#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

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.

Before I begin, I want to gratefully acknowledge that my thoughts on this topic have been significantly informed by the work of many, many writers and activists, most of whom are women of color. I’ve named and linked a few people and resources in this piece; please consider that a starting point, and invest some time in further research.

K. Tempest Bradford has put together a primer on what cultural appropriation is, which I highly recommend reading. It has links to many other useful pieces on the subject, including Nisi Shawl’s beautifully succinct piece on ways to reframe the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction.

Shawl writes, “[I]t’s unrealistic for an author to expect to be awarded an embossed, beribboned certificate proclaiming the authenticity of her work.” This reminds me of a talk I went to with activists Ajay Chaudry and Eric Ward, where they discussed the idea of people seeking not only plaudits for bravely writing across color lines but absolution or forgiveness for potentially getting it wrong and hurting a reader. If you’ve had thoughts in that direction, I urge you to move away from them and look for other ways to frame your relationship to your work and your readers. No one can tell you “Congratulations, your work is guaranteed harmless!” or “You aren’t one of those white people!” with any degree of certainty, because no one speaks for all members of their cultural group. Even people from within a group can have the “authenticity” of their work questioned (Ken Liu has spoken about this, with regard to his fantasy novels influenced by Chinese history). There is no absolution; there are no clear-cut rules that you can strictly follow and thereby relieve your anxiety. There is only you, doing your best.

Bradford also links to the Australia Council for the Arts’ protocols for working with Indigenous artists. Some elements of these are specific to Indigenous Australian cultures and their history with white colonizers, but reading the guidelines on writing, which include information for non-Indigenous writers writing on Indigenous themes, will give you some idea of the types of pitfalls you might run into as you address any culture not your own, especially those that have been repeatedly appropriated. These bullet points are particularly apropos, I think:

Some important questions to consider about interpretation are:

  • How will your writing affect the Indigenous group it is based on?
  • Does it empower them?
  • Does it expose confidential or personal and sensitive material?
  • Does it reinforce negative stereotypes?

If you want to shift away from worrying about or seeking advance absolution for harm you might potentially cause, try focusing on that second question of whether your work empowers the people you’re writing about. Another approach is Rose Lemberg’s model of “unbreaking the reader”. What would make your portrayal of (your fantasy equivalent of) China healing, satisfying, and empowering for a reader of Chinese descent?

Obviously you will need to do your research; less often discussed is the notion of honoring your sources. Consider including a research bibliography in the back of your novel. You can use the acknowledgments section to highlight teachers, librarians, essayists, sensitivity readers, and others whose assistance made your book a rich and thoughtful and unbreaking portrayal of its various cultures. (Make sure you get permission from anyone you want to name.)

One of the major concerns about appropriation is economic exploitation, the use of another culture’s stories or history to enrich yourself. Donating a portion of your proceeds to one or more appropriate nonprofits is one way to address that concern. (I recommend the Carl Brandon Society, which supports people of color in the SF/F writing field.) Hiring and paying sensitivity readers is another good way to directly support people with roots in the cultures you’re writing about. You can also include writers from those cultures in your promotions for your book, with paired giveaways and joint book signing events, and promote those writers and their work separately from promoting your own work.

Finally, consider Hiromi Goto’s questions for white writers:

1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; it is quite possible for you to think hard about them and decide to move forward with your project in an ethical fashion. As Goto and Shawl both observe, saying that white writers can only write about white people is its own contribution to erasure. As I’ve noted in the past, you are absolutely allowed to write outside your own experience. If this is the story your heart longs to tell, by all means tell it! Just be willing to put in the work: do research, hire sensitivity readers, excavate your internalized biases, and keep the marginalized reader foremost in your thoughts. Your book will be all the better for it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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!

#75: Guest Post: Writing Inclusive Erotica

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?

Yours,

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.

Cheers,

Story Nurse


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.

