Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Writing beyond character stereotypes and clichés

I heard author Melissa Lenhardt speak to the Dallas Mystery Writers this month about avoiding clichés when writing women characters. The next week at the DFW Writers Conference, journalist/novelist Richard J. Gonzales addressed the art of writing diverse characters without resorting to stereotypes. Their words struck such resonant notes, I imagined them as a sort of literary duet. 

Lenhardt sounded the first notes. Intrigued--rather, infuriated--by a male writer’s claim that he could write in a woman’s voice, she led the group through a writing exercise designed to strip away our cultural stereotypes about women. If some of the men in her audience were uncomfortable, so perhaps were some of us women. 
“(Stereotypes) weren’t done intentionally,” Lenhardt said. “Women are guilty sometimes also. I’m not talking just about men.”
As Gonzales noted, “We all have implicit biases. It’s a human condition. The problem is, it sneaks into your writing. When you focus on the stereotypes as if that’s all there is, that’s when you fall down.”
image: pixabay
And although literature needs more stories by women and more stories by writers of color, of differing sexual orientations, of people with disabilities, and by writers with multitudes of different points of view, this doesn’t mean we can’t write from the viewpoint of people different from us, in whatever way that may be.
“How do you write about people who are not the same color as you? Why do it?” Gonzales asked. “Our population is becoming increasingly diverse and more complex. This is the market of the future. If you continue writing for Dick and Jane, your audience gets smaller and smaller.”
And for those who ask, “But am I qualified or capable to write about them?” he assured us, “Absolutely. Put your guilt outside the room. You are first and foremost writers. Not white writers or black writers.”
He might well have said, and not male writers or female writers.
The problem arises “when you focus on stereotypes as if that all there is,” he said, citing the popularity of films such as Black Panther that “flip stereotypes on their heads.”
Exactly, Lenhardt said. “I started writing (Westerns) because I wanted to write what I wanted to read, to go against the tropes of the genre.” 
Beginning her research with her father’s VHS collection of Western movies and TV shows, she found herself intrigued but wanting “to write a story about the women who were left behind to defend the fort while the men were out looking for Indians. . . Writing to break tropes is embedded in who I am as a writer.
“Make your woman (character) an individual. Don’t relate everything she does to a guy,” Lenhardt said. 
Similarly, Gonzales’ advice was not to make characters of color mere adjuncts of white characters. And just as no characters—especially diverse ones—should be all bad, don’t make them all good either. It’s a mistake even accomplished writers can make, possibly from fear of either frightening white readers or offending minority readers, Gonzales said, citing the “magical negro” stereotype. 
(I'll add, there are also "magical Native American, Asian, female, child, mentally-disabled, etc. characters. Many of whom die in the course of the story).
And about those deaths, Lenhardt said. Does it always have to be the minority character? Does it always have to be the female character? 
“There’s got to be a prize for books that don’t have females as the victims,” Lenhardt said, encouraging us “to write books that don’t show women as victims.” Or, she added, facetiously (or not) “Just make it even. If you’re going to kill women, kill men too.”
(Note to readers—Lenhardt writes crime as well as historical fiction.)
And just as white writers can pander to sexual fears about characters of color, male and sometimes even female writers can feel compelled to soften cultural fears of powerful women by presenting women in in only sexualized ways.
The male writer whose hubris provoked Lenhard’s discussion featured a woman who sexualized herself. Can we imagine a man doing the same for himself? Lenhardt asked. Instead of writing a woman character who’s sexually confident, it’s all to easy to degenerate into a male sexual fantasy.
Her strongest advice—especially if you’re a male writer attempting to write from a female point of view, “don’t ever describe a woman’s breasts. You’re probably describing boobs we don’t have and it’s just going to piss us off.”
(Definitely nervous twitters from the men in her audience at that advice!)
And skip anything that sounds like “rape culture.” “There are ways to signal sexual interest in a way that don’t sound rapey,” she said.
“When a woman beta reads your story and says something is horrifying, you need to freaking believe her. This also counts for African-Americans, Hispanics, fat people and disabled people.”
If writers are uncomfortable with their women characters--or perhaps their minority characters--Gonzales asked us to remember that “for us minorities, we live in a world where we have to negotiate the majority’s norms. How comfortable is that for us? Everyday?”
But discomfort doesn’t have to be the norm. “What we write affects how we see the world,” Lenhardt said. “Write for the world we want, not the world we have.”
For further resources on writing diverse characters, Gonzales lists “We Need Diverse Books,”Writing with Color,” “Writing with Diversity Resources,” "DiversifYA,” "Why Diverse Genre Fiction is Important and How to Get it Right," and "Why Diverse Genre Fiction is Important and How To Get it Right."


  1. Hi, Melissa, Thank you for a wonderful article on diversity in writing. I'm glad you were in my class at the DFWCon. Good job in capturing the essence of my remarks. Please forgive me if make a mistake here, but have we met in person? I enjoy your writing. Best wishes.

  2. Hi, Richard! We actually met briefly in person at the Roanoke writing conference last fall.