Sometimes I get questions like “why does representation in fiction matter,” and I don’t think it’s inherently a bad one. I’ve been told many times in writing workshops “write what you know,” because we pull a lot of our strongest story material from personal situations we’ve experienced. Reliability is a strong hook, and good writers can ground readers by showing off how well they know a topic in earnest. So we do tend to write what we currently know. We have comfort zones. We might write about characters that have the same genders, sexual orientation, and ethnicity as us, because we have a firm grasp on what it can be like to grow up as how the world views us and how we view ourselves, along with all of the weight we carry with it.
It’s perfectly okay to write about characters like yourself. If you’re in a minority group, you can feel especially pressured to write a character like yourself, considering the dearth of certain types of characters as main characters in certain types of genres. (An all-female cast of main characters in an action flick is almost unheard of, but if we see it in a romantic comedy we rarely bat an eye.)
Writing what we know can also extend to knowledge of a genre. If we expose ourselves to a lot of genre fiction, we can often see what kind of stories tends to have more men and what kind of stories have more women as main characters. We can be pressured by feelings of “what kind of character appeals to a wider audience for a genre, and should I be writing this kind of character if I want to make it as a writer?” We can become convinced that we can’t have our cake as professional writers and eat it too by writing about the characters we want to write about. I remember some insightful soul saying “what’s the point of baking a god-damned cake if you can’t eat your fucking cake?” I have to agree that much of the incentive of becoming a writer is to tell the stories that you want to tell.
But as much as I agree with writing what you know, and writing about the characters that you want to write about, there is an unspoken aspect of write what you know that is not touched upon as much as it should be. It’s become an elephant in the room that many young writers either ignore or dread, and it is idea that if you can’t write about something because you don’t know it, it is time to change that. It is the dreaded interview.
Writers need to interview people if they want to escape their comfort zones. Writers need to be taught how to interview people too, because it’s all about asking the right questions. I might be asked “why do I need to interview somebody if I want to write fiction?” and then the same person will ask me “why don’t my characters feel enough like real people?”
My best way to explain why your character doesn’t feel like a real person might be through explaining the game of telephone. For all of those unfamiliar with the game, you sit in a circle with a group of people. The more people you have, the more effective the game. One person comes up with a phrase, or a word, and then they turn to their left to whisper this thing into one ear. The recipient of the message tells it to the person on their left, and the message does not stop until it comes back to its original sender. The message tends to get utterly distorted. It often turns into something that feels off.
Character representation can be like this too. I’m going to create a hypothetical situation here: Johnny might want to be inclusive and write about a bisexual Asian woman super spy in his military drama. Let’s presume Johnny is none of the things mentioned. Let’s presume Johnny knows everything about Asians, Bisexuals, Spies and Women from Quentin Tarantino films, Tom Clancy Novels, Mass Effect and experiences interacting with women from school, his job, or his family. Depending on how self-aware Johnny is, he is now in major panic about not knowing very much about four facets of representation that he wants to cover, or he is going to immerse himself in more of the entertainment that he enjoys as an attempt to get more of a feel for this kind of character. He might watch a Lucy Liu action movie in an attempt to capture 3 out of 4 facets of representation, but what Johnny might not realize is that entertainment isn’t a primary source. Johnny will almost certainly end up with a character that looks like a mimicry of somebody else’s representation of Asian women in action flicks.
We have a lot of great entertainment that exists entirely because it’s derivative– films like Space Balls and love letters to genres like Pacific Rim. But while derivative stock characters exist as a self-nod to their own genre, they have their own limits, too. Let’s deconstruct Spy, Asian, Bisexual, Woman. It’s very likely that you don’t know a spy, because this would mean that they are bad at their job. We can look at biographies of people like Mata Hari and learn about them. Same goes for Julia Child, who was also a spy. Hausfrau with a cooking channel does not usually come to most people’s minds first when we think woman spy.
Asian is a lot to break down. First you have to ask yourself “are most characters white by default in this story because I am pointing out this character is Asian?” Second, what does Asian mean? Ethnicity? Immigration? What country, countries, ethnicity or ethnicities is Johnny choosing? Johnny needs to know if this character’s cultural background is important to them– or, if this character is struggling against their cultural background.
Bisexual can be tricky, too, considering media portrayals are noted to be consistently villains (and there is a gay version of this too), or egregiously oversexed. As bisexual writer and actress Mara Wilson has said: “Are there any really boring bisexual characters out there? I feel like they all live such exciting, sexy lives.” Rebecca Sugar, another bisexual writer and musician, known for Stephen Universe and her contributions to Adventure Time, has shared: “It really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved. And if you don’t hear those stories, it will change who you are.” People like this in the public eye are excellent resources for people like Johnny who wants to sincerely write about characters unlike himself. While celebrities like Mara Wilson and Rebecca Sugar have only recently become more open about discussing facets of their bisexuality, certain geek communities have very strong queer representation. For furries, it is extremely likely that you have bisexual friends if you aren’t bisexual yourself. Same goes for trans, gay and straight friends. Try to approach them for an interview, and don’t try to just settle for one interview of one person. There’s no right or consistent way to grow up bi, gay or trans.
Women are about half of the entire world population so Johnny is in luck here. We can take women characters for granted because we all know women (or we are women) and it is very likely that we talk to a woman every day. But be receptive to what women (or fellow women) say. You can ask things like “how do people treat you while you work” or “did you feel like anything was more difficult or more easy because of your experience as a woman, and would you like to talk about it?” We have centuries of novels, essays, and biographies for women and by women about women, so taking a trip to your local library can help too when you can’t grab a friend or a family member to interview.
So I do think character representation matters on the most basic level of honing your skill as a writer. You are expanding your ability to empathize, by not falling into the pitfall of derivation, but by utilizing a mix of primary and secondary sources to learn about your fellow humans.