Bridges and Centers

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “bridges” since reading this analysis of a prominent New York Times reporter’s writing on Africa, and his admitted tendency to center his stories on the non-African foreigners (usually Americans) present, rather than the people whom the stories are ostensibly about. Texas in Africa — correctly, IMO — notes that

In the end, this answer is just another variant of the “good intentions are enough” mindset. It excuses stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from ours. It reveals much about Kristof’s approach to the people he profiles; as we’ve discussed here many times before, they’re more often characters than people.

I write fiction, so all of my characters are just characters, not people. Unlike Kristof, I don’t write anything that directly harms real people. But fiction influences reality, and I definitely believe fiction can cause indirect harm, so I do a lot of thinking on who stands at the center of my stories, and how to bridge the gap — if there is one — that exists between these characters and my readers.

I should preface this by saying that the gap needs to be acknowledged. I’ll be blunt: I can’t identify with just anyone. If someone writes a story whose protagonist is a charismatic racist, for example, I’m probably not going to be able to stay detached enough, objective enough, to enjoy that story solely on its merits. I’m not going to like the character, and I’m probably not going to like the story, and I may stop liking the author if I suspect the problem story element is rooted in his/her personal philosophy rather than a purely artistic exercise. (This is why I will never again read Heinlein, for example.)

So for me, the “I can’t identify with this person” gap is ideological. But I’m aware that there are those for whom the gap is going to be rooted in characteristics like gender, race, class, nationality, religion, etc. Prejudice exists, and it’s stupid to pretend otherwise. There are inevitably going to be people who will read the Inheritance Trilogy, or attempt to read it, and be put off by the fact that the three books’ protagonists are multiracial Indian, black, and Asian (insofar as they correspond to Earth at all), respectively. Some of this is the result of racism, and the fact that some of us have been so bombarded with caricatures of non-whites that we literally can’t accept stories that treat them as people. But some of it is simple narcissism, and the human tendency to want to see ourselves in everything around us. Modern psychodynamics suggests that all human beings have a narcissistic streak; to lack it would be pathological, because we all need to value ourselves. What varies is to what degree that streak impacts our thinking, behavior, and feelings in everyday life. What also matters is to what degree society encourages and normalizes certain expressions of narcissism. (When society encourages everyone to care only about white people, for example, that would be racism.)

So there’s some merit in what Kristof (the reporter mentioned at Texas in Africa) says about needing to bridge the gap between his audience’s various narcissisms and the people whose story he’s trying to tell.

But to what degree should a writer cater to this narcissism? As Kristof’s critics rightly point out, and he himself admits, he consistently and frequently centers his African stories on white Westerners. And because of this, his stories end up being about something completely different from what he claims to intend — they’re about white Westerners saving Africans, rather than African issues that Westerners should pay more attention to. In other words, by failing to challenge his readers’ prejudices, and instead supporting/encouraging them, Kristof has repeatedly compromised the story he wants to tell.

I write all kinds of characters, many of whom are different from myself: black lesbians, feral orphaned white boys, middle-aged Italian chefs, you name it. These characters are probably different from a good chunk of the SFF audience, too — though I won’t speculate as to which chunk, given that I don’t think SFF’s audience is still predominantly “pigheaded white male geeks”, as an anonymous commenter described them in a previous thread. (I have no demographics to support my belief, but then neither did that commenter.) Regardless, since I write such varied characters, it’s a safe bet that any one of my protagonists is going to be substantially different from some chunk of the audience reading. So how do I try to bridge the gap between my readers and my characters?

I don’t. Try, that is. I’m willing to acknowledge the existence of the gap, but I’m not willing to accept it. My preference is to challenge it — not out of any belief that I can single-handedly cure America’s narcissism, but because of my own narcissism: I want to be able to write what I want, dammit. I don’t want to have to change my story just because some people can’t accept those different from themselves as human.

Granted, I don’t have to answer to a newspaper editor who’s trying to sell ad space. I do have to answer to a publisher who’s trying to sell books, however, and I won’t deny that I’ve made some plot and characterization choices with an eye towards sales. But thus far all of my choices have been been to move from some unchallenging space toward a challenging one, or from some challenging space to a different-but-equally-challenging one (e.g., changing a gay male character into a female, rather than a straight male). It’s possible that I could be a better-known author by now if I’d made different choices. But then my stories would not be what I wanted, and I would have sacrificed something vitally important to me in exchange for financial reward.

