The Issue With the Writing People As People and Not Characters Advice

The Issue With the Writing People As People and Not Characters Advice

success_kid_diverse_booksLet me preface this by saying that you should write people as people and not characters, but when a writer is asking a question involving diversity and the only answer you give is ‘write people as people and not characters,’ you’re completely missing the point of diversity.

Write people as people.

That’s great advice, but it completely misses that people are diverse, and certain groups of people do different things than other groups of people. For example, I had an Anon ask me how to write British characters. I could have just said ‘write them as you would write any other person,’ but that would have been completely neglecting that their culture is different from my American culture. So I let my British followers answer this Anon’s question, and let me tell you, had my Anon gone off the advice of write this British person as you would write any other person, British readers would have scoffed about how inauthentic that British character is. My British followers have diverse views that are different from my American ones.

America is a culture rife with diversity, so it’s very easy for us to say that we should write people as people, because we’re among people of all different ethnicities. We interact with these people and KNOW they are no different from us in terms of them being human at their very core. At the same time, there are differences in the ways cultures interact with other cultures. For example, let’s say you want to write a book with a girl who just happens to be Indian (not Native American). You can’t just accept the simplistic ‘write people as people.’ You HAVE to do research, and perhaps people giving this advice think this is common sense, but, again, such a simplistic answer is ignoring diversity. Unlike Americans who greet even strangers with smiles and a ‘hello,’ Indians do not do this in their culture. It is these LITTLE things that will determine the authenticity of the diverse characters you are writing about. Write them as people, but don’t neglect the idea that people are part of cultures that influence how they think, view the world, and interact with other people.

But let me mention what prompted this post. I saw a tweet on Twitter that was linked from Tumblr from an Anon asking about how to write LGBTQ+ characters without explicitly mentioning their sexualities. The author answered ‘write people as people and not characters.’ Okay, but that’s ignoring the diversity in sexual and gender identities that can go largely unseen in our culture because we are so used to assuming everyone is straight and identifies with the gender he/she was born with–because most people are straight and identify as the genders they were born with, so it’s not unfair to assume this when a person’s sexual or gender identity is not explicitly stated or shown if it is easy to be shown. For example, it’s easy to show homosexuality because all you have to do for your female character is mention she has a girlfriend. There you go. Then again, she could be asexual or bisexual or pansexual or transgender. Just because she’s dating a girl doesn’t mean she’s a homosexual! Just because I’m dating a guy doesn’t mean I’m heterosexual!

I don’t want to read a book where I have to analyze whether or not this character is bisexual or asexual or even pansexual or transgender or transsexual or gender fluid or whatever. Some of these things are easy to show, but these sexual and gender identities are still a part of those people’s identities, especially in a culture that hasn’t fully accepted LGBTQ+ people and is especially misinformed or doesn’t even know certain sexual or gender identities exist! We can’t just go around assigning arbitrary sexual and gender identities to characters in books whose identities are unknown. That isn’t fair to LGBTQ+ readers who want books specifically catered toward them (or me!) or expect to have a book with diversity but then end up assuming all characters are heterosexual because that IS what we ALL do when a character’s sexual or gender identity is not explicitly stated. Again, most people are straight and cisgendered. It would be great for me to pretend Hazel in TFiOS is asexual, but she’s not.

So if you’re writing an asexual character, you better state it in some way or eventually say something about it. If you’re writing a pansexual character, you better state it. If you’re writing a bisexual character, you better show it well, and this goes just beyond a bisexual guy dating a guy and thinking ‘What a beautiful girl,’ because even I as an asexual person can think ‘What a beautiful boy.’ These people are more than their sexual and gender identities, so it is good to say write them as people and not characters, but that is still a part of them and it’s completely unfair to ignore it. They live with these identities every single day. You wouldn’t ignore someone’s skin color when you’re writing about a character whose color is different from yours, so why would you do the same with someone who identifies as a different sexuality from yours, one that can’t be easily shown?

It’s hard to show asexuality because most people don’t know what it is or even what it feels like to be asexual. It’s hard to show pansexuality because most people don’t know what it is and what it feels like to be pansexual. People in real life often have to state their nonheteronormative identities to others. They have to be explicit about it because they don’t want you thinking they’re something they’re not. I had one girl tell me I was very good looking, and then she said something else that made sense for me to say ‘I’m engaged.’ She felt embarrassed, but I was flattered, and then she mentioned she was pansexual. Had she not told me that, I probably would have assumed she was homosexual.

