Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Cultural Appropriation: A question for other writers

Fiction And What Could BeThe objective of writing science fiction, fantasy, (and fiction in general) is to explore the world of what could be, what should be, what should never be — to challenge your own assumptions, to discover, uncover, or invent new ways of thinking about life and new ways of seeing the world, humanity, and life, to expand beyond what is.

Standing directly in the road to this exploration is the politically correct stance that (if you’re white) you have no business using elements of anyone else’s race or culture for your own personal gain.

The problem with this is that if you’re a science fiction / fantasy / speculative fiction writer, it’s your damn job to reach beyond your world and the way it works to understand life lived in other ways, other places, and other times, to turn all of that inside out and sideways, to ask questions about it and answer them with actions in your work, and to then present what you’ve created for people who are capable of appreciating that the world they live in is bigger than they are.

Unlike most Americans, I have lived in non-white, not-English-speaking countries. I’ve also lived in Alaska in the late 1960s where the BIA (I’m not a fan) was the majority of the government.

In writing my fiction, I borrow liberally from my experiences in these other places. They were mostly not fun though they were extremely educational, and they made me an outsider for most of my life — which it’s useful to be if you want to be a writer of fiction that lives off the beaten track.


My favorite main character of all the main characters I’ve written is black. Her name is Cadence Drake. I’m WELL aware that there are lots of folks who dislike the fact that I — a whitish American woman (more of a brown-rice beige, actually) of unknown but decidedly mixed ethnic heritage — have the temerity to write science fiction novels in the first person as a black female.

Brief interlude while I answer the one person who just asked, If you don’t know what your ethnic heritage is, how do you know it’s mixed?

I know because my irises are a splotchy mix of blue, yellow, reddish brown, and dark brown, and the hair on my head contains straight blonde hair, curly red hair, wavy brown hair, straight thick black hair, and thin, fragile, kinky black hair. And now, a fair amount of gray. I’m betting that my relatively recent ancestors represent every broad racial group on the planet.

Back to the objections for me writing a black main character.

Never mind that she kicks ass. Never mind that she’s the perfect person for the series and the overall story, never mind that she represents what I value in human beings and what I value in the world I live in.

I’m not black. So how dare I?

And the answer to that of course is that I dare because like all my fictional characters, Cadence Drake is me when I am being someone else. She shows an essential aspect of the universe I want to live in, the one where color of skin is irrelevant, where gender preferences are all acceptable, where humanity has conquered the stars and its prejudices equally…

But where the problems of power and its inevitable corruption of those who seek it still exist, and where people have found new ways to manipulate that power over each other.

Cady lets me tell my story better than any other character I could have created. Her existence as my main character shows what matters in her universe, and also what doesn’t.

So to my question:

If you’re a writer, what boundaries have you crossed in the pursuit of your fiction?

What boundaries are you afraid to cross? And why?

This is only a question for other writers.

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57 responses to “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Cultural Appropriation: A question for other writers”

  1. Kit Avatar

    I think there’s a difference between a story about a character who happens to be of a different race/gender/orientation/religion, and a story that’s about the experience of being black, or Muslim, or disabled.

    I’ve got stories that include characters of all those descriptions, and sometimes the reaction that other characters have to them is an element of the narrative, but I’d personally feel really uncomfortable writing a story where a type of prejudice that I don’t have to deal with is the central conflict.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar

      “I’d personally feel really uncomfortable writing a story where a type of prejudice that I don’t have to deal with is the central conflict.”

      I understand that. I’m not uncomfortable with it, and here’s why.

      Prejudice is like racism — it’s all the same.

      There’s not one version for some people and a different version for others. So when you’re writing characters experiencing prejudice, you are speaking not to a handful of specific experiences, but to the broad spectrum of what it means to be human. All human beings experience prejudice. ALL of them.

      Some experience it more than others, some experience it worse than others, but everyone has at one time or another been the wrong gender, the wrong color, the wrong language, the wrong religion, the wrong weight, the wrong height, the wrong side of the damn track, the wrong SOMETHING.

      At one time or another, I’ve been the wrong everything. And it’s all the same. It sucks, it’s isolating, it’s demeaning, depressing, and frequently dangerous and scary.

      So you write your life and extrapolate it into other skins, and what was true for you will be true for your readers.

      1. Judy Gordon Avatar
        Judy Gordon

        Hi Holly,
        My name is Judy Gordon. I want to become an active member of your team against.I have not commented on anything if a long time but please let me get back into your website. I just now have time on my hands and am ready to write again. I took all of your writing courses back 5 or 6 or maybe longer than that. How to Think sideways, the plot, character development, etc I have forgotten my passwork. Possibly my email might have changed too. I am not sure. Please help me get back so that I can talk to you again.