Though… I haven’t sacrificed too much financial reward, I hope. ;) I’m heartened by the fact that my publisher chose to invest in an author who’s built a career on putting whomever the hell she wants at the centers of her stories. I’m heartened more by the fact that readers seem to like those stories, though it’s too soon to say whether The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a financial success; the book hasn’t even been out 6 months. If it is a success, that will suggest several things to me: a) that the assumed readership of SFF (and by extension, the English-language readership in general) is nowhere near as narcissistic as I’d been told; b) the success of a story cannot possibly lie with its protagonists’ adherence to the white/male/het/etc. “norm” of American society, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a career; and c) that a key technique in bridging what gap there is lies in treating the central character — regardless of his/her/their background — like a human being, since that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.

That, and treat my audience members like they’re human beings too, capable not only of narcissism, but empathy.

13 Responses »

  1. Good post.

    For my part, I agree with what you say when you talk about what bridging the gap involves, that it’s about making the character a human being. That said, I don’t think sie necessarily has to be human for the reader to be able to identify with the character — Diane Duane’s Cats of Grand Central series jumps to mind, where all the principal protagonists are feline. But I understand and agree with the idea that a character has to be a well-fleshed-out person (of whatever species/race/gender etc.) to cross those boundaries.

    Also, having read 100K quite recently, I would definitely drop Yeine and Naha into that category. I can identify with Naha even though we don’t have much at all in common when reduced to the basics, and while Yeine’s racial background and her upbringing are central parts of who she is, they don’t alienate her to me either. I love those two characters very much.

    Your book is making the rounds among my avowedly feminist fantasy fan friends (oh dear, that alliteration…) – Shanaqui bought my copy for me – and I plan on helping it continue to do so, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s almost like a drug, in a way – once you’re addicted to it, you want to spread it to as many other people as possible! *grin*

  2. This is a terrific posting- I loved how the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms dealt w/ race explicitly AND subtly and that is what I miss so much from other SciFi/fantasy. I believe the readership is out there in POC communities, but the marketing and material is sorely lacking. And when white authors do put more “diversity” into their work it’s almost never w/ any conversation about power or whiteness, so whatever discussion there could be about it feels watered down and cheap. So thank you Nora for kicking ass by writing a terrific compelling fantasy book that doesn’t flinch from race. :)

  3. “I’ll be blunt: I can’t identify with just anyone.”

    I actually having been going through a similar thing with my reading. I’m kind of at a point where I tend to mentally ‘bounce’ out of most books with generic white male protagonists, honestly. I just can’t find the ‘comfy’ spot where I’m seeing what the protagonist is seeing in those books, and it’s usually compounded if I can’t find any interesting secondary female characters to latch onto.

    I’ve sort of been almost exclusively reading books with female, or non-white male, or non-straight or just unusual protagonist perspectives (The Speed of Dark, Blindsight) and I’m honestly having more fun reading sci fi/fantasy than I have in the last ten years. Two years ago I’d pretty much given up on the genre (which I’d been reading since I was 12), because I could not find a thing that I really found interesting in our tiny local chain bookstore.

    Honestly, it was the recommendations for all the ‘non-mainstream sci fi/fantasy’ stuff I found online that had me going from one or two books a month to 10+. I’d almost left the sci fi/fantasy market, but it’s books like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Blindsight, Who Fears Death, and The Speed of Dark that have pulled me back in.

  4. Stay true to your vision is what I always say. The good thing about doing that is when you finally make it you make it on your terms. I write about folks that look like me, just like most everyone else does. I realize it affects my chances with a mainstream publisher but my writing is more hobby than lifestyle so I don’t care. Besides I feel like what I write is needed and I get that feedback from the folks that have read and enjoyed my stories. For me that’s what matters most. I’m happy that you’ve been able to achieve the same through mainstream publishing. It’s the result of your commitment and your talent.

  5. I think bridges are overrated. Better to entice your readers into fording the river themselves – the experience will be that much more rewarding for them.

    As I read this I found myself thinking of David Mamet’s comment that most movies could be improved by cutting the first ten minutes. I’m not sure that would apply to books, exactly, but the real point – that most stories are improved by dropping the audience/reader directly into the action, rather than easing them in with hand-holding introductions – goes for any medium, and for characters as well as plot. I much prefer that an author simply show me how a character thinks and acts and let me figure out for myself how their experiences differ from my own.

