Dear Story Nurse,
This is partially applicable to my current WIP, but it’s really a problem I have across the board. I love stories with complex, morally grey characters that make mistakes and act selfishly or obey their own, peculiar moral codes. I like horror, disturbing stuff, and stories that aren’t a simple good/evil dichotomy.
Whenever I try to write that kind of stuff, things get complicated.
See, I was raised in a very strict household – think fundamentalist Christian values, even if that wasn’t technically my parents’ religion. Especially since I was raised as a girl, I was taught to be quiet and polite and Nice and never say anything too shocking. Anything I wrote deemed Morally Wrong in some way was ripped apart. I’m out of that situation now, but the training runs deep. From the very start, I have a hard time putting down the wonderfully weird and horrible stuff I want to.
It’s not helped that I also crave positive feedback, and that’s difficult to find for my id-pleasing work. One of the few sources of positive feedback I had quit reading one of my stories after declaring something I thought was relatively minor disturbed her too much, and although intellectually I know it’s more a matter of her personal taste… it set me back a while. Not to mention the general culture about stories featuring queer & otherwise marginalized characters, in (understandable) pushback against depressing Bury-the-Gays stories, is mainly ‘nobody wants anything difficult, we only want happy cute romance stories’. More power to them, but not my thing, and it makes me feel even more insecure about my work.
So the end result: I come up with ideas and characters I love, but struggle to execute them. I’m constantly plagued by thoughts of ‘Are people going to find this disturbing? Do I need to show more clearly this character isn’t supposed to be right? Maybe I should tone down his behavior.’ Etc, etc, until I tie myself into knots and everything comes out stilted. I struggle to write characters that are even mean, let alone the gloriously terrible sorts I like reading about and privately imagining.
I hesitated to write you because I feel like this might be a difficult problem to advise on, but I thought it might be worth a shot. I feel trapped between the queer/diverse writing community I feel won’t appreciate the strange, dark stories I want to tell, and the dark fiction I love that never seems to leave room for people like me. I want to combine them, but my fear of judgement keeps tripping me up, and I don’t know how to turn it off.
Thank you for your time.
—Strange and Unusual (he/him)
Dear Story Nurse,
In some ways, my question is a follow up question to #36, although I didn’t send in that letter.
I’m a minority in a few ways (disabled, genderqueer but only out to a few, mostly asexual, diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, attracted to women while being AFAB).
If I’m writing a fictional story, I tend to write disabled or chronically ill characters a lot, and also other body-related issues like dysphoria (both gender and body), eating disorders, having an atypical sexuality or wanting to have a “normal” positive sexual experience and struggling.
These are things I struggle with in my own life, but I tend to write fiction because it’s easier to process when the character dealing with these struggles is explicitly not me. They’re someone in a different context, sometimes a fantasy context or just a different sort of family than mine. In many ways, the characters I write feel the same way I do inside my head, but they aren’t me.
I’ve sold a few stories, mostly in the fantasy / horror genre, and often the struggles I deal with are things I metaphor-ize: a person haunted by a ghost, a person who is intangible, an alien disguised as a human, a person who is literally invisible and simultaneously blind. These stories have pretty much gotten completely positive feedback, and one has been anthologized.
The stories I write are not necessarily what I think of as disability stories, especially since they have other elements and themes in them. But, lately, I’ve been trying to write non-metaphor stories about characters with real-world disabilities who struggle with dysphoria or dealing with chronic pain, still in a s/f context. And I’ve been getting a lot of pushback from other disabled writers.
Basically, they think my writing is too dark or “negative.” They keep saying that by writing about disabled characters having body dysphoria, I’m feeding into a negative stereotype. Because the characters are fiction, the critics don’t know (probably) that I’m trying to write about my own experiences with dysphoria; I don’t want to ‘out’ myself. Nor to I really want to write memoir — plots and adventures are part of the fun of writing for me.
But it’s very hard to not take these critiques personally. I feel like I have revealed a very real, vulnerable part of myself and I’m being rejected. I feel very raw and naked in these new stories, and I’m deeply hurt by the reactions I’ve gotten, even though I know, as you say, I can reject a critique. It seems so personal.
Also, I keep worrying that I’m wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t write a disabled character with vaginismus or an eating disorder, even though that’s my life experience, because that belongs in memoir or literary fiction rather than fantasy, which is meant to be escapist. I’ve re-read #36, about how just because you fit a stereotype doesn’t mean you should write it.