        1. Judy Gordon Avatar
          Judy Gordon

          I should have spell checked better before I sent you the first message.
          again not against courses 5 or 6 should be 5 or 6 years

          passwork should be password

  2. Lori Avatar

    I have never thought about what boundaries I was breaking through as I was writing. I never really mention the color skin of my characters. The thought never came to mind. Honestly, I write what I know which is from my own cultural upbringing, but I guess I never thought that I needed to articulate any diversity of culture with in the world of my story as the themes and conflicts I desired to write about are universal to all humanity.

    So perhaps I have crossed barriers in my writing by not crossing any?

  3. Donald E. Allen Avatar

    In my writing, I have been black, white, straight, homosexual–both gay and lesbian– as well as American Indian; Chinese, Italian, Russian, Slovenian…infinent item. In my stories, I have had my leg amputated THREE TIMES and still people look to see if I walk with a limp when I leave the lectern after a guest reading at one literary club or another. I have been met with repugnance and hate for daring to write that which I am not, from a group I call “The Perpetually Offended,” but as an Author, I refuse to yield. I refuse to surrender a single ounce of creative energy to these angry, maladjusted, venomous, jealous, vermin. Other than that they are nice people who bought my books 🙂

    1. Holly Avatar

      I am familiar with the Perpetually Offended.

      They’re the folks who think their feelings are more important than reality. Reality has its own way of dealing with such folk.

  4. P.I. Barrington Avatar

    Wow, Holly! I have a new book with a character such as yours in early WIP since I still owe Book Two of the Brede Chronicles (also with racial overtones) to my publisher and I am debating over my writing her as a black woman. TBC is set in future dystopian Egypt with reverse racism. The new book is set in near future and the female character just works for me and is written in her POV as well. As I said, I am debating on her racial heritage and I think my readers will understand what I am trying to do. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to the new story at this time but I’d love to hear from authors who think it might be a good idea if I speak to a few of my readers on what they think of my writing if I make her black?

    1. Holly Avatar

      One comment here. There’s no such thing as reverse racism. There’s only racism, and it’s all the same.

      Write the character you need to write to tell your story.

  5. Lucinda Siverling Avatar
    Lucinda Siverling

    … but if we don’t at least eventually write characters who aren’t like us (or how we used to be), then won’t all our characters start to seem an awful lot like each other? Or are we only supposed to write one story-line of variable length with just the one set of characters?

    Because that sounds BORING. I don’t want to spend my money on boring stuff, and tend to assume nobody else would want to spend their money on boring stuff. (I give full awareness to the fact that my ‘boring’ could be the next person’s ‘awesome’ because not everyone has the same taste in reading.) I want to read about people who aren’t me or just like me. Who live in different places and times and maybe even different worlds. Maybe in times/places where I would hate to have to live, but it could still be interesting to read about.

    I am a writer. I’m still in the early stages of a writing career, but I am a writer, and one of the things I decided was that I wanted to write things I’d like to read (it helps with revisions and expansion if you like the stuff to begin with). I don’t want all my characters to feel the same. I don’t want all my stories to take place in the same neighborhood, and so far none of them are set where I live.

    Partly because reading is travel on a budget of ‘no.’

    So my characters shouldn’t all look the same, or talk/act the same. They should have different jobs and goals and motivations. There are men and women and boys and girls and a mermaid. So far all of my characters fit into a male/female definable gender, but someday one or more of them might not. And I want them to feel like a real, complex, complicated person who isn’t defined by what sort & configuration their reproductive structures are or how they intend to use/not use them. I’m making a deliberate effort to have a variety of ethnicities and complexions, and I want them to feel like real people, meaning where they/their ancestors come from is just a part of who they are and what they want from life.

    I worry about putting in characters in an Earth-like setting who are from a different background, because I want to not mess up. And some of the stories I want to write are in a world enough like this one to have Latinas (ethnicity) and brown people and yellow people (color & perception), and at some point I’m probably going to have characters who have the time & attention for sexuality and are non-mainstream about it. And I want to make them complex people who are more than the country where their Dad or Grandpa came from, are more than the shade of their complexion or their answer to what are they looking for in a date.

    And I worry that I’ll get it wrong. I’m trying to go ahead anyhow, with the understanding that I’ll fiddle with it and revise it many times before I hit the magic ‘publish’ button. So there’s no reason I shouldn’t try, since I”ll have time to try a little differently or revise or both before hitting the button. Because ‘I haven’t lived that’ and ‘that isn’t me’ are both terrible reasons to not include a type of person if that person would fit your story. And if I can write a preteen boy (I’ve never been one of those), then I should be able to write a girl who likes girls or a boy who likes boys or someone who really doesn’t want anyone and would you leave off about it already?(it’s just adding a different not-me trait to the character.)

    If I’m going to worry for every character if I have them right for themself, why not go for more differences? Why not chance sexual preferences if I’m willing to change gender and age. Writing a significantly different choice of sexuality shouldn’t be harder than writing someone who actually chooses to hunt werewolves, or is a spy, or loves to be surrounded by people (this one I’m not sure I can manage).

