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.