‘That’s such a niche market.’

[Blog]

The above is a paraphrase, not an exact quote. I was at a book festival this past Saturday where I assisted at a friend’s table, gained some experience (I know, this comment feels like it belongs in a video game), and got to attend my first book festival. Overall, it was an interesting experience. I certainly saw plenty of examples of what not to do, ranging from obviously photoshopped covers and hard-to-find tables to terrifyingly bad summaries and an author who talked openly about the faults of the books they were selling (this was beyond modestly self-conscious, arguably to the point of self-sabotage). But, I also saw some impressively good examples of what to do at a book festival. There were a variety of friendly, knowledgeable, and certainly personable writers present, signing away and making sales. Overall, I’d say it was an interesting and informative experience, and certainly a beneficial one. Aside from just supporting my friend, and visiting other friends in the area that I haven’t seen in a while, I learned a lot. Right now, I am definitely more prepared than I was before for when I have my own table at one of those someday.

There was a LBGT writer I chatted a bit with. Mary Ann Kirby, I think (on the off chance that you are reading this, I sincerely apologize for probably confusing your name). This writer referred to their gender as femme, so I will refer to them with she/her pronouns since I don’t recall otherwise (again, my sincere apologies). I actually saw this writer on a panel, where she excitedly referred to including LGBT characters who actually survive their books. Intrigued, since this happens all-too-rarely, I stopped by her table later to ask her about them.

The examples she gave me from her own books were all lesbian (or potentially bi, since I’ll admit that was a bit unclear). So, I asked her about transgender characters. Her response was along the lines of saying that it’s such a niche market, and that she just doesn’t have any. I’m not really sure if I interpreted it the way she intended (in fact, she probably didn’t think this much about it), but the phrasing stuck. We did talk some about trans characters (glittership and KM Szpara’s transcendence, for example). I’ll admit I did not buy her book, mainly because the summary made sure to list the main character’s age. Personally, that’s a major turn off for me. I can’t really pinpoint why that one is, maybe I’ve just read too many terrible YA books.

However, her use of the phrase ‘niche market’ has been haunting at the back of my brain the past few days. Yes, haunting. I’ve been working a lot on [Into the Unknown] (ItU) lately, which includes a genderfluid character (and an ungendered character, but that’s a different post. Essentially, I want the reader to determine what gender, if any, they perceive the narrator as.). As I was drafting a scene Sunday, the back of my brain kept drifting back to that conversation. As writers, we’re supposed to determine our niche and target audience, which is an exercise I personally find superfluous (especially after hearing a YA author Saturday claim that her audience is mostly adults). However, I can understand why people see the benefit of considering a target audience. But, why must the inclusion of transgender characters belong specifically to a niche market? We deserve greater representation.

Yes, it is still important to have books about genderfluid teens that focus on the experience of being transgender (I, by the way, have not read this book, but a gender non-conforming friend of mine did). Overall, it is still important to have books focusing specifically on the experience of being transgender, of whichever transgender identity. But, we need more than that. There are people in real life who just happen to be transgender. We deserve to see characters like us who go on magnificent opera-like space odysseys, or who fight off mutinous buccaneers. We deserve to see transgender adventurers who can handle their own against a dragon or who dance their way to victorious triumph over their enemies. You probably get the idea.

But, this is not just about more representation. Please bear with me on this one: cisgender people need to see stories with characters who just happen to be trans. Cis need to read stories about trans people that go beyond just the experience of being trans or undergoing physical transition (do not get me started ranting about cis-voyeurism). And they need to see stories that go beyond just the occasional maybe side character quantified by ‘but I don’t really care what’s in their pants or who they choose to kiss’ (sound familiar, anyone?). And then how about some casual representation? The transwoman who just happens to be on the phone when she stops by the pharmacy, the non-binary character who just happens to be the main character’s sibling, or the transman who slips off his binder at home, for example.