    I am going to worry about the traits of my characters that are different than me. I’m just going to try to write them anyhow. Because if I don’t think it’s right, it can stay hidden in my computer, either until it is right or until the computer dies.

  6. Bob Marshall Avatar
    Bob Marshall

    I have written novels where: the main character is a college football player though I did not play any organized football (high school, college or youth); the main character is promoted to General though I did not serve in the military or have any military training; a strong secondary character is a woman though I am a man.

    I would be a very dull writer if I were restricted to only write characters like me.

    1. Holly Avatar

      “I would be a very dull writer if I were restricted to only write characters like me.”

      Yep. Which I think is what I think the folks complaining about writers who write outside their experience are trying to accomplish.

  7. Reziac Avatar

    Nashira says, “I haven’t read a John Grisham novel in decades; I stopped because his female characters were fantasy props. Did I wish he would stop writing female characters? Nope. I just wished he would incorporate characteristics of the real women from his life into his novels.”

    Maybe he just isn’t much good at female characters. For some people it’s probably like writing children — writing a child who seems natural is HARD, and many authors never manage it.

    I’m reminded of a SF author of yesteryear, whose characters were mostly strong women (leaders, tough survivors who rescued their own damn selves, etc.) but… His male characters spoke normally, but his female characters, especially MCs, had little quirks of dialog like English was not their mother tongue. Speaking as an editor, I don’t think it was intentional; I think it was an unconscious effort to distinguish them, which instead made them alien. (BTW this author wrote under his initials, and for years I thought he was a woman.)

    1. Holly Avatar

      “BTW this author wrote under his initials, and for years I thought he was a woman.”

      Ain’t it the truth. Used to be the only way a woman could write SF was if she was two initials and a toughed-up last name.

      Once the trick was discovered, everyone assumed two initials meant female.

      Life is a helluva lot better now than it was when I had to wear a dress every day. 😀

      1. Reziac Avatar

        “Used to be the only way a woman could write SF was if she was two initials and a toughed-up last name.”

        That’s actually a myth. Oft-repeated, but a myth nonetheless. Just as many men wrote under their initials; it was a common style of the day, for good reason:

        Somewhere I can’t find offhand there’s a very long list of female SF/F authors from the early days, many of whom wrote under their real names — but many used initials or pseudonyms NOT because of any bias against women in SF/F, but because of broad social bias against ALL *writers*, who until ~1960 were commonly considered unemployable scum, even worse than actors. (In fact, less than 20 years ago a friend raised in a proper educated Jewish household came to me in distress because he’d sold a short story, and he was terrified that word would get out that he was now a “writer”. Mind you this was even as a longstanding member of a SF/F literary society!)

        These female pulp authors are forgotten today (as are most of the male pulp authors) because most wrote short fiction, and once the pulp market died, there was nowhere for them to go (paperback anthologies were maybe 0.01% as much market — people today don’t realise how HUGE the pulp market was in its heyday), and most of this pulp SF/F has completely vanished from mortal ken. Incidentally a woman was editor-in-chief at the largest pulp of the era.

        The microscopic sampling of Big Names from pulp who went on to become paperback novel authors is by no means representative of the historical genre. Nor can you infer bias against women who used male names when they were merely avoiding the worst social stigma of their day.
        (note that the author is the lead editor for Tor-UK, and is a woman. As are ~80% of editors in the genre.)

        1. Holly Avatar

          😀 Well, you have me by a few years (though only a few), and those apparently count.

          Books in my childhood were artifacts of wisdom and wonder, and their creators were gods. My only requests for Christmas presents from the time I was old enough to know that books could be owned, not just borrowed, was for more books.

          My upbringing never questioned the primacy of writing as the cornerstone of philosophy and civilization, or writers as the bringers of light.

          So from that perspective and a few years down the road, I could only look at people who disguised their genders (or identities, but honestly, that writers might do that never occurred to me until MUCH later), as hiding because gender was a barrier to what they wanted.

          And when I was growing up, my gender was a barrier to everything I wanted — so I understood that.

          1. Reziac Avatar

            For us old fogies — our parents and grandparents grew up with reading as the only routinely-available entertainment. EVERYONE in farm country read like fiends; the printed word was everywhere. (Thus the then-gigantic pulp market.) Radio diluted this, and television killed it. But it was a lot slower to die in the farming midwest.

            I remember when the notion that “you’re not allowed to do [X] because you’re a woman” came along… that was around 1970; prior to that, in America it really didn’t exist as a practical matter (notwithstanding some individuals and subcultures with more-strictured beliefs). But modern feminism likes to conflate “women didn’t” with “women couldn’t”, and people who didn’t live it can’t tell the difference.

            As to the nominal topic, ALL culture is appropriated from somewhere; that’s how cultures grow and develop, and it’s how they’re preserved when a people moves on to other things. As a realworld example, Japanese kimono manufacturers were thrilled with the Western kimono fetish — it kept them in business and that culture alive when the native population changed its preferred style of dress. (And yes, they were asked.)

