Diverse Books and Writing What You Don’t Know

rainbow book(revisiting this post from 2015)

Write what you know. It’s a trite piece of advice for writers struggling to find a subject to which to put their pen, and a dire warning to those embarking on literary excursions into the unknown.

Many feel this saying is a load of crap. After all, if we can only write what we know, then we have no business even writing a memoir: our view of ourselves and our experience is so myopic, and our blind spots so extensive, that we can’t claim to truly know even what’s going on in our own lives. However, when we plunge into writing about something we don’t know, it pays to be cautious. After all, when you’re an “outsider” with respect to your subject matter, those on the inside are going to know if you get it wrong.

I’ll start with this piece of advice: Write what you want. Writing is an art, and stifling that art with a bunch of rules and warnings isn’t going to help anyone. You have something to say, and so say it, with your whole heart and to the best of your ability. But I’ll add this caveat: if you’re going to write about a type of character or situation that exists in contemporary life and yet is outside your personal experience, I advise you give it deep thought. The agonizing, soul-searching variety of deep thought. Your characters, and your readers, deserve no less.

Most of us have heard of the We Need Diverse Books movement. It is a worthy cause. Stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are an integral part of social change. Books help connect readers with people and situations that they may never encounter in their day-to-day life, and can broaden understanding and acceptance in a way that no amount of preaching or direct social activism can do. Books are a safe way to explore situations that we’d be frightened to become involved in in real life, and can help to lessen our fear and misunderstanding of those situations. For instance, a person frightened of foreign travel might be more comfortable after reading a million guidebooks. The more different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of being people are exposed to in books, the more comfortable they’ll be with it in their real lives.

It is precisely for this reason that we need to be mindful of how we portray our diverse characters. I’m not saying that we should never let a diverse character be anything other than a shining beacon of perfection, so that we don’t give readers the impression that all people of that diverse group are “bad”. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is, the character has to be realistic. We have to be comfortable in that character’s shoes. We have to know them like we know a human being, and relate to their struggle, before we write about them. Otherwise, we’ll get it wrong. We’ll portray them as an issue, instead of a character, and we’ll miss an opportunity to let readers identify with them on a human level. And yes, we can end up doing actual, measurable harm to real people by reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions.

I love it when books have diverse characters, but when I hear editors or agents say, “If there’s no diversity in your books, don’t worry: it can be added,” I cringe. It is possible to deliberately add diversity in this way and still have a great book. But, if you’re adding diversity purely for diversity’s sake, be very cautious. After all, if you’re inserting a diverse character just to make the novel more marketable, then you are exploiting the group to which that diverse character belongs. If you’re changing the color of a character’s skin, giving her a limp, or modifying his religious practice, take a long moment to get to know that character again, because you have changed who they are. Make sure you don’t overlook, misunderstand, or gloss over the issues that the character might face in their daily life. Otherwise, you run the risk of your character being a blue-eyed guy with shoe polish on his face asking John Wayne to smoke-um peace pipe.

You’ll have readers that identify with your diverse characters, and if you tell their story incorrectly, you’re selling those readers short and hurting them on a personal level.

This concept also applies to characters who are members of groups which may not traditionally be viewed as “diverse”. If your character is dealing with issues of any kind that you haven’t dealt with personally, make sure you put thought into it. For instance, I’m a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, and a victim of physical and sexual abuse. I have thrown books across the room and cursed authors’ very souls for, in my view, misrepresenting these issues. I’m really tired of reading about poor, battered women who suffer their completely evil, idiot husbands stolidly until the day they rise up with unblemished inner strength to assert themselves. I know it may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but I feel belittled by this narrative. Abuse is ugly; it changes you. It weakens you. And it can make you stoop to the level of the abuser, because you know no different, and because you’re so scarred and hurt that you can’t function in a healthy manner. I do recognize that not all survivors of abuse see it this way, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that my story is being exploited and told incorrectly for profit, when I read a book that gets it “wrong”.

Additionally, I’m tired of seeing drug addicts portrayed as objects of pity or contempt; complete hot-mess wastrels; soulless beings with no hope, intelligence, or inner life. I especially hate this narrative when said addict ends up seeing the light, and becomes a pink-cheeked, happy and productive member of society within the course of 350 pages.

It’s also annoying just when people get details wrong: heroin addicts with dilated pupils (opiates contract the pupils), or about a character “melting” black tar heroin in a spoon (it doesn’t melt; you have to dissolve it in water). The details are easy to research, and the rest, well, all I can say is that drug addicts are people, too. Drugs can make people into a hot mess, it’s true; but that hot mess can be interesting to examine, and you’ll make your story better if your character is well-rounded.

