General Update

Hello, wonderful people. I know it’s been a very long while since I’ve written a post of substance. A lot has been going on in my libeekeepingfe, so I haven’t had a lot of time.

Those who follow me on social media know that I was served divorce papers the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ve since moved back to the family farm, where I’ve been gutting and renovating an 80-year-old one-room cabin to live in, working on growing my editing business, and—apparently—taking up beekeeping.

I have a new boyfriend, too: Phoenix, my best friend, who has inspired so many of my novels and taken me on so many dark and hilarious adventures over the past year. It’s a long-distance relationship, and an odd one, and I don’t know where it will go. He is fifteen years younger than I am. He has schizophrenia. His lifestyle and rituals are very different from my own. I love him to cabina (probably literally) insane degree, though. He has taught me more about myself and the world in the past year than I learned in the thirty-seven years before I met him. He is an important part of my life and always will be, no matter what happens.

A lot of you also know that I ended up in a mental health crisis center a few weeks ago, after it all got a little too heavy. I got help, and will get to start psychiatric treatment again this coming week. I’m going to finally be honest with the psychiatrist and hopefully get a valid diagnosis and some treatment that works.

Throughout all this, I’ve been writing, editing, marketing. I went to the RT Booklovers conference in Vegas. I’m finishing up the final edits on my May 31st release The Hustle, which is Book 1 of my Other Place series. I’ve also worked with some truly aphoenix n memazing editing clients, continued work on a YA alternate-earth fantasy novel, finished some of the parts of my Wattpad series The Story of Tinkerbell (which will be featured when it’s done), and I started pitching my neurodiverse YA romance True Story to agents.

All this stuff is hard to process and integrate, as you might imagine. On the one hand, there’s the supposedly professional Liz, who is writing/publishing/editing/marketing, trying to grow her business and her brand. Then there’s the Liz who is trying to keep her life from disintegrating, who is trying to keep herself alive, off the streets, and out of the mental institution, all while taking care of her wonderful daughter.

At the RT conference, I got the opportunity to talk to a lot of the panels on writing and publishing diverse novels. In the midst of all those thousands of writers and readers, I felt most at home amongst those authors. It was so comforting to hear them talk about the barriers they’ve faced in marketing and publishing, because they’re some of the same ones I’m encountering: people want “diversity” in their novels, but they don’t necessarily want books that explore what it’s really like to live as a diverse person in this world. The term for this is, I believe, “whitewashing”. I think this term is applicable to my situation, even though I’m not a POC, I’m a neurodiverse writer who writes about neurodiverse characters.

I also learned a lot about “branding” at the RT conference—about presenting yourself and your novels in a way that’s both unique and compelling, so that readers learn to associate you with a certain image and type of writing and know what to expect when they buy your books. I learned that you’re supposed to simultaneously present an marketable image while being professional and genuine.

It’s hard for me to be both professional and genuine, though. I can’t present an image to the public that’s widely compelling while still being myself. The problems I encounter with branding myself and getting the public to embrace and accept me are the same problems I’ve struggled with in getting people to want to read about my characters: most people like the concept of a story about a person with psychosis or other neurodiverse behaviors, but when it comes down to seeing what it’s like to actually live with neurodiversity, it’s a little much for them. I’m told, about my books, that the writing is good but people can’t relate to the characters. I’m told my plots are odd. I’m told that I, as a person, am oversharing and trying to be a special snowflake. That “we’re all crazy, but we don’t have to talk about it all the time.” In short, I’m told that I’m annoying, and that my characters are, too.

I am being the only person that I know how to be, though. It would be more convenient to be someone else sometimes. I’d still be happily married if I knew how to be someone else, and I’d probably have a much easier and more lucrative job. But I love writing. It’s what I was meant to do. And I love my characters and my plots. I wouldn’t want to write books that were more “typical”.

