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Thread: Writing characters of marginalized groups

  1. #1
    Scala Mountains Resonance's Avatar
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    Writing characters of marginalized groups

    There's a lot to say here and it doesn't really form together into a coherent argument so I'm just going to throw down some thoughts. Yes, I'm making a racial issue about me - sorry for that.

    Something I've noticed through participating in online roleplaying (collaborative fiction) and talking about issues of privilege in those groups is that players who are, for example, non-white, will often play characters who are white or aliens in order to avoid dealing with it. Which is totally understandable, but it does lead to homogenization and under-representation which seems like a vicious cycle. Then there are those who, being of those groups, do feel the need to represent them, but end up catching a lot of stereotypes and becoming 'tokenized'. It's not that these characters aren't fully fleshed out or lack depth, but they are constrained to patterns that might be tiresome.

    It's not just people of colour, either: I know at least one woman who feels the need to write her character like an 'ordinary woman' in order to combat the common oversexualization and misrepresentation by men-writing-women, even though she's kind of a weirdo like me who would rather express her own ideas (and sexuality...).

    But on the other hand, people do sometimes make characters of other ethnicities than their own, and either A) stereotype (or even fetishize) them to the point of 2-dimensionality, or B) trivialize the experiences of real people in the same demographic by blindness to the oppression that they experience. It's almost like there's a line to toe between stereotyping and complete lack of awareness.

    I'd like to combat this by setting an example. Is it okay for me - a white person - to make a character who isn't white? Can I rely on the experiences that have been related to me by, for example, first-generation Canadians whose parents came from China, or India, in order to nuance a character who already has their own personality, goals, abilities, struggles...

    It's not as simple as taking a character who's already written and saying, 'okay, this character is Indian-Canadian now', because there are cultural experiences, social expectations, external stereotypes that the character interfaces with that might affect their motivations. Or might not, but they will have thought about them, and if someone asks (and people do) then the answer is part of what makes that character who they are.

    I thought of asking friends who have related such experiences to me in the past (for example, growing up with super-traditional parents, or the enormous pressure to become a doctor or a lawyer, or running into people with racial fetishes, or overtly racist people) to proofread a character's backstory for example, but then I thought, 'it's not their responsibility to make sure I'm not being racist.' And it seems kind of unfair to expect that of them. But I don't know if I can trust my own judgement.

    Is there something I'm missing?
    Last edited by Resonance; 05-14-2014 at 11:26 AM.
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  2. #2
    Member Valkyrie's Avatar
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    (My reply is also pretty disjointed, apologies)

    I don't know that you can blame people for not knowing what it's realistically like to grow up in a different ethno-cultural environment. Often it's only by personally seeing friends/family dealing with those sort of day-to-day issues that people can even start to achieve any real sense of empathy & understanding.

    I always see lots of people rolling 'bronze' people out there in RPG though, you might need to do a re-take on your criteria for "white"
    Writers (and role players) can only extrapolate from what they know or what they assume..

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    Member Valkyrie's Avatar
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    I also can't help but think that role playing (wanting to be like) another person from another race breaks down a lot more barriers than 'not capturing it correctly' erects.. It's not perfect, but it's a net win.

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    凸(ಠ_ರೃ )凸 stuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Resonance View Post
    Is there something I'm missing?
    I think the best one can do as a creator is to iron out their intentions, goals, research, and then be pitiless and truthful. You're never going to scrub the provincial qualities from your creation.

    What's the scariest and most exhilarating way you could approach the issue, the most fraught with problems and complexities?

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    dormant jigglypuff's Avatar
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    portrayals of marginalized groups can be polarizing for the audience 'cause it always seems like such a deliberate choice. there's a delicate balancing act that artists do to avoid alienating their audience-- more realism is needed, more fantasy is also needed, stereotypes sell but there's already too much stereotyping, etc. which is why research is such an important part of the creative process for many artists.

    part of making art is taking risks and receiving feedback, whether it's positive or negative. i wouldn't shy away from creating characters that aren't white or giving them certain problems. it's great to be aware of stereotypes, but i'd say it depends on what you're going for and you know your own project and intention best. there's a way to make stereotypes work, but if that's all you know, you're still talking about something you don't know about. aggressively breaking down stereotypes is great in theory but results easily become contrived and unrealistic.

    there's this sentiment i've come across on the internet a couple of times, where people of color just don't trust white people to portray them, period. they've got a point, 'cause often the portrayals are really superficial and bad and speak to dominant narratives of what that group is like or about.

    personally, i like to see people/artists be aware of the systemic exclusion & lack of representation of marginalized groups, do research and take creative risks. feedback isn't the enemy. if you make images, you have to be open to it.

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    a fool on a journey pensive_pilgrim's Avatar
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    I think that any time you try to realistically roleplay a person who's not like you in some way there's going to be some degree of hilarious misrepresentation involved. This is why people stick to cliches when they're trying to have fun, because no matter what the most realistic you're going to get is by parroting what somebody else has said. You just don't have those experiences, and someone who does is going to see right through the pretense immediately and in the best case think it's funny, in the worst case be offended.

