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Help - trying to avoid seeming racist and cliche simultaneously

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Trick, Mar 15, 2017.

  1. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Hi All,

    I am not looking to start any kind of debate about representation in fantasy so please let's not go down that road. I'll just say my approach is go with your gut and do your research, so that's what I'm doing. The story I need help with is not about race but it is affected by real world history and race is part of that.

    So, in one of my WIPs I have a main character who is a young black girl named Kia. There are many worlds in the story, all of which are variations on Earth having branched off at different points in history. She is not THE main character but she is vital to the story and I would say too important to call her secondary. I'm just now getting a feel for her personality and I need to come up with a functional flaw for her.

    The issue here is that her world deviated from our real world at the election of Lincoln. In our world he had three opponents who split the vote and he won. In her world, two of those opponents died and the third guy beat Lincoln. He is a real person and he was very pro slavery. As a result, there is still slavery in America - there was still a civil war but it was the North trying to secede and they lost. Technology has been stunted, cultural norms are stunted (to be expected when slavery exists) etc.

    The MMC is a mixed race character, very mixed, named Wender. He comes from a world where all of the population began intermingling in Egyptian times (due to magical travel) and thus has become a place where race doesn't really exist. There are regional variations in appearance but very mild compared to the RW.

    Kia is baffled by Wender's appearance because races can't legally mix where she lives. Anyhow, my first feeling about her was that she would be meek and then grow bold. But, I didn't think of it as caused by her enslavement, just as a part of her personality. However, it may be perceived that way. So, as an exercise, I imagined her as rebellious and spunky and then learning to mature. That felt like a major cliche to me. It didn't suit her as she affects the story and I don't like it. So, somewhere in between will do but now I am having a hard time coming up with a flaw that is genuine and believable without seeming somehow racist or cliched. She must be real to the reader and for most of my characters I like where they end up but she is still a cardboard cutout simply because I can't decide how to flesh her out.

    Please help.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2017
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    What does she want?
    What does she believe about herself? What does she believe is justice and right order in the world?
    What, in her view, opposes that?

    I think you need to set her down in the real (fictional) world and walk her around a bit. Get a feel for how she moves, talks, thinks, reacts, in situations that are *not* germane to your story. And maybe a couple that are.
     
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  3. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    That never stopped a slavemaster.

    I think you need to read more.
     
  4. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I think you should check what you write before posting, based on its insulting tone. And it might not hurt to improve your reading comprehension with a few exercises.

    He's a mix of every race on earth, not just half black/white. While Alternate America, you know - the place I imagined - may still have slavery, it would have several races as residents, but it is illegal for them to intermingle. When an apparently free man walks up to a slave girl and he looks like nothing she's ever seen before, an illegal combination of many races, it's going to raise her eyebrows. Especially since she's a young girl. I could go on...
     
  5. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Well, she ends up being pretty special, but I don't think she wants that necessarily. I think she craves justice but I can't imagine her going after it without a push from someone else.

    She believes she is in no way less than her "masters" but she also believes in doing her duty, which for her at this point in her life is following her mother's advice most of the time, though she's beginning to doubt its wisdom now.

    Not sure what she believes is justice yet, she's a bit young so I feel like she'd be working that out still. She has certain ideas she's gathered from the adults around her and made her own and others shes' rejected. I guess I can't decide what those are yet.

    I know that I want her opposed to her enslavement, but I'm not sure if it is a passionate thing or a passive thing, yet.

    That's not a bad idea... I'll think up some situations that happen before Wender arrives that would be mundane for her and a few that would be fresh for her. Maybe it'll jar something loose.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    It has helped me. By putting a new character into situations outside the story, I can freewrite. I can go to extremes, which helps me get a sense of the boundaries for this character. And I do find I start to hear their voice, what feels fitting.

    You don't say how old she is, but in my own perception, kids get a sense of what is "fair" (more usually what's not fair!) at rather a young age.

