9 Things to Avoid When Trying for Diversity

Today, diversity is a fact of life – and, increasingly, of fiction. Look at the publication lists of any major publisher today, and you can’t miss the interest in the experience of women, ethnic minorities, and LGBQT+ communities. However, writing diversity is not as easy as sympathy or a will to justice. Unless you think about what you doing, your attempt at researching and writing diversity can falter from carelessness, misguided good intentions, or unexamined assumptions. If you are not careful, you can even bog down in outdated perspectives in a new disguise.

Here are nine potential ways efforts at diversity can be a problem:

Thinking It’s About You

A few years ago, I came across an article entitled, “How to write a sexist character without being sexist.” However, a more accurate description would have been, “How to write a sexist character without the character’s opinions being mistaken for yours.” That intent has always seemed to me a distracting intrusion of the writer into the story — as well as an extreme case of insecurity. It’s also a waste of effort, because any story can be misread by some reader, no matter how careful you are. If you want to express your social opinions, write an essay.

Checklist characters

Hang around any online writer’s group, and sooner or later you will come across an aspiring writer who is going to Do Things Properly. Their cast of characters will include at least one disabled character, one ethnic, and one for each letter of LGBTQ+. Aside from the unlikelihood of a perfectly distributed group of people getting together, the result is an awkwardly large task. The fact that many of those characters are likely to exist only to fill out the roster only interferes with the storytelling. Unsurprisingly, this tokenism gone wild rarely results in a finished book, let alone a publishable one.

Assuming that those you write about are willing to help you

Your research or a sensitivity reading may matter to you, but are probably unimportant to those you write about. They have lives that don’t include you, and many have grown tired of misrepresentations.

Believing that one person speaks for an entire group

No, not even if they hold an elected office. Get a variety of comments so that you know the range of opinions. Then depict that range.

Thinking you know better than the group you depict

The willingness of a group to be portrayed, or to have its stories told varies. Some cultures are exclusionary, and view their stories as property. Others have stories that can be freely told, and stories that are family property. A few might even be unconcerned who depicts them or tells their stories. It should go without saying that these preferences should be respected without any qualification. Your opinion does not give you the right to say what is appropriate one way or the other.

Insisting that the right to storytelling or depiction is a matter of blood

Too often, people who pride themselves on their sensitivity maintain that you can only approach certain topics if you belong to the group itself. This position is embarrassingly close to racialism.

Moreover, it quickly descends into an absurdity that is never discussed, but hovers at the edge of awareness. If only one of your parents belongs to a culture, do you still have the right to depict it? What about only one grandparent? Are the rights matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal? What if your ancestors belong to the culture, but you were raised in another one? Culture is not a matter of genetics.

Denying expertise

You do not need to belong to a group to understand it. However, the assumption that rights in a culture depend on the family you were born into discounts this self-evident fact out of hand. For example, my blogging partner, Jessica Larson-Wang is American, but lived in China for nearly two decades and married a Chinese citizen. Obviously, she has picked up some understanding of the cultures in China. Yet a surprising number of people insist she has no right to express that understanding, much less write about China herself. Possibly, her knowledge might be incomplete or contradicted by another source, and must be evaluated like any other sources, but an unexamined rejection is simply absurd. These days, outside experts may even be hired by a culture for their knowledge — and if they are good enough for members of the culture, they should be good enough for you.


“Woke-splaining” is a word I have coined by analogy to “mansplaining.” Just as a mansplainer is a man who explains to women what they already know, a woke-splainer insists that, by virtue of their social and political opinions, they know better than the members of a group they write about. Sometimes, they may actually do so, but the fallacy lies in the automatic assumption. For instance, one commenter attacked my article about whether the painter Emily Carr was guilty of cultural appropriation, insisting that what was discussed was not really cultural appropriation. Yet I consulted several of the First Nations that Carr depicted — most of them artists — and every single one of them saw some of her work as appropriation, and discussed it in those terms. Sorry — you don’t get to make judgments on the assumption that you know better because of your views.

Assuming that cultures are static

History shows that cultures continually change, often as the result of contact with other cultures For example, the cultures of the Pacific Northwest have altered drastically in over two centuries of contact with European settlers — not only through subjugation and epidemics, but also through the introduction of steel tools and paints and dyes that have enhanced their arts. True, through those two centuries, a core of customs and values has survived, but to deny that change happens goes against observable fact. Yet fantasies in particular are prone to depit cultures that have stayed the same for centuries, especially low-tech ones.

What makes static representations ironic is that they uncomfortably echo the views of capitalists and imperialists. When a culture is seen as a brand, as a commodity of value only when it can be sold, consistency of product is a necessary virtue. Yet to insist on that consistency is to deny the humanity of the people of those cultures – and that’s the opposite of what diversity and writing ought to be about.

Last Words

I realize that much of what I say here will provoke reflex outrage in certain circles. Many people act as though, having declared themselves supporters of diversity, they have no need to examine their own attitudes. However, that kind of arrogance easily overshadows the point of diversity: respect for others and the depiction of everyone as human and equal. It is no longer enough just to declare yourself empathic or against cultural appropriation. You have to avoid the arrogance that comes with holding correct opinions, and learn about and listen to those you are writing about.

At the same time, don’t let this list scare you away from diversity. Attempts to depict other people and other cultures are as old as the novel or the short story – especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. However, these days, writing other cultures is under closer scrutiny than ever, and the standard is higher than ever before. We all make mistakes, and the point is not to be perfect, but to try and do better next time.


Are You Writing Your Starter Novel?