    I'm a little curious about what your goal really is. You talk about wanting "representation" for (racial) minorities, but to what purpose? It sounds like the people who play with who aren't white aren't very concerned about having representation of their race in their online roleplaying groups. They'd rather not deal with it, and focus on having fun with the roleplay instead, it seems like. What makes you feel differently?

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    libertine librarian sandwitch's Avatar
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    The goal is a big part of it. Someone who portrays individuals from marginalized groups to "give them a voice" will miss the point because it will still be their voice. I do think it's valuable to diversify characters, though. To do so respectfully requires extending the process to interrogate your intentions, and to research and collaborate with members of the represented groups.

    This was a topic at a Writer's conference, and the Atlantic documented some key points:

    But, said Mat Johnson, a professor and author of the acclaimed novel Pym, “I’m trying to write about the world, and if you’re trying to write about the world, usually other ethnicities, other cultural backgrounds, other genders, other sexual expressions, come into the text. And so I understand why some people get very uncomfortable very quickly about the question of writing outside of one’s race, particularly, but also writing outside your personal identity.”

    That said, he said, “It’s very easy and quick to say ‘I can write whatever I want to write and I can do whatever I want to do.’ The next step is a responsibility—you have to really engage the character, engage in a historical understanding of how characters of that race have been portrayed, engage in, really, something beyond ‘I’m just going to have a puppet that holds up my preexisting notions of how this race acts.’” To do this, the author must understand racial stereotype and the history of propaganda, to say nothing of the complicated history of race and racism in the United States.
    It also includes a dialogue with an audience member and Randa Jarrar (a really awesome professor who teaches Arab-American lit) that speaks to the point of "representing" other voices (I don't think you're doing that, but it's the first thing that comes to my mind). I don't agree with how the Atlantic author depicts the conversation, but I'm glad that they at least documented Jarrar's words. FWIW, she regularly writes on the topic of marginalized voices in literature, and I'd recommend checking her stuff out.

  8. #8
    Scala Mountains Resonance's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Valkyrie View Post
    (My reply is also pretty disjointed, apologies)

    I don't know that you can blame people for not knowing what it's realistically like to grow up in a different ethno-cultural environment. Often it's only by personally seeing friends/family dealing with those sort of day-to-day issues that people can even start to achieve any real sense of empathy & understanding.
    Right. That's partly why I'm tempted to stick to Chinese-Canadian and Indian-Canadian experiences, since those are the ones I've been exposed to in a personal, day-to-day way at various points in my life. Even then, it's still a fraction, but it's enough to move beyond the more ignorant stereotypes at least. If I wanted to do a character farther outside my own experiences - such as someone who grew up in Ethiopia or Israel or Iran - then I would have to do a lot more research. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. I am interested in those experiences, too, and have a little bit of exposure to them through literature and dialogue - enough to know where to start looking to find more.

    Quote Originally Posted by Valkyrie View Post
    I always see lots of people rolling 'bronze' people out there in RPG though, you might need to do a re-take on your criteria for "white"
    Writers (and role players) can only extrapolate from what they know or what they assume..

    I also can't help but think that role playing (wanting to be like) another person from another race breaks down a lot more barriers than 'not capturing it correctly' erects.. It's not perfect, but it's a net win.
    Quote Originally Posted by stuck View Post
    I think the best one can do as a creator is to iron out their intentions, goals, research, and then be pitiless and truthful. You're never going to scrub the provincial qualities from your creation.
    Ok, true. I still want to do my best, though.

    Quote Originally Posted by stuck View Post
    What's the scariest and most exhilarating way you could approach the issue, the most fraught with problems and complexities?
    I don't really understand the question? D:

    Quote Originally Posted by tele View Post
    portrayals of marginalized groups can be polarizing for the audience 'cause it always seems like such a deliberate choice. there's a delicate balancing act that artists do to avoid alienating their audience-- more realism is needed, more fantasy is also needed, stereotypes sell but there's already too much stereotyping, etc. which is why research is such an important part of the creative process for many artists.

    part of making art is taking risks and receiving feedback, whether it's positive or negative. i wouldn't shy away from creating characters that aren't white or giving them certain problems. it's great to be aware of stereotypes, but i'd say it depends on what you're going for and you know your own project and intention best. there's a way to make stereotypes work, but if that's all you know, you're still talking about something you don't know about. aggressively breaking down stereotypes is great in theory but results easily become contrived and unrealistic.

    there's this sentiment i've come across on the internet a couple of times, where people of color just don't trust white people to portray them, period. they've got a point, 'cause often the portrayals are really superficial and bad and speak to dominant narratives of what that group is like or about.

    personally, i like to see people/artists be aware of the systemic exclusion & lack of representation of marginalized groups, do research and take creative risks. feedback isn't the enemy. if you make images, you have to be open to it.
    Thanks. You make a lot of good points.

