Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Avoid Back-Handed Inclusion in Your Book

Inclusion is one of those things that is becoming something of a buzzword in today's author circles. Everyone seems to be falling over each other to add it into their work, and to use it as an additional point in their favor when it comes time to move copies. The idea is pretty sound. If you have a more diverse cast, and you include elements like underrepresented ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, then you are both going to stand out from your competitors, and make your book more appealing to people who want to see that sort of thing.

In addition to, you know, trying to provide visibility for groups, communities, etc. who have traditionally been ignored/underserved in the past. If that sort of thing matters to you.

However, there is a trap that a lot of authors fall into when it comes to attempts to be inclusive. It's something that, after giving it a bit of thought, I'm calling back-handed inclusion.

Yes, Sharon, you have non-white characters. But they all appear to be drug-dealers and spousal abusers.
Think of your inclusion like lemons. The goal is to present them in an appealing, well-thought-out way that enhances your dish's overall flavor while giving it a broader appeal. However, back-handed inclusion is when you take the lemons, carefully cut them, then squirt them into the eyes of your target audience before acting mystified that they aren't impressed with your presentation.

A More Concrete Example

A back-handed compliment is when you say something that sounds nice on the surface, but which is rotten once you get under the skin. The traditional, "That dress doesn't make you look nearly so fat!" being one of the more common, barbed examples.

For something that applies to writing, I'll give you an example that concretely illustrates what I'm talking about.

Several years back I met the very talented Lauren Jankowski (author of several books you can find on her Amazon Author Page, and the muscle behind Asexual Artists). I was on a panel with her, and several of the points she made regarding asexuality and how it's treated in fiction got the wheels in my brain turning. A bit of free advice for all the folks out there; when you first start learning about a community you aren't part of and aren't familiar with, take your time. I guarantee the first idea out of your mouth is going to be stupid.

Mine sure as shit was.

Story time!
For those of you who haven't read The Big Bad II, or my story Little Gods, it follows an adventure starring Richard Blackheart, warlock-for-hire. Richard is a bad man, hands-down. He's violent, vindictive, brutish, and fairly amoral. However, I enjoyed writing stories about him, and I wanted to  add something to his concept in the event I published more stories about him.

My thought was to make him an asexual character.

Now, that thought was not a problem in-and-of-itself. As a part of his makeup, it could be a neutral characteristic. One might even argue that, from a marketing perspective, it makes the character more unique in comparison to similar villainous protagonists where toxic and aggressive sexuality is more the norm. However, the issue was that his sexuality was being used as a way to make him more alien to the audience, and to show him as lacking something fundamental that "normal" people would be able to identify with.

If you've ever sat and listened to someone who identifies as asexual, you'd know this attitude of, "there's something wrong with you/you haven't met the right one yet/all people want to do this," is one of the most common (and insulting) refrains they hear.

That is what back-handed inclusion is. It's when your gay male characters become flamboyant jokes, but you still want credit for being more diverse in your casting. It's when your villain is a scheming, long-nosed, greedy parody of Jewish bankers, and you can't figure out why people are mad at you for trying to be more inclusive. Or it's when you tout your strong female lead, but it seems like the book is really about the guy constantly standing next to her that makes all the important decisions, and saves the day in the end.

It is not that you tried to include these characters. It is that you included them poorly, carelessly, or without putting a lot of thought into them that makes an example back-handed inclusion. Which is, in reality, not really inclusion at all.

Better To Be Embarrassed During Editing Than After Publishing

Don't let the potential of screwing up put you off trying to be more inclusive in your work. We all make mistakes, and that goes double for when we're trying to do something we don't have a lot of practice with, or knowledge about. So while your heart might be in the right place, it's still possible that your execution leaves a lot to be desired.

But if you catch those mistakes during your plotting/planning phase, then you can refine them into genuine inclusion and diversity. And if you catch them during editing, you'll save yourself a lot of frustration once your audience gets a look at what you've made.

Hot tip: Exotic is a word used for spices, foods, and fabric... not people.
Do your research. Reach out to people from the communities you're writing about. Do your best to get everything right, and to keep an eye out for when you're saying, "Wow, you don't look nearly so fat in that dress." Because that slap in the face you're going to get won't hurt any less just because you didn't mean to be insulting.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully it got some wheels turning! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can check out my books... like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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