A few weeks ago I encountered a woman online who was struggling with what to do with her manuscript. She’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to get this thing published for a good couple of decades. She’d signed with a small publisher a few years back, but the publisher allowed her contract to expire without ever publishing her book. She’d been querying it again, but so far she had no takers.  I suggested, as gently as I could, that perhaps it might be time to move on to her next project, but she adamantly refused. This novel, an epic fantasy, was her life. The characters had been in her head for thirty-five years, she said, and it was this book, or nothing. Although this attitude is not uncommon, I nonetheless found it pretty counterproductive. To an extent, I get it: writing a whole novel takes an awful lot of time, energy, and effort, therefore, most of us don’t give up on our manuscripts easily, and rightly so. A completed, or near-completed manuscript represents potentially thousands of hours’ worth of work, and setting it aside might seem almost sacrilegious, disrespectful to your own work and to yourself. However, there are times when holding on too tightly to the wrong project can only hinder your progress as a writer.

Time is Up

While there is no magic number to tell you exactly how long is too long to spend on one manuscript, if it is taking you a decade to finish your first book, the problem may be with the book you are trying to write, and not with you as a writer. I know some people will point to the examples of literary greats who slaved over their manuscripts for years upon years, always adhering to their vision, and it is true, these exceptions exist. What is also true is that we have limited time on this earth, and spending decades on one book is not the best way to make our writerly dreams come true. Whether you write at a glacial pace, or you’ve re-written the same book seven times, consider calling “time” on your novel if you’ve been at it for years and it is still going nowhere. It is entirely possible that you’ve spent so much time on this concept that you’ve lost whatever it was that made you passionate about it in the first place, and you may need some fresh material to kick start your creativity. Consider shelving the project, and coming back to it later with fresh eyes.

You Don’t Like Your Own Work

If you’re bored by your own writing, if you have to force yourself to write, or if you know deep down the work has major fundamental flaws, then there is a chance that this manuscript is not the one. Whether or not the problem is fixable depends on how big an issue is. If your manuscript has structural issues that require a total re-write, then that can sometimes take as much time as writing the initial manuscript itself. I re-wrote a manuscript, changing the main point-of-view character, and the novel ended up being an entirely new story, but I had gotten to the point with my former manuscript that it was no longer enjoyable to write it, and it had become more of a grind than anything else. I decided to re-write, changing the basic structure of my book down to the very bones, and suddenly I was excited to write again. A rule of thumb is that if you’re bored by your story, your readers will be too. If you find your own story boring, either figure out where you’re going wrong, and fix it, or write something else.

The Reviews Are In

Finally, this bit of advice is something that no one wants to hear, but it needs to be said. While no one should ever give up on a manuscript after one instance of negative feedback, if the feedback is consistently negative on a manuscript that is already finished and polished, then it is possible that the manuscript is never going to work. It can be hard to admit to yourself that the manuscript that you love is a dud, but it happens. What you need to ask yourself is, are you going to continue polishing this turd, or do you move on? Sometimes, no matter how much you re-write, your book just does not have what it takes. Perhaps the premise is flawed, or the idea is cliched, or the characters are just aren’t believable. Sure, you can re-write, but how many times can you truly re-write the same story, and are the re-writes actually helping? Consider that you could re-write the same book five times, but you could also write five new books in nearly the same span of time. If you’ve given your novel a fair shot, you’ve re-written, you’ve revised, and still, the feedback is not great, then there is no harm in setting aside your project and working on something new.

The Starter Novel

Consider the possibility that your novel may be your starter novel. Statistically, most writers are not successful on their first try. Often, we need to write a whole book before we become really familiar with story structure, characterization, pacing, and all of the important aspects of novel writing that are hard to learn without experiencing them directly. While no one goes into the writing process thinking that their book may be a starter novel, and there are always exceptions, if you’re hitting the point where for whatever reason, you’re starting to think this book may not be your debut novel, I think it is good to keep the concept of the starter novel in mind. Just because your first book doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed as a writer, and it doesn’t mean your time you spent writing this book was wasted. In fact, your starter novel might have been the very book you needed to write to turn you from a mediocre writer, to a great one.

General Writing

Bricks Without Straw: Making Useless Critiques Useful

After a while, critiques start to fall into recognizable categories. As you work with many critiquers, their responses can be like the Baggins family in Tolkien’s stories – you know what they are going to say without the trouble of asking them. Even worse, every once in a while, you come across a critique so out of the ordinary – so outré – that you don’t know how to react. Your first reaction may be to ignore it, and often you may be right. However, sometimes, you can incorporate such a critique into your work, although not in the way intended. Here are three examples:

Masculine Women and Feminine Men

I once had a critiquer who, every time they read an excerpt from my work in progress, would insist that the name of the female lead character sounded masculine. Every single time. Sometimes, several times in the session. However, I was not about to change it. By coincidence, the name was a woman’s in Finnish. More importantly, changing a name, even if only its spelling, changes the character for me. To change the character’s name would make me change the character’s personality, and I had no reason to do that.

However, it occurred to me that the critiquer might not be the only one who thought the name masculine. So I decided to meet the criticism head on by adding this exchange when the character was introduced:

“That’s a man’s name.”

“It’s my name now.”

Considering the character’s toughness, this short exchange showed her personality concisely. Through no intent of the critiquer, the comment proved useful after all.

The Curse of the Were-Salmon

Another time, a critquer became fixated on the militia units in my story that were named for common animals, such as Wolves, Salmon, and Horses. For reasons unclear to me, the critiquer got it firmly embedded in their head that the members of these units were – or should be – shape-shifters.

Nothing could be further from my intention, and a careful analysis of my words convinced me that I had written nothing that would suggest that conclusion. The misconception was a huge, unwarranted leap of logic, so I ignored it, except to joke that no doubt were-Salmon would swim upstream to spawn on the night of the full-moon.

