Writing Characters from Maligned and Abused Groups

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I’m starting this week off with a bang.  One that I’m sure I’ll regret once the comments start rolling in.  Nobody likes to poke the social hornet nests that we live with, but you have to at times.  It becomes essential when you reach a point where you’re considering doing something ‘controversial’.

So, how is using maligned or abused groups controversial?  It’s because you have to be delicate and one slip can cause people to take offense.  You might not realize you’re doing it either because many groups who are the targets of bias and hate are colored by stereotypes that those outside the group don’t realize are offensive.  For example, not everyone realizes the big nose and being cheap are insulting stereotypes for Jews.  This means that an author can accidentally trigger people, but the book is usually published by then and it’s too late in some cases.  So, many try to avoid the topics.

With Slumberlord Chronicles, I started thinking about this because two of the characters in the first book are conjoined twins.  They’re connected by their sides and were originally two women who wanted to get separated.  I kept wondering if this desire was insulting because they kind of hated themselves.  Tried to do research, but kept coming back to feeling like I was doing it wrong.  Them getting separated is a key component of the story, so I did a switch with one being male.  So, I thought male/female conjoined twins would make it clearer as to why they really want to get split.  Forget if genetics makes this possible since we’re working in a magical world.

Was this perfect?  No.  I still have some nerves about it even after making it clear that they love each other, but want to be separated.  It’s a comfort thing, I guess, especially since they have opposite personalities and interests.  One worships a goddess of joy and sex while the other worships the goddess of pain.  Needless to say, religious ceremonies are difficult and require sleeping pills for the one who doesn’t want to be there.

Anyway, that got me thinking about this along with someone asking me if I would ever write a trans character.  As I am now, I would say no because I don’t think I understand being trans enough to write the character correctly.  Also, Windemere wouldn’t be a place where they would be easily accepted.  In a world where you have orcs, dwarves, elves, humanoid dragons, cat-people, lycanthropes, and vampires, I don’t really think a person wanting to become the gender they feel is right would get any pushback.  Be plenty of spells and rituals to do it too.  A final reason is that I’m rather cruel to my characters and I think doing that to a trans character in current society would be wrong.  So, I’d have this character with ultimate plot armor and be too afraid to do anything that could be triggering.  Maybe down the road, but we’ll see.

That’s a big thing with touching on maligned and abused groups.  You need an understanding of those groups to make sure you get them right.  A wrong step can bring in anger from them, but it can also give fuel to those who hate them.  Last thing an author wants is to be praised by people who openly hate others simply for existing.  At least, it’s the last thing this author wants, which is why I get twitchy when I come close to sensitive topics.  Understanding and discussion can help clear things even after publishing, which counters me saying it’s too late.  You can’t change the book, but you can admit you messed up, try to show where you came from, and learn.  If it’s part of a series then you can work on fixing it in the sequel.  As long as you’re given a chance since there are a lot of ‘one strike and you’re out’ mentalities on social media.

I’m doing a ‘Questions 3’ on Wednesday, but let’s hear what people have to say in general about this.  Have you ever written a story with characters from groups who are hated for existing?  How did it go and what did you do to avoid stereotypes and triggers?  Do you avoid these types of characters for some reason?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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15 Responses to Writing Characters from Maligned and Abused Groups

  1. tealveyre says:

    It sounds like you always try to be thoughtful and do research when writing marginalized characters. As far as writing trans characters, I see a lot of cis writers who want to focus on trans pain and write trauma porn. I think if you ever do write a trans character, it’s probably better to just write a trans person without focusing heavily on dysphoria or trans trauma. And then just find trans people to sensitivity read it for you.

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    • That’s what I’ve been thinking. I don’t think a character I write being trans would have it be a focal point either. Just a part of them as they go on whatever adventure I have set for them. This is why even doing research here throws me off. I kind of feel like I’d have to make them being trans the central part of the story. It’s also why I’ve shelved a character who kept getting their gender magically switched to the point that they don’t remember the original. That was interesting in college, but now it feels insulting. At least to me.

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  2. noelleg44 says:

    You’ve got this exactly right, I think!

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  3. I think you are doing the right thing. I personally would never write about a marginalized group without asking someone from that group to read what I’ve written.

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  4. L. Marie says:

    A really thoughtful post, Charles. I can’t blame authors for wanting to includecharacters from marginalized groups. But as you mentioned, people can get angry if they feel a character was not written in a realistic way.