There are some people who love me despite or because of all this, and there are people who love my books. The Other Place Series will be coming out soon, as I mentioned—The Hustle on 5/31, The Other Place on 7/5, and the third and final installment shortly after that (it’s currently with betas). This series is about a recovering heroin addict and a young schizophrenic man, and I’m grateful to Limitless for taking a chance on it. Additionally, my YA romance, which stars a young woman with bipolar psychosis, got five requests on the lovely Beth Phelan’s #DVPit for diverse novels, and one of those requests so far has turned into a full. I’m hopeful that book will find a home soon.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m growing my brand: I’m the crazy lady who writes books about crazy people. I’m being genuine. I’m hopeful that sooner or later the world will accept me for who I am. For now, I’m still alive, and I’m still writing. Thank you for reading.

We Need Diverse Books: The Politics of Writing Diversity

Note to readers: I use the term “neurodiverse” in this piece. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it refers to people generally called “mentally ill”. I prefer “neurodiverse” for reasons I will explain in the article. Thank you for reading.

Writing is a complex art. Words can be interpreted in so many different ways, depending on the background, culture, and experiences of the person interpreting them. We have to be aware of this, especially when we touch on emotional subjects such as diversity. However, if we have political concerns in the forefront of our minds when we write—if we are walking on eggshells trying not to offend anyone—we run the risk of self-censoring, of watering down our characters and stories so that they lose their vibrancy and impact. They become soulless sermons that exist only to convey a moralizing message, and lose the beauty of art. I am going to explore how to find a balance when writing diversity.

I’ll start out by telling you about myself, so you all to know where I’m coming from. My name is Elizabeth Roderick. I’m the author of many diverse books, and am myself a diverse person. I have a novel published, a racially-diverse LGBT romantic thriller titled Love or Money. I also have a series contracted, The Other Place Series, which is about a young woman trying to kick heroin and get her life together, and a young schizophrenic man attempting to make it as an artist. The first two installments of that series are set to release on May 31, 2016 and July 5, 2016.

My personal diversity is neurodiversity. I’m very high-functioning, but I have suffered from bouts of psychosis since I was a teenager, and have had a series of doctors and psychiatrists diagnose me with every letter in the alphabet.

So, now that you have some idea where I’m coming from and what my “expertise” is, let’s get to the subject at hand.

A blog reader recently took issue with my article on Writing Complex and “Mentally Ill” Characters. He is a disability advocate, and had a problem with some of the terminology I used and concepts I presented. It was his first time reading one of my blog posts, and so he lacked context: he didn’t know I was speaking as an insider (which is my bad: I’d gotten so tired of talking about my psychosis etc. in other blog posts, that it seemed like tedious overkill to mention it again).

Furthermore, the reader, as a person with a physical disability, was sensitive to things potentially harmful to disabled people and their cause of equality. I can relate. You can get tetchy about that sort of thing when you’re constantly dealing with the fact society is set up to exclude people like you, and will discriminate and even physically harm you just because of who you are. If you think this is an exaggeration (a viewpoint many seem to hold), ask me (or the disabled guy I was arguing with, or any other diverse person) for personal anecdotes.

I am happy to say that this man and I worked it out, and we ended up Twitter friends. But it made me examine the language we use in speaking about diversity, because of how tricky it can become. In fact, this man, in taking me to task for my language, used language in referring to neurodiverse people that insulted me. The irony made me laugh out loud at the time—which I was glad about, because I needed a laugh.

He insulted me by referring to neurodiverse people as “disabled” and “mentally ill”. I understand that these terms are valid ones in their way, and I will use them on occasion. For instance, I’ll use “disabled” when pulling the ADA card, when the police or business owners harass or otherwise discriminate against my best friend, who is schizophrenic (he’s an incredibly sweet, intelligent guy, but his way of expressing himself can seem rambly and disjointed to people who don’t know him and his mind, and they often get nervous and think he’s dangerous and/or on drugs). In these cases, I’ll bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act and remind them my friend is part of a protected class of people, and they could be liable to penalties and other action if they discriminate against him.