            Very little is truly original, and culture is intimately intertwined with technology. If you don’t think culture should be appropriated, then vast stretches of the globe that never invented the wheel or a system of writing are in big trouble.

  8. Claudette Avatar

    Brava, Holly. I agree. Writers are their characters and vice versa. What boundaries have I crossed?

    I’ve been the mother who’s soon to lose her child, even though I’ve never been a mother. I’m man who’s seduced and absorbed by a being who admired him, even though I’m not male. I’m badass female MC nobody likes because she’s a calculating, assertive, no-nonsense, kind of gal who can’t stand bad guys or bad food. I’m the young native shaman who leads her people to salvation and the old prospector who releases a dragon from bondage and travels to new nourtains in another dimension. I’m all of those things interchangeably.

    As for boundaries I’m afraid to cross, those would be ones having more to do with grammatical writing conventions more than characters. And I’m afraid of leaving out something critical to a story and leaving a reader feeling cheated.

    There you have. I’m getting getter about the conventions. I always write about characters outside my personal experience. I’m working on using only those details that satisfy the reader without bloating the prose.

    I’m glad you broached this subject, Holly. It needed a viewing.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Ahhh, grammar. The monster in the closet.

      I decided where I could not join it I would just beat it into submission.

  9. Issa Avatar

    I want first to say thank you! My courage was wavering again. It does often. This is the first and only book I have going and yet it is full of issues.
    Boundaries I am crossing are writing men when I am a woman. Others I’m crossing are rape, sexuality-female and male, issues of child custody, cultural consent where bearing children it is not necessarily a female’s choice, so, women’s rights to their bodies and yeah, there is a country where people have dark skin and eyes predominantly, though one can’t directly point to a trespass of culture since there is no name equivalent. I have characters both light and dark skinned speaking different languages. Culturally there will be similarities to very male dominated cultures, but there are many, so they can take their pick. They are sometimes in a desert land but it is not earth and no specific culture from earth.
    Thank you again for the bolstering.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Glad to help.

      People have always tried to silence writers — sometimes with prisons and gulags, sometimes with noisy disapproval.

      Don’t be silenced.

  10. Benjamin Solheim Avatar
    Benjamin Solheim

    I have a feeling people simply went off the original cover and assumed you were simply retconing the story for financial reasons, instead of trying to get what was weird in sections of the book to make more sense. I remember reading the book and getting puzzled trying to follow the narrative.

    Most people who scream you should not… are usually wanting to be the only voice of a people which only works if everyone is mute, or don’t feel that you understand their people. Personally most of the qualities of a person is more upbringing than genetic as hip movement, softer or harder bones… those are half due to diet and half due to the amount of electrical current running up and down the nervous system. You can play with a vandi graff generator and see what happens if you try to change nature but writing outside what you know always puts you are risk of having people wander what happened to writing they expected.

    I wrote a couple things outside my comfort zone for a couple female friends so see how silly they would treat it and someone in hollywood wanted to action it. At which point I was like did they just want the shock and awe or did they like the characters… either way I put it in so they would keep reading what I wanted them to see and it got interest. The thing is I could write naughty stuff for them even out of boredom but writing the stuff that was just weird I did for shock and awe I really have no idea where it would go.

    When I read Candace Drake it reminded me of Drakon by SM Stirling. Most people forget those stories because they were written before your childhood but without much of the science. The characters in say fire in the mist you remember like the cat with hands because it played with match sticks. So maybe ask your readers what they remember of the character. I got rid of my copy of hunting corrigange blood in 2014 when I was moving over to digital copies so likely I simply don’t remember the story that well but the character never brought to mind any of the people that were black. One of the nicest guys I have known was black he played foot ball in my high school and ran track on the same team I was on. My proffesor in data structures is a really famous black guy. Off tv he had no common ground other than understanding data structures with the class he was teaching. To change the mood to get people to laugh because we were staring at him explain something he made a joke about a sheep. Maybe you just need to hang out with people that you want to base your character off of.

    1. Holly Avatar

      It always bugged me that Baen chose the one scene where Cady was in deep disguise as a white woman while stalking a predator (and being stalked by him) to use as the cover.

      Because Badger… could he be any whiter? No. He was an albino. And on the cover, he looked right.

      But Cady spent most of the book in her own skin, and I wanted to see her in her skin. I hated the original cover.

  11. Misti Avatar

    My fantasy series with the most readers, right now, starts off in a room full of heteronormative whites with faux-Victorian ethics…and addresses issues of racism and prejudice on OTHER factors. I think there’s only one explicit PoC in that first book.

    But skin color isn’t something major for either the narrator or the local culture, in part because the realm is essentially sitting between two bigger and older multicolored cultures. The nobility and ruling families that the series deals with are pretty much white due to a mix of imperialism and inbreeding.

    (Also, features like skin color can be lost pretty quickly. My best friend is 1/4 Cherokee, and both she and her sister don’t look it at all.)