    Oenanthe was more prescriptive than necessary, but the point about slavemasters is nearly historical. I would rephrase it to say the law never stopped a slavemaster who was inclined to take advantage of a slave. It happened a lot and it happened across multiple cultures. More generally, laws never guarantee they won't be broken.

    Cultural norms can be pretty strong, though. I don't know how far you want to push this, but if the masters viewed their slaves as repugnant, shameful, hideous, where any kind of mating that was discovered would be socially disastrous, that could set your slave society apart from historical ones. It would still happen, of course, but it would be utterly invisible socially. And would be comparatively rare. Not sure of this even forms a significant part of your story.

    Your instincts are right, though. This is tricky ground. Heck, I found it was tricky to have a slave character in my Roman story.
     
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  7. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    I don't know if you genuinely don't know this, or if you're avidly trying to deny it, but white slavemasters routinely raped and impregnated their slaves. and if you don't know that, or if you can't face that, then maybe you should re-think your worldbuilding.

    Because you will get called on it. You've already been called on it. and your reaction doesn't lead me to believe that you'll handle the inevitable criticism you will receive for this. I have been mild. I didn't pat your bottom and say there, there, it will be all right, because this will not go well for you if you continue with this worldbuilding.

    You will be told this again, and next time, it might be incredibly public and embarrassing. so if you don't like it when people say mean things to you?

    Heed my advice, offered in anticipation of your future needs. Accept my emotional labor on your behalf.

    Stop, and think hard about this. People are not willing to accept the kind of world building you're proposing here. if you got pushback on a tiny internet forum where a handful of people saw your post...can you think ahead, to what will happen on the wider internet?

    Dude, I'm trying to help you.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Perhaps a middle ground would be to have her do things secretly. For instance, if she were super curious and often spied on others or explored environments but was also very clever, clever enough to avoid detection. She could be that type of character that is meek socially but, when no one's looking, breaks out of those social constraints to go exploring/spying, whatever, and no one knows this about her. Maybe her "flaw" (if you want to call it that) is her inability to see, for herself, just how dangerous this trait is, or even that she feels a thrill when she's observing others without their knowing it. She could have two "faces" in other words, the public face she shows to others and a very private face that no one sees.*

    *Edit, just to clarify. I've known people who were simultaneously meek and strong, or whose outward relations with others were easy-going, meek-seeming, but who nonetheless had strong characters. Plus, people often have this kind of dual public/private personas dynamic, without being "two-faced" in the negative sense. So I'm just suggesting that maybe the character can be more nuanced than through-and-through meek or through-and-through rebellious.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
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  9. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    I agree with Skip's advice: you need to spend time and writing on this character, let her emerge as a human being. It's a good instinct on your part to avoid the flat "cowed" or "rebellious" characterizations not only because they're cliche but because of how negatively they interact with race and slavery. There are a great many poisonous stereotypes rooted in cultural justifications for slavery, so it's important for you to remain sensitive to that. I'm sorry that I can't really point you in a specific direction, but I don't know the character in the way that you do?

    A comment that I feel bound to make... With these alternate worlds, it feels like you're setting up the scenario of "and here's the black girl, her background and her entire universe is defined by the perpetuation of slavery!" That just...does not sit right. There's a lot of sentiment from black readers and writers on social media that they'd like to see stories about black characters that aren't also about slavery, and this is kind of the opposite extreme. Can I recommend including another black character whose world and experiences have nothing to do with slavery, if you haven't already?

    I'm not saying that it'd be offensive to write this story, but rather that you're setting yourself up for a lot of examination of plot, message, and characterization. If you're willing to do that labor, it could be great. If it's a shallow treatment, it could really backfire on you.
     
