Reaching Beyond the Common Narrative

What is the common narrative?

The common narrative is the system of default characters and stories that a society tells. If you look at the preponderance of stories in a culture, you will usually find strong patterns about who is written about—whose stories are considered important enough to tell. In the western world, our common narrative tends to default towards telling stories about characters that represent people who are straight, white, cis-gender, and male. They also tend to be able bodied and able minded.

Why Is a Common Narrative an Issue?

The problem with having the vast majority of stories in a culture being about one group of people is that society is not homogenous. Societies are composed of many different groups of people. Each society has groups with differences based in gender, ethnicity, sexuality, health, age, social status, wealth, access to opportunity, education, and religion—culture is a kaleidoscope of people with different experiences and stories to tell. When a common narrative focuses tightly on one type of character and their experiences, this only reflects a small percentage of the population that consumes media. It leads to an imbalance in perceptions about the importance of the focus group.

A study has shown that when children watch television programs featuring the types of characters that are default in the western common narrative, most experience a reduction in self-esteem. The only children whose self-esteem grew were white boys. The study concluded that this disparity in confidence was because young, white males see themselves represented most often—especially in the role of hero (see Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem).

When we don’t see ourselves represented in media—or when we only see ourselves portrayed as weak, juvenile, criminal, or the butt of jokes—we don’t see positive reflections of ourselves and the potential for who we can be. We don’t see ourselves as heroes. Children who don’t see themselves represented don’t think that they belong in media. Because they’ve never seen anyone who looks like them, they don’t think their stories are important enough to tell. There are many essays written by writers of color who talk about growing up in places like Africa and India, but only having access to media that primarily represented white men and western culture. They grew up thinking that writing and media in general was only meant to be about these types of stories. As a result, these writers of color wrote stories about people they had never seen and places they had never been because they thought those were the only stories worth telling.

Here are two wonderful pieces talking about the importance of having more than the common narrative in media:

So How Do We Fix It?

We fix it by telling stories about and including characters from groups that are under-represented and marginalized in our culture. There is nothing wrong with telling a story about a straight, white, male chosen one, but surely, we can also tell a story about a black dragon slayer, a young lesbian fighting off an alien invasion, or a wheelchair-bound psychic.

Telling these stories and representing these characters as well rounded and human allows readers to see themselves—sometimes for the first time—represented in media in a way that is positive and empowered. They get to be the hero in a story.

Everyone Deserves to Be a Hero Sometimes

In a world where marginalized people face a great deal of discrimination, getting to be the hero in a story can be a tremendous boost to one’s self-esteem—especially for a child. When all you see is yourself represented as a stereotype, as an undesirable, as a criminal, or as something to be mocked, you begin to question your self-worth. Is this the truth of me?

Seeing positive stories that represent groups you belong to can have the opposite effect. It is important to show that being part of a marginalized group doesn’t have to mean an unhappy or unwanted life. That everyone is entitled to and can experience joy, triumph, love, and success. People from all walks of life can be brave and heroic. Seeing this type of representation can boost the self-esteem of a reader and lead to a much more optimistic view of the world and their place in it.

Write Bravely and Do Your Homework

Writing stories that include characters from outside the common narrative often requires stepping outside of your comfort zone, but it is possible and very rewarding. It offers the opportunity to tell a wider range of stories. Imagine instead of setting a fantasy in the more traditional pseudo-Medieval Europe, setting it in Medieval China. Reaching beyond the common narrative opens up an entire world of imagination.

It takes a lot of hard work to do it right. It takes a lot of research—a lot of homework. It takes contacting the people you want to represent and listening to their opinions of your work and understanding that the groups you choose to represent are not a monolith. You must understand that individuals will have different opinions and some of them will not be complimentary.

There are some stories that are not for an outsider to tell (there are some stories that are simply too personal to the group for outsiders to have the basis of reference to be able to tell honestly and completely). For these stories, our job as writers is to ask, to listen, and to signal boost. In these cases, we help best by amplifying marginalized voices. But there are plenty of stories that outsiders—with the proper research—can tell. If you’re not sure if the story you’re wanting to tell is too intimate for you to tackle, then ask opinions from varied members of the group you’re considering representing.

It is highly recommended that you find a group of sensitivity readers in the marginalized group you are writing about whose opinions you trust. Just like other types of beta readers, sensitivity readers help to make sure that your story is sending the message you intend.

Reaching beyond the common narrative requires developing a thick skin. No matter your intentions, there will be people, both in the marginalized community you are representing and outside of it, who will not understand or agree with what you are doing. This is where bravery comes into play. Just because a thing is hard does not mean it is not worth doing. Do your research and do it well. Ask and listen to the voices you’re representing. Realize you’re going to make mistakes and be willing to honestly apologize for them when they occur. Listen to the feedback you seek out and the feedback that comes on its own and use it to do better next time.

Where Are Some Places I Can Turn for Help?

There are a lot of resources online for writing about under-represented and marginalized people. For great ideas search “representation in media” or “we need diverse books.”

Two great resources we use frequently are:

For Discussion

  • What are resources you have used to tell a story about a group you are not part of?
  • Who are your favorite under-represented heroes?
  • What fears do you have about writing outside your comfort zone?

A. E. Lowan is the pseudonym of three authors who collectively create the dark urban fantasy series, The Books of Binding. Their first novel, Faerie Rising, is available at Amazon. For free original short fiction and all things Seahaven, check out the A. E. Lowan website.

