Wednesday, 23 July 2014

This Is Not Like The Others Either

Courtesy of a politically well-informed acquaintance of mine, I recently found this blog post on how to criticise Israeli foreign policy without leaning on anti-Semitism. The blogger offers concise analysis on some of the more common anti-Semetic tropes, with quite a bit of information in Jewish history to put those tropes into perspective.

What struck me while reading this post is that when we talk about 'marginalised groups', we speak as though they all share some common narrative. Scratch the surface, however, and we find groups with radically different histories and radically different reasons they experience marginalisation. This seems like an obvious statement, but I've heard a remarkable number of well-intentioned people try to make wildly inappropriate analogies between  the experiences of oppressed groups. I've been guilty of making assumptions about what someone would or wouldn't understand based on such flawed analogies ('but you're X and I'm Y, how could you not understand what I'm going through?'). There's also a number of writers I've seen on social media, defending the idea that because they are a member of Marginalised Group A, they totally understand the experience of Marginalised Group B.

This isn't to discount significant overlaps: for example, North American First Nations people and Australian Aborigines would have a lot of similar group history. Similarly, people who can 'pass' as a member of the privileged group will share some common experiences, no matter what their background.

But for the purposes of writing, it's best to focus on what makes that particular situation unique. And of course, do your homework! Primary sources are the best way to do this. No one ever botched their portrayal of a group of people by 'doing too much research' or 'listening too carefully'. Besides, I like to think that understanding the 'Other' through fiction makes us better citizens of the world.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Conflict Proximity

Some stories are small in their scope. The stakes are deeply personal, the landscape of conflict contained. If done well, these stories are no less powerful in their emotional impact than a 'save the world' epic. Conversely, just because the stakes in your plot are 'saving the world from X' doesn't mean it will have any emotional grip on your audience.

One of the most common points where audience emotional investment in a epic adventure is picking the wrong main character. This doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the main character in and of themselves-- in fact, they can be a well-developed, interesting, and likeable character in their own right. However, they're the wrong character to follow for that particular story.

A common cause of this picking a main character who is peripheral to the main conflict, or who has few intrinsic reasons to be invested in the outcome. Telltale signs include characters who must be persuaded, wheedled, and finally dragged by very specific circumstances to join the quest; alternately, characters who require a series of convoluted events to get them to where the main conflict is. Another sign is side characters who are way more interesting than the protagonist, due to having a much deeper investment in the conflict at hand.

Luckily, it's an easy fix: ditch the protagonist, and pick up the viewpoint of one of the other characters Or create a new character with a more compelling relationship to the main issues in the narrative. Either way, if you have an interesting character with a strong investment in the main conflict, you're well on your way to a great story.

Friday, 18 July 2014

On the Nose

In fumbling through our interpersonal relationships, humans rarely say exactly what we mean. This isn't necessarily about deception, but rather about the nuances of communication. Because this is what we're used to, it's particularly jarring when fictional characters carry on extended conversations where each says exactly what's on their mind. So much so that such scenes tend to read as though the characters are intentionally lying to each other. Unless your characters have a reason for speaking this way-- maybe they're communicating across a language barrier, or are autistic, for example-- you should try to make their dialogue less 'on the nose'.

Fictional dialogue may be the cleaned-up version of natural speech-- for example, it's generally best to avoid all the filler words and mundane chitchat we regularly use and get to the 'good bits' of the dialogue-- but it does need to sound like natural speech. A lot of the time, actually, natural speech means not speaking at all, or not saying something. For example:

  • Not stating the obvious. In general, we don't reiterate information which we understand to be shared knowledge, or that seems self-evident to everyone present
  • If you can't say something nice... People generally tend to bite their tongues on unflattering comments unless they're totally sure they can afford to anger the target, or that the target won't hear. 
  • Other inappropriate commentary. Some comments are just not appropriate for work, dinner, or generally offensive. We all have these thoughts, but have been taught to refrain from sharing. 
  • Body language covered it. Much of human communication is nonverbal, so no need to state the obvious when your movements and facial expression is talking. 
If you keep those in mind, this should help your dialogue flow more naturally, even when characters aren't holding things back on purpose. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Unrealistic Character Expectations