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Given how much scrutiny, not to say outright criticism, this sort of story is likely to attract, you might want to ask yourself why you are writing it. Do you want to explore the slave experience? What is it about the alternate fantasy setting that makes you believe there is something special that would not be better handled in an actual historical setting? Was it just a cool idea you had? (nothing wrong with that, but it's important we recognize the sources of our inspiration)

    I'm not sure one has to have perfect clarity on this sort of thing at the start, but neither ought these kind of questions be ignored by the author, especially on culturally difficult topics.
     
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  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Yeah, I want to echo this sentiment. You've got a character that almost feels designed as a platform to talk about racial issues and slavery, but it sounds like that's something you stumbled into looking for drama, and that you don't necessarily have anything in particular that you want to say about the subject. You can still do it, but you've got find some tone and theme or message that you're comfortable with here. It's not a good subject to stumble through.

    If I could suggest something, it would be to rethink her role in her world, and put her with her world's equivalent of the underground railroad. Widen her perspective of how people behave and give her a firmer ground to stand on as a main character. You might also give her a character arc based on trust, considering how the underground railroad would force her to confront those issues of trust and betrayal quite often. Just a thought.
     
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  12. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

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    I have a few questions. What is her situation? Does she live in constant fear of a beating or is life fairly relaxed by a slaves standards. Is her life defined be fear or something else. What is her master like, who is her enemy. Ask what would her perfect day be like.

    I ask because until you know her past and present how can you know her future.
     
  13. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Reading comprehension again... it's important. I know it rather well and never denied it, let alone 'avidly.' I never said anything about it in fact. I said that in the world that I made up from my brain and isn't real race mixing is illegal. I also didn't say that everyone was law-abiding. I didn't make any claim about it either way. If a man owns a slave, he is probably not a great guy so would he rape a slave even if it's illegal... if he wanted to, yes he probably would. Since that has no bearing on this particular situation, I didn't mention it. I also didn't mention various other historical facts tangentially related to this topic but I notice you didn't get rude about those.

    You really need to watch the level insult you think is appropriate for this forum. You have jumped to conclusions based on a single sentence in my post and you know very near to nothing about me. I'm going to ask now that you rethink this approach. My reaction was to this statement: "I think you need to read more."

    A general insult like that, to a writer, regardless of the actual topic, is pretty rude. You seem to have seized on this idea that I am unfamiliar with history's various terrible facts. Your assumption is incorrect. Now that you know that, you can rest assured that I will broach any aspect of the horrors of slavery that are required by the story, which is the very reason for this post - I had doubts about my approach to a character's personality so I asked for help. If the story included the issue of masters raping their slaves, I would have asked about that.

    What?! People are mean on the internet AND in public?!. I'm shocked...

    Quick question, do you "like" it when people are mean to you? Am I supposed to like it or just expect it? Because those are two different things.

    I tend to take issue when people make assumptions about me for which they have no evidence and they let their imagined impression of me based on something that I didn't say balloon into an issue that doesn't exist. That does bother me. If you actually had a basis for this random argument you're making, we'd be having a different discussion. For instance, if you had asked something like, "What about the issues of rape that would lead to mixed race children?"

    I would have answered, "Of course, that would exist but it would be frowned on by the government in the world I have imagined."

    And that would have been that. Try the benefit of the doubt next time. It works wonders.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
  14. staiger95

    staiger95 Scribe

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    Since you recognize that you character can go in different directions, I suggesting thinking less about your character in terms of her individual biography and consider what it is that you as the author need from the character to advance the story. What works best? That is for you to decide. Stereotypes and cliche's be damned. Own the character for her function in the story.


    As far as this backdrop, I think this leads to a myriad of fascinating possibilities. The extent to which you examine them depends entirely upon how much interaction your story line requires. Consider first that the role of the north was not to so much to abolition slavery but to defend the union. A civil war may have been averted if the south was allowed to secede. And certainly this brings up the fact that one man did not end slavery. With Lincoln denied his prominent role in history, what did he do thereafter? Would anyone have assassinated him? For what reason? What shape did the abolitionist movement have taken? Now consider any technological or social advancements brought about by black figures. How would this alternate history have shaped them?

