Making Intentional Choices in Fiction

Representing Marginalized Identities in Fiction

There’s this scene that I love in the movie High Fidelity. The main character Rob Gordon, played by John Cusack, is a compulsive composer of top-five lists. It’s how he processes his thoughts and passes time with his friends. The main narrative thread of High Fidelity is that Rob is composing a top-five list of his all-time hardest breakups.

The idea is that if he revisits these breakups he can prove that he’s bounced back from tougher heartbreaks than that of his most recent dumping by long-time girlfriend Laura.

For me, the magic happens when Rob returns to the apartment he and Laura shared, only to find her there packing the last of her personal items. As she packs, she finds and analyzes Rob’s top-five list of all time dream jobs. The first four entries on the list draw from Rob’s love of music and creativity but the fifth entry, architect, doesn’t hold up to Laura’s scrutiny. She knows Rob well enough to know it’s a job he’d struggle with. So she makes the agreed upon suggestion that he’d rather be a record store owner, his actual job, and crosses architect off the list.

In less than ninety seconds, Laura recontextualizes and enriches his whole life.

Just like that, Rob Gordon goes from being a malcontented guy fantasizing about dream jobs to a self-assured guy actively living the dream. In less than ninety seconds, Laura recontextualizes and enriches his whole life. So when Rob desires to have her back in his life, we know why that is. The audience is well aware that Laura makes Rob a better version of himself.

Having first watched that movie in my early 20s, it took me several years to figure out the reason why I loved that scene so much. It’s because a lot of fiction doesn’t go through the trouble of explaining why the male protagonist wants to win back the female romantic interest. Most movies, books, and shows just assume we understand why.

Many romantic comedies, including several that also star John Cusack, simply treat women as a prize for the cisgender male protagonist. The culture is so heteronormative and mononormative that stories often just plop a man and a woman in a narrative and skip the part where they mean something to one another. As people subjected to societal programming, we just see these man-woman pairings and assume that they make sense even when they don’t (Shout out to ReyLo stans and ZuTara shippers).

When you’re writing about two women having a romantic interest in one another, the expectations change. The default setting for women in stories together is that of platonic friendships. In stories like Legend of Korra or The Last of Us: Left Behind, the queer romances portrayed were met with criticism about their lack of set-up. Those critics, mostly cisgender, heterosexual men, missed the romantic subtext and made the assumption that the women involved were just “gals being pals.”

In For Hire, particularly in Operator, my co-author Alana Phelan and I made it a point to spell out why the two main characters Sana and Marcella were good for one another. Though they are both complete independently, both women allow the other to dream a bit bigger. Sana’s desire for Marcella’s heart is less about trying to win Marcella as a prize and more about trying to recover a vital part of her own life.

It’s a failure in representation to treat characters as default settings.

We also explained why their shared interest in Voss made sense to both of them individually. Voss is able to engage in aspects of Sana and Marcella’s lives that the two of them can’t really share with one another. Writers of straight, monogamous romance often feel comfortable not giving the readers that kind of background. But we didn’t have that luxury. Adding more body to the relationships in For Hire made the whole story richer. The same is true for Rob and Laura in High Fidelity. The intentional choices that are necessary when writing queer romances can be a benefit to people writing straight romances as well.

It’s a failure in representation to treat characters as default settings. If you treat characters that inhabit majority representation (cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) as a standard, you often task your readers to use cliches to fill in the blanks your story leaves in their characterizations. For example, instead of assuming monogamy in a romantic pairing, why not write a conversation where the two establish a mutual desire for monogamy? Something that simple can add character development while leaving room for humor, drama, or whatever tone the writer wants.

At the same time, if you write marginalized identities (trans, queer, POC, female, disabled, etc.) as a collection of only universally accepted experiences, you lose the nuance that separates who we are as people. In writing, you’ve got to differentiate between experiences that are universal, experiences that are informed by identity, and experiences that are defined by identity.

As a creator, I’ve made it my standard to avoid writing about that third bit if it’s about an identity that I don’t personally inhabit.