A while ago (and, no, I do not watch this show), there was a black bachelorette. Although I have no interest in the show, I still saw the articles going around the internet ([here], for example). Now that the season is over, I’ve seen people debate if it was done well ([here], for example), but a mostly white audience was still watching a show focused on the agency of a black female character. Basically, the show put white fans in the position to empathize with (and, therefore, connect with) a black female character. Although I doubt this challenged that many stereotypes, it was a step into mainstreaming an atypical lead for that audience since it took 15 years, according to the article, for them to have a non-white lead.

I’m not going to go into the debate over black female desirability (I’m white, so I do not want to speak over anyone; read the above linked article if you’re curious. I’ll put it again [here]), but I do see the benefit that this type of concept could have for transgender characters with a cis audience, assuming they are represented well. The more opportunities a cis reader has to empathize with a trans character (again, assuming it’s done well), the more opportunities we, as a community, will have to be humanized by the overall society. Essentially, good representation can help break down prejudices, and increasing the instances of good representation beyond just a ‘niche market’ can help increase overall acceptance and visibility. I did not learn about the existence of non-binary genders until I was in college; imagine the opportunities I could have had if I learned about us sooner! As transgender individuals, we are often at a disadvantage in how mainstream society treats us and our experiences (and, for that matter, education about transgender experience). I will admit that I have reservations on if the average cis writer can represent a trans character well. But, it is up to creators (writers, directors, artists and the like) to portray humanized transgender individuals. We need transgender characters to belong to more than just a niche market.

I would like to emphasize that this representation needs to be done well, but then this would turn into an even larger megapost. For now, I’m off to edit ItU. I’ll post again soon.

On Writing Diverse Characters

[blog]

[Whoa this post is wordy. And a bit academic-sounding. Bear with me?]

The human existence has such a large range of potential experiences that we would be missing out if we ignore the possibilities of character. The inclusion of diverse characters allows for a delightful range of possibilities. I could argue that, to some extent at least, it is necessary to include diverse characters (since we do live in a diverse world), but that’s not the direction this post is heading in.

A problem with diverse characters is when they devolve into tokens. Tokens, for example, are a common problem with the diversity checklist (when a list of diverse characters are included simply for the fact of having diverse characters). A token character (an extension of tokenism) is essentially a mostly-symbolic effort to make one or more minority group(s) appear represented in something. These tokens are often stereotypes, which should be avoided (really, please avoiding writing stereotypes. You can do better than that). For the best known example of tokens, pick almost any 1980s (American) kids movie and find the token black kid. Do they have any personality beyond being the token black kid? Probably not. In fact, you could probably take one from one movie and switch them with the token black kid in another. Would you notice? Probably not. This is because the personality and characteristics assigned to a token character are reduced to just them belonging to the minority group(s).

It is important to remember that a diverse characteristic is only a portion of a character’s identity. For example, you can have a trans girl who loves to play the guitar, has a stay-at-home dad, competes in swim, likes the color blue, and is an extrovert. The fact that she is a trans girl is only one portion of her identity. It certainly influences how she navigates the world, but just the fact that she is transgender should not encompass all that we see of her character. Do not allow a diverse characteristic to overshadow the complexities of a character. (In fact, you should already be writing complex characters, at least for your mains and secondaries.)

I prefer to think of including diverse characters as having a character who just happens to have a diverse trait. To continue the above example, that character is a girl who just happens to be transgender. She has other aspects (her love of playing the guitar, for example), that are still important to who she is, and the reader should see more than just her gender. I would argue that only showing the reader her trans-ness is, in actuality, a type of erasure since it reduces her to only that aspect of her identity (therefore erasing her perceived humanity).

It is also important to remember the intersections of identity. For example, if you write a black trans girl, you have an intersection between her identity of being a trans girl and her identity in being black. A tricky thing with writing transgender characters is that they are not always visibly transgender, but a black trans girl is always visibly black to the characters she interacts with (depending on how she is written, she might not be visibly black to the reader, but that is always a choice on the writer’s side). Although you can make a diverse character who is a plot device, I highly recommend that you tread carefully there. A diverse character who is used as a plot device can gain a negative reaction from that community, depending on the plot device. Also, do not overdo it (not every interaction with a transgender person is about them being transgender, for example).

