rules, or making up our own. It’s exciting, but scary. It’s liberating but also nerve wracking. Practitioners of this are both the powerful and the prisoner.

Prisoner? How? Why to the patterns of course.

Again, the human mind is not random by nature, no matter how odd some of it’s creations may be. It will seek out a pattern. It will impose one where none exists. And once recognized, it will strive to add matching components that complete said pattern, real or imaginary. Such rules that spring lessen the positive impacts of writing without caution.

Put another way, we ironically, must work harder to be random, to color outside of the lines, than we do to fall into place in our creative work.

I’m working on some long form fiction now that can best be classified as experimental. I’ve told myself I must do only two specific (and for now secret) things with the work. Beyond those, it need not, should not make conventional sense. And yet, there I sit during any given writing session on this project looking for proper ways to construct an arc or assign motivation to a character. Not only am I pulling a Nanowrimo by blocking out the inner editor, I am trying to block out inner logic. Believe me, it’s easier to block the editor.

Still, it’s worth it for a chance to jump into the fiction-writing sandbox. I’ve no idea what future this long form experiment has. It may go public, it may stay hidden in my computer. It may or may not even get finished. (If one can truly finish such a project.) But if I keep reminding myself to not make too much sense, the benefits will appear.

Jealousy? Or Something Else?

In about nine out of ten cases, I don’t connect well on a personal level to fellow writers that achieve success. I don’t have even casual social media interactions with any blockbuster celebrity writers, but here and there on my feeds there is a connection to someone who, if not made it big, at least made it medium, as it were.

I don’t know what to say to these people.

Granted, sad as this is, they usually have little to say to me anyway. In a few cases, some people with whom I at least casually chatted before their success have had little to nothing to say since their mid-sized dreams have come to fruition. (That’s on them, not me, as far as I’m concerned.)

But set aside those cases. It feels to me that the moment they become successful, even to the degree I am speaking of, my already modest ability communicate and reach out to other people is further weakened.

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Why? Jealousy? Maybe, if one were to use an obtuse definition of the word. I would prefer their level of success to my own at this point, yes. If that alone is jealousy to you, than I’m jealous. To me, however, my frustration with not attain their level of achievement is not the source of my discomfort, so the main issue is not jealousy. It’s relatability.

Once someone has confirmed their level of accomplishment as an author, they enter a different world. Yes, they still must write, and all of the concerns and tricks and terrors of creating a manuscript remain for both the arrived and the not-yet-arrived. However, much of what the author of even modest achievement talks about and explores is the nature of that success. The book tour, the interview, how to follow it up. Increased traffic on websites and social media feeds. I’ve nothing to offer such a person, because I haven’t done any of that. They have little to offer me for the same reason.

I’ll admit that seeing other people make it through with their plans does get me frustrated about my own not panning out. Again, if that’s jealousy to you, than use your green pen on me I suppose. Yet for me, I just don’t like being reminded of what I’ve not been able to do, and that makes up the lion’s share of available topics from most authors once they have crossed their personal literary Rubicon.

Understand, I don’t wish failure on others. I can, however, become somewhat blinded by the light of their success, and that makes it hard to see my own steering wheel. Not to mention, it’s just awkward.

With rare exception, I don’t unfollow, unfriend, or otherwise avoid such people. If they talk to me, I still talk to them. But it is easier if the subject isn’t our mutual interest of authorship.

I wonder,  is this is  a good, bad, or indifferent way to feel?

Linear vs. Non-Linear

I had a history teacher in high school, (god rest him, as he has since died.) Smart enough man, but by the time my class year rolled around I think he had started to phone in a few things as a teacher.

For example, the last class I took from him dealt with America in the 1960s. But virtually every single day the entire semester, he wheeled in the TV and popped in a movie. We’d take a quiz on the movie, but he rarely if ever lectured, took questions or, as I said, anything but put in a movie.

One such movie was All the President’s Men. If you’re unaware, it’s the story of Woodward and Bernstein cracking the Watergate story.

Watergate, as in 1974. During our America in the 1960’s class.

It takes about a week of classes to watch a movie of that length in 30 minute slices. Some of us called him on it, wondering when we would be getting back to the true theme of the class– the 1960’s.

His answer represented the most phoned-in moment of that phoned in class. He told us, “You can’t study history chronologically.”

Really? Are you serious, Mr. F? In essence, history studies, if nothing else, are the examination of sequences of events that lead into other sequences of events, thus shaping the world/nation. One could be as obtuse as humanly possible, and would still be forced to conclude that if nothing else in the world did, history does in fact have to be studied chronologically.

What he really was saying of course was that that was the movie he had in stock for that week, and we were going to watch it, so he had to do no work.

That absurd cop-out annoys me to this day. But it does get me to thinking about linear story telling.

