Writing: Diversity vs Freedom of Expression

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Post Covid, two unrelated topics of concern dominate my writing group discussions; the emergence of AI, and diversity in stories (issues surrounding writing about minorities). I’ve already posted my initial thoughts on AI (read here) but I’ve avoided diving into diversity and writing. The reasoning — people have their own passionate opinions and I rather not offend people or feed trolls… When did we, as a collective society, lose the art of speaking to each other with respect? 

Writing About Minority Groups and Minority Characters

In recent years, there has been a backlash towards writers, usually white, writing about minority groups. The argument is unless you have lived the experience; you don’t know about it. Minority groups should tell their own stories and have been kept silent for far too long. It doesn’t help classic fiction tends to reflect poorly on minority groups. 

Freedom Of Expression

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Unfortunately, the belief that only minorities can write about themselves is in direct conflict with freedom of expression. The job of a writer is to explore society and people via their imagination and thus create fiction. This is what storytellers have done since the dawn of time. Our ancestors told stories of sky gods, but I’m pretty sure none of them were sky gods… prove me wrong — that would make me a demigod… hmm… Jest aside, writers can write about characters, places, and cultures using their creative minds. The muse wants to explore. Hell, I’m currently writing a dark fantasy set during the Dutch spice trade. I’m neither Dutch nor from the 1600s.

When Can a Writer Write Minority Characters?

For well over a decade, I have supported and encouraged writers as a coach of sorts. Censorship is a terrible thing for a creative, its jailing the muse. The new climate writers find themselves in is the old cliche “between a rock and a hard place”. We are being told not to write about other cultures, races, sexual orientations, or abilities (I’m sure I am missing a minority group or few), yet as the world becomes more global, we, at least in the West, have a growing expectation there will be diversity in our stories to reflect a diverse society. One perceived ill and the trolls patrol. Intentions mean jack-crap in this arena. 

Last session with my writing group, one of my writing friends expressed her concern. She published a lovely children’s book set in Australia and starring mice characters. In the story, for a page or two, the mice travel into the outback and meet some indigenous characters. Beautiful ending with the characters being united, staring up at the sky. The library refuses to put the book on the shelf so the book can be loaned to children. The book can be viewed on request. She inquired why her book was hidden away, the Librarians were sheepish. They asked her if she was Aboriginal. No. Although a local Aboriginal group passed the book on a sensitivity read. The book is still under lock and key. If the incident were one of I wouldn’t be writing about it. The truth is many writers have echoed similar stories; writing about Aboriginals in any context is taboo unless the writer identifies as an Aboriginal.

A Minority Writer Perspective

The conversation is lingering in my mind. Sometimes we learn our feelings when we shift players around. I am a part of a minority group. I’ve used a wheelchair for decades. It’s not something I’ve felt the need to advertise because, love me or hate me, I rather focus on my character and be accepted for me as a person. My focus is human connection and we all have challenges in life. Back to the question, should writers be allowed to write about minorities disabilities according to Tannille? No… and yes. It depends on the story. 

Exclusive Writing

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If the story is diving into culture and psychology, like an Oprah book club read, leave it alone unless you are disabled or have a close loved one with a disability. Without living experience, you don’t know what it’s like and will get it wrong. Let us have a go at telling our stories. People with disabilities rarely get a look. Please, don’t speak for us. 

I’m quite a flexible person, I’m sure there are exceptions, there always are, and I don’t hate on anyone who wants to write these stories. I believe in the intention above everything else. Write with caution. Question why you want to tell the story from a minority perspective. I think the key words are living experience. My challenges in life are different from a blind person. What would I know about being blind or going blind? Nothing. All I have is imagination and compassion. In saying that, I would feel comfortable writing a blind character if the story isn’t about blindness, the character just happens to be blind (and yes visual impairment would alter the plot somewhat — read on).

Inclusive Writing

Charles Xavier

If you’re writing in a plot-driven genre, such as sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and so on, where the muse creates a character who happens to be disabled — GO FOR IT. It’s called representation. People like to see themselves sometimes. In “X-Men” movies, the X-Men leader Charles Xavier is confined to a wheelchair, but his disability isn’t really who he is. His story is about leading and creating a safe haven for mutants. There is no deep dive into disability issues and his psychology surrounding his impairment. 

WARNING: Forced diversity sucks!!!

Joan of Arcadia

Diversity in stories can be tacky if not done in an organic fashion. Nobody likes Token and audiences are unforgiving these days. Characters need to be relatable and be beyond “skin” deep rather than ticking diversity boxes. Do research. My pet peeve is a storyline surrounding a physically challenged character who makes a miraculous full recovery. It’s not the reality for many, yet it’s the near sole storyline for the disabled. In the tv series “Joan of Arcadia”, Joan’s brother is a paraplegic. The production made it obvious the brother was played by an able-bodied actor. His movements were off. For example, putting weight on feet to transfer between surfaces. His acting could have been better, the dramatic scenes surrounding his challenges didn’t quite hit the mark. A different actor could have pulled the character off. Some actors go to great lengths to become their characters and study individuals with the same challenges as their characters. Fantastic writers do the same. A skilled writer can pull off a diverse range of characters by researching and engaging with communities. Writing beyond ourselves is encouraged. 

Of course, because it’s 2023, there will be criticism. No matter what you write. Some will be vocal about diversity — how dare you write about us under any circumstance. Cancel culture is real. Avoiding diversity can also generate wrath. Ironic, I know. What’s a writer to do? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  

Take Away

In today’s climate, there is a risk of trolls throwing cyber stones no matter what we write. I think as writers we need to be strong and follow the muse. Keep intentions good and be true to ourselves. Write stories you want to write with integrity. There is a battle waging: exclusive stories (minority writers only) vs inclusive stories (diversity within stories). One has to win out, both can not co-exist in the current state because diversity means writing about the other. There needs to be a compromise, a middle ground. At the moment writers are being discriminated against for being diverse and not diverse. The fury driven by social media and the gatekeeping is a 2020s fad. And all fads pass, or we would still be wearing mullets… oh wait…

And remember, trolls will be trolls.

Categories: Characters, Writing, Writing Battles

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