Representation: A Primer

I hate those “how to write [x minority]” posts.

I hate them with the passion I currently reserve for Malcolm Turnbull, the entire Liberal party, and the mainstream media who portray Bill Shorten’s opposition to the plebiscite as though Shorten is the bad guy killing marriage equality. (No. Just no.) If you’re Aussie, that should give you some indication of the strength of my hatred. If you’re not, well, exchange “Turnbull” for “Trump”. Got it? Hate, hate, hate. I hate them when they’re written by members of the minority group in question. I hate them even more when they’re reblogged by people who aren’t of the group in question and don’t understand that these posts are just checklists of “How To Write The Other” in slightly more palatable form.

(I know that plenty of people who share my identities will disagree with me. Awesome. Keep on doing what you think is right. There’s space enough in the world for both of us.)

It doesn’t matter that society has marched on and the word “other” is no longer in use. The impact is still othering. I am still reminded, every time these things cross my dash, that I am so abnormal I need an instruction sheet in order to be properly rendered inside someone’s fictional universe. How is this not othering? Why shouldn’t I find it, at the very least, uncomfortable? These pieces aren’t written for me, but they’re written about me as though I am so rare and unusual there’s no expectation that I’ll happen across people talking about me as an object. Yet, inevitably, because I’m a writer who reads about other writers, I do. Have you ever happened across people talking about you behind your back? That’s how these pieces make me feel: itchy, hurt, violated, momentarily unreal.

I object to that like I object to the plebiscite and a Prime Minister who wants to pay Australian hate organisations to spew hatred for the person I am as though that’s right and fair and natural.

The fact is that it takes an awful lot of imagination, empathy and research (be this lived experience or diving into a realm crafted by other people’s stories) to write minority (be it in the singular or intersectional) characters. In fact, it takes imagination, empathy and research to write anyone well, and if you can’t look at your character and step into their skin enough to make them real, you probably shouldn’t be writing them. No how-to-write or what-you-should-write guide will give you this no matter how slavishly one follows said list. No guide will make up for the absence of listening to other people’s stories. A good character, though, will surpass stereotype if they’re written with empathy and heart. Readers will forgive stereotype if characters are written with empathy and heart!

However, meaningful representation, and dialogue about it, is more than just writing a character from a minority group and calling it a day, even if said character ticks all the correct boxes on the how-to post. I don’t see this much talked about, but it’s a conversation I keep on having and want to keep on having. Some of it has come to light in feedback I gave to a writer; some of it has come to light in the fandom’s response to the character of Saheeli Rai in Magic the Gathering’s Kaladesh release; some of it I’ve been nursing, as a grumpy, bitter reader and writer, for several years.

Please note that this is targeted with an eye to fiction writing, but it applies, with some modification, to other creative formats and to how we go about discussing representation in general.

1: Not all representation is meaningful.

I’d like to make the case that there’s two kinds (at least) of representation: incidental and meaningful.

Incidental representation is when a character happens to be an identity that doesn’t much matter, if at all, to their character arc, plot, or role within the setting. They just happen to be of a non-majority identity because, despite what media tells us, the world isn’t solely comprised of white dyadic cishet able-bodied dudes.

Meaningful representation is when a character is in some way about their identity (or identities): it is expressed in their character arc, plot or setting. A character can be incidental representation in one way and meaningful representation in another. A biracial, bisexual character with chronic pain whose character arc is about the experience of being biracial and bisexual, but just happens to suffer chronic pain in a few scenes that don’t impact the story’s plot or their character arc, might be said to be meaningful representation of race and bisexuality (and their intersectionality) but incidental representation of disability.

We need to recognise the difference between incidental and meaningful, as people who talk about representation in fiction, because so often I see works promoted as great representation, go in expecting meaningful representation and get only incidental.

2: Meaningful representation is a state only possessed by a protagonist/antagonist/narrator.

I believe that believing anything other than this causes irreparable harm to minorities who need to see themselves as central characters in a world that tells us we don’t exist. Representation is only meaningful if the character is a protagonist, (sympathetic) antagonist or narrator.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw and will see a book on a trans fiction list only to discover the trans character is never a narrator, has no story arc of their own and only exists in relation to a cis protagonist’s plot and character arc, I’ll never have to work again. I wish like fuck people would stop talking about this as though this representation is profound and meaningful. It’s incidental at best. In fact, if the character exists as only a learning point, it’s not even incidental representation! To profile this as representation sends a terrible message to trans people: we’re not the star of the show; we are unimportant; we are supporting cast characters in someone else’s story; we are so uncommon and unusual that there’s no point in our lives being front and centre. It says we only exist in relation to a cis protagonist, but we’re supposed to be happy with this. That’s not good enough.