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  5. This is a sad commentary on our modern society. There are folks who are looking for something to be angry about. I try to be inclusive in my stories and have included many races, and a lot of female leads. I try to present them like anyone else and not controversial. Any time I get more specific, there is a basis in fact, like the time someone accused my black character of skin-lightening.

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    • I think there’s always been those people, but social media gives them more reach and power. Many do have a point when they get annoyed. Others seem to do it for attention, especially when they speak out for another group.

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  6. It’s so difficult to write about characters who are “Not-I.” It’s also necessary, because readers are tired of reading about not-yet-very-successful writers…

    One way to write inclusive fiction is to write fiction based on facts and leave the demographic mix the way it really was.

    In short stories, a trick I like is not describing the characters. I don’t always make it obvious whether they’re US or UK, either.

    Then of course there’s fantasy and science fiction, where a writer can make statements about race prejudice, etc., while leaving human ethnic groups out of the story altogether and writing about prejudice among groups of aliens. (See, for example, JD Edwin’s “Master of the Arena.”)

    As far as the “sexual minorities” are concerned…if you are one, and have something to say other than LOOK AT ME, I’M A FREAK, that’s cool. (See, for example, Ellen Hawley’s “Other People Manage.”) If not I prefer that writers just not go there. There aren’t enough transgender people, or even active homosexuals, for everybody to have known one intimately enough that person’s sex life needs to be mentioned. Dragging characters of those descriptions into a story can come across as LOOK AT ME, I’M P.C. AND TRENDY, which is not so cool. (But writers *can* say things like “Jack and Joe came in together, late, telling everybody about the groundhog that had burrowed into their basement” and leave it to the reader’s imagination whether they’re a couple.)

    Religious minorities, ditto. We could do with more fiction about people who take their religious beliefs seriously and live by them, but it’s hard to invent people like that unless you either are one or know one very well. Knowing that Amish people don’t read novels makes it hard to respect non-Amish writers’ books about Amish characters for non-Amish audiences.

    It would be pleasant, though, if more writers at least tried the exercise of inventing credible, respectful and respectable, characters who disagree with the authors’ politics.

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    • I actually never noticed how often the ‘struggling author’ archetype was being used. I tend to stick to my fantasy fiction interests and leave that for anyone who prefers Earth.

      The issue with ‘not going there’ is that people now expect authors to go there. If you write a book that’s all straight then people will call you out for not having any variety. Actual percentages of the population don’t factor into that. Personally, I don’t think they should any way. Just because there are fewer lgbtq+ people than heterosexuals doesn’t mean they wouldn’t find themselves in a story situation. Once you enter fantasy, the percentages mean even less because you can make it a world where such things were never demonized, so people in that group would be open. That’s another reason I don’t listen to the percentages here. We really don’t know how many lgbtq+ are hiding their true selves out of fear of being targeted by people who still see them as abominations instead of people.

      Leaving stuff to the the audience imagination comes with a risk too. One that I’ve stumbled into. People will project what they want on that character and then expect the evolution to follow that belief. If they’re wrong, they end up turning on the author. This is why I prefer to give some direction as to the specifics of a character even if it’s not blatant. Otherwise, I get angry private messages on my hands.

      I do agree that many authors need to get better at writing the opposing viewpoint with more respect. Again, I write fantasy, so I can do whatever I want and not get dragged into real world stuff. For example, the history of my fantasy world makes it really hard to have large scale racism. I tried at one point, but it fell horribly flat and didn’t match the rest of my world.

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  7. V.M.Sang says:

    It’s tricky. Charles. In one of my books, (a prequel to my Wolves of Vimar series) I had a suicide. Sadly, it did upset one reader at least and she docked a couple of stars. I was upset that she was upset, but it was necessary for the story. Or at least for the next prequel, anyway. I’ve wracked my brains as to how I could give a warning without it being a spoiler, but to no avail.
    I have a gay character (actually my antagonist. I hope people don’t read into that that I’m homophobic!) in my Wolves of Vimar series. I didn’t set out for him to be gay, it just happened. One of those odd things where the character seems to tell you.
    It is difficult to write about groups that you know little about, though. Research all you like, it’s not the same as knowing someone intimately who is in one of those groups.

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    • The suicide issue is one I’ve seen before. You could put a warning in the blurb, but then you remove a lot of impact from that act. People will read and try to guess who will do it. I think it’s a no-win situation. Same happened to me when I killed the main character’s dog in my first book. I couldn’t find a way around that for what I needed to happen later in the series.

      Gay characters as villains always make me nervous these days. I hope nobody reads too far into it.

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