    Each book after that changes narrators, each one revealing gaps in what the other(s) know of the world…and each one being an “outsider” in multiple ways that don’t involve skin color or deviation from M/F relationships. One seeks to be a married man’s mistress in order to escape the pitfalls of her heritage. Another has a mental illness unique to that world that logically progresses from how magic works.

    The narrators don’t necessarily notice or care if someone’s non-white or not cisgendered, so why would they comment? I’ve apparently managed the situation okay—nobody’s complained about my handling of it, so far. We’ll see what happens when certain characters “come out” explicitly enough for the narrators to notice.

    I do have some PoC-PoV stories planned in that world. I’m sure I’ll get more pushback after I write those, since I look so white. (I’m actually part Jewish and possibly Roma, from the the genealogy I’ve been able to track down.)

    I’ve actually gotten more pushback for some other stories. Like, someone protested the werewolf hierarchy in one series because “Wolves don’t work that way!” No, they don’t. People do. And, hey, look! They’re people.

    Another story, I’ve gotten some pushback because “Everyone seems to like the narrator.” Well, duh. All the controlling types in the story like her, because she plays along. The other ones like her because she’s playing along, and she’s able and willing to notice things and think through their implications. So…again. Part of the point.

    I used to avoid all on-page bedroom scenes—until I had a story that needed it. I still don’t get graphic or erotic, but… I’m a 100% aromantic asexual without a libido. I read that stuff sometimes to remind myself I’m odd and to watch for idioms to avoid.

    The aro ace thing affects how I write and think about sex and relationships, I think. I can understand folks being concerned about some types of relationship due to how easily they can be abused (ex. May/December or teacher/student romance), but the usual argument made against them is that they’re gross.

    Um, right. Life is “gross”. Is it not obvious that all relationship types aren’t precisely sanitary? Doesn’t matter if it’s hetero, homo, kinky, plural, or platonic.

    Anyway, I used to avoid most on-page cursing. Now, I just avoid taking deities’ names in vain—mostly as an “equal respect” thing. (I’m Christian, and I don’t want to put misuses of God’s names on the page, so I’m not going to do that to others. I do, however, recognize that the commandment against taking God’s name “in vain” doesn’t necessarily apply in a fictional setting.)

    The main boundary I’m afraid of crossing…I’m not quite sure how to phrase it. Certain traits and types of experiences, particularly when they’re significant in intensity or duration, affect how you think about things.

    If you lack those traits or have never had such experiences, that also affects how you think. I’m outright afraid to write this side of things, because I often don’t know or understand what fills that absence.

    As a simple example, I have a high IQ. I can’t help but remember and notice patterns and implications a lot faster than most folks. That’s both a boon and a bane.

    t also means my characters tend to analyze things and notice patterns on their own. What they notice and analyze (and the accuracy of their conclusions) differs—but that’s only one type of intelligence. I’m afraid to write things that are particularly low in it, because I don’t understand it. And folks who ignore patterns and analysis can’t exactly explain it, so I can’t go the route I have with relationships and, like, Google or ask friends questions. (My friends are kinda used to odd questions from me.)

    And that is my essay in answer to your questions. 😀

    1. Holly Avatar

      Well-thought-out answer. You’ve identified the biggest problem all fiction writers face — not knowing what you don’t know.

      It’s in these spots that we make egregious errors — and the fact that they’re errors of innocence (and ignorance) does not buy us any slack from the folks who do know.

      So the writer perpetually faces the unnerving question, “How do I discover what I don’t know that I think I know, and then learn it before I write it so I don’t get my ass handed to me by a cranky reader who doesn’t share my blind spots?” 😀

      1. Reziac Avatar

        Write nonhumans and just grin at the people who try to force them to fit in human boxes. 😀

      2. Drake Avatar

        Actually, I think it’s a good thing to have someone point out where I’ve got a blind spot. That’s one blind spot I can now investigate and shine a light on… maybe even with the help of the reader who pointed it out. At least I won’t make that particular mistake again, right?

        I had a conversation with a male friend a while ago about the way many women regard the world around them. He’d been ranting about girls being overly selective about men.

        I pointed out they might turn down a date if it’s not clear the whole thing will be in a public place; they might be far more likely to offer to come to an event if they can bring friends. These are safety concerns, not snobbishness. I might turn down an offer to buy me a drink because there might be opportunity for the offering stranger to doctor it. Or because surveys among American college students indicate that a significant percentage of men believe that a date owes them sex if they buy her (or him) a drink or a meal. It was a huge blind spot to him. He couldn’t imagine needing to consider those issues. Now? Now he knows that many people do.