I’m so confused. Should I try writing in a different genre? Should I not write characters who are like me in this specific way? Should I try to give characters positive, empowering stories in every genre? Should I ‘out’ myself as someone who experiences dysphoria and disability? Should I try to toughen up and take critiques less personally?
I thought vulnerability was supposed to make stories better,
Dear Strange and Unusual and Anthem,
I’m sorry you’ve both run up against critiques of the form “stories about marginalized characters should only be positive and happy”. Anthem, I’m especially sorry that post #36 came across as a “you shouldn’t” post. I intended it as a how-to on a particular technique, not as a suggestion that there’s only one way to write stories about marginalized characters, and I appreciate you sending your follow-up question so I could clarify that.
I grouped your letters together in part because I want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve heard a lot of other marginalized writers express similar concerns.
There are many conflicting takes on whether and how to write stories where bad things happen to, or are done by, marginalized characters. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, and here is my personal approach.
To start with, I want to tackle an issue that neither of you mentioned, but that may come up for some other readers of this post. If you want to write a story that focuses on or significantly features the pain of a group of people that you don’t belong to—don’t. Look for people who are in that group and are writing about their own pain. Support them and encourage others to read their work, and find another story to tell. It’s fine to write about people who are unlike yourself! But it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to write something that focuses on the pain of people who are unlike yourself without being exploitative and voyeuristic.
This isn’t about whether readers know you’re not a member of that group (I address that below). It’s about the morality of writing on that particular topic as an outsider, while insiders who are also writing about it are almost certainly going unrecognized and unsupported. This is a call you have to make from your conscience. My personal feeling—and of course others may disagree—is that there simply is no ethical way to write and publish non-ownvoices stories that focus on the pain of marginalized people as long as publishing and bookselling privilege outsider work over insider work. If we ever manage to fix (or dismantle and replace) that system, I’ll be glad to reconsider this position.
Of course the boundaries of like/unlike and insider/outsider are fuzzy. I have intermittently unhappy arm tendons, and I consider my story about someone with intermittently unhappy leg tendons to be ownvoices. Someone else might disagree because a leg injury is a mobility disability and an arm injury generally is not (and I do plan to consult with sensitivity readers on the mobility limitation aspects of that character’s injuries). “Focus on” is also an imprecise term, and I’m not going to try to define it as N% of word count or what have you. Again, this comes down to what your conscience tells you. You will know whether you’re mostly writing from your own experience; you will know whether the heart of your story is the pain of a marginalized group.
Ultimately, no one but you can decide whether you should continue with a given project. I’m offering these as ethical guidelines, but you need to make your own decisions.
From this point on, my post assumes that any stories you want to write that are primarily about unpleasant things happening to or being done by marginalized people are, broadly speaking, ownvoices stories.
Let’s start with some axioms.
Stories that explore real pain (physical, psychological, emotional) felt by real people can be very valuable for many reasons. They can be cathartic for the people who are writing them; they can be cathartic for the people they’re about; they can be educational for people who haven’t experienced that pain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to write stories like that.
There is an enormous corpus of fiction and nonfiction written by marginalized people that digs deep into their most painful and sorrowful experiences. If you want to write stories like that about your own pain, or about the pain of people like you, I strongly encourage you to read the works of others who have done likewise. You aren’t alone in wanting to do this, and the publication and lauding of other non-fluffy ownvoices works will remind you that there absolutely is an audience out there for stories like the ones you want to tell.
The (perceived) scarcity and obscurity of works by and about people like you should not stop you from telling the story you want to tell. There is no tipping point of sufficient happy stories in the world that will make it okay for you to tell sad or scary or angry ones. If your story doesn’t reach a fellow member of your marginalized group, it can be hard to say “Sorry it doesn’t work for you, try reading another one” while knowing that there are not many other ones out there. However:
- If your choice is between writing a story that doesn’t please everyone and not writing any stories because you’re stressing about wanting to please everyone—write your stories. Any critique that makes you want to stop writing is a bad critique, and that includes self-critique.
- You can always look for and support other writers in your group who are writing other types of work. Collaborate with them on promotions so you can both reach more people who need your different stories.
- If you acknowledge that there’s value in writing for a minority group, there is arguably more value in writing for a minority of that minority. If you feel marginalized within your marginalized community because of the stories you want to write, remember that readers who want to read those stories feel the same way. Write for them.
- You don’t actually know that only 30 people want your stories until you get your stories out there. You could be writing for a majority of the minority and not even know it until the sales numbers come in.