That being said, one of the most important things to consider when writing a diverse character is if you can represent them well. Bad representation is, at the very least, misleading and often stereotypical. However, bad representation can be overtly dangerous for a community (for examples, see [here], [here], [here], and [here]). When researching how to write a character with a particular diverse trait, I read a lot of blogs (and I really do mean A LOT of blogs). I look specifically for blogs written by members of that specific community to make sure that my representation is as accurate as it can be (and to avoid issues like voyeurism).

Let me lay out an example. The narrator of [Into the Unknown] (ItU) is a character who happens to be deaf. They are also a character who just happens to be POC (non-white, this one is mixed race). I intentionally left this character unnamed and ungendered (i.e. I want the reader to determine how they see the character. If a reader reads them as NB, fine. If not, that’s also fine). There is a very long explanation as to why I did this with their name and gender. Eventually, I’ll write a blog post on it (the short version, as also stated above, is that I wanted the reader to be able to determine what gender, if any, they see the character as).

Since I am not deaf (I’m listening to rock music on the radio as I type this; the current song is [here] if anyone’s curious), I have been researching how to write this character through reading blogs. I can also reference resources that are specifically about writing deaf characters ([here], for example), and I can start with the basics if I need to as I get to know how this character navigates their world ([here], for example). I’ve also been trying to pick up on pieces of ASL (American sign language). I do not intend to become fluent in ASL, but it helps me to understand how this character interacts with other characters. I do not currently have the option of discussing their experiences (respectfully) with a deaf individual in person, otherwise I would. Since this character is POC, I’ve also read some POC blogs (however, I have written mixed race POC characters before, so I hope that I already have knowledge I can call on to help represent them well). I am having trouble finding any blogs where these traits intersect, so I have to intersect them in a way that I hope is accurate until I do find some. Also, because of the way ItU is set up (and how race functions in [The Balance of Souls]), race has different implications than in our world. So, I also take that into account.

Since I am non-binary (and since I have done this before with characters in unpublished work), I am reasonably sure that I can write a character well who is de-coupled from gender. As for this character, I have intentionally mixed the feminine and masculine. This includes action words and perceptions since (fun fact) authors tend to gender the action words of gendered characters.

And, finally, the method and style of storytelling will influence how a diverse character is portrayed. For example, there are no italicized thoughts in ItU. The plot involves a shift from an environment where the narrator is surrounded by friends fluent in ASL to an unfamiliar environment where almost no one knows it. The fact that this story is told in 1st person influences how the narrator is portrayed (and some of the types of research I end up doing since the reader perceives the narrator more through the narrator’s telling of their story and how other characters interact with them). The genre (sci-fi horror) also necessitates certain changes in style that can, in turn, influence how a character is portrayed.

How another character perceives that character can also influence how a reader sees them (possibly pertaining to their diverse trait). For example, Mica in [Victim] sees Rina just as his girlfriend. He never describes her in a negative way pertaining to her gender or appearance because of how he perceives her. Since Victim is told in 1st person from Mica’s perspective, this in turn influences how the reader perceives her. I initially wanted to make Rina transgender, but I decided against it. I gave her a skin condition instead, but the reader only sees her through Mica’s perspective. Therefore, the reader doesn’t see her skin condition. Even when Rina is the focus (the short extra [here], for example), it may not be clear to the reader how others perceive her.

The narrator in ItU extends beyond their diverse traits. For example, the narrator has a near-obsessive love of stars and astronomy. They have a boyfriend named Aiden and a backstory involving distant parents. Their favorite color is sunset orange, and they do not know the color of their own eyes (because dystopian sci-fi). They are fiercely loyal to their friends, but definitely not an extrovert. When I first started ItU, I did not sit down and plan out that I wanted this character to be deaf or POC. But, after I began writing, it felt natural to this character. This is a character who just happens to be deaf. They are not a token; they are a complete character. I just hope I can do them justice in how I write them.

(Someday, I know I’ll mess up. I know the limitations, histories, and traps of my genres (especially horror), so I know I’ll make a mistake someday. I’ll learn and move on.)

Wondering about that follow-up post? It never got posted. A condensed version can be found [here].