This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap Retreats‘ Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.
We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton
Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.
- Outside identity: race, skin color, physical features, names
- Belief system: religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
- Frame: family structure, house rules, foods
Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.
When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).
To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.
Some examples of types of power:
- Institutional power (posse of armed men)
- Community power
- Magic – the physicialisation of power
The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.
Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.
Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.
How do you prevent microaggressions?
- Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
- Write for your entire audience.
- Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
- Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.
Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins
Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.
Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.
Basic western fantasy coding
- Good: white, European Christian, pure
- Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
- This comes from history
- Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
- Crusader ideology
Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.
It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)
How to write cross-culturally?
- Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
- Empathy + craft
- When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
- When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
- Use sensitivity readers.
Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.
Things to avoid in body representation:
- Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
- Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
- Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.
Good worldbuilding: playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”
N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.
Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.
There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:
Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give
Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper
Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows
Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere
Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star
Julie Murphy – Dumplin’
Alex Gino – George
Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!
Aimee Davis’ blog: Broken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell
Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship
Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day
Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap
Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017