        (Off topic, we women might want to gently share this information with our male friends; there are predators out there who target them, as well, and they don’t always have the same kinds of caution that’s been drilled into females around dating. I want all my friends to have good times and come home safe. Be careful out there, guys, and take reasonable precautions. Let someone know where you’re going, who you’re with, and when they should expect to hear from you. Shoot off a text to let them know you’re okay. Most of the people you date are probably fabulous, but on the off chance you find one who’s not…)

        I think that we as writers need to be courageous and to write different types of people (with reasonable research, and with the use of what you’ve called ‘spies’, Holly. There are some great blogs and podcasts I’ve been following as I think through an upcoming project.) We have that right. People with different experiences also have the right to bring it up if we’ve missed something important. (Mind you, people with no particular experience also have the right to complain about anything they like. It’s impossible to say anything of note and please everyone at once, in my experience.) That kind of dialogue, either between authors and readers or between different readers is one of the things that can be so neat about books, especially long-lived books.

        We’re still talking about the way Hamlet treated Ophelia, and how that behaviour was viewed in the play, what was implied about her roles, and how we think about similar behaviour today. (Crud. Now I want to write a Hamlet-inspired urban fantasy exploring some of the female characters more deeply. Does that make this a good or a bad example? Tooooo many story ideas!) Or about race issues in Huckleberry Finn.

        If we’re doing our best to treat our characters as people, rather than stereotypes, I think we move ahead, ready to make mistakes and learn from them.

        I mean, that’s not fun, and I hate being wrong, but, well, sometimes I am, and all I can do is better next time.

        A monochrome world with a single culture and uniform philosophy isn’t where I live, and it’s sure as heck not what I’m going to write. Every real human being does the things they do for reasons, whether those reasons are like mine or not. My characters are going to do the same, as far as I can manage it.

        Erasing people who are not like me is worse, in my opinion, than respectfully representing all kinds of people as people, even imperfectly.

        One of the stories on my to-write list has two primary characters – an African-American PhD in applied mathematics who has developed a world-changing theory, and his bodyguard, a white former army sergeant missing most of her right hand. The setting? Morocco. Am I doing research? You better believe it. That’s one of the reasons this one isn’t up next. (The other reason is the higher-dimensional geometry at the heart of the story. Talk about required research!)

        1. Holly Lisle Avatar

          Excellent reply. Thank you for your well-thought-out answer, and for hitting areas I don’t even consider anymore. Dating? I haven’t done that since the early eighties, and the world has changed a bit since then.

    2. Reziac Avatar

      Know why a lot of people who are legally Cherokee don’t look it?

      Because the Cherokee were a tribe that practiced adoption on a wide scale, rather than just ones and twos like most other tribes. Some white settlers, and numerous escaped slaves (both black and Irish, which latter were actually more numerous in America) went to the Cherokee for refuge. Back in the early 1800s there were whole bands of black Cherokee, no genetic relation to the tribe as a whole.

      Source: someone I knew many years ago who did Native American genealogy professionally. Oh, the tales she could tell…

      1. dragon Avatar

        That is interesting. Spousal unit had Cherokee and Seminole in the background. His brother and two of our kids look like they stepped off the boat from Ireland … There’s also a lot of Irish in both background. (Mind you, when the Hispanic friends of my middle kid asked her if she was adopted … ) Apparently a lot of escaped slaves also hid with the Seminole from what I have read here and there, thus they also have both mixed and areas where the tribe is more black than Native American looking. And here I am writing non-humans (Sidhe and things) and trying to figure out how to reflect more than the Celtic background because, technically, they should have been in contact with all the civilizations, not just the Celts … It makes life fun.

        1. Reziac Avatar

          [hyperactive Node of Perversity immediately thinks up reasons why the Sidhe could have had contact only with Celts, regardless of locale, such as only being compatible with folks who have the Irish mutation for red hair]

          Yeah, the Seminole were another favorite hideyhole, often in country where tracking anyone was next to impossible.

          And it goes the other way, too. My genealogist acquaintance told of giving a presentation to some group like “Daughters of the Pilgrims” (I forget exactly) … afterward one of the audience came up and proudly announced that she was descended from Famous Pilgrim Woman (whose name I also forget). And Mary says, “No, you’re not.” Audience Member proceeds to argue that yes she is, and here’s her pedigree to prove it. Mary says, “No, you’re not. Famous Pilgrim Woman was sterile; she adopted 13 Indian children.”

          Genetics… why you look like your father; or if you don’t, why you should! 😀

          I write nonhumans too… partly because they fell out that way, and partly in perverse reaction to today’s politics, they have neither races nor gender issues nor do they give a flip about cultural appropriation. All sorts of other stuff to fight about, but not those! 😛

  12. Dave Avatar

    A personal philosophy which has served me well in life is that human beings are all individuals, and that any one of us is capable of doing or being anything at any time. Race, gender, culture, and/or society may inhibit our choices if we allow it. The trick is to step outside external definitions in order to be who we understand ourselves to be.
    The same principle applies when creating fictional characters. The hero or villain, the follower, the duped, the apathetic–they can come from anywhere, look like anyone. What should define an individual, fictional or otherwise, is their CHARACTER, not their color or country or sexual desires.

