Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing: Too Many Things, or How to Disappear the Intersections

Recently on Twitter, RJ of Riot Nrrd comic fame said something that really spoke to me:
apparently my characters are tokens, just how the disabled queers and trans POC in my life aren't really real because that's TOO MANY THINGS
Writers are told to create multi-dimensional characters so that they are believable, so that they drive the story, so that the reader understands their motivation.

So that the reader may be able to identify with the character.

RJ has created disabled, queer, fat, trans, PoC characters, and some of them are combinations thereof.

Obviously ze has come across criticism that says those characters are Too Many Things.

This year, I've written disabled, queer, adopted, fat, and PoC characters. And sometimes I've made them a combination thereof.

And I've been told that's Too Many Things as well.

How can I possibly write a black lesbian with a disabled sibling? That sounds like way too much angst, way too many things to deal with in one person.

You don't know anyone like that and there couldn't possibly be people like that in this world, right? Right?

How could I possibly focus on so many disabled people? That sounds like having to be way too accommodating for them!

There couldn't possibly be THAT many disabled people in one place for an altruistic reason, right? Right?

So here I am, attempting to broaden my world view, attempting to write multi-faceted characters (and I'm still learning and fully expect to completely stuff up along the way) and being told there are Too Many Things to deal with about their personality. Here we have RJ, who knows what they hell ze is talking about when it comes to intersections, being told hir characters - characters based on people ze knows - are TOKENS.

There are many wonderful writers out there, wanting to bring a depth of perception to the many types of people there are in this world - are they being told they're doing Too Many Things with their characters as well?

Why do some people assume readers are stupid? Why do some readers seem incapable of dealing with intersectioned characters, with nuance, with REAL people when they're presented with them?

There are black lesbians in this world. There are disabled trans people. There are fat queers. Non-conventional families, polyamoury, conservative gay feminists. You name it, there is somebody who will be it. Sometimes, they might even tick every box in existence.

They are not tokens. We do not make them up. They may be a fictional construct, but there are real people like this, with stories to tell.

So why deny that they exist?

Because that's easy. And intersections are hard.

But why is it difficult to get your head around these characters? Is it because your small world view says these people are broken and in needing of fixing, they have hurdles to be overcome, a life to be "normalized"? What the hell is normal anyway? Being any of these intersections is not "bad" - they're all part of a person, what makes them whole and unique and wonderful. Perhaps somebody CAN be queer, PoC, trans, disabled and/or all of the above and be ok with it AND not be a token! Normalizing or fixing a person or ignoring their intersections is how you disappear a person.

Because privilege says it's difficult enough to deal with one thing without having an extra layer put on. Please please challenge me, Dear Writer, but only within my comfortable little privileged box.

Nah. I won't. I write feminist spec, and so too do many other fantastic writers*. There are many wonderful writers of colour* who have many wonderful stories to tell, and you could learn a few things if a reader stopped to read and think about their words. People come in all shapes, sizes, colours, races, cultures, and intersections.

And if a reader can't identify with that character, that's not my problem. I'd rather write for someone who understands, than cater to and simplify my characters for someone who doesn't.

*These are just a tiny few of the many great authors out there writing wonderful spec. Put your Google- or Wiki-fu to work if you want to find more.


  1. Oh, yes. And I internalise this a lot - I tick quite a number of the boxes myself, but somehow my characters usually only tick one and if I write a black queer character, say, I get all fretfull (okay, so I worry when I write black characters, but that's the sort of self aware worrying I should be doing, and this isn't).

    I had this experience in a creative writing class, where a character was both queer and had a mental illness - the latter was a large part of the point of the story. Someone said that "she doesn't need to be a lesbian*, it's too much". Now personally I found her sexual orientation integral to the story, but that's not the point.

    Writing a queer character isn't like a parrot on the shoulder - it's not something there that wouldn't otherwise be there - it's a form of something that is assumed to exist anyway. It's only our normative assumptions that make it look like an added thing.

    Which leads on to another point - our lives don't suck. Well, sometimes they do. But I think this 'Too Many Things' idea plays into the idea that we can't give our characters too many things to deal with, when actually most people who tick these boxes tend to see them as anything between a non-live-consuming nuisance with some bouts of suckage and an awesome thing which people can be jerks about.


    *she was actually bi, there was no indication one way or the other in the story

  2. Oh most indeedy Anna. I want to write these layered characters, and as you say lives don't suck! My FSM, imagine it, people being happy to be queer! The temerity of it all ;)

    I meant to put in a line something along the lines of: if you're white, cis, hetero, able bodied, partnered, with kids, with a job, middle class, with hobbies, with friends and family, that's a lot to deal with. But since that is posited as some traditional norm, it's not seen as Too Many Things...when it really is! Anything outside of someone's experience, that they're not willing to engage on, is Too Many Things.

    Thanks for commenting :)