And, as a psychotic person, when a book about a “psycho killer” comes out, I have a legitimate fear reaction. People like me are beaten, imprisoned, and killed because of wrongful stereotypes like this. The same for some other marginalized groups. Misportrayals can do real harm, and you don’t want that on your conscience. So, do your research if you’re writing about characters from different walks of life as you. And, the best research is not academic research, but experience*.

If you want to have marginalized characters in your books, but don’t share that marginalization, I say go for it…but put thought into it, and seriously consider having your diverse characters be side-characters, and not main characters. Also, don’t write characters with marginalizations that you’ve only read about. If you don’t have a diverse group of friends, then you might not be the right person to be repping diversity in literature. But, seriously, we all have diverse friends, right?

I have a lot of Mexican-American characters. I speak Spanish and have lived most of my life in areas with a huge Mexican-American population, so I’m comfortable writing about the culture—usually from an outside point of view, because I may not know the internal issues of being Mexican-American, but I can speak to my experience as an observer, and so my characters can as well. I also have Mexican-American beta readers, so if I mess up, as I always will, they can help me with it.

I also often write about characters with mental illness/neurodivergence. I am mentally ill, autistic, and have psychosis. However, when I was writing a book with a schizophrenic main character, I reached a point where I felt like I was getting it wrong. So, I went down to the local park and made friends with a young schizophrenic man I’d seen hanging around.

My friendship with Phoenix was never about writing a novel. I don’t hang out with him because of his mental illness, but because I enjoy his company. He’s an amazing, intelligent, and hilariously funny person.

Hanging out with him taught me a lot about myself as a neurodivergent person, and opened my eyes to the way ableism affects us all. We were kicked out of bars, restaurants, casinos and libraries because people were uncomfortable with his behavior (mine too, to be honest); I had to intervene with the cops and the courts when he was arrested for no crime other than being schizophrenic. I spent horrible, anguished days and nights, crying and worrying, when he was institutionalized, or in the hospital after someone misinterpreted something he said and beat him into a coma. Certain experiences with him have triggered my own episodes of psychosis, as well, which were of course frightening and draining.

My Other Place Series wouldn’t be what it is without Phoenix. I would have missed so much of the joy, the beauty, the horror, and the subtleties of the schizophrenic experience if I hadn’t spent time with him, because seeing psychosis from the outside, and really being part of someone else’s experience, is different than experiencing it myself. The more insight we have into life and people of all kinds, the better our writing will be.

Just like I don’t hang out with Phoenix because he’s mentally ill, I didn’t write my book about the schizophrenic character because he is schizophrenic. I wrote it because he’s an interesting character, with a really good story to tell. Readers will identify with characters, and want to spend time with them, if they’re interesting people, and not just a list of symptoms and diagnoses or character traits you gleaned from internet research.

Putting thought into it doesn’t make you exempt from criticism, however. Nothing will. If, someday, a reader gets angry at me for getting a Latinx character wrong, well, it will upset me, and I’ll listen, but I’ll have the consolation of being able to talk about it with my Latinx beta readers and friends and do better next time, so it won’t destroy my love of writing.

And, y’all, I get criticism about my own voices characters. Nothing makes you exempt. Criticism is part of being a writer. Even when we are writing from experience, we won’t know all facets of that experience. Every experience is valid, and incomplete. (Note: please don’t harass own voices writers because their experience doesn’t match yours. Truly.)

Even if they don’t resonate with everyone, I am comfortable with and proud of my books. I think they can add to people’s understanding, rather than detracting from it by creating false impressions.

This is what we should strive to do when we write, whether it’s from a diverse perspective or not, and whether our tale is a lighthearted romantic comedy or a dark “issues” novel.

Always treat your characters (and your readers) with the respect they deserve, and you will be able to bear any criticism with dignity.

*For the love of God, man, don’t apply this concept to writing about drug addicts and ex-cons. I’d rather your characters be trite and wooden than for you to go get thrown in the slammer for a PCP binge you embarked on for novel research.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. You can find THE OTHER PLACE and her other books on Amazon.

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Six Writing Tips that Work Across Styles and Genres

Simple(ish) tricks to make any style of writing better

I’ve done a lot of critiquing, beta reading, and professional editing. I work with people who write in all different styles and genres—even ones vastly different from any I usually write—and I’ve learned to appreciate them all on their own merits.

I see a lot of writing advice out there, and a great deal of it frustrates me, because it amounts to a style critique rather than sound writing advice, especially if applied indiscriminately. This sort of writing advice tries to regiment style and can impede creativity.