Despite occasionally making good use of the term, however, neither I nor my best friend, nor any of my other neurodiverse friends or family, are mentally disabled, in my opinion. We definitely have our struggles; my best friend is on SSI for his schizophrenia, and I surely could meet the legal criteria as well if I needed to, though I definitely have an easier time in a traditional work environment than him. But I feel the disability is more society’s than ours, because all the neurodiverse people I know are incredibly productive in the right environment. (For a further exploration of this difficult topic, you can read my piece On Madness and the Nature of Reality).

At any rate, if you call me or my BFF disabled, we will take offense.

I also use “mentally ill” on occasion, because most people don’t know what “neurodiverse” means, but I feel it’s a misleading term to be used in general. Sure, when I’m in the midst of a psychotic break or in a deep depression, I’m certainly ill, the way my body is ill when I have the flu. The rest of the time, I’m not. I may be, as a lot of people behind my back (or occasionally to my face) have said, “a little bit off”, or “eccentric”, but that’s not a frigging illness, people. We weirdos are what make life interesting.

Notice I used the term “weirdos”. This was one of the terms the blog reader took offense to: I used the term “weird” in referring to my complex and neurodiverse characters. I used the word fairly unthinkingly it’s true. That’s partially because I was raised thinking “weird” was a compliment, rather than an insult: it’s part of my culture. I like being called “weird” instead of “off”, “mentally ill” or even “neurodiverse”. I also used it because, in context, I wasn’t referring just to neurodiverse characters, but also “complex” ones, so I used a catch-all term I felt was aptly descriptive.

For the reader, though, the term wasn’t apt; he was reading it as a physically disabled person, and he feels a kinship with all those he considers disabled, which for him includes the neurodiverse. I can well imagine why the reader doesn’t want to be called “weird” for using crutches or a wheelchair, especially because he hails from a different country where the term doesn’t carry the same colors and connotations that it does for me—a grunge-era girl from Seattle (I want to add here, for illumination, that the actual DSM diagnosis for Autism, and for other so-called mental disorders, contains the word “odd”, referring to “odd behavior”; for me, “weird” and “odd” are interchangeable, but “weird” is more common in my local vernacular. There’s no better word I could have used without sounding contrived, formal, or self-censoring).

So, what is the answer? Should I have changed my voice and not used the term “weird”? Or should I have used it along with a convoluted caveat, thus destroying the flow of the piece? Well, in this case, I kept the term, but added a caveat at the beginning of the post to give readers context about me.

When we are writing stories, however, we don’t generally have this option; most readers aren’t going to plunge into the story knowing the writer’s background and beliefs, and so might misinterpret our narrative as being ignorance, bigotry, or an outsider’s point of view.

Before I get to how I deal with this problem in fiction writing, I’ll talk about another way we can touch off political angst in writing about diversity: how we present concepts relating to diverse people.

Another thing my blog reader took issue with was the fact I said you could make readers relate to your complex and neurodiverse characters by showing they had a special skill. In my reader’s mind, this technique reinforces the stereotype of the “magical autistic person”.

Autism is another form of neurodiversity that I have some personal experience with, and I completely agree with my reader that it’s incredibly aggravating to pick up a book that touts diversity in the form of an autistic character, only to find that character is a clone of Rain Man. My problem isn’t with the fact that those characters have a special talent, however; my problem is with the lack of insight and creativity on the authors’ part, which in turn reinforces tired stereotypes.

A large number of my neurodiverse friends and family have extraordinary talents, though. I, myself, while I won’t claim any measure of talent, was able to write thirteen novels in two years during an episode of mania, during which I needed very little sleep and was able to focus on writing to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. I’m told that this is part of my “illness”, but to me it’s just the way I am, and it’s something I’m actually proud of. So I don’t want to censor myself from writing about neurodiverse characters with special talents: I feel like talents are something we should be proud of. Neurodiverse people get so little respect from society in general, why should I be shy of writing about one of the things some of us are respected for? And, frankly, why would I write about any character, diverse or not, who is boring and without any talent? (I shouldn’t say that. Great books are written about “boring” people).

