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So I’m taking this Creative Writing class focused on the short story. Which has been interesting, because, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often write short stories. Anyway.
In this class, we critique each other’s work (I know, shocking, right?). And semi-recently, one of my classmates wrote a story focusing on a character with mental illness (OCD and possibly depression) and we had a class critique.
And some of the suggestions for how the writer could make her mentally ill character more realistic? They made me cringe. Visibly. They were physically painful to my ears you guys, because they were so horrifically stereotypical.
Not wanting to jump into full lecture mode in the middle of class, I nicely suggested the writer do research before adding anything in. A lot of research.
I’m going to say here what I couldn’t really get into in class.
I am of the firm belief that representation of all types of minorities in the media is incredibly important. And I totally 100% encourage writers to do their darndest to represent the world we live in, not the white-washed able-bodied neurotypical world so often portrayed in the media.
But the thing is, there’s a right and wrong way to do representation, and trying to write a minority without doing tons of research is, quite frankly, disrespectful. And damaging. And painfully obvious.
Look, writing about any kind of minority group you’re not a part of (or hell, even one you are a part of) is scary. And it’s tough. And the thought that someone might read it and call you out on things you got wrong is terrifying. But you know what? People will call you out if it’s obvious you didn’t do your research, and they should.
I don’t care what you’re writing about, but if you rely on stereotypes to inform your writing, not only are you doing it wrong, not only are you being lazy, but you’re damaging the community you’re attempting to represent. Perpetuating stereotypes is not something to take lightly. Ever.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying your representation has to be perfect in your first draft (I mean, is anything perfect in the first draft? Obviously not). I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t bother attempting to include diverse characters in your WIP, or that it’s impossible for writers to get it right.
I’m not saying any of that.
What I am saying is you need to do your research. And a hell of a lot of it. You need to do whatever you can to learn as much about that community as possible—learn about the pre-existing stereotypes, learn about the things the media often gets wrong, learn about the realities of whatever minority you’re writing about, and don’t stop. If possible, try to get feedback from the community—many writers do specific calls for certain types of beta readers to help with that exactly.
Because the truth is whatever community you’re trying to represent wants you to get it right. We all do. But you need to put the work in, and you need to be respectful, and you need to understand that your perspective on that community may not be entirely accurate. You also need to understand that even after all that research and even with your best intentions, you might still get things wrong.
But most of all, don’t for a second think you can accurately portray any sort of minority without doing a ton of research. It’s not a step you can skip. The stakes are just too high.
Have you ever written diverse characters into your WIPs? What suggestions or tips do you have?
.@Ava_Jae says you can't "accurately portray any sort of minority without doing a ton of research." Thoughts? (Click to tweet)
Writer @Ava_Jae says there's a right and wrong way to represent minorities in your writing. What do you think? (Click to tweet)
When diversifying your writing, "perpetuating stereotypes is not something to take lightly. Ever." (Click to tweet)