I feel every writer may benefit from the understanding that their work does not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a relationship between writer and reader. Sometimes it’s important to temporarily “forget” that while in the act of creation—if your muse is prone to clam up when you think too much about the reader, for example, or if considering the reader empowers your internal censor to the point that you don’t write anything at all—but ultimately, after the story is written, if you’re thinking about publishing it, you are thinking about sharing it with other human beings who may be affected by it. Fiction has a special ability to slip past internal defenses, which is why it can hurt so deeply if we feel betrayed by a story.

The fact that you are concerned about fetishizing people likely means you already understand that fiction can perpetuate harm. Stereotypes can be a vehicle to perpetuate bias, racism, or misogyny. Fetishization is erotic fiction’s special catch-22, in which stereotypes are not only present in the story, they’re exploited for sexual gratification. And yet… isn’t sexual gratification the point of an erotic story?

Let me say first that I don’t believe exploitation for sexual gratification to be “worse” than exploitation or harmful representation of other kinds. Sex is not a crime, and liking sex or writing erotica is not inherently morally reprehensible, even though some segments of society would like us to think so. However, if fiction already has the power to slip past our defenses and cut deeply, erotic fiction in particular cuts right at the core of many people’s most closely guarded private selves. As an Asian-American woman, I might find some racist caricatures of Asians laughable and ignore them, while Asian fetishization in an erotic story, though equally dehumanizing, might feel much more personal and difficult to ignore.

Likewise, erotic stories often feel especially personal to the author, which can make accepting criticism of them much more difficult, too. When we write down erotic fantasies, it can be a very empowering act, very freeing to the self and the psyche, but it can also make us very vulnerable by exposing such privately held thoughts to the world. But that is also why erotica is crucial writing, and especially important in the midst of our largely sex-negative, sex-judgmental culture. Erotica truly can be social justice work.

That’s all preamble to my actual advice which is, first of all, write. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist, so don’t let the fear that you might do wrong paralyze you into not writing in the first place, nor stop you from trying to do good in the world by writing diversely.

The second step is to examine the stance of your story toward the characters in it who are not like you. “Othering” is a verb that encompasses many possible things, all of them bad. Have you set them on a pedestal as an example of all that is noble? While that might seem laudable on the surface, it’s still dehumanizing and othering. Are you using your trans character as a metaphor for your own desire to remake yourself as a new person? People aren’t metaphors, but it can be argued that all fiction is. If the only reason a trans character is there is to be a metaphorical stand-in, then once again they’ve been dehumanized. Have you portrayed a character as a three-dimensional, realistic human? Then you’re doing well and it’s win-win, because fully three-dimensional characters aren’t just less likely to be harmful representations, they’re also good writing.

The third step, after you’ve examined your perspective, is the hardest part, which is to have others examine your perspective as well. From within we can only expand our vision so much, and it takes the help of others to extend that view. When writing erotica it’s important to find beta readers and sensitivity readers who aren’t of the opinion that all porn is inherently exploitative. (There are still some people who think that.) And ideally, if you’re writing about a member of a certain group, you’ll want feedback from members of that group. Only the people you are writing about can tell you whether they feel respected or disrespected by your representation.

Finally, it’s good to bear in mind that the more marginalized the group or identity of the person, the more likely they are to have been subjected to harmful representation, and so the more likely they are to be critical. When people see the same mistakes again and again, they may get less patient about correcting them. Rather than being defensive if you are called out on a common mistake, try to realize why you made that mistake (from your more privileged position, did you imagine the experience of a marginalized person inaccurately? Did you put yourself in the position of “savior” in a way that dehumanized those you were supposedly aiding? etc.) and don’t just pledge to do better, but examine whether you can improve your perspective to avoid that pitfall in the future.

I truly believe in erotica writing as a form of social justice. Our society heaps so much guilt and shame onto sex and sexuality, but a writer who breaks past that to celebrate and empower their own sexuality can empower their readers to do the same. Imagining and inhabiting spaces free of that shame via fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have toward creating those spaces in real life, and it’s laudable to want that freedom for all.


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!

#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

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?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

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 youYour 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.

Continue reading

#70: Excavating Internalized Biases, Part Two: Catching Bigotry Mid-Draft

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.

