There are a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers in my FB and Twitter feeds. And a lot of those writers are feminists, of one degree or another. So, I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion about white male privilege in popular fantasy and sci-fi television, film, video games, and literature.
This discussion of privilege appears in, for example, statistical surveys and professional research which proves that the overwhelming majority of stories in mass media feature a straight white male protagonist. Or, the discussion might be about the prevalence of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope, or the way the male hero always gets a girl in the end. This sends a politically charged message to readers about role models, about which race or gender has the potential for greatness, which race or gender is always the villain or the sidekick, and so on. Or, the discussion might be about the way the overwhelming majority of celebrated writers in the genre are straight white men.
The call goes out: to redress this inequality, we should write stories with heroes who come from different backgrounds and identities. And we should seek the stories written by people who come from all those different backgrounds and identities.
Now, at the same time, one of the most common pieces of advice that new or aspiring writers may hear, is the advice to write what you know, and write what you love. You’ll write a better story if it’s set in your own world, whether that’s the world you see around you or the one that you imagine. And you’ll write a better story if you write about worlds, problems, and ideas that you care about. Prima facia, this is unobjectionable, even valuable advice.
Now, let’s build an argument.
I could conclude, from propositions 2 and 3, that the experience of the white straight able-bodied man is the kind of experience I should write about.
But I could also conclude, from propositions 1 and 3, that I should write about different experiences, not just my own.
Which conclusion is better?
One possible answer: the second conclusion is better, for reasons like these. We shouldn’t prefer the book about the straight white man, just because it’s about the straight white man. That story isn’t necessarily any better or worse than another, for that reason alone. In the same way, we shouldn’t prefer the book about the gay aboriginal woman, for instance, just because she’s a gay aboriginal woman. Her story may or may not be any better than anyone else’s, for that reason alone. (Thus we avoid the genetic fallacy.) But the straight white male character gets more attention, for reasons that have nothing to do with the artistic qualities or flaws of the story. So, we should write stories with greater variety among the characters, in order to give everybody’s story a fair chance.
But we could also prefer the first conclusion, for reasons like these. If a privileged writer (like me) writes about characters from marginalized identities, he’s almost certain to get those characters wrong. He doesn’t know much about what their lives are like, and he won’t know how to speak with their voices. Carried further, it might be said that he should not even try to speak with their voices: to do so would risk the problem of colonialism. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define colonialism as the harm that arises when members of a dominant culture discourage or prevent members of a marginalized culture from defining themselves. Imagine a white man telling a black woman how to look and speak and behave as a black woman ‘should’. You see the inherent absurdity of the situation. Carried far enough, it’s not just patronizing: it’s oppression. A privileged writer risks colonialism when he writes about marginalized characters. So he shouldn’t do it.
We might dismiss both conclusions by claiming that an artist should be allowed to write about whatever the hell she wants, and that if readers don’t like it then they don’t have to read it. These two statements are irrefutable, but they do not dismiss the problem, because they still presuppose the same power relations. Something is said, something else is not said, someone is speaking, someone is prevented from speaking, someone is spoken to, and someone is spoken about. And so a reality is configured. And we still have to ask: who is configuring that reality, and what reality is configured?
I do not know what the answer is. That’s part of why I wrote this article: I’m asking you to help me find the answer.
Here’s a brief survey about how I’ve handled this problem in my own fiction, so far. (Warning: Spoilers.)
The first novel in the series, “Fellwater”, was written in 2006. At the time, my purpose in writing the story was to pursue a kind of catharsis following an event in my personal life. And I wanted to create a story that reflected my feelings and my world at the time. (That’s why the lead male hero, Eric Laflamme, looks like me.) So I wasn’t thinking about the quasi-political implications of my artistic choices. Consequently, all the characters are caucasians. And the story fails the Bechdel test. But the male hero does not get the girl in the end. He achieves a victory, but it’s a pyrrhic victory which emotionally scars the “strong” female at his side, so she leaves him. That ending, while unhappy, seemed to me more true to life; certainly, at the time it seemed more true to my life.
The second novel, “Hallowstone”, introduced the first non-white major character: a woman named Ildicoe Brigand, who is of mixed racial heritage. She would appear to be the female prize for the male character when he achieves his victory. But the male character is emotionally scarred from the events of the previous novel, and he doesn’t grow a spine until near the end of the story. Even then, it’s she who must come to his rescue. And although they share a kiss, she immediately leaves him again. She has unfinished business of her own, which the reader learns about in the third novel. And while writing Hallowstone, I learned about the Bechdel test, and I made sure the story passes it.
And in that third novel, “Clan Fianna”, the leading male character of the first two stories becomes a member of an ensemble cast, and is no longer a singular hero. We also see more ethnic diversity: we meet a Hindi family, and a group of West African muslims. These are secondary characters: not because they don’t deserve to be primary characters, but because the primary characters were established in the previous novels. But I can always write another story which features them in more prominent roles, and in the future I plan to do so. The world of The Fellwater Tales will not be the only world I will write about.
Finally, the lead hero of the spinoff novella, “Jillian Brighton”, is a thirteen year old girl. (Writing not only from a female perspective, but also a child’s perspective, was particularly challenging for me. But also personally rewarding, too.) And I’m almost finished another spinoff story in which the main heroes are the same West African muslims who we met in Clan Fianna.
Through my two decades of participation in the pagan community, and through my years as a college prof, I’ve come to know, and often to love, people of many different ethnicities, backgrounds, genders (it appears that there’s more than two), sexual orientations, political views, and so on. When I write characters who are not straight white able-bodied lower-middle-class men, I think of the people I’ve known over the years who are like the characters I’m writing about, and try to imagine what life is like from their point of view. And I sometimes write to them, and ask them how they would view or respond to certain situations. This is part of the research writers should undertake, when they write about characters vastly different from themselves.
I will never know an experience of life other than my own. That is the nature of the immensity of loneliness. I suppose it’s possible that someone reading this will point out another invisible privilege I possess which I’m taking advantage of here. But I can make a serious effort to understand and empathize with the life-experiences of people who are unlike myself – not only for the sake of writing better fiction, but also for the sake of becoming a better human being. Reading and writing good fiction about characters different from oneself may be an excellent instrument for this moral project.