Meaningful representation involves characters like us telling and showing our stories for our benefit. If a work doesn’t do that, it’s not meaningful representation. We writers need to stop pretending it is; we readers need to stop pretending it is.

If you’re writing a character to be meaningful representation, we need to enter their world. The story needs to be about our lives as that identity. They need to be a protagonist, (sympathetic) antagonist or narrator. Period.

3: Not all representation should be or must be meaningful.

I’m so damn white I glow in the dark. I cannot write meaningfully, based on my own experience as a person, about characters of any ethnic background or identity that isn’t distant-English-migrant-white-Australian and white-Dutch-migrant-Australian. All the research in the world will never give me that bone-deep knowing: this isn’t my story. As someone who is used to people not me telling my stories (and often telling them badly), I feel that I cannot and should not write about racially-diverse characters with a central focus on life lived as an identity not mine.

(I know other creators will, unequivocally, disagree with me. Disagree away. This is a personal position, coming from a place of repeatedly having my story taken and poorly repackaged by others who don’t have my lived experience. I’ve also got nothing but respect for those writers who see the failures in how my stories are treated and want to do something about it while prioritising my experience and feedback in the process of making sure better, honest, accurate stories are accessible to people who are so in want of heroes.)

However, I can and should and must write characters who are incidentally racially diverse (or experience disabilities or sexual/romantic/gender identities I don’t). I can and should decide that my autistic trans headmaster is black in a fictional world that is and should be and must be as racially diverse as the real one. He isn’t, though, meaningful representation. This doesn’t mean I don’t research or don’t think about the role racial identities play in this setting. It doesn’t mean I don’t go and read works by trans people of colour. It doesn’t mean that I don’t try hard not to be an offensive, ignorant white arse (although I probably am). It just means that this character isn’t written to be meaningful representation on that axis.

A character doesn’t have to be meaningful representation in every aspect of their identity, for reasons of authority, access, ability or setting, and that is acceptable, as long as we don’t make the mistake of treating incidental representation as meaningful. This said, we all need to make a world where meaningful representation of all minority and intersecting minority identities (especially that written by people with lived experience of those identities) is extant, vibrant and accessible.

4: Incidental representation is correct, appropriate and important.

This is especially important for any of the many, many characters in a work who stroll on stage for a minute, speak a few lines and wander off again. Supporting cast/minor characters can be and should be incidental representation. Have your gamer protagonist meet a retail worker who just happens to be disabled. Have a character who just happens to struggle with auditory processing ask your protagonist for repetition before realising what was said halfway through the second time! Have these characters carry out their minor plot-required interactions while also being representation, because this resembles the real world. I’d get a such a kick out of seeing even a minor character in a book with prosopagnosia and auditory processing disorder who has to remember spoken names and match them to faces, even if this has nothing to do with anything else that character does. We need to see that our lives exist in fictional worlds.

It’s also important for major characters, narrators, antagonists and protagonists. If you cannot or will not write meaningful representation, please give us as much incidental representation as you can. Reasons of authority are a good reason for choosing the incidental route, speaking as someone who’s read cishet writers try to write stories centering on the experience of being gay, lesbian or bi/pan. (Some manage it. Many don’t.) It is better by far to write incidental representation that acknowledges we exist than to write terrible meaningful representation or no representation at all.

As before, we need to stop treating this as meaningful representation. It isn’t. That’s okay.

5: Representation solely for the purpose of representation isn’t functional representation.

If you write a disabled (or any minority) protagonist as representation who plays no role in terms of the story’s plot, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled antagonist as representation who only enables another protagonist’s character arc and possesses none of their own, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled narrator as representation who can be excised from the story with no change to the plot, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled character who exists just as a lesson or motivation for an able-bodied character, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled minor character who plays no role (however utterly minor) in terms of the story’s plot or setting or interaction, you haven’t written true representation.

A character with prosopagnosia who sells the protagonist a game has a function in the narrative in addition to being representation, even if only serving to get the game from the shop into to the protagonist’s possession. A person who wears a splint and is described as no more than that but exists only to pass the protagonist in the street is an object lesson: here be disabled people. A disabled person as an active but minor character who exists in the framework of the fictional world you’ve created to send a message about the setting is fine; a cardboard cutout whose job is only to remind the protagonist and/or the reader that we exist is not.