Continue reading

#36: Excavating Internalized Biases

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.

Thank you!

—R.W. (he/him)

Dear R.W.,

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.

Continue reading

#31: The Myth of the Everyperson

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?

—heatherrosejones (she/her)

Dear heatherrosejones,

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.

1. Ordinary protagonists

Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of positive, inspiring media that center ordinary people:

  • The song “Somebody Will” by Sassafrass
  • Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series of books
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
  • Sesame Street
  • Bob Ross’s painting videos
  • Jane Austen’s novels
  • This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee of interviews with civil rights activists

Stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things are escapist fantasies: “Wouldn’t it be cool if my life were like that?” Stories about ordinary people doing ordinary (but still important and valuable) things are very different. They encourage us to think, “I can do that right now.”

The television shows I mentioned basically teach that message over and over and over. You can manage your feelings! You can learn to count! You can paint! And gradually viewers absorb the greater lesson: whatever it is you think you can’t do, you probably actually can.

Austen’s novels have a more specific focus: even if you think you can’t find love, you probably actually can. And the activists and “Somebody Will” say that even if you think you can’t contribute significantly to efforts to make the world better, you probably actually can. And Pierce’s books, like your story, say that even if you think you can’t have adventures because you’re too ordinary, you probably actually can. But the gist is the same.

So let’s recast your story in those terms:

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.

That sounds to me like “Even if you think you can’t be a good friend without uncomfortable amounts of self-sacrifice or self-denial, you probably actually can.” And that’s a lesson many people could stand to learn, especially many people who, like your protagonist, are marginalized in some ways but privileged in others, and are trying to figure out how to balance what they need (or feel they are owed) with what they can give.

You’re absolutely right that many stories with ordinary protagonists also have boring protagonists, but that’s a story craft issue. We’re swimming in the narrative conceit that what makes extraordinary characters interesting is their extraordinariness and what makes protagonists interesting is that they’re protagonists. Stories built on those premises tend to keep the action and adventure coming so quickly that they can kind of get away with it for a bit. (They also tend to have sequels that fall flat as pancakes because the initial excitement has worn off and readers realize there was nothing underneath it.) So if you take away the crutch of extraordinariness, many writers fail to realize that they now have to put in actual protagonist character development work to compensate.

Meanwhile, those same writers put significant effort into building up side characters because they’re more aware that side characters can’t just skate by on their extraordinariness. Side characters also often get moral complexity than the protagonist does, especially in heroic tales where the protagonist is the embodiment of goodness, and they provide conversational foils, dispensing both banter and wisdom. And if they’re more marginalized than the protagonist is, they have more real-world problems to contend with, making them more relatable to readers. Naturally, these complicated, sympathetic, well-developed characters steal every scene.

To avoid this trap, take the time to figure out what makes your protagonist interesting, to herself and to the people around her, and to learn the Mister Rogers lesson that characters can make their stories special just by being their unique selves. Think about the people in your life with whom you can happily talk for hours and never feel bored. How do they hold your interest? What makes you want to hang out with them over and over again? Use that knowledge to help your readers feel just as good about spending hours of reading time with your protagonist. And make sure you spend just as much time developing her depth and complexity as you do for any of her companions, and give her plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, wrestle with her conscience, and support other characters on their own journeys.

2. “Default settings” protagonists

You’re also right that many (many) (so many) stories fall into the trap of considering someone with tremendous social privilege to be a protagonist whom of course all readers will be able to relate to, while relegating marginalized characters to narrative support roles because they would be “unrelatable” in the central role. (“I can’t relate to this character” is a phrase often used by privileged editors and readers to reject work featuring marginalized protagonists, even though marginalized readers are expected to force themselves to relate to privileged protagonists.) To some extent, you’ve fallen into that trap too, awkwardly stretching the term everywoman to cover both the ways your character is marginalized and the ways that she’s privileged. Is she an everywoman because she’s poor and queer and low-status and therefore overlooked by the elite, or because she’s white and able-bodied and therefore the narrative default? Rather than trying to thread that needle, I recommend ditching the label altogether. No one is actually an everywoman, and you will do your story and your readers a much greater service by focusing on her as a complete and unique person.