At the same time, I wanted to trample firmly on the idea. After many unsuccessful tries, I made the idea that the militias were shape-changers an idea of a boy too young to know better. The boy’s moment of disillusion, of course, was his confusion over why anyone would to change into a salmon. What better way, I thought, to hint that the child was imaginative and questioned what around him?

Appropriating Shamanism

Jessica Larson-Wang, my critique partner (whose own comments, let me hurriedly say, are always insightful and improve my work) provides a third example. Her own work in progress includes a shaman. However, a discussion in a Facebook group was started by someone asking if using the word “shaman” was appropriation.

Ten minutes’ research would have revealed the concern is needless. “Shaman” is a long-established term in anthropology, and is widely used in English, even by those whose cultures include shamans. The only appropriation that concerns anyone is when some spiritual shopper debases the word to describe some Western-invented ceremony for the gullible – a practice as far from the concerns of actual shamanistic practice as can be imagined. Otherwise, the question never comes up.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to do this basic research. Instead, the group members wittered on endlessly, worrying about appropriation from an extinct culture and getting so so heated that one poster ended up being banned. Some suggested “witch” as a substitute, ignoring the conflicting connotations. Others favored substitutes that only covered a small part of a shaman’s role, such as “healer” or “village leader.”One even proposed “Shintoist,” cleverly avoiding the non-appropriation of one word by substituting appropriation of a still-existing culture. A few suggested inventing a word, although invention apparently proved lacking, since no new coinings were posted. All that our delight lacked was someone to suggest “medicine man” or “witch doctor.” The discussion alarmed one poster so much that they decided to avoid the word “shaman,” just in case.

By coincidence, Jessica was just finishing the chapter in which her shaman was introduced. After we finished laughing, she decided to use the thread with its implied criticism, inserting the partial descriptions to help any readers unfamiliar with shamans to understand their role, describing a shaman as “part healers, part shamans, part village leaders,” and later throwing in “witch” for good measure. Her use was partly an in-joke, but also for a practical purpose.

A Matter of Recycling

I suspect most people would simply ignore such off-the-wall comments. I used to do so myself. But as these examples show, even apparently irrelevant comments can sometimes contribute to your work – often despite themselves. And if there’s some nose-thumbing involved, you can’t say that the original critiques didn’t deserve it.


In Defense of First Person Present

First person present tense is a much maligned point of view. Generally, on twitter polls that ask, “what’s your favorite point of view to read?” poor first person present tends to score near the bottom. I will be the first to admit that, until about a year ago, I too was a hater. What changed my mind? I decided to write an entire manuscript in first person present.

To defend this social pariah of a point of view, we first must understand why it is so hated. First of all, first person present tense is found overwhelmingly in young adult novels, and in the eyes of some, that is enough to condemn it. After all, young adult novels are by and large read and enjoyed by women, and we all know that books and media primarily consumed by women are often looked down upon as being lesser than. Not only that, but first person present has what I tend to think of as a sort of breathless quality that lends itself to angsty reflections. Lots of cringey fanfic is written in first person present. In the hands of less competent writers, first person present can also degenerate into aimless recitation of day to day events. In a present tense narrative, many authors seem to forget how to jump forward in time, and mistakenly believe they must narrate every single action or thought the character has, no matter how mundane.

So, there are some pitfalls to writing first person present, and when I first began writing my current manuscript, I was aware of them. In fact, I wrote the first chapter and sent it to my critique partner (the other half of this blog, Bruce) and asked him “does this work, or should I switch to a more conventional point of view?” Only after reassurance that the point of view was not going to hold my project back, I went ahead and wrote about 150,000 words in first person present, the most I have ever written in this particular point of view. Am I entirely converted, only to write in first person present now and forevermore? No. In fact, my next project I plan will be written in a very conventional third person limited past. But would I tackle first person present again? Yes! There are some real advantages to this point of view, and I have come to believe that it is largely undeserving of the poor reception it receives.

The first thing I noticed about writing first person present is that the writing came quickly and naturally. Perhaps because the point of view and tense mirror our own natural thought processes, the words tend to flow easily for me, from my fingers to the page. First person in general, for many writers, tends to be an “easier” point of view to write than third person. Writing in first person is akin to journaling, except instead of writing about yourself, you put yourself in the shoes of your characters and imagine how they might narrate their lives, what thoughts and observations they might have about the events that take place. While third person sometimes can be a bit laborious to write, first person is quicker. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of those words are quality words, and you may need to do a bit more editing on subsequent drafts. However, if you are the sort of writer who struggles to get words on the page and has yet to complete a whole draft, you might consider trying first person (past or present) because you’ll likely find the words flowing with relatively less effort than other points of view.

First person present is probably the most immediate of all points of view and tenses, which means you can get very close to your characters, and experience events as they are experiencing them. How close or far the narration is from the events taking place is called “narrative distance.” Many readers tend to prefer points of view that are close to those that are distant. While third person can be written with a close narrative distance, most first person narratives are, by necessity, the most close and intimate of all (with some exceptions – in The Great Gatsby, for instance, the first person narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, creating a first person narration with a degree of narrative distance). If your manuscript is more character driven than plot driven, if the main conflicts of your narrative tend to be emotional conflicts rather than external conflicts, then a first person present tense narrative will give you greater access to your narrator’s emotions and feelings, which can make for a more compelling story.

While both of the above points can apply broadly to first person narratives in general, there is one point that is unique to present tense: it much easier for me to write lyrically in present tense. While in third person past I often struggle with the feeling that my prose falls a bit flat, in first person present I feel free to be as lyrical as I imagine my characters to be. Remember how I mentioned that first person present can have a sort of breathless quality? I realized, after writing for nearly a year in first person, that this quality does not have to be a negative thing. First person present is great for creating a character voice that is at once earnest, emotional, and reflective, and, because of the way my character sees the world, her reflections are more poetic than they are practical.

