Content note: This letter and the reply refer to racist and ableist stereotypes and tropes, and themes of mass violence against marginalized people. Continue reading
Dear Story Nurse,
I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.
The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.
Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.
So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.
My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.
—Dendritic Trees (she/her)
Dear Dendritic Trees,
That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.
This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!
Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve started a project that’s purely for fun and low pressure. It’s a collection of short erotica stories with genre flavor. Fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, maybe a dip into some public domain stuff like Arthurian legend.
I want to make my collection diverse and not just feature people like me. It would get boring and unrealistic if only white, bi, depressed cis women were featured! But since I’m writing erotica I’m worried I’ll fetishize people and include harmful tropes. I know about some tropes to avoid like the plague, but I’m not an expert. I don’t want to hurt people with my writing! How do I avoid this stuff?
Social Justice Pornographer (she/her)
Dear Social Justice Pornographer,
What a great question! Since this is outside my area of expertise, I invited guest contributor Cecilia Tan (she/her) to write a response.
After over 20 years publishing erotic science fiction with Circlet Press and writing erotic fiction herself whenever she could get the time, Cecilia made a career pivot into erotic romance. She’s now an award-winning romance writer, but her heart remains in erotic SF/F, she’s still the editorial director of Circlet Press, and she’s launching an erotic urban fantasy series with Tor Books in September with the book Initiates of the Blood.
Many thanks to the Patreon patrons and others (including you, letter writer!) whose support enabled me to pay Cecilia an honorarium for her work. (You can also support Circlet on Patreon.) I’m very pleased to be able to bring her words to you.
Cecilia Tan writes:
Dear Social Justice Pornographer,
I’m honored to be asked to address your question and must confess right off the bat that your collection sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read. Given that I’ve been reading Circlet’s slush pile and submissions for 26 years, I can assure you your concerns are valid, but by being aware of the issues you’ve already taken the major first step toward being able to address them in your work.
Dear Story Nurse,
What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?
I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.
There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).
My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)
I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.
So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?
I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.
I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm you. Your writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.
Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.
Hello Story Nurse!
You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.
Thank you for all your good work!
—Space Lesbian (she/her)
Dear Space Lesbian,
It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.
Dear Story Nurse,
I am a trans, gay boy and often write about trans and gay topics, but I often find that a lot of internalized transphobia and homophobia makes its way into my writing. I write poems and essays, and when writing them I always find these present, yet don’t know how to restructure my writing in a way that eliminates them.
Additionally, I am trying to come out to someone in a letter. While I realize that this website is not specifically about trans issues, I was wondering if you could help me figure out how to work up the courage to write a piece like this and how to make sure I do actually get to writing it.
It’s awesome that you’re tackling these things. I’ve had the same struggles with internalized transphobia in my own writing; being trans doesn’t protect us from breathing in transphobia along with the cultural air. Fortunately, there are some tactics we can use to filter out biases before they pollute our writing.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m about to start writing the next volume of a fantasy series and find myself-second-guessing my choice of 1st person protagonist. In the usual way of fantasy novels, all of my previous protagonists (multiple per book) have been exceptional in some way: magical talents, physical skills, social status, etc. Because I want to write a wide diversity of characters, for this one I deliberately designed a character who is not “special”. A young working-class woman with no magical talents, no money, limited economic expectations, and only tentative aspirations with regard to the skill she has her sights on (dressmaking). But she gets drawn into adventures because of the friends she makes and because she chooses to support the skills and aspirations of those friends with her own more everyday abilities. (The book is planned to be YA.)
That circle of friends is itself fairly diverse, including people with physical disability, marginalized ethnic and religious background, trans identity, as well as some with more privileged backgrounds. But now I’m second-guessing the reasons I chose a “default settings” protagonist. (She’s lesbian, but in my series that pretty much counts as a default character setting, though it does make her life more precarious.)
I keep thinking of stories I’ve read or viewed where my reaction was, “Why wasn’t this the black girl’s story—she’s the more interesting character? Why doesn’t the disabled character get to be the hero?” And yet, as the story is designed, all those other characters intersect the story and are brought together through her. Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit. (I know this is sort of vague without giving the whole plot.)
Am I overthinking this? Can an everywoman of a poor non-magical queer white laundry maid be a worthy protagonist?
You’ve actually got two questions here, cleverly disguised as one. The first is whether an ordinary person—in the sense of non-extraordinary, someone lacking in special powers or status—can be a successful protagonist. The second is whether a “default settings” person, someone who is not significantly marginalized in their setting, can be a successful protagonist. The answer to both questions is yes. You just have to pick the right kind of story for her, and understand who you’re telling that story for. Continue reading