    I'm definitely open to feedback, but I'm not sure if I should actively solicit it or just welcome it when it comes or what. Kind of ironic since I'm basically soliciting feedback on the meta level here but :/ On one hand, I do want to talk to more people and develop my understanding. But I don't want to burden them with educating me.

    I'm also wary of feedback that is itself racist/sexist, although nothing like that has happened yet and I'm more confident in my ability to be discerning about that.

    I can see the balance of 'stereotypes sell / but not too much' being a motivating factor in a lot of works. I can already think of examples. Really, that warrants a whole thread of its own. In my case, I'm not intending to sell anything, it's just a hobby community thing, but I'm going to pay closer attention to it in the art that I consume.

    I'm interested in what you mean by 'making stereotypes work'. Is it like, showing the way the stereotypes affect the character and shape their behaviour, without making it an essential part of them? Or is it more like having those stereotypes as the default against which the character's individuality is expressed?

    Quote Originally Posted by pathogenetic_peripatetic View Post
    I think that any time you try to realistically roleplay a person who's not like you in some way there's going to be some degree of hilarious misrepresentation involved. This is why people stick to cliches when they're trying to have fun, because no matter what the most realistic you're going to get is by parroting what somebody else has said. You just don't have those experiences, and someone who does is going to see right through the pretense immediately and in the best case think it's funny, in the worst case be offended.

    I'm a little curious about what your goal really is. You talk about wanting "representation" for (racial) minorities, but to what purpose? It sounds like the people who play with who aren't white aren't very concerned about having representation of their race in their online roleplaying groups. They'd rather not deal with it, and focus on having fun with the roleplay instead, it seems like. What makes you feel differently?
    Some aren't concerned about it. Some definitely are. It's not for them individually, although they might benefit from better representation. We would all benefit from a more diverse (in-character) community, I think. It's not like nobody notices or cares.

    For me personally, I have a long history of trying to write characters who are different from myself in various ways to see how that changes my perspective as well as how other players & characters perceive my character. That's probably my primary motivation in engaging in this hobby to begin with. It's not the most common motivation but lots of others do the same. I've experimented with a lot of different personality traits and disabilities, and someone recently pointed out to me that my characters have pretty much all been white, so I thought about changing that and seeing if I learn anything new.

    The genre I've been working with lately (and keep coming back to) has been 'superheroes', which has its own metaphors and subtexts for dealing with racial issues, but it's also one where characters often get badly stereotyped because they're based on bastardized legends from other cultures. Then again, it's also been a source of empowerment with characters like Static Shock and Nick Fury. It's interesting to hear what people have to say about them.
    Last edited by Resonance; 05-14-2014 at 07:47 PM.
    Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

  9. #9
    Scobblelotcher Sistamatic's Avatar
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    My DnD group does collaborative fiction with all our characters in-between gaming sessions, and it is more fun than the game itself sometimes. We end up exploring cultural and gender identities not as an exercise, but as a side effect. I have played a wide variety of characters, races, and genders, and we tend to create these elaborate worlds and cultures, just as an emergent property of the story writing. For example, I was playing a half orc fighter who, as a result of a ridiculously lucky set of initial stat roles, had no dump stat. She was smart, witty, charming, strong, dexterous, wise, and resilient. When we started writing stories with her in them, you can't help but think about how a human-centric world in which orcs are considered idiot brutes good for labor and hitting things would react to this creature, and just how hard that might be for her.

    I played a female elf with a charisma dump stat that was so insanely low that I decided she'd been horribly mistreated and was therefore covered with scars. When we started writing stories, I had to come up with a plausible scenario, and so I came up with a hypothetical elven group that was enslaved by another hypothetical elven group as a result of a series of brutal wars between two cultural groups that culminated in a salted earth defeat and subsequent culturally sanctioned enslavement of the survivors as a way of preventing them from rising up again. My character had escaped this land as a youth and made her way to the place where our game took place. All this just to explain why she had the scars that I gave her just because she had such a shitty charisma...lol, I know. Anyway, as time goes by, I am playing this character and writing stories from her pov, and I can't help but have a better understanding of how it might feel to be in her position. I am placing myself as my character in the set of circumstances that includes her marginalization and all the history leading up to it, and then imagining how I (as her) would act and feel as a result.
    I think you are safe from being a racist (no matter how others perceive what you have done) as long as you let your character react to his/her situation as a person, rather than just as a member of their race.
    An interesting exploration might be to change a character in an already written and well developed story from your own race or gender into another (leaving all else about them the same) and then try to decide what would change about their story and why. Probably interesting whether you go in the direction of a more or a less marginalized group.

  10. #10
    凸(ಠ_ರೃ )凸 stuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Resonance View Post
    I don't really understand the question? D:
    tele said it better- take risks and be open to feedback.

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