    As far as racism and stereotypes, I say stick your foot right in and wiggle it around. Not to perpetuate racist notions, but rather to challenge them. Consider what stereotypes follow black Americans today and conceptualize how few of them would exist in this alternate reality where slavery was never abolished. Different stereotypes would emerge, however, so imagine what those would be. Now if you really want to kick people's preconceived notions in the teeth, how about an America where the slaves are better off in their day-to-day lives simply for being slaves? You are the writer. Construct whatever alternate reality you want. The purpose of speculative fiction is to explore these what-ifs in order to deeper understand the what-is.
     
  15. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Well, it's not really 'this sort of story.' Her world and the fact that slavery still exists there is only one of many worlds in the book. Alternate settings are necessary to the plot. It's really a story about people who can travel between many different worlds which are all variations of the real world. Kia is on a world where things didn't go so well in America. It just felt like the right setting for her upbringing. I want it to form the backbone of her beliefs later when she learns that she we will help to overthrow a massive organization that is basically enslaving all worlds without them realizing it. The planet she was born on will be a big part of why she is driven to fight this organization but that will be when she's older. Right now she is 12/13/
     
  16. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    That's not necessarily true, though it's a good point. I want her experience of slavery to drive her future actions, e.g., helping to overthrow a cross-world organization that is basically using all the many worlds as its slaves. I would love to add a scene much later when she somehow improves her own world by putting it on the path to freedom for all people but that isn't necessary to the actual story. It could be an epilogue or something.

    I like your role change suggestion but the plot does call for her to be rather young. Her age is a big factor in the MC's decision that makes the whole story happen. I'm not sure she would be directly involved. But since I have imagined that she greatly loves and respects her mother, who always tells her to follow the rules, it might be interesting if she learned that her mother was such a woman - helping to smuggle slaves into Canada or something. It would certainly shake up her world and make her think. I like this idea storm.

    Thanks Devor.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
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  17. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I wouldn't say she lives in constant fear but she will have experienced it for sure. There are rules the slaves owned by her master must follow and she follows them because that is what her mother says she should do. Now, that may be a front, and she may be very mischievous or downright angry at her situation but I haven't decided yet. I don't imagine her master being the most terrible but he would be given to harsh punishments for rule breakers and Kia would have witnessed that, perhaps even a loved one of hers being beaten or worse. But she might be young enough that what she knows feels like the natural order and she doesn't yet see a way out of it or hasn't tried hard enough yet. Can't decide. This is my conundrum. Is it offensive if she is meek and accepting of what she sees as her lot in life - even if she learns the truth later and grows bold? I just don't know.
     
  18. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Well, that's just it, I'm trying to decide on her level of agency. I want it to be just right. She's not the THE main character but she's very important and she does majorly affect the story by her actions so I need to decide how she decides to take those actions. Her function is first to serve as the catalyst for change through no action of her own but then to either grab life by the horns and make her own way, or she could just go along with main character because she's meek. Since the story isn't set in stone, there are promising scenarios in both directions.


    Some of those possibilities are taken into consideration already but they will not be a focus because most of the story does not take place on her world. It's more a matter of how her world has affected her, how it formed her into who she is, that I'm concerned with.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
  19. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

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    I'm sorry I really didn't want to comment. I've been following this thread and I've read it and re-read it. Maybe it's me, but I can't find any 'pushback', only constructive feedback from genuine, well-intentioned people. I think this forum and its members are a credit to the 'wider internet'.

    Apologies for the interruption.
     
  20. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

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    I wouldn't think of it in terms of her being "rebellious" or "meek" instead I would consider what she will and will not stand for. I think most people are have lines that they just won't cross, its just a matter of figuring out what hers are. Maybe she's hard working and would never do anything against her master but if another slave does something she refuses to snitch no matter what the other slave did or what threats her master uses.
     
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