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I am not quite sure how to broach this topic. On the one hand, I think it is a legit concern. But on the other hand, it also sounds like privileged whining. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which it is, if the truth lies somewhere in between, with both, or with neither.
I’ve been having trouble working on Seahawks and Storms. I wrote the requisite 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo 2017, but most of it is poorly written garbage. I’m not feeling or hearing the characters like I should or have for other projects. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. I know I haven’t spent as much time with Samuel and Amaris as I have with Ryn and Scion. But even then I had something to work with. Now I just sit and stare and pull them through motions that don’t feel real. As I wrote, they were becoming less and less fleshed out rather than more. At this point, I’ve pretty much shelved the project and moved on to another.
Then I remembered something I saw at WDC 2017. There was a project going on at the conference called “Vulnerability is Sexy.” There was a wall of black paper and a submission box. You could write a secret on a slip of paper, put it in the box, and then artists from the project wrote the secret on the wall in an artistic, illustrated way, kind of like an illuminated manuscript. When it was done, you could see all of these secrets without ever knowing who they belonged to. Many of the secrets resonated with me, but one in particular stood out:
It hit me hard. I kept thinking, “What a sad and horrible state to be in. To fear having a character be judged instantly, without the book even being read, just for a historical affiliation. The owner of this secret is afraid to write their story, to give life to a character, because of a political atmosphere.” (For context, this was during the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues from public places in the south.)
This secret stayed with me. After thinking about it for a long time, I feel like it’s connected to why I can’t write Seahawks. While I don’t have any Confederate characters (since I stay away from realistic or historical fiction), I think that this author’s fearful secret stems from the feeling of being watched. Of being judged, even before the work is complete. Now, I know that books are going to be judged. They get judged by covers and book jackets and plot summaries and reviews all the time, without looking at a single page of the story. But at least when a story is complete, it has a chance to speak for itself. I also know that books don’t exist in a vacuum. Authors are influenced by what is happening around them and some of that will be reflected in one’s writing, even if making a political, cultural, or social statement is not the intent.
But this fear seems different. For a while now, I’ve been feeling like someone is constantly looking over my shoulder, a faceless mass that scrutinizes every word I write, hissing, “Racist. Sexist. Ableist. Heteronormative. Supporter of damaging stereotypes,” regardless of what I’m actually writing. Every little choice that touches on color, gender, or sexuality is under a microscope. Worse, this judgement is not based on what makes sense for the character or plot, but on what an amorphous “they” might think of it in terms of modern identity politics. This feeling even bypasses the book entirely and goes right for my jugular, making assumptions about what I think or believe because of perceived slights, erasures, or insensitivity in my work. I’ve become so worried about offending someone that I feel too afraid or paralyzed to write anything. (And if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that someone will always find something to be offended by, no matter if it’s a legitimate concern or them making a mountain out of a mole hill. There’s no way to win.)
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having diverse characters. There are a lot of avenues in fiction yet to be explored because characters with certain traits have not been featured in many stories, if at all. But I want that diversity to grow organically, not be shoe-horned in based on fear of what people may think. For example, in Ravens and Roses, there are two secondary female characters, Sashi and Nira, whom I always pictured as being dark-skinned biracial women. There was no particular reason for it; I just liked how they looked. Originally, Sashi and Nira were really close friends, almost like sisters, who go through the military academy together. Eventually I realized that it actually made more sense for them to be lesbians in a committed relationship. There was nothing in the fantasy culture that stigmatized it, so I was like, “Why not?” It not only worked, but I think helped enrich and deepen the characters, even though they don’t get much screen time.
My stumbling block in Seahawks, unfortunately, is my leading lady, Amaris. I’d knew right from the character’s conception that she was going to be an invalid. She has some kind of chronic (but unspecified) ailment or disease that keeps her bedridden much of the time or severely inhibits her physical activities. But she’s very intelligent, an avid reader, and excellent politician. She’s the cerebral half of a partnership while her husband Samuel is the physical half. I already knew this about the characters. This was the initial set-up, the template from which to build.
But as I was trying to write, I found myself fixating on Amaris’s disability. I know people who suffer from chronic pain or terminal illnesses, and the last thing I want is to be inaccurate or shallow or unsympathetic to their experience. And there is a place for that, in the departments of research and beta reading. Where it doesn’t belong is in the first draft when I’m just trying to get down the story. I realized that I was starting to think of Amaris as “the disabled woman” rather than “a woman with a disability.” That defeats the point of building a character, which is to have a fleshed out, interesting person, not a check-list of traits. In 2013, Avery Brooks was asked if he felt there was a special significance or meaning to his Deep Space Nine character, Benjamin Sisko, being the first black male leading figure on Star Trek. Brooks said he did not. He elaborated, saying, “If every day I wake up and say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to do a brown, male thing today.’ *laughter from audience.* You know, people say, ‘What was it like being, you know, a black captain?’ You can’t play that!”
And he’s right. Amaris is, and should be, more than “the disabled person.” A chronic illness should have an impact on her life. It should color or inform her interactions and perceptions. It should put limitations on her. It should be well-researched so that misinformation and lazy writing don’t get in the way. But it should not become the be-all, end-all of her character. That does a disservice to her as well as to people who may identify with her.
Until I get back to a place where I don’t feel like I have that faceless mass looming over my shoulder, I’m setting Seahawks and Storms on the back burner. I don’t want to be so focused on not offending anyone that I forget to write the damn story.