All right, my writing lovelies. It is 2017. And even though so much of the news feels like we’re being dragged, kicking and screaming, back in time, every one of us writing, publishing, creating stories, putting art out into the world, can do our part to make sure that the progress we’ve made, the things we’ve built, the norms we’ve shattered and the fights we’ve started don’t all come crumbling down.
So this is my advice. Advice for how to keep writing like it’s 2017. How to write stories that are responsible. How to write stories that push the wheel of time forward and not crank it back. This is my advice, ten easy tips, for how to write like a decent human being.
1. Do not fall quietly into easy societal structures – resist supporting traditionally patriarchal or racist ideas in your fictional societies.
There is no reason for only men to be in charge of your wizard’s fantasy guild. There is no reason to have all your female characters defined by their relationship to sex. There’s no reason for every female in your story to be under the constant threat of rape. There’s no reason that in a cast of 20+ characters, not a single one is gay. (Or black. Or Latino. Or Asian. Or anything other than Tortured White Person.)
The lazy racism that exists especially in the fantasy genre is something that seriously needs to be tackled. (Or maybe grabbed by the throat and throttled.) Say your fantasy story is based on a medieval European structure. (Wow, where’d you get that idea from?) Your characters might squat in chamber pots, but if they’re also shooting fire bolts out of their hands, guess what? That. Is. Not. Historical. Fiction. There is no reason everyone in your fantasy village must all have the same pasty, translucent-as-a-newborn-fish, white skin. (It’s also not historically accurate not to include POC in your medieval-based cities, so there.)
Same goes for the sexism. The Game of Thrones model of All The Brothels Because It’s Fantasy!!! needs to be abolished. (Or, again, strangled. I’m not picky.) Do better than this.
2. Diversify your cast of characters.
Do not relegate minority or oppressed cultures to tokenistic representatives.
3. Have your characters stand up and speak out against oppression, racism, and injustice within your story.
Remember how Harry and Ron just snickered and avoided the subject when Hermione got up in arms about S.P.E.W.? It’s kind of cringe-worthy to reread, isn’t it, how the story supports their complete ambivalence to a species’ subjugation and oppression? And, on the reread, it’s a little weird that the argument seems to be that elves enjoy being slaves, right? Leaves a bad taste in the mouth, yeah?
If you’re going to represent an injustice or inequality in your written society, fantastical or not, don’t just make it a side character’s pet project, but a protagonist’s passion. It’s 2017, we can’t keep doing this.
4. Celebrate, don’t appropriate, #OwnVoices.
Yes, yes, every writer should feel free to write whatever story they feel passionate enough to tell, etc., etc., yadda, yadda, yadda. But think long and hard about if this story should belong to you, if it’s really your story to tell. Should you write about a Native American’s childhood experiences, family tribulations, and societal oppression if you’re some random white author whose only connection to the subject is that you’ve researched a lot about it?
Giving a voice to the voiceless is one thing, exposing discrimination and unfair treatment is always important. But staying in your lane and giving people the chance to speak from their own experiences and not your fictionalized version of what it must’ve been like is undoubtedly important too.
5. Have sensitivity readers if you recognize you’re not an authority on whatever it is you’re writing.
Sensitivity readers are people willing to check a manuscript for areas of uncertainty, and they can be vital for all kinds of subjects — if you’re a straight writer writing a coming out story for a teenage boy, or a cis writer with a trans character, or maybe your protagonist has OCD and you’re not sure a scene you’ve included is misrepresentative, or even a damaging cliché.
That being said, put out all-calls for sensitivity readers, don’t march up to someone’s door and say “You’re representative of everyone with your background, read this and make sure it’s not offensive.” That’s … not a good look.
6. Avoid lazy stereotyping, clichéd representation, or White Savoir nonsense.
Make sure your characters are three-dimensional beings with motivations, weaknesses, and strengths. And make sure the strengths, weaknesses, and struggles you select for your characters are not clichés or stereotypes disrespectful to their ethnic backgrounds.
7. Don’t appropriate native cultures then whitewash them.
This! Shouldn’t! Still! Be! Happening!
8. Stop telling white, heterosexual stories of forbidden love without acknowledging that same-sex and mixed race couples have truly gone through this struggle.
It would be great if we could stop sexualizing the idea of a society that prohibits, often aggressively, the love between two people.
9. Don’t call fictional, dark-skinned races savages or barbarians that need to be civilized by white colonists.
Especially when the story ends with the white saviors successfully civilizing or conquering the native culture.
10. Basically, practice inclusivity and responsibility when writing fiction.
Realize that your story does not exist in a vacuum. You are constantly making choices as an author that reflect not only the fictional world of your novel but the world we live in and are, day by day, actively shaping. Make those choices purposeful ones. Make your story count. Resist, with your art. Persist with your art.
Punch up, never down.