- The most compelling argument, to me, is that a fundamental way of making the world better for people like us is to show that we get to write whatever we want. We get to write bad books, we get to write silly books, we get to write fluffy books, we get to write scary and sad books, we get to write books that other people think are a waste of time. it’s still on us to go about that in an ethical way, but that’s a matter of how we do it, not whether we do it.
In short, we solve the scarcity problem by writing more, and we solve the obscurity problem by boosting one another, and we keep doing these things until there are 60,000 books for marginalized readers to choose from. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our worst problem was too many books on our to-read lists? Let’s make it happen.
Most harm caused by stories about marginalized characters is attributable to failures of craft or audience mismatch. When stories about the pain of marginalization fall short, it’s often because of clichés and stereotypes, insufficient research, clunky prose, and other technical flaws that undermine their value as chronicles of real feelings and experiences. Writers of ownvoices stories have an advantage of knowledge, but all writers need to develop their skills, unpack their internalized biases, and work with sensitivity readers and editors and betas in order to handle readers’ most volatile emotions with the care and skill they require. I’m not saying that either story or writer needs to be perfect, but writing these stories is writing on hard mode, and it takes some time and effort to work up to that.
(I speak from personal experience here. I have a multiply ownvoices novel that’s back-burnered until I feel like a good enough writer to handle the topics it covers. It’s very frustrating to have to focus on less personal projects when I want to be digging into that one, but I know that it’s going to pay off in the long run.)
Audience mismatch means that the story is being read by people who don’t actually want that kind of story. This can happen if you’ve got a regular beta reader who’s not prepared for you to try something very different from what you’ve written before, or if your work’s genre is mislabeled, or even if your cover art doesn’t accurately signal what’s inside. A reader who wants a happy story will think of your angry or sorrowful story as “unsuccessful” no matter how good it is, because it wasn’t successful at meeting that reader’s expectations. With all stories, and these stories in particular, it’s very important to make sure you’re reaching the readers who want what you’re writing, and warning off the ones who don’t.
Any critique of the form “no one wants stories that _____” is wrong. All fiction has an audience somewhere. There is a world of difference between “no one should tell a story like this” (always wrong) and “you aren’t telling this story in a way that works for me” (always worth listening to, even if you ultimately discard the critique).
Finally, some advice. For this section I’m going to use a case study: Elizabeth Hand’s 1991 short story “The Bacchae,” a story in which women respond to patriarchal suppression by treating men as brainless sex objects and becoming casually violent (be warned that there is a lot of blood in the story, including animal harm). At one point, the male protagonist’s female companion says, “I think you just don’t like it when things don’t go as you expect them to. Even if it’s the way things really are supposed to be.” That tension between the reader’s initial expectations and the story’s own deeper logic makes it very disturbing for some readers, and very cathartic for others.
Before you start or as you write, decide whether this is a story you want to share, and if it is, whether it’s a story you want to sell. Some stories that are worth writing have no commercial potential. Some stories that are worth writing don’t even need to be shared with anyone other than the writer. If you are writing a story about pain and intending to sell it or share it, think about who your anticipated audience is and how to balance what you need from writing it with what your audience wants from reading it. The more disturbing or challenging a story is, the harder it may be to find any kind of commercial success with it. However, remember that you only need to find one editor or publisher willing to take a chance on your work.
Write as though no one will ever know whether you belong to the group you’re writing about. Your story has to stand on its own and be worth reading on its own. “It’s ownvoices” can put an interesting additional angle on a story that already works without it, but it can’t cover for failures of craft or defang hurtful words.
Decide whether to make a public claim of affiliation. No reader is owed personal information about you, especially if that’s a matter of safety. There’s a long and honorable tradition of using initials or a pen name or a falsified bio to hide one’s marginalization, and if doing that feels right to you, then by all means do it.
(This should go without saying, but absolutely do not falsely state or imply that you’re part of a marginalized group. It’s one thing to undermine a biased system by claiming access to privilege you don’t usually have. It’s quite another to place yourself in competition with other marginalized people by claiming a marginalized identity that’s not yours.)
Privacy or the lack of it always comes with trade-offs. In this case, privacy may lead readers to feel more free to critique you (and perhaps to do so in pointed and personal ways) because, as a perceived or presumed member of the majority, you are assumed to have the privilege and emotional armor to withstand it, and you may also be seen as intruding into spaces that aren’t yours. You may also be lauded as one of the few people in the majority who really understand how to write minority voices, or receive opportunities that wouldn’t go to someone whose marginalization is apparent—experiences that can be both enjoyable and uncomfortable. It’s up to you to decide how to balance your various risks.
