About fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. This was back before I embarked on a serious study of the craft. I just thought writing a book would be fun. I loved romance and thought it would be a good place to start my first story. I also liked historical stories, so that also seemed good. The fact I didn’t have a time period or specific country in mind didn’t matter. I’d figure all that out. What else did I need? Well, I always sort of liked stories about magic. What if I threw a lady who did magic? Wait! I know, I thought, I’ll add a gypsy. In fact, I’ll call the book GYPSY WOMAN!
If I could go back in time and have a chat with my former self, I would. I’d pour us each a glass of wine. I’d pat her on the knee and say, “Listen to me, sweet summer child. You’re an idiot.”
Let’s ignore the fact I believed I could write a historical novel without a lick of research or any clue as to the time period or setting. The problem is that in my ignorance about the craft of writing, I defaulted to trope and stereotypes I’d read for years in novels as crutches. “I’ve seen this everywhere, so it must be right.”
What I didn’t know then, and do now, is that stereotypes are a lazy person’s way of categorizing the world.
See, the term “gypsy” is racist. It’s a derogatory term that originated with the erroneous idea that the Romani people came from Egypt. They are one of the most discriminated against groups in all of Europe. The problem with the word “gypsy” is it implies that the people we call that have chosen a lifestyle that often is associated with thievery and other unsavory characteristics, instead of the more accurate term “Roma” or “Romani” that identifies people as part of a racial minority.
“But, Jaye, I see the term ‘gypsy’ everywhere! There are whole TV shows about them.”
Yes, racism and stereotypes are rampant in our society. The fact a term commonly is used doesn’t make it okay. Nor does the fact that the Roma people are often depicted as magical thieves make it true. Nor does the fact that women are portrayed as needing to be rescued by men make all women helpless. Nor does the fact that black people often are portrayed as criminals make every black person a criminal. Yet the more we see these stereotypes repeated in media, the harder it is to dispel them.
When we talk about racism and lack of diversity in writing, it’s often presumed that the source is antagonism. Privileged white authors must be doing all of this on purpose because they want to remain the dominant voices. They’re racist, sexist, elitist, etc. While I do think this may be the case in too many instances, I have a different theory to share about the majority of examples of stereotyping we see in fiction.
People are lazy.
Ignorance is usually a product of lack of opportunity or a very passive or isolationist mode of living. But sometimes it’s just that people lack the motivation to try to expand their consciousness. Yes, I understand privilege plays a major role in this, too. Privileged people lack the motivation to challenge their thinking because their very privilege allows them to be comfortably ignorant of the challenges or unfair biases toward less privileged groups.
But when it comes to writing, I think a lot of the stereotypes we see are the result of authors defaulting to short hand characteristics for characters because they: A) don’t want to think too hard about things and OMG the deadline’s looming and/or B) they lack the life experience to know they’re making ignorant decisions and/or C) they’ve never had their limited scope challenged.
Here’s the thing, as writers our job is to understand people. Good writing results from fostering empathy (the ability to understand or share the feelings of other people) for our characters. To accomplish that, we must first be empathetic. How do we acquire empathy? Travel is a wonderful empathy booster. But not everyone can travel the world.
That’s where books come in.
Through stories, we’re exposed to people different from us. We see how they handle the world and understand the things that motivate them, scare them, satisfy them, etc. We see them overcoming challenges we may never face. We cheer them on. We cry for them.
So if one of the purposes of stories is to foster empathy, doesn’t it then stand to reason that one of the most important jobs of an author is write characters in a way that fosters empathy?
The me that tried to write GYPSY WOMAN was not a terrible person. She was an ignorant one. She didn’t understand craft, she lacked insight into what made stories good, and she lacked the experience to understand that she was insulting a race of people. Luckily, that book was never finished so it could never, ever be published. I would be ashamed if it were, and I often tell the story of trying to write it to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a writer (and person) through hard work, exposure to new ideas, and gaining maturity.
Now, after having written more than a million words, I know that my biggest job is to write characters who are not short-hand stereotypes. Characters, even if they are of a certain group or archetype, should always surprise the reader. They should always have unique traits that remind the reader that a person may be categorized by many things, but we must never ignore their individuality or humanity.
I know I have made mistakes. Readers have pointed them out to me, and I have tried to learn from that and do better next time. But I never approach a story now without asking myself if I’m doing the best I can do provide my readers with characters with whom they can empathize.
So how do we tackle fostering empathy and expanding our understanding of people different from us in our writing?
1. Read diversely. Seek out stories written by authors who are different from you. Read a variety of genders, races, ages, and life experiences. The more you are exposed to diverse ideas the more you will understand the world and the people in it.
2. Travel. Go to other neighborhoods in your town and observe the different rhythms and habits. Be sure also to note what’s the same as where you live. In other countries, don’t stay in hotels that cater to Americans. Eat where the locals eat. Hang out in non-touristy areas. Listen, pay attention, have an open mind.
3. Don’t be afraid to have your worldview challenged. It’s scary when things you believe are brought into question, but that’s called growth. Be a student of life and let it teach you new things. Seek out different ideas. Even if the ideas seem wrong, ask yourself why the other person might find value in them.
4. Be patient. You will make mistakes. People will point out those mistakes, and your first instinct will be defensiveness. Try to sit with that without reacting. Once the feeling passes, ask yourself if there’s anything to learn from the experience. Writing is a constant process of challenge, learning, processing, and growing. If you’re patient with it, the best rewards will be intensely personal and life expanding.
5. Ignore critics who try to shame you for not playing to stereotypes. Readers can be lazy, too. They will accuse you of writing “unrealistic” characters if those characters don’t conform to the reader’s overexposure of stereotypes. You may even experience pressure from the market to write certain types of characters because they’re hot. Decide where your line in the sand exists. Don’t let anyone push you across it just to earn a few extra bucks.
6. On the other hand, if your critique group or conscientious reviewer or readers point of problems of derogatory stereotypes in your writing, listen to them. One of the reasons we seek out critique is to help us see things we are blind to in ourselves, including biases and prejudices.
This is a very complex topic with implications far beyond writing. But as I stated before, stories are important because they are often the first (and sometimes only) place where we are exposed to new ideas and people. As writers, we have a responsibility to be honest about people, to do the work of depicting characters that are human and individual, instead of stereotypes, and to always be learning and trying to expand our ability to understand people. Most of all, we must be honest with ourselves when we are not doing our job. Don’t let laziness get in the way of writing great stories.
Happy writing, friends.