For example, everybody wears clothing and has some type of a hairstyle. The particular hairstyle and what a character wears is going to be informed by personal identity. Facing oppression as a result of that clothing (cross dressing, baggy pants, cornrows, etc.) is a situation that only exists because of and is thus defined by personal identity.

As a creator, I’ve made it my standard to avoid writing about that third bit if it’s about an identity that I don’t personally inhabit. They say you’re supposed to write what you know. Being a Black man in America means that I can draw from an avalanche of personal experience when it comes to writing about the systemic oppression Black people face in America. I’ve lived it. I know how it feels. I’ve spent my whole life in conversation with others who have lived it and know how it feels. While understanding that Blackness is not a monolith, I can confidently create Black characters that exhibit some of the shared markings of Black culture.

That goes away when I write women or trans people or people with disabilities or anyone from any other marginalized identity. But seeing as how they exist in the worlds I write, I compensate for my lack of personal knowledge in a couple of key ways. First, as I said above, I steer clear of creating stories centered on an oppression that isn’t my own. No matter how well meaning the attempt, there’s no way I could guarantee that I wouldn’t pour a bit of my privileged self into the characterization of someone facing a struggle I don’t understand.

Second, while sticking to experiences that are universal or simply informed by identity, I hire people to make sure I get it right. The main character of For Hire: Audition, Vanessa, is a trans woman. Without making the narrative about transphobia, transitioning, or coming out, we still wanted her viewpoint and decision making to feel authentic. So Alana and I paid trans women to get an early look at the novel and give us feedback about the way Vanessa moves throughout her journey.

Her story is still about a young person trying to refocus her life after a chance connection with a veteran superhero. That aspect of the novel would remain unchanged regardless of Vanessa’s identity. We needed to make sure that the parts that would possibly change wouldn’t inadvertently harm any of the readers who wanted to see themselves in Vanessa’s shoes. And we needed to make sure we compensated the people who pour their emotional labor into making that so.

All in all, representation in fiction boils down to making intentional choices. Complaints about cliches and tropes in the media we consume are about how often we’re expected to do the work for a creator that doesn’t take care in how their characters are differentiated. It honestly doesn’t take a whole lot to change that. In an almost two-hour movie where John Cusack spends most of his screen time goofing off with friends and tracking down old flames, it only took one 90-second scene to show what Laura meant to Rob. So when you’re writing, pause to think about what your’ 90-second scene’ looks like or if it even exists.

When having marginalized people scan your work for the authenticity of similarly marginalized characters, they are doing labor.

Kevin’s Top-Five Intentional Choices to Make When Writing Marginalized Identities:

1. Stay in Your Lane: One of the best tips is to “write what you know.” Obviously, I’ve never been a superhero, but my characters also deal with real world struggles. For those, I draw from my own feelings of love, loss, frustration, joy, etc. If you’ve got to stretch too far outside of your own experience to capture those feelings, consider whether or not this is a story you’re suited to write. It’s ok if it isn’t.

2. Don’t Be A Hero: I can say pretty confidently that marginalized people aren’t waiting for your book to solve systemic oppression. If you’re writing fiction with the intent to “open people’s eyes,” consider whether or not you’re just capitalizing off the pain of the marginalized experience.

3. Ask “Why is this character who they are?”: Very often marginalized characters only exist in a story in order to convey a message specific to that marginalization. In reality, they exist because they fucking exist. Even if that’s the only reason why they exist in your narrative, be intentional with that decision.

4. Pay Your Consultants: When having marginalized people scan your work for the authenticity of similarly marginalized characters, they are doing labor. In many cases, they’ve spent large chunks of their lives faced with unintentional harm from well-meaning folks of privilege. Never forget that. When asking for that labor, lead with an offer of compensation that shows that you value their time and acknowledge the risk to their emotional safety.

5. Be Patient, Not Defensive: If and when you receive feedback, listen to understand…not to debate. The reason why you’re paying consultants is because they have a background that you don’t. Respect that and hear what they are saying to you. The natural reaction may be to defend yourself, but an honest critique of your work is not necessarily a personal attack.

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