    I think many of us who pursue fiction do so to step away from the people in our lives who have told us what we couldn’t do, who we couldn’t be. Don’t ever let someone else tell you what to write. If you do, you’re not an author. At best you’re a stenographer typing up someone else’s ideas.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I’m with you. Good fiction focuses on character, not quirks, and asks the question, “Who would we be and why would we matter if we were born to other lives and other passions?”

      1. Reziac Avatar

        Quirks should derive from character, not the other way around.

  13. Michael Polk Avatar
    Michael Polk

    I don’t have a whole lot of POC characters, because I really don’t fully understand the race struggle. Ever since I was a kid, race has never mattered to me, that’s how I was raised. It’s generally the last thing I think about.

    That being said, though, a lot of my characters show diversity in sexuality. I went to a liberal arts high school, where you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone on the LGBT spectrum. (Now that I’m in college it is the exact same thing.) Most of my friends were somewhere on the spectrum.

    I’ve always thought about it this way: If you’re black and straight, since I’m white and straight, then generally speaking, we want the same things out of life. But if you’re white and gay, that changes the dynamic of our lives, that one little thing. So I have a lot of gay characters, characters that are somewhere on the spectrum.

    I also have a lot of men characters, and for a female writer, I feel like when I publish, I’m going to have my more critical readers wondering why my stories are so man heavy. Men are easier to write than women – they’re less emotionally complicated in my observation. Women can be passive aggressive and I never quite know what they’re feeling or how to write it. With men, their feelings are often more clear. But my men are also not your typical television man, either. I have so many crying scenes.

    And the biggest thing is that every single one of my characters differs from me in one huge aspect. I’m autistic. (That’s why I really don’t get the race struggle – I can’t really see why it would matter to anyone.) All my characters thus far have been neurotypical. As easy as it might sound to write an autistic character for me, it’s legit not. I feel like I’m writing myself. And since I write to explore the world, that’s the last thing I want to do. I already know what I’m like – I want to know what everyone else is like.

    1. Holly Avatar

      What I think is the cool thing about gender is that everyone is “somewhere on the spectrum,” and that it IS a spectrum, not a binary light switch.

      And I’m not autistic, but I can’t see why the color of someone’s skin should matter to anyone either. It’s an utterly stupid bias.

      Culture, religion, philosophy — those create real and unbridgeable differences between between people.

      Skin color is like cats with stripes and cats with spots. They’re all cats, and only idiots wage war over whether their cat has spots or stripes.

  14. Kayelle Allen Avatar

    One of my heroes is a black man who is gay. I wrote him as one of the most powerful men in the empire in which he lives. In his world, being gay is no more noteworthy than having brown eyes vs blue. I have a race called the Chiasmii who are gender fluid. There are genetically enhanced beings called Betters. The only people who have to hide their differences are the immortals. Mortals would harvest them for blood and organs. Filling a universe with diverse creatures and characters is one of the wonderful parts of being a writer. When someone says I have stepped outside the box, I just ask, “What box?”

    1. Holly Avatar

      “When someone says I have stepped outside the box, I just ask, ‘What box?’”

      Thank you, thank you. That’s my approach, too.

  15. Hugh Avatar

    I’m a white guy, but I’ve written MCs who are women, and MCs who are brown-skinned (and some who have iridescent scales), and some who are several of the above.

    I may not have brown skin, but I do have eyes and ears. I live in a time and place were people of many backgrounds come together to live and work. I am proud of the diverse mix of people in my home town, and in the office where I do my day job.

    Do I know what it’s like to be an African-American and face all the BS slung their way because of that? Of course not, but I can have an inkling, and I can imagine.

    I can’t even say I know what it’s like to be the white-bread neighbor who lives across the street. He’s twenty years older than I, grew up in a different state, and has had a lifetime of experiences different than my own.

    If I’m only going to write what I know deeply and completely, then I’m restricted to autobiography. And at least a few psychologists will point out that many people don’t have great insight into themselves, so maybe I shouldn’t even do that.

    The great joy of writing and reading fiction is that, for a limited period, you get to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. Fiction is always an imperfect reflection of reality. That’s why it’s called fiction.

    1. Holly Avatar

      “If I’m only going to write what I know deeply and completely, then I’m restricted to autobiography. And at least a few psychologists will point out that many people don’t have great insight into themselves, so maybe I shouldn’t even do that.”

      I offer Diogenes in reply:

      As a matter of self-preservation, a man needs good friends or ardent enemies, for the former instruct him and the latter take him to task.

      Write what you will, appreciate your friends, and make good use of your enemies.

  16. Nina Avatar

    my book, Lord Love a Zombie: Dead Inside: Welcome contains, of course, zombies – three different types of them to be exact. However, the Menisons are a family of “regular” zombies whom have sworn off eating humans and assist them in making their way to human survivors camps whenever they can.

    i love humanizing monsters. in fact, in all my book series i have done this (with ghouls, werewolves, demons, etc). my genre of choice to write is soft horror because i don’t like to delve too deep into the gory inhuman side of horror.

    i’m sure there may be some out there who won’t like seeing monsters in this light as what these monsters are supposed to be and act like has been ingrained in society but i just tell critics, “what you are taking for gospel is just an idea somebody thought up and put on paper/film.”

