It seems extremely odd to me that handy little lists off of Tumblr, such as this one below, inspire as much ire as they do from members of the writing community.
Few things seem to piss off some writers more than telling them, even indirectly, that, while they’ve diligently studied the art of creating a solid story arc and researched medieval warfare extensively, their lesbian character might need some serious work to be anything other than a walking cliche. For some reason, every other aspect of writing is craft, and we generally accept that we should work hard on it to improve, but when it comes to characters and world-building, suddenly it’s all down to the ineffable and unquestionable work of the muse.
It’s interesting to note that the aspects of writing which are most rigid and subject to strict judgement are the parts that make it more difficult to succeed if you’ve not had access to an extensive education, you don’t have the funds to hire an editor, or your habitual speech patterns aren’t considered “proper english.” It’s also interesting to note that the areas where creativity and the muse are allowed to reign supreme are the parts that make it easy for those with social privilege to ignore the real experiences of people unlike themselves, while still using their identities as spice for their fiction. This indulgence allows writers to freely rely on lazy stereotypes and racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist narratives because art.
The thing is, the characters who pop into your head are not coming from some magical artistic inspiration. It’s your brain that cooks ’em up, and when they pop into your conscious mind already formed, it was your unconscious expectations and cultural programming that made them what they are. That means that, in spite of all the little details you may change to make them interesting, they’re just different pieces of you and your experience. If your only experience of asexuals is seeing them portrayed as damaged or confused, you’re going to be inclined to default to that tired, harmful trope. This does a disservice to everyone. Stereotypes are boring, they hurt vulnerable people, and they drag down the quality of their creator’s otherwise hard work.
In response to these helpful but oddly controversial lists of suggestions and warnings, the advice I often see is to ignore all that SJW crap and to just write the person first and then basically slap the label you want on top of the personality you’ve created. I think the basic intention here might be good. You don’t want to fall into the trap of making your character’s entire personality revolve around one aspect of their identity. The opposite pitfall, though, lies in the myth of the “real” person hiding underneath all the things that make people unique. Every aspect of every person affects their view of the world, including whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, being able bodied, and all the other default character settings that too often go unchallenged. Yes, we all share a great deal in common and we can draw from that, but there’s an important difference between trying to imagine someone else’s experience so you can empathize with them, and imagining that they’re really just like you underneath all the things that make them who they are. Doing the latter results in characters that have maybe stretched a little, but can’t be much more than reflections of the way you already see the world. Doing the former involves listening to the lived experiences of others and respecting what they say, and it opens up a whole realm of possibilities you literally couldn’t have come up with on your own. That’s where the magic can really happen.
4 thoughts on “Don’t Blame the Muse”
Wow, Jasmine, excellent insight and well expressed.
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You make some really good points here. A pet peeve of mine is when writers include a “insert minority here” character, who’s just . . . that. There’s a fine-but-critical distinction between creating a character who is, for example, gay, and just creating a gay character. You’re absolutely right that writers shouldn’t just create a character and then slap a label on them, but if your character isn’t worth having when you delete whatever’s special about their ethnicity or sexuality, then I question why they’re there at all. These are things that should inform who they are, and how they act, not define who they are and how they act–except when it’s relevant to what’s happening in the story.
Really, though, you don’t see many people who write good characters in general and bad minority characters. Usually all their characters are pretty bad, then the minority characters are just a little worse.
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“These are things that should inform who they are, and how they act, not define who they are and how they act” That’s a great way of summing that up. I like it.
It’s just unfortunate when people are either unwilling to branch out from their comfort zone, or they try it, but without employing effective empathy, research, or at least being willing to be corrected by people with experience. It’s partly true that someone who regularly relies on stereotypes may not be a strong writer in general, but you do see it even with very well known authors at times. Everyone’s got blind spots where they may not even be aware they’re leaning on a stereotype or that their personal point of view is influencing a character too much. (Men writing female characters who constantly think about how sexy they are, for example) Either way, being more aware of personal biases and other people’s experiences can only improve a person’s ability to write dynamic, realistic characters.