My own writing is almost always told in near linear chronology. It may meander sometimes, and I’ve employed the occasional flashback scene, but just about all of my fiction is moving ever-forward in time. (However time is defined in that universe.) I am not a fan of multiple or conflicted timelines in fiction. I enjoy a novel far less when it does this, and hence it would be unfair of me to try to write it for my readers on a regular basis.

This is my counter to people who mention that life isn’t lived in a linear faction, so our fiction shouldn’t exist that way either: as humans we can invoke memories or visualize futures. We can be short of information and discover it out of sequence. We even might not know what day/time it is at any given moment. Yet no matter how we collect the information of a story, we are, without fail, experiencing the process in forward moving linear time. One timeline at a time.

In certain select works, an out-of-order chronology may be required to tell the story properly. Time-jumping enhances certain sci-fi of course. On the whole, however, things happen in the order they happen, even if the characters or readers do not find out about them in the same order.

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So, overall I stay away from non-linear, multiple timelines. HOWEVER, if you insist such tactics are necessary, I have a few humble suggestions as a reader who also writes.

  1. Limit the timelines. Three or four seems optimal to me, and that’s pushing it. If you have that many, you may be telling too many stories in one book. I feel like I am reading more than one novel at a time, and I never do that.
  2. Please label the timelines. If you insist on unfolding your story out of order among various eras, swallow your pride a bit and put what year I’m reading at the start of each chapter. It may cramp your style a bit, as some consider this “telegraphing,” but I’d really like to know right away where and when I am.
  3. The farther apart, the better. If timeline A is only two years before timeline B, and involves the same two people, (one dealing with how they met, and the other dealing with them being married) then I am super-likely to give up on your story. Again, labeling the chapter with what year it is helps, but even then, when events are that close and I have to set a book down for a day or two, it all blends together and I have to reread chapters. Don’t make me do that. A hundred years apart? Still tedious, but far easier to keep separate in my mind.
  4. Have a really, really, really good reason for doing it.  Don’t do it just because you thought it would be cool. If the story makes the same amount of sense told in linear fashion, it’s unnecessary to be non-linear at all. On the flip side, make each story so self-contained that it is impossible to confuse with any other timeline.
  5. Keep it year-based. I read a novel that not only jumped back and forth between years, but later on jumped back and forth within the same year. Out of order. Hopping back and forth between 1881 and 2003 is one thing. But hopping between 1881, and March of 2003, and January of 2003, and October of 2003? If the whole story is in 2003? Fine. But otherwise? I’m calling it…month-hopping is outlawed, and never makes the story better ever.

Experiment, of course. Do what your heart is telling you to do. And perhaps it my ASD’s literally-minded tendencies that propel my preference for chronological correctness. But if you’re on the fence, and you feel I’d be an intelligent reader, take my advice to heart most of the time.

At least in our current timeline.

 

Time Plus Mental Depth Equals Writing

By and large, anyone who says, “I have no time to write,” is making an excuse not to write. I don’t mean to say everyone, or even most people can dedicate a whole day at a time to it, but the truth is, with discipline, everyone who actually wants to write can set aside at least a short window a few times a week. (Doesn’t have to be every day to me.)

However, all the time in the world won’t matter if you don’t get below the surface of the waters of your imagination. This, sometimes, is a bigger problem for me than the actual clock.

All first drafts are shit, we all know this. But there is quite the chasm between this idea, and not paying attention to what you are creating any given moment. I could blindly type words, sentences, even have some semblance of a story arc, without giving it much thought or imagination. I can accomplish this surface level writing, just floating about with the current, (or no current) on a blow up raft without oars. I can almost literally write some kind of story or article by rote without much thinking.

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The results wouldn’t be worth much of a damn, and editing can only fix so much, but it could be done.

For even a first draft to have some power though, we have to enter into at least the first level of imagination. We need to be at least a step removed from reality around us. Not to the point of failure to know the place is on fire, but at least to the point of someone perhaps having to call our name twice. (Though why would they do this is we are working??)

There are of course many stages to the depths of imagination, for all of us. We can sink as far, and be as obsessed with our created world as our minds and attitude will allow. Some minds can go deeper than others. Yet the key is that first drop below the service. It is there that the biggest differences lie. Above and below that metaphorical membrane represents more difference than any levels of deeper imagination because we cannot get wet if we don’t get in.

I have to give myself enough time, enough energy to dip into at least the first level of imagination, (and preferably deeper levels, when other factors permit.) And it’s not always so easy; we do many things, even driving down the highway, without truly realizing we are doing them. Writing can be one of those things.

But let’s not allow it to be one of those things. At that point we run the risk of doing what Jack Kerouac did with On the Road, according to Truman Capote;

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.”

Take the time to write under the surface, and not merely type.