There are some pieces of advice, however, that I’ve found work across all styles and genres. These are some of the tips and tricks I use when writing and editing my own work as well as pretty much every other piece I look at. It’s the stuff that always seems to make writing better (although there are exceptions…I broke some of these same rules when writing in Justin’s schizophrenic character voice in The Other Place and its sequel. There are always times to break every rule, as long as you’re doing it on purpose.)

So, with that small caveat, here are six things I’ve found (almost) always improve all types of writing:

  1. Avoid dialogue tags whenever possible.

This is a common piece of writing advice that is sound, on most occasions. If you only have two people in the conversation, you don’t need a dialogue tag with every line of the conversation, because readers understand who’s talking as long as they’re oriented now and again.

You can also use action tags in the place of dialogue tags. Action tags usually precede the dialogue (though they can come after), and describe something a character is doing while they speak. Action tags are super great because they can perform quadruple duty: let us know who is speaking, develop character, create a mood or vibe, and put a vivid image in the reader’s mind. For instance:

“I just don’t know,” Marla said.

As opposed to:

Marla chiseled the dried blood from beneath her fingernails with her hunting knife. “I just don’t know.”

Of course, if you’ve already let us know that she’s cleaning her nails, choose another image. Also be careful of saying things like, “She smiled” or “She cocked an eyebrow”; I myself am guilty of overusing these action tags, and often they don’t add anything, and/or are already implied by the dialogue. In those cases, sometimes the normal dialogue tag is better.

  1. Adjectives and adverbs are okay; redundancy isn’t.

If the adjective or adverb is already implied by the scene, dialogue, or action, you don’t need to use it. For instance:

The bright Southern California sun shone intensely on their faces.

Neither “bright” nor “intensely” are really needed here, and don’t add much as to style, either (you probably don’t even need “on their faces” in most cases, if you want to get technical.) Or:

“We need to get out of here!” she yelled urgently.

You really just need the dialogue there, without the “yelled” or the “urgently”.

However:

He leaned on the dented bumper of his car, eyeing her lustily.

Both “dented” and “lustily” add something here, if we don’t already know those things from context.

  1. Description is fine, but diagraming is generally not.

I love it when the author creates a bizarre, beautiful, or bleak image that sticks with me. However, I get really confused and any image in my head is destroyed whenever I read something like this:

The house was three stories tall, with three rows of five windows off to the right of the main entrance, and three rows of eight windows to the left of the entrance. The front door was tall and stately, a double door, with carved frescoes of cherubs and nymphs all along the edges.  Inside, a hallway led off in front to the state rooms. Another to the right led to the ballroom, which had windows on one side and framed mirrors on half of the other walls, with portraits on the other half.  A large, curved staircase…

You get what I’m going for. This happens even in traditionally-published novels more than I like to say.

The point of writing is to give readers an image; a feeling; an idea of what’s going on. Their imaginations will fill in the rest. In fact, you need to let readers’ imaginations do the rest, because that’s part of the fun of reading. They don’t need to see exactly what you’re seeing, they just need enough to get their own picture. In the passage above, the idea the writer is trying to convey is of a grand, old-style mansion. You can give us this impression with little images dropped here and there throughout the dialogue and action, preferably when the characters interact with their surroundings. We don’t need a layout of the house, especially all at once.

  1. Inner dialogue and exposition are fine, but be careful of telling the reader stuff they already know, or don’t need to know.

He pressed his lips to hers. She gave a little gasp, and her body melted into his. I want him so badly, she thought. I’ve never felt like this before about anyone.

Now, you can get away with a lot of inner dialogue and exposition, especially in romance, but in the above passage, we don’t need that inner thought at all. Even if we do perhaps, in some cases, need to see that thought once, we don’t need it every time he kisses her. We actually feel the moment and the romantic tension more if the inner dialogue is mostly implied by the characters and the situation, and left to the imagination.

Also, giving backstory or detail that doesn’t even play into the story is a double no-no. Backstories on minor characters that only appear once in the book; memories of events that aren’t relevant; long descriptions of job duties when the whole of the novel takes place while the character is on vacation—these sorts of things are often dead weight that slow pacing and bore readers.

  1. You don’t need to say something using the fewest words possible, but avoid repeating yourself, or telling something you’ve already shown.

Some people can go on and on and on without losing the reader, because their style is engaging for one reason or another. Not all of us are exclusively into the Spartan style of writing. But, even if you’re prone to wordiness, you don’t need to say things more than once. For instance:

She drove quickly down the road. She was in a hurry. She was late for a meeting, and would be in trouble with her boss.