First person present, perhaps more than some other points of view and tenses, requires a delicate hand. It is very easy for the writer to become grammatically confused and switch tenses within the narrative. I’ve read books, particularly self-published books, in which misuse of first person present made the author’s writing appear amateurish. However, if this problem can be avoided by hiring a good editor, and writers who have a strong natural sense of grammar usually won’t have any problems. Overall, first person present has acquired a poor reputation I think partly due to snobbery and partly due to the received wisdom of the masses. After all, when advice like “avoid first person present” gets repeated often enough it has a tendency to become gospel, much like “show don’t tell,” and “avoid passive tense” – advice meant for novice writers as guidelines, but which were never meant to be definitive rules. First person present can be a lovely way to write, and if you’re thinking of using it, give it a try before you rule it out. You just may find yourself pleasantly surprised with the result.

General Writing

The Color of Éowyn’s Eyes: Economy of Description

You remember Éowyn, the niece of the King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings? The killer of the Nazgûl , for whom the confines of a woman’s life were not enough? You should remember her; she’s one of Tolkien’s only woman characters as well as one of his most fully realized. So try to tell me what color her eyes were, and I’ll suggest something important about description.

From the movies, or the fact that Rohirrim were based on the Anglo Saxons, you might deduce that her eyes were blue. However, no one can be sure, because her eye color is never mentioned. Not once. The closest Tolkien comes is when Aragorn observes a feeling of compassion in her eyes for her uncle’s condition. Éowyn’s eye color is irrelevant to her story and those who want to know it are likely to fill in the details for themselves. Readers don’t need to be given everything about her to appreciate her.

This observation runs contrary to the advice often given to beginning writers. Take, for example, bibisco, an open source equivalent of Scrivener. Bibisco’s first tip to users is that “in order to write believable characters, you must know everything about them.” All of them, apparently, from your protagonists down to the walk-ons. To help you, bibisco offers nearly a hundred different categories to fill, divided into categories like personal data, physical description, behavior, attitudes, psychology, ideas and passions. Under psychology, for instance, you are asked for “Each and every aspect of psychology.” The idea is silly beyond words, yet reviewers nod solemnly at it.

I don’t know about you, but that level of preparation would leave me with no desire to write at all. Just as importantly, it allows no space for the alterations of character due to the development of the plot, whose discoveries are one of the delights of writing.

Moreover, most of that information will never fit into the story. The days of Thomas Hardy starting a novel with a whole chapter of description are over a century past. Modern novels have no place for more than the essentials: the relevant physical descriptions and gestures are mostly all that readers will endure. And even then, you generally have to be selective. It is considered clumsy, these days, to pause the story for an info dump that reads like a police dossier. If more details prove necessary, you can give them as they become useful. For example, Tolkien might have chosen to give the color of Eowyn’s eyes from the perspective of Faramir as he proposes to her and gazes soulfully into them. Be careful, though, not to overdo the gradualism and have a character refer to his pale forehead as he brushes his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-green eyes – that’s just clumsy writing.

So how do you decide how much description is enough? In his master class, Neil Gaiman suggests that the general rule for any description is to ask how any object stands out from the rest. In the case of characters, I suggest asking yourself what you would notice when meeting the character for the first time. Is there a physical feature that is unusual? Something about the way they move? Or talk? Occupy physical space? Interact with others? It could even be the fact that nothing about them stands out (which might be a useful trait for a spy). Probably, you only have space for two or three features before the patience of the modern reader wears thin, so you can choose only what helps identifies the character, or anything that advances the plot. For instance, if you know there’s a scene coming up where the character needs to shout a warning, you could add some drama and character development by giving them a stutter to overcome. But you need to be economical.

One effective but difficult way to be economical in your description is to choose a theme in the details you choose. For example, if you describe a man as being as expressionless as a sheet of iron, and standing as immobile as a suit of armor, you create the impression of a hard, formidable person. Similarly, if you describe a woman in terms of the rich fabrics and embroideries she wears, you make her sound rich and fashion-conscious.

More simply, you can use a metaphor. The past master of description by metaphor was the mystery writer Raymond Chandler,who not only created vivid characters using metaphors, but let readers fill in the details and gave an impression of the viewpoint character in the description. Often, too, the metaphors were hilarious. For example, Chandler described one character as being “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Another character described himself as being “an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Probably his best known description remains, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Notice how these examples concentrate on the impression that a character creates, leaving the reader to fill in most physical details. Chandler has been parodied so many times that many of his descriptions seem too over the top today, but a more subdued version of his technique remains possible. For instance, I recently described a character as looking like a plant that had been left unwatered for too long.

All these approaches to description demand thought and economy. All, too, are far more demanding than the encyclopedia-like info dump that novice writers often feel is required. But they are also more effective and efficient, and can move a story along in more way than one.


The Bad Boy Corollary to the Hateful Bastard Doctrine

Note: This discussion focuses mainly upon the bad boy in cis-het romance. While the trope may exist in non cis-het relationships, I purposely left that dynamic out of this discussion.

We all know the trope. Our plucky female main character has a nemesis, and boy is he ever a piece of crap. He’s casually insulting. He’s condescending. He’s emotionally unavailable, and more likely than not, he’s done some Very Bad Things in life — he’s maybe an assassin, or a hardened soldier who has lost the ability to feel, or maybe he’s a thief or a crime lord, or maybe he’s a self-indulgent royal used to getting his own way. He’s got flaws galore – he’s mean, maybe he has a drinking problem, or he sleeps around, or he’s selfish and narcissistic. He definitely doesn’t trust easily, and, more likely than not, he’s got a few traumatic skeletons in his closet. But he’s hot. And so, in spite of herself, our main character just can’t stop thinking about him. Eventually, the two move from hate, to grudging tolerance, to grudging friendship, and then, finally, love.