One of the things I often find jarring in stories, particularly those with relatively provincial characters, is when these characters seem newly puzzled by the tasks and conditions and social mores of their environment. If the characters have amnesia, or have recently arrived from a radically different setting, that's one thing. But it's quite another when a teenage peasant in psudo-medieval-European Fantasyland, who's never been beyond the edge of their home village, seems shocked and put-upon because their parents ask them to do chores. 

Characters are, in many ways, products of their environment. Their ideas about right and wrong, possible and impossible, and realistic expectations about their future are all formed by the world immediately around them. A character may not like something-- mucking out cow stalls, going to boring meetings, standing over a hot stove for hours-- but they expect it. They know there aren't alternatives, or that the alternatives are worse. Furthermore, they may not have even considered a life where their experience isn't the norm, particularly if they have experienced little to nothing of the larger world and are comparing themselves to people with similar life experiences. 

The upshot of this is that if your character decides they're not going to cooperate with the system, there needs to be a very strong disruption to the status quo. Second, the character isn't going to rebel in the manner of someone from the 21st century. They're going to act like someone from their unique background. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Insulation: Talking About Talking About Privilege, Part II

Last Friday, I brought up the fact that we tend to operate on the 'one privilege means all of them' fallacy, which segues into the idea that 'privilege' means that the person has never had any conflict or struggle in their lives ever. Obviously, this is where whoever is being told to 'check their privilege' gets their hackles up-- the human condition involves struggle, and our psychology and biology means we often give our personal problems greater prominence in our minds.

Implicit in the original assumption, is, as well, the idea that 'privilege' means the world actively bends over backwards for someone. Again, I'm looking at this through the lens of writing about those who are not like us-- and this perception of 'privilege' means receiving active special treatment tends to fuel characters who are from higher up the privilege food chain than the author having everything done for them, or being outrageously, unfairly fawned over. At the same time, people writing from a position of relative privilege may incorrectly believe their experience represents the norm for characters of other backgrounds.

I think it's helpful for us writers to think about privilege as insulation: an absence of additional concerns, annoyances, and barriers to success that others might face. For example, someone who doesn't use mobility devices like a wheelchair spends zero percent of their time figuring out accessible routes to do errands, get to work, or visit friends; they don't have to check ahead of time to see if the building they're going is accessible; they don't have to figure out what to do when a location they need to get to isn't wheelchair-friendly. That's quite a bit of time and planning effort that the non-wheelchair user can spend doing something else. Or it could be more subtle and toxic-- someone of the dominant ethnic group who gets a new job knows their coworkers will assume they got the job due to their own competence, and won't assume they're a less-qualified 'affirmative action hire' because of their race or ethnicity. The employee's competence is assumed and all they have to do is not screw it up, rather than being assumed incompetent and having to prove exceptional competence.

If you frame the issue as 'what might a character not have to worry about that others do?', it's a lot easier to step away from the idea that their life is problem free, and place them in the context of their society.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Check Your Internet Outrage: Talking About Talking About Privilege, Part I

The latest high-profile salvo in the ongoing internet argument over the phrase 'check your privilege' was fired the other day by a semi-anonymous emailer and a conservative blogger. And although we dramatically part views on a number of issues, I think he has some worthy points. More importantly, the areas where both he and his opponent lose the plot illuminate some important aspects of how we talk about social justice and how we can make the discussion more productive.

Now, a cursory scroll through my blog will show you I think a lot about the interaction of fiction, privilege, and social issues. That said, I have grown to detest the phrase 'check your privilege' and the associated mindset. What started out as a shorthand to tell people they were being obstructively oblivious has morphed into a verbal weapon to censor disagreement and diverse perspectives.