Those three sentences basically convey the same idea a bunch of times.  You could say the same thing by showing her honking her horn and swearing at traffic, and letting us know by context that she’s on her way to a meeting; or if nothing else by saying something like She drove like a maniac to get to the meeting.

Or:

She hated chocolate pie. She poked at the chocolate pie with her fork, wrinkling her nose. “I hate chocolate pie.”

You really just need the action there. You could also have the dialogue if character-appropriate, but the first sentence should never be there. It just tells before it shows, and thus reduces the impact of showing.

  1. Avoid sensory words such as “saw” “heard” “smelled” or “felt” as much as possible.

This is the hardest one. The trick here is to put the reader in the story; you do this by  describing what’s going on instead of saying so-and-so saw or heard it going on. For instance:

Jeremy smelled jasmine.

As opposed to:

The scent of jasmine wafted over him.

The second makes you feel more like you’re there, right? Sometimes you need the sensory tag for emphasis; for instance, if your main character is in the other room and can’t see the door opening, you can’t say the door opened. You have to say they heard the door opening…or you could say The door creaked as it opened, or something, if appropriate. Also, I use the saw tag when I want to make it clear someone is noticing something that they were not meant to notice. Abraham saw Fred tuck his shirt over the butt of his pistol. That makes it clearer that it didn’t just happen, it happened surreptitiously.

The “feel” tag is harder to remove. It’s best if you can write the scene so it’s obvious what someone would be feeling. If you’ve done your character development, scene setting, and dialogue right, this is often possible. But, at times, you really do have to say things like George felt like she’d hung him by his nuts from the flagpole. There’s just no other way to get the point across and keep the reader along for the ride.

What writing tips and tricks do you use? I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to argue with you if you don’t agree with some of mine 🙂

Elizabeth Roderick is the author of two published novels, with more upcoming. She is a professional freelance editor.

Writing Complex and “Mentally Ill” Characters

*Edited to add: I’m getting pushback for using the word “weird” in here, as in “neurodiverse people are weird” (although that’s not what I said or meant). I’m not going to change that word. I grew up in grunge-era Pacific Northwest, and I take “weird” as a compliment, in the way that Frank Zappa and Monty Python’s Flying Circus are weird.  I like being called weird a lot more than I like being told shit like I’m a “different type of normal”. Part of that may be cultural, or semantics, or the fact that I’m not a political-type person: I won’t judge people on their language, or even get angry at people for misunderstanding others, because we all have to work at understanding people different than us. What I will take issue with is people’s treatment of others. So please know that I say “weird” with affection, and because it’s a term that I myself own.

I’m also getting flak for saying you can get readers to identify with your main character by showing they have a special talent, because I guess some people think this reinforces the trope of “magical autistic person”. I too, hate that trope. Just know I don’t mean that. It is true that neurodiverse people often have talent, though, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a character that embodies that, just so as you know it’s not some sort of “magic”. 

 I wrote this article to share my practical experience of writing about the complex and neurodiverse. and share some tips I’ve learned to make people relate to those sorts of characters. Sure, I shouldn’t have to work harder at getting readers to understand characters like this…but the reality is, I do…just like every neruodiverse person has to work harder to be understood by the mainstream of society in real life. My goal has always been to effectively bring readers into my characters’ very different worlds (to “sell those cinnamon rolls” in the inside vernacular of my “weird” friends and me), so that “normal” people can understand a little bit what it’s like. Not all will identify with my stories—not even all neurodiverse people will— because my experiences and beliefs are not the same as all my brothers and sisters. But my point of view and my stories are mine,  and I will defend them as gracefully as I can.

That said, if you are not a neurodiverse person who seeks to write about one, make sure you read my piece here so that you can understand what it takes to see from a different point of view than your own.

Good character development is a skill. You have to bring the reader into a character’s day and life— in the correct place, I might add—and let the reader get to know the person through their dialogue and actions as the plot unfolds around them. It’s an intricate process, and difficult to do really well.

Character development is trickier when you’re dealing with complex personalities: characters who act and feel in ways that readers might not expect, and that might contradict how they’ve acted and felt in similar situations earlier in the plot.

A huge percentage of my characters—often my protagonists—are people who could be called “mentally ill” (I really prefer the term “neurodiverse” (though I don’t think that’s quite correct, either), but since no one knows what that means I’ll use more mainstream terms). I’ve learned a few tricks—mostly through trial and error, because I haven’t found much direct advice on this subject—that have helped me to develop my characters in a way that seems to hold readers, and get them to care about them.