If you’re a fan of this dynamic, my intention is not to shame you. Confession here: I am a huge fan of the “enemies-to-lovers” trope and I’m a sucker for the “bad-boy” type. I had my own bad boy phase, and there are reasons why twenty-three year old me found my bad boy so attractive. He tapped into all of my own more reckless impulses, for one, and it was just plain fun for young me to tag along with him on wild adventures. He also, in true bad boy form, carried a fantastic amount of personal baggage that unlocked a well of empathy inside of me. In fiction, often our main character is the only one who can see the true goodness of the bad boy, the proverbial “heart of gold,” and I believed this whole-heartedly of my own relationship. And while there is a lot of hand-wringing in modern fiction about the harm this trope does, and how it teaches young women to accept abuse in relationships, I, like many young women who perhaps made some unwise relationship choices in youth, ultimately married a man who bore no resemblance to the bad boys of my past.

I am not one to say that any variations on the bad boy theme – enemies to lovers, the jerk with the heart of gold, the lovable rogue, and all of the seemingly endless variants – needs to perish. I’m rather fond of the trope myself, and, done well, it can lead to some great writing. The bad boy trope gives us not only the potential for some great romantic tension, it also usually leads to character growth, since being a hateful bastard is, as mentioned before, is generally not sustainable in the long run for a main character. However, authors (particularly authors writing for a Young Adult audience) need to tread carefully when writing their bad boys. Not only do you want to avoid writing a character that is an empty cliché, you want to avoid writing the dreaded problematic romance. While your enemies to lovers bad boy romance will probably always have its detractors, there are a few things you can do to make the romance a bit more palatable to readers.

Avoid One-Sided Meanness

Being mean sort of comes with the bad-boy territory, so readers will forgive you if your character acts like an asshole. What is less forgivable is if your female character is routinely the object of scorn and derision, takes the bad-boy’s meanness to heart, fails to defend herself, and yet falls in love with him anyway. Although the series is often criticized for glorifying bullying, Holly Black’s Folk of the Air, whose first and second books, The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King avoid this pitfall. The main character, Jude, who is tormented by Prince Cardan, is nearly as bad as Cardan is and, while she is at a magical disadvantage to the Prince, she is, throughout the first two books, portrayed as his equal in wit, and is capable as giving as good as she gets. Even before she truly comes into power, she antagonizes her would-be bullies and does not back down from the challenge. As the series progresses, both characters are shown to have major issues to work through, and struggle with being vulnerable with each other. It is unclear whether, in the end (the series’ finale does not release until this November) Cardan and Jude will finally learn to trust each other, but what is clear is that their relationship is, for the most part, a relationship of equals. While Jude one-ups Cardan on occasion, and he one-ups her in return, they each have power over the other (their feelings for each other making each of them vulnerable). This is a tried and true formula though, extending far into the literary canon. Pride and Prejudice is great example of this dynamic. Darcy is our arrogant jerk with a heart of gold, but intelligent, witty Elizabeth tells him exactly where he can shove it

It isn’t fun to read a story in which one character is bullied into submission by another character. What can be fun to read is a character who thinks that they have found an easy target, or who thinks that they are certainly the smartest cleverest person around, being put in their place. When the character’s expectations are subverted, fun things happen. This doesn’t mean that your female lead needs to be your typical female badass stereotype either – softer characters are just as capable of standing up for themselves and raining on someone’s meanness parade as bad-asses. This is a profoundly satisfying take on the bad-boy trope because not only is it great to see an asshole get their comeuppance, but it shows that the budding couple are on even ground. It is easier, and more pleasant, to imagine a future in these sorts of relationships, than it is to imagine one in the types relationships which result  in one party being  browbeaten into submission.

Avoid Lack of Consent and Physical Abuse

While an anti-hero main character may be able to come back from almost any sort of moral misstep, your romantic leads are different. The audience’s sympathy, in most cases, inherently lies with the main character, and if your bad-boy romantic lead is abusive towards the main character, the audience will never forgive him. In fact, some writers, knowing how hard it is for a love interest to come back from abuse, have written a character as abusive in order to kill of one side of a love-triangle relationship so thoroughly that even the most die-hard shippers must give up hope for their favorite couple. In Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, in which love-interest Tamlin becomes an abusive boyfriend, who throws things at and physically threatens his fiancé Feyre, in order to make room for bad-boy Rhysand. The irony is, of course, Rhysand himself, however, is pretty problematic, although Maas tries her best to rehab him in the second book of the series, it is hard for an astute reader to forget that this guy once drugged Feyre and forced her to dance half-naked for a roomful of people, and not only that, he also physically tortured her while she was injured in order to get her to accept a bargain. The book has many fans, but as an adult woman I can’t make excuses for a guy who roofies the woman he claims is his soulmate.

Consider this: if your characters were alive in today’s world, would your bad boy be criminally liable for his actions against his so-called loved one? Is this behavior that could land him in jail? If so, you’re not writing about romance, you’re writing about abuse. Physical abuse and rape aren’t light topics, and they’re not things that are easy to get past. If your bad boy is physically mistreating his love interest before they’re ever even a couple, why would she develop feelings for this man, and if she did would those feelings be healthy? Also consider – someone who hurts others so casually, or who thinks nothing of engaging on non-consensual behavior, may not be capable of engaging in a healthy and loving relationship, at least not without a lot of therapy.