Besides the obvious problem-- that censoring dissenting voices stifles insight and the exchange of ideas--there are some underlying assumptions that make the 'check your privilege' argument particularly obnoxious. Dealing with these isn't just about improving the quality of discussion on privilege and social justice, but about improving your ability as a writer to research and tell stories about experiences that are different from your own.

The assumptions:

  • One privilege equals all privileges. The fallacy basically states that because someone is privileged in one area, that's true for every other measure-- for example, the wealthy person must also be cisgender, male, a member of their area's dominant religion, straight, have had an awesome childhood, white (or a member of the dominant ethnic group in their country), neurotypical, and not have any long-term health problems.
  • Someone in a comfortable position has no relevant insights. First of all, no one has ownership of the facts, and someone's background doesn't impinge on their ability to make logical, factual arguments. Second, it's perfectly possible this person does have some analogous or relevant experience, or might have observed the issue close up and come to some very experience-based conclusions. 
  • 'Privilege' means that group faces no social/systemic problems whatsoever. Groups that have some systemic advantage may have fewer problems than other groups, or a lower severity of a particular problem, but that doesn't mean they don't experience the problem at all. Furthermore, the group may experience an entirely different set of issues. 
  • Privilege is immutable. A change of time, place, or circumstances can send people in and out of 'privilege' and 'non-privileged' identities. For example, someone might be able to 'pass' for a member of a more privileged group; alternately, someone might lose their privileged status to chance events like disease or economic downturn. 
  • Statistics about a group perfectly describe all its members. Just because members of a group are 'more likely' or 'less likely' to experience something doesn't mean it's 'always' or 'never' true for all individuals.

All of these assumptions reduce someone to a cardboard cutout. Arguing with cardboard cutouts is rarely fruitful. And more importantly for the purposes of this blog, seeing the members of a group as cardboard caricatures will hinder you as a writer. Being able to understand the perspectives of people who are different from us is vital, and to do that we need to be able to listen, no matter what that person's background.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Cultural Appropriation: Some Thoughts

I've covered cultural appropriation on this blog a number of times before. But it's one of those complex and frustrating issues that calls for repeated examination. What adds to the confusion and defensiveness, I think, is the way in which the internet outrage machine reacts to highly-publicised cultural appropriation incidents. The outrage machine tends to assume everyone has the same information, and don't actually explain what's going on or why anyone should care. A quick scan of the comments section on any such article will show you a bunch of puzzled readers going 'but...humans trade, that's our thing. And I'm Afro-American and I like sushi, are you telling me I can't like sushi? But you're wearing jeans and speaking English, WTF? You mean I can't like jewellery because a Navajo made it?...'

Covering all of cultural appropriation in a blog post isn't really feasible. Plus, as I said, it's something that deserves regular discussion. However, I can give you a few bullet points to guide you through.

Cultural appropriation isn't:

  1. Displaying a piece of art or using a tool for its intended purpose. A lot of food falls into this category as well. If you're appreciating art or putting a mundane item (like cookware) to use, then the object is fulfilling it's purpose. Totally respectful. 
  2. Adopting the customs of a colonising culture. This is a survival mechanism for holding a job, going to school, etc. in the coloniser's world. 
  3. Adopting the customs of a culture while you're visiting. This is polite. And honestly, you'll probably enjoy your visit a lot more. 
  4. Researching a culture for a project. In-depth research about experiences outside of our own is awesome! The more in-depth the better. 
  5. Trade and exchange between two cultures on equal footing.

Cultural appropriation includes:

  1. A power differential. The appropriator has more cultural capital, usually from belonging to the dominant culture, and is appropriating from a marginalised group.
  2. Misusing a religious or culturally significant object. Self-explanatory. 
  3. Exploitation without understanding or advocacy. This means using some piece of the culture to further your own ends without giving anything back.  
  4. Fetishising. Turning 'exotic' aspects of the culture into something titilating or into a gimmick, instead of recognising that the non-theme-park version is someone else's normal existence. 

Again, not an exhaustive list, but hopefully some guidelines for thinking about cultural appropriation in fiction and in real life.