With regard to having a protagonist who’s privileged in some respects, you’ve already taken steps in the right direction by constructing your story around her learning to genuinely value the marginalized people she knows rather than treating them as objects. Now you just have to make sure the narrative also doesn’t treat those people as objects for her to learn important life lessons from.

There’s nothing morally wrong with having a white protagonist, but you have to put some work into making her a protagonist worth reading. Some starting points:

  • Give her a distinct identity, rather than leaving her whiteness as an unmarked state. (Both those links are to posts by the marvelous and insightful Mary Anne Mohanraj. I highly recommend reading them in full.)
  • Describe her and other white characters in similar ways to how you describe nonwhite characters. If you mention race for some people, mention it for everyone.
  • Don’t define the character’s attractiveness in terms of her pale skin, light-colored eyes, or other attributes linked with whiteness. If a particular other character is attracted to her because of those qualities, be careful to distinguish that from a narrative opinion that those qualities are inherently attractive.
  • Be aware of ethnic distinctions as well as racial ones, and how identities and labels change from one situation to another. For example, someone who’s seen as white in America might be regarded as Italian in Europe and Calabrian in Italy—none of which tells you how they think of themself (which may also change depending on the situation they’re in).
  • Avoid the many clichés of white exceptionalism, such as the white savior, the white anti-racist activist who helps nonwhite people realize how oppressed they are, or the white ruler over a nation of nonwhite people. If your story looks like a million anonymous brown arms reaching out for one named blond lady, something is awry.

Likewise, for an abled protagonist:

  • Give her an explicit relationship with her embodied self. The biggest cliché of the able body and brain is that they just work; the protagonist never encounters a burden they can’t lift or forgets important information. But in reality, everyone is conscious to some degree of being embodied, and everyone encounters situations that they’re not equipped for. Showing how your protagonist works around those situations can be great for character development.
  • Mention her physical and cognitive reactions to everyday situations such as not getting enough sleep or food, being startled, catching a cold, or having period cramps. Or, since she’s a poor working-class woman and probably has never gotten enough sleep or food, mention her physical and cognitive reactions to finally having a good meal or a full night’s rest, if the narrative allows her to have those things.
  • Mention her sensory reactions to the world around her.
  • Don’t use temporary injury or disability as a plot device that affects nothing else in the character’s life and magically gets better as soon as it’s no longer needed for plot reasons.
  • Make her skills and abilities appropriate for her age and lifestyle. There’s a fine line to walk here, because one person’s “that’s unrealistic” is another person’s “that sounds just like my grandma,” but in general, any skill or ability she has should have at least a scrap of attached backstory explaining how she acquired it (for your reference even if it doesn’t make it into the narrative), and any new thing she attempts should have a learning curve. Also, expending much more effort than usual should leave her tired and sore, and her vulnerability to ailments and recovery time from exertion should be increased by age, illness, malnourishment, or chronic exhaustion.

And in general:

  • If your character is aware of her privilege in certain areas, give her complex and plausible reactions to it, especially if she’s marginalized in other ways. Don’t make her a mouthpiece for endless platitudes about the importance of allyship, and be very wary of centering her story around her political awakening, which can easily turn into an exceptionalism narrative (especially if the less privileged people around her disproportionately admire or reward her awareness).
  • Regardless of whether she’s aware of her privilege, the narrative should be, and the marginalized people around her should be.
  • Her setting, whether real-world or created, should incorporate diversity of all sorts from the ground up. If it’s not, its homogeneity should clearly be due to overt or covert actions taken by one group to exclude other groups. Women-only colleges exist, but not by happenstance. Many of those colleges have majority-white student bodies, which is also not by happenstance.

Most importantly, she needs to be a real, multifaceted person. Just as you can’t assume that the protagonist is interesting by virtue of being the protagonist, you can’t assume that privileged people are interesting by virtue of being privileged. So in the end, there’s one answer to both your questions: yes, any fully developed character can be a protagonist in a story that’s written with care.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!