Avoid Gaslighting, Humiliation, and Intimidation

Aside from physical abuse, gaslighting is probably one of the cruelest things a person can do to another person. Gaslighting is when a person makes another person question their version of reality, to the point that the person ultimately questions their own sanity. While enemies to lovers often involves manipulation (perhaps our hateful bastard initially set out to seduce our main character for his own nefarious purposes, but eventually the ruse became real love, he confesses to his ruse/his lover finds out, drama ensues), manipulation that crosses the line into psychological torture isn’t a comfortable read, nor is it something that should be considered swoon worthy. Take Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush Hush, whose protagonist, Nora, falls in love with a fallen-angel named Patch. Born in the Twilight era, Hush Hush is very of its time, and feels reminiscent of Twilight in many ways, except, if possible, the angel Patch is worse than vampire Edward. Not only are there some iffy moments in Hush Hush in terms of sexual consent, in the very first book Patch makes Nora question her sanity. He routinely manipulates her with his angel powers, sends her visions and hallucinations, and Nora herself claims that she is terrified of Patch, at one point she is even terrified that he might rape her. Patch humiliates her, threatens to kill her, and belittles her – he isn’t just mean, he’s awful.

Think, if you will, about the future of such a relationship. A relationship with a foundation built on terror, threats, and manipulation probably does not have a very healthy future. The rules of romance tend to state that if not a happily ever after, then the characters need at least a happy for now (note – other endings are possible, but then, writer, you’re not strictly writing a romance, you’re writing a tragedy, a comedy, etc.). Imagine how your characters are meant to achieve their happy ending if the very relationship itself has been traumatic. Bad-boy love interests work better when they are written in such a way as to inspire empathy, rather than fear. The very appeal of the bad boy is often uncovering the heart of gold underneath, but if uncovering that heart of gold is simply too much work, and results in actual emotional trauma for the main character, the reader may find little worth in that relationship.

The enemies to lovers and bad boy tropes often skirt the line of acceptable behavior, but remember, by having your main character ultimately fall in love with and have a happy ending with the bad-boy, any behavior the bad-boy displays is tacitly condoned by the main character. Put yourself in her shoes – how much would you accept from a love interest? Roofying is probably out, right? Would you put up with a man who hits you? Who threatens to kill you? Imagine you have a daughter – how would you feel if she told you that she was terrified of her boyfriend? You would want her to leave, right? That’s not a healthy romance, and should be no-one’s end game.

If intend to outright write an abusive relationship you’re not writing a romance, but rather exploring the nature of relationships and the human condition — perhaps in a tragic way, but the distinction between the two should be crystal clear to the reader. The relationship might be romanticized by the participants, but not by the writer. The caveat being, if you want to write a toxic or unhealthy relationship, then you must signal to the reader that the relationship is toxic. Perhaps the characters know this, perhaps they don’t, but it should be completely clear to the reader that this behavior is not healthy. Otherwise, reader, indulge in those lovely bad boys all you like, you’re certainly not alone in enjoying the type or the tropes that come with it.


When Cultural Appropriation Is Forgiven: The Strange Case of Emily Carr

Cultural appropriation is generally easy to condemn. When someone borrows a painting style from another ethnic group, or wears a badge of rank from another culture, there is seldom any ambiguity. If nothing else, the appropriation is often poorly done. But what if the appropriation is art of the highest calibre? What if those whose culture is appropriated not only forgive the appropriation, but are honored and inspired by it? These are some of the questions raised in the case of Emily Carr, who is generally considered one of Canada’s greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Emily Carr was an impressionist who between 1910-40 painted the wilderness and First Nations villages in British Columbia, including totem poles and mortuary sculptures. She would wander the coast with a pack horse and her pet monkey, a well-known and respected eccentric. Her work shows limited knowledge of First Nations art forms, and she almost never attempted to work in them or to imitate them. All the same, her work has a brooding, restless atmosphere all its own.

Statue of Emily Carr by Joe Fafard

Like for many people, Emily Carr was my gateway to genuine Northwest Coast art, which I consider one of the greatest traditions in the world. However, after I learned about appropriation as an adult, my appreciation of her work became a guilty pleasure. Was it okay to like her work? Or should I be embarrassed about my taste?

Emily Carr, “Big Raven”, 1931

In 2018, the subject of Carr came up in a Facebook group dedicated to ferretting out fraudulent First Nations art – a major problem in the art world, with containers full of fakes being shipped regularly to British Columbia from southeast Asia. Since the group was full of artists, I expected to hear her denounced, loudly and indignantly. However, to my surprise, that wasn’t what happened.

Just the opposite, in fact. Nor was the fact that Carr lived at a time when such issues were viewed differently mentioned by most of the commenters.

It’s not that Carr never culturally appropriates, or that people are unaware of the issues. Recently, Gayton Nabbess, who studied at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, but is not First Nations himself, did not hesitate to respond with the term when asked about Carr’s work. And in the original thread, Brad Letwin described Carr’s ceramics, which were intended for the tourist market, as a classic example of cultural appropriation. Yet Sonny Assu, a post-modernist whose Interventions on the Imaginary sequence involved painting over some of Carr’s work with his own designs, defended her, saying her ceramics were done “reluctantly” to make a living, and debunked the widespread notion that she sought to record a dying culture. Although Assu’s feelings were mixed, he had obviously come to respect her works.