My reader did make me second-guess myself, though. I don’t want to reinforce tired or unfounded stereotypes. In his words, he thought my piece didn’t “anticipate how clichéd a view of disability normie [this is how he refers to non-disabled, neurotypical people] writers have, how they’ll view what you wrote through misconceptions.” It made me take a second look at the schizophrenic main character in my Other Place series, and think about how people will view him. And this is something we should always do with our diverse characters, at least after we’ve written their stories: do a bit of second-guessing.

My schizophrenic character, Justin, is an incredibly talented painter, and The Other Place Series are magical realism books. Justin’s artistic career takes off in a way artistic careers very rarely do in real life: very, very quickly. Also, his connection with one of the other characters is close almost to the point of telepathy at times. I try to show the reader in subtle ways that this is intentional “magical realism” hyperbole (an accentuation of the bizarre things that happen in real life, without reaching the level of fantasy), but such things are notoriously misinterpreted by readers. People could definitely interpret the sort of “magical” world in my novels as me trying to say that neurodiverse people are somehow magical.

The reason I wrote the novels this way is twofold: it’s a compelling way of telling the story and presenting the concepts I’m trying to illuminate clearly. If I had written the books in a more realistic manner, readers might see only Justin’s struggles, and none of the beauty, magic, and mystery of his world. Because, and this is the other reason I wrote the books as magical realism: I think a sort of magic actually does exist in the world. I know, I know: I’m prone to psychosis, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m wrong.

These books were how I processed and explored the fact that I’ve seen some fairly bizarre shit in my life, and I believe that, at least in some cases and in some ways, neurodiverse people’s inability to relate to “mainstream” society helps them to see the world more clearly, and to tap into something unexplainable. The psychic/psychotic connection and the blurred line between illusion and reality isn’t a new concept; it’s older than the bible, and it’s shared by a lot of my neurodiverse friends in different ways. This idea has been presented in a trite and flippant manner at times, and very well at others. I think I have a unique perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote these books; I just have to be sure I handle the subject with enough skill so that I don’t reinforce negative or false assumptions by non-psychotic people.

So. How do I keep readers from misinterpreting what I’m trying to say? The simple answer is, I can’t. No matter how careful you are, you’re always going to have people who don’t “get” what you’re trying to communicate. And the more important your message, the more risk you’ll run of being misinterpreted, and of pissing people off.

That isn’t to say that we should throw all caution to the wind and not be aware of political concerns when we write, but I think having those concerns front-and-center in your writing, and self-censoring, is a huge mistake. I think it can actually be counterproductive, because that sort of writing often isn’t very compelling, and the only people who will read it are other advocates for the diverse community: you’ll be preaching to the choir, which gets you next to nowhere. At the very least, I don’t feel it’s the way I can best get my personal point across. Others will feel differently, and so I’ll leave the other methods to them.

My personal technique is to not self-censor or be concerned with political issues at all during my first draft. Since I’m never sure what my underlying message is going to be until I’m done with the book anyway, it’s not difficult for me. Then, once I know what I’m writing about, I’ll examine not my characters or concepts, but the beliefs and messages presented in the book from many different angles, so I can anticipate people’s arguments and misinterpretations. Then, when I’ve made sure my reasoning is sound, I’ll tackle revisions. I won’t censor the characters or my voice, but I’ll try to make sure my concepts are presented as clearly as possible by subtle tweaking.

I’m proud of my point of view, and I say what I want to say to the best of my ability. The more compelling I can make my characters and stories, I know the more people I’ll be able draw in, and the more likely they’ll be to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to what I have to say, even if they don’t agree with me in the end. If my opinions and viewpoints are well-reasoned and come from experience, it won’t keep the critics from hounding me, but I’ll be able to answer them with my chin high.

