Imagine you are a different person.
Not just a different version of yourself, maybe smarter, or stronger, or with magic powers, but a different person entirely. A different gender, race, sexuality, religion. Imagine you grew up rich, or dirt poor. Imagine you are an Armenia teenager who helps his widower father run a stall at a fish market. Imagine you are your next door neighbour. Imagine you are China’s first transgender ballerina. Imagine you grew up consuming different media, fancying different people, being called by different pronouns.
Can you imagine the entire inner and outer life of a person whose experience is completely different from yours?
This is the exercise that writers are asked to undertake. Unless we choose to write very true to our own experiences, then we have to be able to get inside the heads of people who are different to us. Sometimes these characters need little more than a basic wire framework of experience and personality. However, central characters need to be more than just a cardboard cutout. They need life, and that life generally requires some note of authenticity.
There are some very basic tenants or characterisation that any not-completely-awful writer will know; things like not reducing a character to a single trait or quirk, not making them a stereotype, and ideally, not defining them entirely through their relationship to another character. It can be a little more difficult to write ‘authentic’ emotions, but this is where the writer employs both their own experience and their ability to empathise (fairly essential to the majority of quality writing). As long as the author has experienced a reasonably wide range of emotions – happiness, anger, embarrassment, grief – they should be able to project their emotions onto their characters.
There are some emotional experiences, however, that can be extremely difficult to write accurately if the author has never experienced them. Empathy can only extend so far when it comes to accurately representing experiences such as: being an adopted Asian child growing up in a white Australian family; depression, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness; the tension of being a woman walking alone at night or the constant feeling of being watched and judged that comes with being female; the body dysmorphia that many trans people experience; being a homosexual child trying to figure out their crushes and whether or not they are ‘normal’.
Even if these experiences do not occur within the story itself, they will affect the lives of the characters, their personalities and how they behave. Can a writer who has not had these experiences convincingly write a character who has inevitably had them as a part of their life?
It is not impossible for an author to write outside of their own emotional experiences. Many writers do it well. But it is far, far easier for a queer woman to write a straight male than it is for a straight male to write a queer woman. Why?
The stories of straight, white, cisgender men are everywhere.
Big beefy male action heroes, skinny male nerds, sensitive male musicians, wise, elderly male professors, unhinged male psychopaths, compelling male assholes, evil male villains, average joes, guys-next-door, male athletes, male politicians… the narrative landscape of our society is a veritable cock forest. Just about every possible model for ‘straight, white, cis dude’ has been done a hundred thousand times. Churning out a male character becomes almost second nature given just how often audiences are expected to identify with each and every one of them. That doesn’t mean they are bad characters, or that writing them is inherently lazy – rather that it is much easier to write a good male character with so many variations to build upon.
The dearth of other narratives means that writers must build much more on experiences that may be alien to them in order to create their characters. This requires a good deal of empathy and skill, and is often where many writers can tend to fall flat on their faces.
Because of the lack of wide variation in, say, female characters, writers who learn from those who’ve come before them can often end up regurgitating sexist tropes. Female characters can end up having their personalities revolve around the fact that they are female, i.e. they exhibit only traits associated with stereotypes of femininity (irrational moodiness, superficiality, mothering, etc.). While not always bad, these sorts of characters are usually pretty terrible and can bring down a narrative with otherwise well-written (male) characters. (The best way around this, of course, is to recognise the fact that women are multi-faceted people who can possess a variety of strengths and personalities and still be interesting, well-rounded people. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of a show which contains a wide range of unique, powerful women.)
An alternative to this can be to write a character with a neutral model. This is sometimes done in films and video games, and has been responsible for some excellent female characters (Ripley from the Alien films was written this way, and she frequently ranks highly on feminists’ lists of best female characters). However, there is a limit to the sorts of narratives these ‘neutral’ characters can inhabit; sometimes plots are about a character’s gender, or race, or sexuality, and while gender may be irrelevant in a sci-fi or dystopia, it probably makes a difference in stories about the American Civil War or a romantic dramedy set in a Catholic high school (these are also stories in which gender by necessity intersects with issues of race/sexuality/etc., other issues generally irrelevant to the narrative of the straight, white, cis dude). Gender and race are also usually fairly visible in ways other traits may not be. While no character should be defined by their sexuality or their gender identity or their faith, these issues shouldn’t be invisible; the “Dumbledore was gay all along” model is a fairly lazy method of representation and is unlikely to get your writing a tick from anyone other than well-meaning straight people.
Ultimately, the best way to write a character outside of our own experiences is to do a lot of research, and never presume to be able to tell the story of someone with different experiences to us better than someone who has had those experiences. If you think it’s too much effort to research what it’s like to be trans and think you do a better job all on your own (looking at you, Jeffrey Eugenides), then think about the amount of time you’ve spent researching the Middle Ages, or how planes work, or how to dispose of a body, or how to survive a gunshot wound, all for the sake of a throwaway line in a story you stuck in a drawer. If we can do all that to provide authentic details, then we can research a character at least well enough that we aren’t going to misrepresent and offend an entire group of people.
It may be impossible to write a character that isn’t you in a way that is truly convincing. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Writers are also not necessarily obligated to write characters who aren’t straight, white, cisgender males. We don’t have to write anything we don’t want to write. But if we really want to try to be good writers, then we probably should.