  6. Trialia,

    Glad to hear my book is making the rounds! I’d be interested to hear how you think it holds up from a feminist perspective, given that I’m pretty blatantly playing with some typical romance tropes along the way.

    And good point that the characters don’t even need to be human to be identifiable; I should’ve mentioned that, being an SFF writer!

  7. I think the readership is out there in PoC communities too, and that the material — SFF that features PoC, emphasis on the P — is lacking. But I’m not sure what you mean about marketing. How would one market SFF any differently to PoC than to white readers? Or did you mean something else?

    I have seen a number of white authors doing it right. I’ve been raving lately about Kate Griffin, a Brit author whose Matthew Swift books have been blowing my mind. There are lots of others. It’s just that there are still many more who screw it up. But hopefully things will get better soon.

  8. I can still enjoy white male protagonists, but not in the stock “white guys are teh awesum!” plot setting. I mentioned the Matthew Swift books above; what I love about them is that Swift (a white male) operates in a society as diverse and complex as, well, modern-day London, and the author doesn’t pretend that London is suddenly all white or all middle-class, etc. And the characters with whom Swift interacts are generally well-developed, with motivations of their own and no stereotypical behavior — and they run the gamut, racially, culturally, class-wise, gender-wise, and so on. It feels very realistic, even though the book is about a sorcerer engaging in some very magical shenanigans.

  9. I come at this from an ambivalent viewpoint — I find that I read a much much larger proportion of female authors than male authors, and I’m never quite sure why. I don’t really care whether the protagonist is male, female, POC or white, human or alien, but books written by women authors have a much higher chance of drawing me in than those written by male authors — with some notable expections. But I have very little patience with books where the female characters are arm-candy.
    My suspicion is that when presenting a character who is very different from the reader the author needs to make more of an effort to relate the character emotionally to the reader, and that’s probably harder work to get right.

  10. Oh by marketing I was referring to the whitewashing covers issue mostly. I’ll check out Kate Griffin, sounds great…

  11. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot this year — far more, I think, than I ever thought about it before, which quite possibly means that college has been more broadening than I expected. One of the issues I continue to run up against is that writers are so often told, “write what you know.” And in some ways, it isn’t bad advice: write about emotions you have felt, situations in which you have found yourself. Use details from worlds you know to ground your stories, whether those details are the minutiae you notice while walking down a city street or (as you’ve mentioned in earlier posts) the way society tends to divide itself according to whatever classifications. Don’t write about things in which you have completely no experience and haven’t even put research into, because not only could you completely embarrass yourself, you also have a high likelihood of being offensive. (There have been quite a few ‘fails this year that could have benefited from that.)

    On the other hand, “write what you know” can so easily become limiting — or at least, used as an excuse, I guess. There are so many things out there that I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to experience loss, or to be a man, to be fervently religious or poor or fabulously wealthy, but I do know that my stories would be both whitewashed and incredibly boring if they all starred people like me. Maybe “write what you know” is only meant to be a trampoline for imagination, something we come back to that lets us leap higher and higher. (…Oh, god, I sound terribly pretentious.)

    The funny thing is that one would think that fantasy/sci-fi writers, out of anyone, would pay the least attention to “write what you know”, seeing as very few of us actually have personal experience with what to do when, say, you find a dragon in your backyard. Maybe a lot of them are just trying to overcompensate?

  12. I think “write what you know” is only limiting if we assume that people can only know what they have directly experienced. But as you implied, we can do research. We can talk to people who’ve personally experienced the state of being, or whatever, we’re writing about. We can use our knowledge of similar situations to extrapolate, if it’s impossible to talk to someone who knows better (e.g., a dragon =P). If we don’t know something, we can learn. Granted, that only goes so far when you’re talking about something far outside your own experience; vicarious exposure will never be the same as direct exposure. But at least the attempt should be made.

  13. A very valid point, and one that some people in my recent experience would have done very well to learn. (Things can get so messy, so quickly on the internet, can’t they? Especially when somebody feels like they’re getting challenged about their writing, which can be such a personal thing.) You can’t use lack of knowledge about a situation as an easy out.

    On the other hand, there is a difference between knowing something, and having learned something. Do you mind if I ask — what do you think is the point at which this becomes unresolvable? Would there ever be a situation when you have to stop writing because you don’t have enough experience and can’t learn any more about it?

    Which is a weird hypothetical, I guess, and feel free to ignore it. I’m just kind of curious as to what the boundaries of research+imagination (such a powerful combination!) are.