However, for others, the question of cultural appropriation hardly arises. Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman commented,”She didn’t set out to ‘save’ us or preserve our traditions,’ or proliferate our art forms. She didn’t make our work more famous or relatable, she was a painter, not an anthropologist, and when she painted us, she lived amongst us. One of the things that I truly appreciate about her works of villages and totems is the vibrancy and vitality that they communicate. Not a narrative of extinction, not a record for preservation, but a reflection of what she saw and felt, which, considering the cultural superiority of the day, is remarkable on its own and speaks to her independent thought. I guess I’m saying that I don’t see it as harmful, nor do I think of work as harmful in any other way.”

Similarly, Haida goldsmith and carver Gwaai Edenshaw wrote that Carr was “honest and unique. She was not taking money out of the pockets of the masters whose shadows land in her paints. She was a member, engaged with the community. If anything her work has increased the reach of our market.”

Others in the thread praised her for the historical record she left. Haida artist and activist Dan Wallace observed that her work “shows actual family ties to the poles that were there at that time.” Veteran artist Richard Hunt wrote, “When people say, ‘Did you really live here?’ I say, “‘Yes, look, Emily Carr painted our pole here!'” Gitxsan artist and teacher Arlene Ness said that “it shows the power of our culture that the totems, culture, and communities captured her. The depth to her paintings reveal the impact the Northwest Coast had on her. She then belonged to the Northwest Coast. She stayed in the villages and was welcomed and accepted. Gitanyow and Kispiox (upper Skeena River/ Gitxsan) are two of the places she made home temporarily…. She is regarded favorably in my area.”

Emily Carr, “Kispiox Village”

I mention these comments because they are such a contrast to the usual narrative of cultural appropriation. While the culturally sensitive insist that appropriation is never acceptable, the reactions to Carr tell a more mixed story. Some may be surprised, but in Carr’s case, influential art, honesty, participation in the culture, and giving something back in return for hospitality and inspiration have combined to make appropriation, if not altogether acceptable, at least forgivable. And if members of the culture she painted and her artistic peers can respect her work, who else has any right to complain? The acceptance of Carr should not be mistaken for an unrestricted license for appropriation, but it does show that the issues can be more complicated that many people admit.

Emily Carr, “Zunoqua-of-the-Cat-Village”, 1931
General Writing

What sort of writer do you want to be?

“”I always wanted to be something, but now I see I should have been more specific.” -Lily Tomlin

Years ago, I met another would-be writer at a workshop. I remember that he praised several phrases in my submission, and that the presiding professional – who obviously did not want to be there – pilloried both our offerings. We commiserated, and discussed our writing ambitions. From time to time, we encountered each other at other conventions.

I turned out to be the most timid. Instead of pursuing my ambitions, I detoured into academia and technical writing, producing next to no fiction for years. Meanwhile, I watched with undisguised jealousy as the other writer gained a reputation for editing and started publishing fiction regularly. He was prolific, regularly publishing a novel per month, and frequently doing movie adaptations and theme anthologies. However, I rarely read his work; I couldn’t stand to. His success emphasized my shortcomings.

Last week, I downloaded a collection of ebooks that included one of his. Steeling myself, I made myself read his first. To my surprise, his work was no more than adequate. Background and characters were paper thin, and the plot thinly connected to the premise. I saw no sign of the literary ambition he had at the start of his career. Even allowing for my envy, his work was ephemeral and completely forgettable.

For all I know, he is perfectly content with his career. After all, he is probably making a living as a writer. He gets to deal with fiction daily, and if he goes to conventions, he can claim a place in the privaate room for professionals.

All the same, if I ever meet him again, I would like to ask: was where you are what you had in mind?

More importantly, my envy has drained away. I am in no way contemptuous, but I realize that I do not want what he has got after all. I realize I am more ambitious than him. I don’t just want to make a living writing fiction – my ambition is to be recognized as a writer. In my conceit – maybe in my naivety – I want to write something of value, something that will last. Granted, in today’s market, most works are here and gone in a few months, but I suspect that putting in the effort he has, only for each book to be forgotten in turn would only leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. Now, instead of a jealous chorus of voices whispering, “That could have been you,” when I think of this writer and his work, what I hear inwardly is, “Be careful what you ask.”


Writing Hateful Bastards: How Far is Too Far?

Recently someone in a writing group asked a question that amounted to “if my character is sort of racist, and doesn’t really change her views by the end, will readers still enjoy the book?”

The general consensus answers seemed to be “I would read that, go for it!” and “we like complicated characters!” However, I had a rather a few more reservations. I thought on this, and thought on it some more. You see, reader, I keep hearing people say that they like dark characters because they’re more realistic, more interesting, more fun. Your character can be a cold blooded killer, they say, a rapist, a racist, an overall bad-dude, and we will read it because we like flaws. Does the character have to change, and realize the error of their ways? Nope, they say, because in real life people don’t change,  so do your worst!

And, after thinking and thinking, I decided I wasn’t sure if I really believed that this was the case. Because despite what people in the writing group said, most successful anti-heroes have one thing in common, and that is that they manage, on some level, to get me to care about them. Perhaps they don’t have some grand epiphany, during which they realize the error of their way and turn over that new leaf,  perhaps they aren’t full of remorse, but on some level, they do struggle. The nature of these struggles may change — some may struggle with their own actions, some may struggle with their own nature, some may struggle with their own desires. Things are never too easy for these characters, and they do not avoid consequences for their actions. A character who struggles, and who brings us along for the ride, may be allowed a great many more sins than a character who blithely hurts others with no self-awareness or consequences.

So, are there any lines a protagonist cannot cross? The short answer seems to be a resounding “no.” Readers seem to have an almost infinite reserve of forgiveness for the skillfully created character. The longer answer, however, is, it depends, and perhaps, certain lines should only be crossed carefully, and by writers who are certain they have the skill to pull it off without triggering any proverbial land-mines.