A. E. Lowan

5 thoughts on “Reaching Beyond the Common Narrative”

  1. DragonOfTheAerie

    Also a lot of books have Muslim women but I can't think of a single one with a Muslim guy. I guess it's because the hijab is easy to mention in conversation? Also no other religions are commonly mentioned. Jewish characters on occasion, but I can't think of books that have, say, Buddhist or Pagan characters. It would be nice to get any explicit discussion of religion at all. Just have characters discussing their beliefs.

    One of the nice things about this so-called trend in challenging to common narrative is that we get some real gems. For example, Saladin Ahmed's Muslim/Middle Eastern-based fantasy, Throne of the Crescent Moon garnered a great deal of attention a few years ago. And Unremarkable, by Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee, is a great urban fantasy set in 1920's Chicago with a Jewish protagonist.

    The thing is that, gems aside, what we need are many, many more. So many that the common narrative itself changes, and we can all see ourselves as heroes.

  2. My world changed when I realized that, even though many people entertain the opposite idea, the real world is full of diversity and the only place composed of only straight, white, able-bodied people is a deliberate fiction. People are disparaged for being "SJW's" and for "pandering" when they include characters outside this very narrow formula, but the only thing that should be considered a political statement is omitting non-white-straight-and-able-bodied people. The rest is just real life. Like, leave your house occasionally, dude. Or just stop being a racist…

    I must say that ive noticed a trend of having a straight, white, non-disabled hero accompanied by "diverse" companions. All the time. Never the hero, just the companions, fall outside the formula. Also I can't think of any characters that are, say, both black AND disabled. They are only allowed one (1) difference from the formula. That's just what i've noticed.

    (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard is pretty good, especially as Riordan books go, but it's guilty of both of the above things.)

    Also a lot of books have Muslim women but I can't think of a single one with a Muslim guy. I guess it's because the hijab is easy to mention in conversation? Also no other religions are commonly mentioned. Jewish characters on occasion, but I can't think of books that have, say, Buddhist or Pagan characters. It would be nice to get any explicit discussion of religion at all. Just have characters discussing their beliefs.

    • For my two cents, I don’t think the all-white, straight, etc. environment is as much a fiction as some would make it out to be. I think for a lot of people, that is their reality, or at least, a sizable portion of their life story.

      For example, my elementary school years were spent in all-white schools, until fifth grade when the only black kid in the school was in my class. It was also the first year I’d ever had asian classmates.

      At highschool, there were maybe a half dozen black students in the entire school; probably the same amount of arabs/middle-easterners; probably 3-4 asians per grade, and the rest were all white. I never had a non-white teacher throughout my entire schooling – except for my Japanese teacher who was actually Japanese; I don’t even recall having a non-white substitute otherwise. During my last years of highschool, the school hired an Iraqi to manage their I.T. network, and then later, they hired an Indian to teach computing. But otherwise, the staff was all white – just like 95% of the student base.

      I visited my dad’s home town numerous times in my youth – almost entirely white, and the exceptions to the rule, I got the distinct impression, were quite recent changes to the local demographics. In other words, I strongly expect that he grew up in an entirely white environment.

      Going back to my grandparents’ generation, the effect would’ve been even more distinct.

      So the all-white, straight, etc. environment does exist, even if only in some peoples’ memories. So it’s hardly a wonder that many people write stories in such environments, because it mirrors their story; their reality. The raw census data of what percentage of our society is white, straight, Christian, non-disabled, etc., and what percentage are not, doesn’t have much bearing on an artist’s work. What has the relevant bearing is the percentage of these people that have, or have had, meaningful presences in the author/creator’s life.

      • Thank you for your thoughts! Writing to one’s personal experiences is understandable… and easy. But easy isn’t why we are here, is it? We’re here to write stories that excite, to write stories that challenge. To write the stories that don’t often get to be told because the prevailing narrative reflects a Western culture that doesn’t exist. Within a few more decades, the U.S. will be more brown than white, and those stories deserve to be told. Already, our urban environments reflect this demographic shift.

      • That’s certainly one reason. But for a lot of artists – authors included – I would say we do what we do to express ourselves. So what we produce all hinges on who ‘ourselves’ are. Among other things, that’s a mixture of what we’ve personally experienced, what we cherish, what has especially touched us, and the unique eccentricities of our own imagination.

        That of course doesn’t preclude researching new topics or concepts to build into the narrative. But the heart and soul of the story, I think, has to come from within the author themself. I think stories suffer a lot when creators dwell so much on what they are supposed to say, they forget what they want to say.

        And excitement is just one of the reasons why we write, IMHO. We also write to bring joy and comfort. We write to connect with others – to alleviate our readers’ loneliness, and perhaps our own as well. We write to make people laugh. Sometimes we even write to horrify and disgust (Yes, I’m looking at you, Stephen King ;)). And to some extent, we write to let the world know we are here; to let the future ages know we *were* here. To chisel a monument in our own image, as it were.

        Authorship is as diverse a community as you can get, and there’s no single “how” or “why” to explain what we do. Most of us just feel the need to share something that’s been brewing in our own minds with the world. It mightn’t always be politically correct, balanced, or an accurate depiction of reality (human beings have a habit of being inconvenient) – but it is ‘us’, and it is what we have to express.

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