Every story that reflects the messiness of the real world will cause readers some discomfort; your job is to choose which readers to discomfit, and to what end. In an interview about “The Bacchae,” Hand says she deliberately drew parallels between the experiences of women in the real world and those of men in her story, and “exorcised some demons” relating to her own experiences of being violently harmed by men. She was undoubtedly aware that a lot of people would find her story uncomfortable or upsetting to read, and felt it was still worth writing—perhaps because she wanted to upset them, or perhaps because her priority was the process of exorcism for herself and the readers who identify with the rage of her female characters.
Strange and Unusual, you mention craving positive feedback. You may well get it if you write your more disturbing stories, because there’s absolutely a market for those, but you may also get a lot of negative feedback alongside it. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it for you.
When writing about the pain felt by a particular group, center that group as your audience. Even if you’re aiming for mainstream publication to reach a wide range of readers, some of those readers will be in the group you’re writing about, and it’s important to treat those readers with care.
Some readers will feel their unhappy experiences are most accurately reflected by unhappy endings, and some will want a note of happiness or optimism to help them hope for the same in their own lives. Some will be comfortable with explicit depictions of unpleasant situations, and others will prefer metaphor or turned-tables situations. (“The Bacchae” is clearly about sexual violence but never directly depicts it, a choice that in no way undermines the power of the story and may make it safer for readers who don’t want to see their traumatic past experiences on the page.) Some who have internalized self-hating messages will want to see characters like them be brutalized, and others will want to see those same messages undermined and countered. You can’t please or satisfy all of those readers, since they want contradictory things, but you can write in a way that takes them into consideration and doesn’t actively antagonize or scorn those who want something different than you’re interested in providing.
Hand establishes from the very first paragraph of “The Bacchae” that this is a bloody, gory story, giving readers who don’t want that an immediate opportunity to opt out. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, another often grim ownvoices work, does the same thing, opening with a scene of a father killing his young son. These unflinching openers are sort of like content notes or trigger warnings embedded in the text; they say, “If you can’t get through this scene, then this story is not for you.” Any story that wrestles with challenging topics will be suited to some readers and not suited to others. Making your approach clear up front is one way—though not the only way and not a mandatory way—to be respectful of the readers who are in your centered group but not in your target audience.
Gather a team that wants to work on the stories you want to write. Your betas, SRs, and editors need to be passionate about your work and share your goals for it. It may be hard to find the right readers for your darker fiction, but cast your net widely and put in the time and effort to assemble a group of people who are into reading what you’re into writing.
Be prepared for a challenging writing process. When you find yourself struggling with whether you should (or are “allowed” to) write these stories, remember that the real question is when and how to write them. When is about your development of your writing skills and your emotional preparedness; how is about employing your skills as well as your technical and personal support teams. Stories about pain, anger, sorrow, and fear can be incredibly rewarding to tell, and can also be absolutely wrenching. You may never feel fully ready to write them, even as you feel a desperate need to write them. They may take many more drafts than you’re used to. You may have to step away from them for months or years at a time if the emotions are overwhelming or you realize your technical ability just isn’t where you need it to be. Comments from SRs and editors, even very gentle ones, can be devastating. You may need to edit with tweezers instead of your usual bulldozer. That’s part of the nature of writing from your pain. Keep taking care of yourself as you go, and make sure the people you lean on really are supporting you and your work.
Be prepared for strong criticism. Some people are going to judge your work harshly because it’s not what they want or because they find it upsetting. This is an inevitable side effect of writing stories that provoke strong emotions, especially when they’re aimed at people who are already vulnerable because of the collective trauma of marginalization. Only you can decide how to balance your safety and comfort against your desire to write these stories.
You may decide to use a pseudonym; you may decide to start out writing more mainstream works and gradually trend toward writing the stories of your heart; you may decide that you will never read your reviews; you may hire extra sensitivity readers and editors to be absolutely sure that when you send your works out into the world, you do so knowing that they are the absolute best you could make them; you may publish a manifesto explaining why you think it’s important to write what you do. As with the question of identity privacy, preparing for strong criticism is something that everyone will handle differently. But do prepare for it, because it will come your way.
I hope none of this discourages you from telling the stories you want to tell. They are valid, valuable stories about things that really matter, and there is an audience out there for them. It will be difficult, but when you’re ready for that challenge, I know you’re going to knock it out of the park. Hang in there, and keep writing!
Many thanks to the Story Hospital Patreon patrons who provided invaluable critique of the first draft of this post.
This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!