Murder, for instance, seems relatively easy to forgive, particularly if the murder is done in self-defense or self-preservation, or in the name of protecting the protagonist’s loved ones. We can even forgive those who kill innocents, if the killer is say, an assassin (all in a day’s work?) or a soldier. Sometimes we can even forgive serial killers – Dexter anyone? But even our most murder-y protagonists have one thing in common, and that is that they understand and ultimately accept the consequences of their choices. Perhaps sometimes their mental health deteriorates – Tony Soprano famously sought out therapy for his job related stress and depression, and clearly struggled with balancing his life in the Mafia with his role as a father and husband. Sometimes they struggle to find meaning in an uncaring world. Our quintessential anti-hero, Meursalt in Camus’s The Stranger, who murdered someone in cold blood for no real reason whatsoever, is someone who feels frustration with the meaninglessness of life, and despair that no matter what he does, or how he feels, the universe is ultimately indifferent. The murder he commits isn’t excusable, but his despair is relate-able. Perhaps what it comes down to is that killing, is a line that many people can, on some level, imagine themselves crossing given the circumstances. When characters offer up mitigating circumstances, or even feelings of turmoil, we are able to accept these in a way, and offer up our sympathy, even if we may still condemn the act.

There are other lines, however, that we have a harder time sympathizing with, particularly if we have a certain sort of faith in our own moral alignment. Rape, for instance, is hard to imagine as being motivated by anything other than pure selfish desire (in fact, literary theorist William Flesch suggests that our very interest in a narrative arises primarily from our desire to ascertain whether each character has inherently selfish or altruistic motives for their driving action). Unlike murder, rape is singularly unjustifiable, and it is nearly impossible to muster any sort of sympathy for a rapist, no matter how conflicted the rapist may be. And yet, Alex, the anti-hero protagonist of Burgess’ seminal novel, A Clockwork Orange, is a violent serial-rapist who knows, intellectually, that what he is doing is wrong, and yet does it anyway. While we do not forgive Alex, the way his “reform” is handled does make us pity him. Burgess’ first person narrative invites the reader into the world of a severely disturbed young man, a child really, carefully building trust between the narrator and the reader. This makes it hard for us to witness Alex’s torturous punishment, and on some level we may even find ourselves wishing he could somehow escape, even if it meant a return to his old ways. Reading A Clockwork Orange is an ultimate exercise in cognitive dissonance for any thoughtful reader – we know we should despise Alex, but somehow we don’t, not quite.

Violence against children is similarly hard to forgive – children, after all, are particularly vulnerable and our very nature tells us to protect them, not hurt them. There is something repulsive to the soul about people who hurt children, and it is no surprise that, when you read news stories involving deliberate (and sometimes even accidental) harm to children, the comments sections are often filled with people who firmly believe that the deepest pits of hell are still too good for someone who would hurt a child. Is harm to a child a line that cannot be crossed? Not every author seems to think so. George R.R. Martin famously had incestuous twin Jaime Lannister push a child out of a window, and then later went on to write for Jaime perhaps one of fantasy’s greatest redemption arcs, taking a universally loathed character and turning him into someone we actually sympathize with and even root for. Martin’s Jaime is revealed to be a broken man who has lost his faith in the institutions and people to whom he was previously devoted – including his sister-lover, the woman who inspired the act of attempted Child-murder. Once a idealistic and devoted young knight, Jaime was eventually universally reviled for what he considered his greatest act – murdering the abusive, murderous mad king. Later, Lannister’s devil-may-care attitude is revealed to be a façade hiding a much deeper sense of self-loathing. The further Jaime grows, the more he distances himself from his sister, the more his regrets for his past actions begin to surface, and Jaime himself begins to hope that he might regain his lost honor. It is hard not to sympathize with this character who actively wants to do better and who tries to distance himself from the people and mindsets that caused him to lose his altruism.

Indeed, perhaps in the hands of a skillful enough writer, there truly is no line that cannot be crossed. And indeed, one harsh reality many of us writers must face is that sometimes we aren’t quite ready, as writers, to tackle the book we want to write. When an amateur writer in writer’s group says that she’s writing an unrepentant racist, a child murderer, or a rapist, my first reaction is generally to cringe rather than say “go for it!” While it is not out of the realm of possibility that the writer may manipulate the reader’s emotions so skillfully that even the most hateful bastards will be redeemable, it is unlikely that an amateur writer will accomplish this feat. More likely than not the writer might succeed in creating a hateful bastard, but will fail in making this person sympathetic enough for the reader to actually give a damn whether said bastard succeeds or fails, lives or dies.

Sympathy isn’t about likability. Characters do not have to be likable, but in order for the reader to invest in the story, we do have to care about what happens to them. At the heart of every story is a character with a goal, and certain people or circumstances that get in the way of that goal. So, how are you, writer, going to make readers care about whether or not your hateful baster gets his way or not? Because if the readers do not care, they will not finish your book.  And while you do not have to create likable characters, you do have to create characters that are worthy of our care – in other words, sympathetic. What makes your characters worthy of our care? Do we see some small flicker of humanity deep in their broken and tortured souls? Do we simply pity them? Does their humorous and personable voice make them likable against all odds? When creating your unrepentant racist or your serial killer protagonist or your heartless assassin, these are the questions the writer must ask.

Further, you must ask yourself, with all the humility you can muster, is this the right story for me to write right now? It is perfectly alright to save your more ambitious stories for later in your writing experience, when your skills are more developed, and when you have a firmer grasp on how you might do these characters justice. Whatever you choose, know that there will be people who will find your characters actions to be beyond the pale no matter what, and that all of your hard work at redemption will, occasionally, all be for naught. But, then, as my co-blogger Bruce often remarks, no one ever said this writing stuff was supposed to be easy.