“You clearly didn’t do your research” – About LGBTQIA, political correctness and people who have not walked in my shoes

I tend to hang out in a few writer groups on FB. I find it interesting to see people’s takes on certain topics. I also like to have a sound-board for ideas sometimes. Sadly, it often goes pear shaped (compare my last post about the depiction of POC characters).

I happen to have a rather illustrous and diverse circle of friends when it comes to the topic of LGBTQIA. I also count myself into at least two of the categories included in this acronym. But I am aware that some topics are more difficult to handle than others so when one of my side characters for novel#2, Frankie, appeared in front of my inner eye and was an afab, male-presenting 16 year old, I was like “Seriously, boy?”. It’s not like his gender matters massively in the context of the book. It’s not a book about trans* people. It’s a YA fantasy story! Still, this character was there, in my head. And he was trans*. I didn’t mind, but I was insecure about it.

So I sent a message to knowledgeable friends and asked them if they would have found it cool to see more “casual” representation in their teenage years. They didn’t only encourage me to do this, but they also offered to cross-read any passages that might be problematic. There won’t be many, because this story is still told from my Main Character’s point of view and she gives about as much of a toss about the whole matter as I do on an everyday basis.

I was still insecure though. For once, I have very personal reasons – of the nature not to be written about in public blogs – why I never wanted to write a trans* character into any of my stories. Yet, Frankie is totally adorable and the best friend my Main Character could wish for.

Secondly, I feel casual representation hasn’t been done much. “Someone New” for example is pretty much about the experience itself. I double-checked my outline and came to the conclusion that if this was really too problematic, I might be able to tweak Frankie’s character enough to become a butch lesbian. I tried then to talk about this issue of having a trans* character just exist without the story focussing on their trans*ness on one of my writer boards, to figure out whether I could leave him the way he was or whether I needed to “change” him (which felt super-wrong but could be done if needed for political reasons).

In walks PCWN#1 (who funnily always seems to be a white het cis female) and tells me off for wanting to write a trans* character as a cis person.

She also flat-out told me that if I believed there’s no difference between a butch lesbian and a trans man I should better do my research. (I never said there was no difference. I said I could tweak the character to be one or the other, because guess what, this is my story and I am pretty much the GOD of these characters.)

She finally told me to not do it because I definitely could not relate to the struggles and the experience of this character. (This might be very valid if I had said I wanted to write a story from Frankie’s POV and about his struggles and experiences neither of which was the case, I even explicitely explained he was my Main Character’s friend.)

Obviously, I am not going to write my whole life-story into a facebook post before I ask a simple-enough question. I find it interesting though how people automatically assume things about me from whatever little information they might have (profile pic and the few infos that are visible to the public). I just wish that all of the little social justice warriors out there would take a second to breathe and hesitate before setting out on the warpath. Very often, you don’t know a person’s backstory. You don’t know who they are and where they come from. You haven’t walked a hundred miles in their shoes. So being rude and telling people off instead of offering helpful comments and ideas is definitely not the way to go. Also, it might be very sensible to actually read the question someone posted and then answer accordingly.

I have since written almost 20k words of this story. Frankie is still an afab male-presenting British teen. He seems to be okay with this. I am very okay with it. And my Main Character just beat someone up because they misgendered her best friend. I guess I am going to let the haters hate. If we only were allowed to write characters who are exactly like ourselves, we would end up with very boring stories after all.

Yes, this is important! – About character depictions, skin tone and political correctness

I lately witnessed a debate on one of my writer’s forums which was pretty much the following: If describing a person’s skin-tone, don’t resort to food. I have seen this done before. I have seen it done in a way that I would deem okay. I also have seen it in a way that was horrible and objectifying (and I am not in the least surprised that the latter example came from a New Adult romance/erotica novel – there’s a reason why I don’t read that genre unless you hold a gun to my head or threaten me with life-long cookie-withdrawal).

Now, some POCs seem to be completely fine with their skin-tone being depicted as “caramel coloured skin” whilst others feel massively offended. I am white and caucasian, so I like to err on the safe side of political correctness. While editing “Prodigy” I came across a passage that looked problematic. I had referred to one of my side characters, Joaquin, as having “dark honey coloured skin”. What I had in my head was the colour you get when you have bees who only collect honey in the forest and then you spread that out evenly about half a centimeter thick and this is exactly the colour I imagine this character’s skin to have. Joaquin is mixed race as are several others in the book. I realized I couldn’t go with the honey-thing and asked for other words and descriptions for exactly that colour.

Entrance politically correct writer number 1 (WPCW#1) – who is just as white and caucasian as me – and asks whether I have to go out of my way to describe the skin-tone and whether I am doing it for all characters.

Firstly, this doesn’t answer my question.

Secondly, I actually gave this question some thought.

I have to say that, yes, I need to describe their looks. I am not going out of my way to do it, but I actually have face-casts for my characters (I have a file with photos I stole from the internet and use as references) and I also believe that it is necessary for my reader to know what they look like. Not only does it create a better picture of the character, but it also tells you something about the world that the story is set in. With “Prodigy” I am writing a near future world which has undergone massive changes due to the Climate Catastrophe. The setting of City 5 is in the middle of Europe, in what used to be Berlin.

So if I give this to a caucasian reader who has a mostly white circle of friends and I don’t give them descriptions that hint at a character’s ethnicity, they will – by default – think everyone in this story is white and probably also central European. I have somebody from Spain though, a few Scandinavians, my mixed-race Africam/European boy with the problematic skin-tone, someone with a Native American background and one of my protagonists is half-Japanese. A well-versed person can guess their ethnicity from their names in most cases, but I know that I have whitewashed characters in my head before, if their ethnicity wasn’t clearly stated. It might be the easiest way to just not write about a character’s skin-tone and hair-structure in order to be super politically correct, but it doesn’t suffice. In my opinion, diversity is not the default in all reader’s heads so if you want a diverse cast, you will have to write them as diverse.

As to the issue I had with the “dark honey coloured” skin, I got some helpful feedback from people. One POC person told me, honey-coloured was a great description (not helpful, but thank you anyways). Someone else suggested “old gold” as a solution. I had an epiphany in the end and have used “dark amber coloured” now, which I believe is pretty perfect for Joaquin.

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