It sucks that we live in a society that severally disadvantages, makes unsafe, renders invisible and in general does its level best to oppress large subsections of the population.
The thing is we do. So how as a writers do we keep from unintentionally supporting this opression?
We stop the rendering invisible part of it. This is the part that, we as writers and artists, have direct control over. The power is in our hands.
Yet actually doing it is harder then it seems. One minute your not paying attention and the next your story is populated exclusively with rich, good looking, able, cisgender, white guys.
It happens to me a lot and I am in no way a rich, good looking, able, cisgender, white guy.
So this is what I do to try and combat the problem (emphasis on try here since I am in no way perfect at this and still screw up a lot.) I ask myself a series of questions.
Why does this character have to be a guy?
So you are writing a m/m romance story about knights set in a fantasy world based on Arthurian
legend and Celtic mythology. The ruler is known for being a strong leader who has led the land through war and reclaimed the thrown from an usurper after many years of bloody combat. They now rule with an iron fist keeping the land in peace but ready to crush out rebellion mercilessly if it should arise.
There is no reason why this character needs to be male. None. You don't need to change anything about this character to make them a queen instead of a king. There doesn't need to be any back story of forced marriage, miscarriage or rape. You don't need to soften her up because she's a woman, make her pretty or nurturing. You just need to rock it.
So when creating characters, especially male characters (which is the default in the genres I write) I always ask myself, "does this character need to be male? and if the answer is no I ask myself "why isn't this character a woman?" and if the answer is no reason, a make them a woman and rock it.
Because a.) there needs to be more amazing female characters and b.) there is no Godly reason why the default needs to be male.
Why does this character have to be able bodied (able minded)?
Kane is a great character. He reminds me a lot of some of the guys I've loved most in my life. He's a tough, working class guy with a soft heart and the mind of a scholar who works as a mechanic, is an ex-firefighter, and reads everything not nailed down.
Part way through designing his character I realized something was wrong, there was some aspect about him I just wasn't getting and after mulling it over for a while I asked myself "why isn't he in a wheelchair?"
The answer that immediately jumped to my mind was "but he can't be! a huge part of his life is about motorcycles!" Then I literally facepalmed because I know better than that, or at least I should.
The fact of the matter is all sorts of people have all sorts of disabilities and do all sorts of things. Wanting a character to be a type of person or be into a type of thing should not stand in your way of writing them as being differently abled. Trust me, not much stands in the way of people who are differently abled doing what they want with their lives.
Kane is in a wheelchair and he is totally in love with vintage motorcycles and you better believe he has found a way to make those two parts of his life work together for him.
So ask yourself could this character be differently abled? Why haven't I written them that way? What is holding me back? And see where it goes from there, you might be surprised.
Why does this character have to be straight?
The truth is most of the population of the planet is not monogamously straight. They can't be because straight and monogamous is one way of being sexual and lets face it this is humans we are talking about and sex, there is never even predominantly one way to do anything.
You might think the majority of people you know are straight but that's mainly due to how dangerous it is to admit to being anything else. Many people who are not straight are also not out, not even to the people they are closest to, often not even to themselves.
So yeah actually a sizable hunk of the characters you write should be queer and not just gay men either, there should be all sorts of people, asexual, lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, polyamorous, queer.
Androsexual/Androphilicand all sorts of other things.What happens when a world is almost completely straight (except for some gay men if you're in the m/m romance genre) is it comes off looking unrealistic.Yet again, straight is the default when writing characters and designing worlds and it not only doesn't need to be, but shouldn't be.
So always ask yourself when you are writing straight characters, does this character really need to be straight? Even if they are in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender doesn't mean they need to be straight. So think about it.
Why does this character need to be white?
If aliens were to invade right now and wipe out most of the world's population, or a zombie apocolypes were to do the same, the likelihood that the servivors would be white is slim to none.
White people are in a very small minority globally and that minority is only getting smaller.
Most of the population of the planet is not white.
So statistically speaking most of the characters you or I are writing about should not be white.
Yet again we tend to default to white when character building or populating the world around our characters. That's the racism in our society talking though and we all need to fight it.
So in general if you are writing a white character ask yourself does this character need to be white? There is nothing wrong with writing white characters but every genre is chock full of them so why not mix it up a little?
Originally I wrote the entire cast of Like Fire Through Bone to be white and then realized there was no reason why they needed to be. In fact given the geographic area I was basing my world on it didn't even make a lot of sense that they would be. So now the book I ended up with has only two white people in it and I feel a lot better about that. It was the right thing to do for the world building and the story. The only reason I didn't do it from the beginning was I let my own unconscious racism blind me to the possibility of having a fantasy novel with an entire non-white cast.
Why does this character need to be cisgender?
I think in our society we sometimes think that trans* and gender non-conforming people are like those super rare orchids the Victorians were always jaunting off to fine. You know they are out there somewhere but the number of people to actually encounter them live and in person can be counted on one hand with fingers left over.
The fact of the matter is, much like queer people, trans* and gender non-conforming people are a sizable portion of the population. Think you don't know any trans* people? Think again, you probably know lots, you just don't know any out trans* people. Being an out trans* and/or gender non-conforming in our society is actually, very dangerous so many people don't admit to being trans* not their entire lives, not even to those they are closest to. They are there though in large numbers, which means there is no good reason to default to cisgender all the time.
Yet again I've had the experience of writing a character (Gregory de la Marche) only to realize something was wrong, I couldn't move forward with the story because I didn't understand a vital part of his character. It took me mulling it over for a while to ask the question "why have I been assuming he is cisgender?" The answer being of course because that's what we default to, but in Gregory's case he wasn't cisgender he was trans*. Without understanding that I couldn't understand his relationship with his family which was at that point vital to the story and his relationship with his love interest Andrea.
Don't just default to cisgender, not every character in every story should be cisgender. If you are nervous about writing a trans* character well, there are plenty or resources out there, you shouldn't let the fear slow you down.
And finally, because I write romance:
Why does this character need to be what our society thinks of as good looking (muscular and/or skinny and/or young)?
I do ask myself this when I write because sometimes I feel like as a romance writer I am forced into making characters that fit into this mold of underwear model pretty. Which is doubly stupid for me because I don't even personally find that attractive.
As romance authors, yeah we want to write about characters we find attractive and other people will find attractive, but mostly we want to write a great love story between interesting and amazing characters.
Interesting and amazing does not mean ripped abs and not just people with hard pecs and perfect asses fall in love.
Last time I checked, although my ass is really quite fine, my pecs still needed some work and I have a little belly due to eating creamy roasted red pepper soup and writing at a computer all the time.
Yet I have totally been in love and been loved in return.
I am also willing to bet the number of authors who look like underwear models is pretty slim (no pun intended ... well a little bit.) I am also willing to bet though that most of us at one time or another have been in love and have been loved by amazing non-model-like people in return.
Think about it.
Coming Soon! Questions I ask myself while writing sex scenes: or what is the history of sex toys anyway and does the penis really need to go in, well ... anything?