If someone walked past me and described me as a person wearing a hand splint, that leaves out the fact that my splint is bright pink hard thermoplastic now covered in layers of dinged-up, grey-edged white medical tape to hold it together, is fastened with green valcro and is worn on the right hand by a short-haired genderfucking person who also carries a rainbow satchel, wears hiking boots and is usually fidgeting with a bead ring necklace, a telephone cord hair tie/bracelet or, these days, a tangle. I’ve barely begun to describe myself in that long sentence, but a glance at my splint tells you I’m unconventional and either broke or that I’ve had problems with my hands for long enough to crack my splint. (Both, in fact. The smell of said splint will also tell you I’ve owned and worn it for a long time.) Consequently, there must be more one can say about our character with a splint to give them a function in the setting via making a statement about the world in which they live (at very least).

If even a minor character needs to have a relationship to the plot or setting to be real representation, a protagonist, antagonist or a narrator must have a role in the plot and their own character arc. They need to be a hero if not the hero (if a protagonist). Otherwise the message is this: we exist to make a point, to educate the protagonist and/or the reader, to exist so readers don’t complain or to push other characters into action, but, despite the fact you venture into our worlds and depict our lives as minorities, we do not and cannot exist as a proactive character who grows and develops and directs the action in our own right. We need to be as much a part of the story as we are a minority character.

We cannot exist only to educate and demonstrate on the matter of our minority identities. That’s called objectification and it isn’t good enough.

6: Readers will disdain representation that exists solely for representation.

If you’ve gotten this far, it’s safe to say that you know analytical readers will see straight through a character written solely as representation. The feedback given by Magic the Gathering fans on Mark Rosewater’s claim that Planeswalker Saheeli Rai from India-inspired world Kaladesh was pushed as a visible protagonist but had no main role in the plot demonstrates the feeling that an important-as-representation character had better have some impact in the story – what’s the point of her existence, otherwise? None of us have forgotten the prior, hurtful treatment of another female Planeswalker, Arlinn Kord, also a minority demographic as a middle-aged woman, who looked pretty on Shadows over Innistrad card art and fulfilled no story purpose despite the importance of her character.

Majority readers (or readers uninterested in representation) won’t like these characters any better. These people read for compelling characters, clever writing and a good story. They’ll also notice representation that exists only for representation, only they’ll see it as an unwelcome intrusion that interferes with their ability to enjoy the story, and they’ll likely be even more scathing in their condemnation. They don’t want to be hit with reminders of their own privilege, and representation that has no other function but representation doesn’t soften that reminder. It doesn’t give the reader any reason, through character arc or plot, to keep on reading, confront their privilege and learn. It does give them every reason, no matter how grounded in privilege and hate, to close the book.

Nobody wants representation that only serves the needs of representation, not plot, character or setting.

7: Real representation is and always is real character (with a real purpose).

Real representation is a character written with empathy and heart, be it incidental or meaningful, who has a function within the story. Make your character more than their minority identities. Make your character express and internalise their identities in ways unique to their personality and history. Make your character as human as you are and whatever representation attached to them will be worthwhile to someone, no matter your mistakes. You will make mistakes. What I know about autism is filtered through my experience of being autistic, but there are so many other ways to be autistic and experience autism that what I know is minuscule at best. I’ll attempt to write them, because we cannot have autism represented solely by those of us who are eloquent when handed a keyboard, but I’ll likely fuck up as much as I get it correct. Like everyone else, I’m human, which means we try our best and learn from our mistakes.

Good characters, though, always earn my forgiveness, and I suspect most readers will afford me the same generosity.

Real representation, the kind of representation that changes how people think and feel, the kind of representation that tells us we too are heroes and human and valid, starts with real character grounded in real motivation.

Write me a trans, autistic, queer character who wears a flanno shirt with the sleeves rolled up because men’s shirts are too big in the shoulder and boy’s shirts are too short in the sleeve, bites their lip, spins on a desk chair and smacks their knees into the sides of their desk just to hear the dull thunk noise made by bone hitting wood … while paging through their battered Macquarie to compare “miniscule” versus “minuscule”. That’s all I am in the last two minutes, not counting the pain in my wrist (five or six on the pain scale, usual minimum level of pain if I wish to write anything), the fact I’m shamelessly blasting Celine Dion and my feet are freezing. Or that I stopped halfway through writing this to yank the shit out of my own hair and, when I noticed that, roll a D20 across my desk. There’s so much more to me than just “trans”, “autistic” and “queer”, and I am those things in ways unique and specific to me!

Write me a character that is as human as I am and you are, and I’ll smile and call it, gladly, representation.

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