Last week, I shared an image I saw on Facebook. In it, a Tumblr user paraphrases interactions they’ve had regarding characters of the non-white, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual variety: “Why is this character xyz?” The author’s answer: “Why not?”
So I posted this. And someone I respect quite a lot commented that the “why not” attitude was lazy writing. That it indicated that the author tossed the diversity in for the sake of diversity, rather than taking the time and making the effort to think about what it means and how it fits within the narrative as a whole.
If only more white writers took the time to consider why their characters are white and how their whiteness fits into the narrative.
And I understand his point. I am a fan of making narrative choices for considered, thought-out reasons.
But in a literary world with so little representation of diversity, “why not” becomes an incredibly important question to ask.
The way I write, my first drafts are a generally me throwing out everything I can think of and seeing what sticks. But I’m terrible at including diverse representations in that first draft. I make an effort, but I struggle. Then as I edit and beta readers call out my shortcomings, my writer-brain makes suggestions. This character should be genderfluid, those two women should be romantically involved.
Here’s a secret: sometimes, I don’t want to make those changes. I don’t want to put in the work, so sometimes I look for reasons not to. This is how I discovered the power of the “why not” question. Overwhelmingly, I find reasons to follow through with the changes. They offer solutions to plot holes and weaknesses I hadn’t even articulated to myself yet.
Recently, I got a new story idea. For reasons that make sense in my story-brain, my main character’s family tends pretty exclusively to male. But I write female main characters. Because that’s what I do. So to keep her from being surrounded by male characters, I figured she’d have a trans cousin. Except . . .
Why couldn’t my main character be trans? That would make more sense than her being some fantastical exception to the rule.
So. Why not? Because it will be a hell of a lot of work. True, but lazy. Lazy is not a legitimate reason. So why not? Because I’ll probably get it wrong and be offensive and cause more harm than contributing to a lack of representation. And what if my story somehow keeps a trans voice from being heard?
Ok, the damage done by harmful representations? Real. So very, very real. That’s why sensitivity readers are so important. I have friends and communities I can draw on for that.
My voice being heard in place of someone who is trans? First off, I would hope that if it comes down to my story or a story written by someone with that lived experience, the publisher would not choose mine. If I have voice or choice in the matter, that will be my priority. Secondly, my story is not about what it’s like to be trans. I have not lived that experience and that is not my story to tell.
Granted, that supposes that not only I write this idea of mine, but that it gets so far as consideration by a publisher.
So if you’re not writing diverse representations, why not? Seriously: why is your fictional world less fantastically diverse than the one we live in? And if you’re trying to figure out if your character should be another ethnicity/heritage, or gender, or sexuality, honestly ask yourself, “why not?”