A rather amusing look at what the jungle of straight club hooking up would look like were the (stereotypical) roles of women and men to be reversed. It’s not a sausage fest, but “a taco fest in here” (that’s my favourite line).
This is just the first in the series from Yahoo Screen called The Flip Side. There’s so many there to watch!
What do our hetero readers think about the video? I think it’s kinda funny…I’d be amused to see some stereotype LGBT parodies that were like “What if gays were like Lesbians” etc. Someone read this and do it!
I was watching Heroes of Cosplay, giving it a try, when an interesting issue was brought up. The issue of what matters in cosplay. I believe it was the second episode when they were discussing the idea of weight and most of the cast of that episode were saying that if a guy was three hundred pounds, he probably shouldn’t cosplay as Superman. To be fair I think they were talking about it in terms of competition, but it really hit a chord with me.
I understand that when cosplaying you want to be as similar to the character as possible and that in competitions likeness is very important. But what about craftsmanship? Or stage presence/the skit performace? Or the spirit of cosplay? I mean it is very rare that a person’s body would match up with everything he or she wants to cosplay. I am going from Blondie in Suckerpunch (who has a bit of a chest) to Enma Ai (a pre-pubescent girl). The characters are worlds apart in body type, but having neither of their body types has never stopped me. I think even from a competition perspective if a person has a better costume and better stage presence that they should rank over some person with a closer body type.
I won’t deny that having the body type of your characters would help sell your cosplay a whole lot more but that should be the bonus rather than what is really essential. I mean most character body types are impossible to achieve without surgery or at the least a ridiculously strict diet and gym regime anyway.
Cosplay is all about being the character you love and having fun. If you enter into competition then there is an added level of professionalism that needs to be in the costumes but that shouldn’t eclipse the having fun part or the love of a character.
Of course there will always be douche-muffins who will say horrible things about a person’s body, but they have no lives, and you should never try to let that get to you!
However, I also have to say that if you are easily hurt by what people say, or feel self-conscious in a cosplay – maybe rethink it. You having a good time is all about being comfy, so if you want to push your boundaries, might I suggest baby steps?
So in summary: do things that will make you happy~! At the end of the day you will feel a lot better for it ^-^
Disarming the vulva or just…kinda gross. Ok – so this Melbournian artist is up in Darwin performing this piece called “Casting off my womb”. She takes a skein of wool, inserts it into her vagina and then pulls out a thread and begins knitting with it…
She literally sits there and knits away…even through her menstrual cycle. As in, there are going to be bits where the wool is going to be covered in her menstrual fluid.
Ok, I get it, it’s meant to exhibit how the vagina and the womanly parts of the body are hardly a terrifying thing (something many gay men, I’m pretty sure, would point to their nightmares and disagree heartily) but really…is this really an effective way of making the vagina less…fearsome?
Call me an uncultured douchewad but I’m just not seeing how this ‘art’ is really an amazing act for feminism. She says that to her, the act became something a bit “boring” and “natural” but I hardly think that it’s a perfectly natural, nor boring act, to be knitting from yarn coming from your vagina.
If this woman said that she wanted to shock people, to confront people with the realities of a vagina, with the reality that every human being came through the same gateway that the yarn came through, then I might think more of this work. To say that this piece is trying to associate the vulva with something “boring” and “benign” by pulling yarn through it…that just doesn’t seem like what’s happening here at all.
What do you think? A feminist step or just another weird thing some artist is doing?
If you know about Grindr, then this video pretty much needs no introduction. If you don’t know what Grindr is, well, it’s a gay “dating” app where it displays profiles of other people on the app who are near you by using geo-location on your phone. It has a…reputation for being quite…sexually oriented.
But then again, anyone who’s made any sort of foray into the world of online dating for gay men will know that that’s pretty unavoidable.
This is actually a clip from a longer documentary by Will Means that you can view here.
For those of you who haven’t heard, National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as we affectionately know it) is happening right now. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. It is a difficult challenge and one that has been occupying my time a lot as of late.
“The world needs your novel” is what the official website tells you. I’m sure that it’s true. The goal of this challenge is to promote reading and writing and above all to help participants discover the novelist inside. If you have an idea that you’ve been planning to get out, use this challenge as a way of pressuring yourself to do so. It’s been working for me so far.
I know that we’re already halfway through the month of November but don’t let that discourage you! I’ve been contending with my exam for this novel and many other people are too. Even more encouraging is the news I heard recently of a woman who was too impatient to wait for November. Catherynne M. Valente challenged herself to write her first novel in 10 days! This could be something you decide to take on yourself and race to finish in time for November 30th.
NaNoWriMo may show you a determined, thoughtful and creative side of yourself that you might never have thought was there. Despite the very short time still left in the competition, I would sincerely urge everyone to have a crack at it anyway. It doesn’t matter if you think you suck. If you write something that ends up being Eye of Argon levels of terrible, just remember this advice from Jake:
Failure is just a step forward on the road to success. You are writer. Hear you ROAR!!!
Find out more and register at nanowrimo.org. Registering allows you to reap rewards for your efforts as winners of the challenge will receive prizes! Don’t forget to support the great folks who run this event by donating too.