The thing to remember about characters—all characters, not just complex or “mentally ill” ones—is that the way they think, act, speak, and feel is actually a big part of the story. If you populate your stories with people who are completely uninteresting and are just wooden vehicles for the plot to ride around in, you might want to spend some more time getting to know them before you write, in my opinion.

With complex characters, their personalities can be an even bigger part of the plot, because the tension created by their thoughts, words, and actions can do more of the heavy lifting pacing-wise. Notice I said more of it, not all of it: some people might argue with me here, but I’m a very firm believer that a character’s psychiatric diagnosis or other personality issues shouldn’t be the entirety of the plot. It’s how the person interacts with the outside world and deals with stress that’s interesting. I, personally, like to throw my weird characters into a plot that would be viable even if my characters were more “normal”, though completely character-driven plots, like in my favorite book Confederacy of Dunces, are also excellent.
I digress, as usual.

So. Let’s assume you’re reading this because you have, or are planning to have, a complex or mentally ill character. For advice on getting to know a character who is dealing with a mental illness or other issue you’re not intimately knowledgeable about, you can read my post on Writing What You Don’t Know. Assuming you already have a good feel for your character, let’s discuss how to write a book about them.

The inherent problem with mentally ill protagonists is that readers won’t identify with them, just like they won’t identify with those sorts of people in real life, unfortunately. Even if your mentally ill character is the antagonist or a minor character, you’ll have your job developing them, but your job is harder if it’s the main character. That’s because the “crazy” people are usually the bad guys in books: they’re narcissists, psychopaths, people suffering from addictions and/or delusions that cause them to act in hurtful ways, people with anger problems…they’re inherently unlikable to readers or, at the very least, scary. Yet, we make even our antagonists better when we get to understand why they do the things they do and how they think, and we make not just our literary world but our day-to-day lives better if we recognize that even people with severe mental illnesses are complete, interesting human beings, and they almost always have something likable about them. Non-neurotypical people can make EXCELLENT protagonists; the best, in my opinion, though I may be biased. The trick is getting a reader to see what’s likable about your main character—even though they would normally shy away from associating with someone like them in real life—before they stop reading because they can’t identify. So, even if we feel like we shouldn’t have to work harder just because our character is different…we do. Real-life discrimination against neurodiverse people is a FACT that I have witnessed first-hand over and over, and people will discriminate against the characters in the same way. My goal is to make a dent in that discrimination by introducing readers to people with mental illness in the safe environment of a book, so that maybe they’ll look at the issue differently in real life, too. I won’t achieve my goal by slapping readers across the face with my characters’ differences; instead, I have to start out by showing people how we all are similar. I have to show my characters’ basic humanity. I have to not just develop characters, I have to world-build, because neurodiverse people often live in a very different world than most people.

The first trick that I’ve learned to use is to start the story earlier in the plot than I would if my character were more predictable and traditionally “likable”. With complex characters, it’s difficult to begin the story at or near a point of high action, because readers don’t know your character, so the way the person deals with conflict or stress may not make any sense to them yet. Mentally ill people often don’t react well to conflict and stress and, just like you wouldn’t want to be introduced to a schizophrenic while she’s in the middle of a psychotic break, you’ll find readers might not like your mentally ill protagonists if they don’t get a chance to know them a little before you launch into the action. And, if your readers don’t identify with or care about what happens to your character, they’re not going to keep reading, no matter how great your pacing is.
It can be difficult to maintain enough tension to pique readers’ interest if you can’t get into the action quickly, but that’s where you use your character’s complex and interesting personality to do the heavy lifting. Show how your character sees and interacts with the world differently than most people. Interesting worldviews, habits, and speech patterns can be very compelling to a reader.

Another thing I do to get readers to like my “unlikable” characters is to quickly show them interacting with their environment in a way that shows their humanity, in a way that is traditionally “likable”. For instance, they can say something really funny. They can save a hurt animal. They can display a special and wonderful talent, or show kindness to someone to whom others are unreasonably cruel. It’s strange, but often something like this is all it will take to hook a reader, and they’ll be willing to read on even if your character then immediately does something completely nuts.IMG_0621

One thing I will never do to hook a reader and get them to identify with my protagonist is to use pity. Though this trick does indeed seem to work, at least with some readers, it shows disrespect to your characters and to the real people who are like them. In my experience not very many people want pity from others, and your protagonist should have enough about them to grab a reader’s attention without using pity.

What character development tricks do you use for your complex characters? I’d love some tips myself 