The long and the short of it is, we have to understand our characters and our stories, and we have to show readers their beauty and truth so they understand them, as well. We won’t always be successful, and we will likely endure criticism, but if what we have to say is important enough to us we’ll persevere anyway. That’s pretty much what making art is all about, in the first place.

Note to readers: If you are a non-diverse person thinking about writing from a diverse perspective, you might want to check out my piece Writing What You Don’t Know, or David Gillon’s Piece, Creating a Disabled Fictional Character.  Also, if you are writing a book from the point of view of a non-diverse character whose goal is to somehow “save” a diverse character from themselves or their situation, or if the main plot of the book is that non-diverse character’s “coming to terms” with another character’s diversity, I’m going to write a whole different blog post on that, and there are plenty others already written, which you should search for.

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 

Exciting News About The Other Place Series

I have some great news! I have release dates for the first two books in The Other Place Series. The first book, The Hustle, will release on May 31, 2016, and the second book, The Other Place will release on July 5!

The Hustle is the story of Liria, who is nineteen, homeless, and addicted to heroin. She’s determined to not end up dead like her mother, but every time she tries to get her life together it falls apart again.

She gets clean and lands a job in a Vegas nightclub, where she meets Arty, who seems to be the girl of her dreams: beautiful, funny, and rich. But when other nightclub employees start turning up dead – including her best friend – Liria begins to suspect the nightclub might be a front for something more sinister.

Arty tells her that Liria’s life is also in danger, and promises to keep her safe. But she’s acting strangely, and seems to know too much. Is Arty really trying to save her, or is she holding her hostage, using her as a pawn in a game Liria doesn’t understand?

Starting a new life isn’t easy.

The Other Place is about a young man, Justin, who just wants to draw and be left in peace. But when his mother takes up with a man who thinks his schizophrenia can be cured with prayer, he has to get out quick, or risk involuntary commitment in a religious facility.

He runs off to San Francisco, where his artwork attracts the attention of a gallery owner. Justin’s bizarre and beautiful drawings create a stir in the art world; people rave about his genius and flock to see his work. Meanwhile, Justin is homeless, couch surfing and battling his mental illness.

He believes he’s found his salvation in a girl named Liria. He met her a year before in his hometown, and she’s been appearing in his visions ever since. When they find each other in San Francisco, it turns out Liria has been sharing those visions. She leaves her jealous girlfriend in order to be with him, supporting them both on her meagre income.

Then they discover that the gallery owner has been hiding something, and Justin realizes that being a genius can have a downside. Surrounded by people who want to exploit his talent, he must fight not only for his career and his freedom, but perhaps for his life.

I can’t wait for you guys to meet Liria and Justin!

We Need Diverse Books: Writing What You Don’t Know

(Pictured above: my friend Phoenix and I).

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 lives 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 his or her 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 which 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. 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, 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.

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 certainly 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.

And, I get criticism about my own voices characters. Nothing makes you exempt. Criticism is part of being a writer.

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. I wouldn’t have endured all the things we’ve been through otherwise, like being kicked out of bars, restaurants, casinos and libraries because people were uncomfortable with his behavior; the hurtful and paranoid rants on his bad days; having to intervene with the cops and the courts when he was arrested for no crime other than being schizophrenic. I’ve 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. And, frankly, this friendship almost destroyed my marriage.

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. He’s a human being (well, not really, but you know what I mean).

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.

Like with the Rosarita Beans characters, the depth of knowledge I now have about schizophrenia makes me want to beat the author over the head with their book when they portray a psychotic character as a brainless, evil serial killer, or a smelly bum with a tinfoil hat. They should try harder.

I don’t expect or recommend that writers to display my level of dedication to developing their characters. And for all my experience, I cannot be said to be writing what I “know” with regard to my Hispanic, schizophrenic, and some of my other diverse characters anyway, because I’m not a member of their “group” myself. I’m sure I’m still lacking insight and getting it “wrong” in some ways. But 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.