So don’t accept the write-people-as-people-and-not-characters answer, because if you do that, you’re completely missing the point of diversity in the first place. We are more than just one facet of ourselves, but that facet is still a part of the greater puzzle that makes us a complete person. Being a ballet dancer and writer is a  HUGE part of me, so if you write a book on me, you better concentrate on ballet and writing and even my dang asexuality. Those are parts of me that affect how I live and interact with people.




7 thoughts on “The Issue With the Writing People As People and Not Characters Advice

  1. I love this post. I was just talking with a friend about how frustrated I am with this sort of writing advice.

    My pet peeve is when I say that I’m going to write about a brown gay woman and the immediate assumption is that she’s going to be a token, as if that’s just the inevitable result of deciding that sort of thing at the beginning along with what color her eyes are and what her family looks like. Obviously that’s possible if I don’t make her a rounded character with other traits that define her but I hate how it’s just assumed that that’s what’s going to happen. People act like the only valid way to write characters in marginalized groups is to have them spring into your mind fully formed, but that ignores the way we’re trained to see privileged people as the default so we’re not likely to just naturally imagine one of those characters. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do, other than write about the “default” because that won’t be questioned, and I’m not interested in giving up and doing that.

    I hate when they claim that every way that a character deviates from what’s considered normal must be relevant to the plot. But that’s not how life always works. Yes, the fact that I have a girlfriend and not a boyfriend affects my life, but it doesn’t invade every aspect of it. My disabilities don’t occupy all my waking thoughts. There are consequences that definitely need to be kept in mind but that doesn’t mean that there needs to be some plot relevant justification for writing about the sorts of people who exist in real life even if you wouldn’t know they exist from seeing most media. I hate the idea that I need to have a Reason for writing these characters.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to write a novel in your comments. :p

    But this is really annoying me today.

    1. I had such immediate alarm bells when I saw that advice, especially from a bestselling author! Maybe it’s easy for her to say that because she’s straight and identifies as the gender she was born with, but for those of us on the fringes, such advice is alarming. Of course I’m more than my asexuality, but if you’re writing a book with a romance subplot and include my fiance, I don’t want readers assuming I’m straight, so you better mention somewhere that I’m asexual, dang it!

      And I definitely see where you’re coming from. When you’re writing a character completely diverse from your own, when people tell you to write them as you would any other person, they are ignoring how we see privilege. They’re basically telling writers to write them like you would write the privileged group. Of course a dark-skinned girl is more than just her dark skin, but she’s going to see the world differently than a white person, and as a writer, you can’t just ignore that. I can’t write a dark-skinned girl as I would write myself, because the truth is, a lot of my black friends do see the world differently from white people because they do see the privilege that white people have, they do experience the racism because of their skin color.

      Does the book have to revolve around racism and privilege? No. But you can’t ignore that facet of themselves by basically telling the writer to write them as a white person, because white and straight and cisgendered are assumed to be the default.

      For example, I read a book called Pointe with a black character, and while she was a character who just happened to be black, she still struggled with a background that black people often have to fight against–poverty and the issues with it. So for her, ballet is the one way to get out of that. But the book is about her best friend Donovan coming back from having been kidnapped for five years. There are just subtle things in the book that point to the fact that as a black girl, she does see the world differently than a white girl does–especially because she is a black dancer.

      1. It can be a surprisingly tough concept to get across to people who are used to feeling represented, that it needs to be explicit because we’ve had to settle for subtext for too long but at the same time it shouldn’t completely define the character. It’s easy to go too far in either direction.

        I should look into that book. I used to be really into ballet until my joints couldn’t handle it anymore and I really miss it.

      2. You’ve just go to strike that perfect balance, which can be difficult to do, especially if you aren’t someone who identifies with that particular thing you’re writing about.

        And I’m hoping I can do ballet for as long as possible. There is a ballet dancer out there who’s in her 50s and still dancing professionally. I’ve just been dancing for three years, but I’ve already progressed into the advanced level. Now I just have to get back to where I can fully do pointe, as I recently had ankle surgery to get a piece of bone removed that was causing me great grief in dance class.

  2. Well said. If you choose to have a LGBTQ+ character in a leading role, it should be made clear, especially if it’s your main character and especially if it’s in a real-world setting where prejudice runs rampant, because even if they’re tough, that will have an impact on their life and behaviour.

    That said, I do remember being told about an interesting fantasy novel where two male side characters were dating and nobody thought it was weird/persecuted them/really said anything about it, which is an interesting thing to do in a fantasy world. Playing with how your fantasy society sees things like sexuality is always fun.

    1. Definitely in a fantasy setting you can totally ignore everything that has happened in our real world, because you can create your own history where homosexuals were never condemned. And that’s the cool thing about fantasy. Fantasy can pave the way for creating normalcy among all these different identities.

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