I was reading an article by entertainment journalist Monique Jones the other day on Tor.com about her work as a consultant with Magic: The Gathering on creating Kaya, a black female ghost assassin. In her article, Jones talks about the importance of inclusive fantasy and the steps creators can take to develop characters of colour (or characters with disability that aren’t just token characters.
This reminds me of the author Mary Robinette Kowal who has written some very good articles on her blog about cultural appropriation and sensitivity in writing. One in particular is this article where she talks about why she decided to kill a project because one (just one!) out of the 20-plus readers she hired to look at the project did not feel comfortable with it. As Kowal points out, it wasn’t an easy decision to pull the plug on a project in which she had invested so much time and care and money into (she pays people to act as beta/sensitivity readers for her work), but at the end of the day there are a few things that need remembering, such as the fact that what you writes affects others and that any controversy arising from your work can and will “hit all the people in that community. Worse than that, the things you got wrong are probably things that you inherited from a systemic system of oppression, which means that you are reinforcing that oppression in the public consciousness. And that doesn’t hit you. That hits only the community you’re writing about.”
Jones pretty much agrees with this in her article where she talks about the need for investigation and research (a lot of investigation and research!) to ensure you’re creating fully-developed characters of diverse race/culture. So that means being willing to go out there and do lots of intense research. And also the willingness to communicate with the people who you’re writing about, to talk to them, to ask them questions, to find out what their issues are, and learn about their lives and what’s important to them and what they’re really like. As Kowal and Jones both point out, it can be a lot of hard work and for a lot of people, it can just be easier to say “it’s too hard” and walk away from it all.
So why bother writing about other cultures and races, then, some of you might ask. It’s definitely easier and less controversial to write about what we know, what we won’t get wrong or criticised publicly for. Sure, it is. But at the same time, here’s an answer for you from Jones. Toward the end of her article on Tor, she says: “The throughline of this is that creators must have a willingness to learn. You have to learn all the time. The moment you feel overly comfortable is the moment you could fall back on stereotyping or create a trope-filled character. This type of vigilance is demanding, and that’s when the ease of the comfort zone comes calling. But the comfort zone allows for no type of growth. The comfort zone is where great stories go to die.”
And there lies the heart of the matter. The comfort zone is where great stories go to die. Don’t let laziness or an unwillingness to learn get in the way of making what could be a good or mediocre story truly great. If you’re willing to put a lot of effort into crafting a good story structurally or grammatically, what then is stopping you from putting as much effort into making sure the characters of your story are real and unique and strike a chord with readers around the world? (As Kowal says, “If you’re willing to do the research for spaceships, who not people?”)
So get out of your comfort zone. Widen your horizons. Challenge yourself. There’s a vast and wonderful world out there that we live in and we should spend some time getting to know it and its people. Because, as Phedre of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series says, “All knowledge is worth having.” You may scoff at me for quoting a fictional character, but it is! And because, remember, the comfort zone is where great stories go to die. Don’t let a potentially great story die on you.