    1. Holly Avatar

      I spent the years between ages eleven and fifty-one feeling like a monster and using fiction to find the nobility within the monstrous — to give myself a way to live inside my own skin and find my own value.

      I both understand and appreciate your approach. And if everyone doesn’t… well, everyone doesn’t need to.

  17. Misty Avatar

    The thing is, you’d get criticized if she were white. 🙂 If you are a white writer (or even perceived white), you are going to get criticized about the race of your characters no matter what you do, so you might as well just be as “real” as you possibly can, try not to do anything cringey, and just write the books you want to write.

    With the current internet culture, you can’t even have a public opinion about a black character without inviting the social media police to attack you (even if your opinion has been repeatedly publicly shared by black viewers…) Things have gotten way out of hand, and the only solution really is to just stay off Twitter (because they will legit ruin your life) and do whatever you feel is right.

    Another problem: People really like to borrow vocabulary from the academic world to prove how smart and righteous they are. But they never actually study the material enough to get more than a surface understanding before going on the internet to bully people with it. There are worlds of difference between cultural appropriation (which is incredibly harmful and you shouldn’t do) and cultural diffusion (which you cannot prevent without strict segregation, so you might as well give up on that one). What you’re describing is cultural diffusion.

    1. Holly Avatar

      “What you’re describing is cultural diffusion.”

      I know. But what I’ve been accused of is cultural appropriation.

  18. Amy Avatar

    Excellent post. And while I know there are those out there who would rather nobody “white” would ever write a POC, that’s obviously not realistic. Especially when that same group is crying out for more diversity in fiction.
    Personally, I think there’s a huge difference between cultural appropriation and a fair representation of people from other cultures. The first makes those people props and is wrong. The second requires good writing and good research on the part of the author and is what we should all strive for.
    I do know one author who gave up writing a story she was working on because she realized she could not fairly and accurately represent the people she was writing about, and she made the choice to not profit from the creation of characters that would make others feel marginalized. However, that same author has written other stories with POC characters that were wonderful. On the other hand, I have also heard about an author who based a story on a Hindu goddess who simply took the name of the goddess and invented everything about her, making her bloodthirsty and evil. Not at all the way she is portrayed in Hinduism. I don’t blame people for being offended by that.
    In other words, each story deserves to be evaluated on its own merit. I’ve loved your Cady stories and will read all that you write. But not every author writes with the care and intelligence that you do.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I like writing diversity. I like getting it right, and have a pretty nice background for doing that.

      I like the fact that the world is made up of bright colors and different shapes and opinions, desires, passions, needs…

      How the hell boring would life be if we were all alike?

  19. Nashira Lyons Avatar
    Nashira Lyons

    Holly, the “you” wasn’t Holly, but writers in general. I haven’t read your Cady books. I have no idea if she is fully-fleshed or not and I wasn’t making a judgement about what you’ve written. I’m merely adding a perspective from those of us who are usually defined by the majority.

    Prior to Web 2.0, we had little say in how we were portrayed by others. So of course you (imagine strikethrough and replace that with writers) can write however they want about whoever they want. However, I have a right to say in response, I am more than the Black Best Friend. I am more than the neck wagging Supermarket Lady. I am wealthy and impoverished. I like Rock and Reggae. I am deeply religious and agnostic. I can be as naive as Sansa Stark or dangerous as Hannibal Lecter.

    Latins are not all hot tempered. Asians aren’t all good at math. I don’t think I’m reaching if I assume you (Holly) are just as tired of seeing/reading stories where the girlfriend/wife’s role is only to be taken by the bad guy so the good guy can rescue her. All those things that may irk you about how women are written also apply to black, brown, yellow, queer, differently abled, forever and ever amen.

    You (Holly) absolutely have a point about those who are willing to blow themselves up. Or those who want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. And perhaps I am naive, but I think those of us who write – the audience I was addressing – are creators, not destroyers. (Okay, that’s not entirely true. Just look to websites promoting either extreme.) So let me be more narrow: your audience of learners. The people who want to write well. Those of us who want to create worlds and characters – before we ignore those who ask us to listen, before we dismiss people as being too sensitive – listen and see if there is something to learn. I’m not asking anyone to change how they write – I vote with my pocketbook. But as you have said, you provide your workshops because you want to read better books. I’m just advocating for the same goal.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I agree with you on all points above.

      I write most of my lead characters with dark hair and dark eyes and no other ethnic description so that the majority of my readers of any race can see themselves as the hero while reading.

      Doesn’t work in every case — I had a blonde, blue-eyed cop who went under cover as a stripper — and she needed to be THAT particular description.

      But this has been an issue for me since I was a kid, when because I lived in a lot of different places, my boyfriends were local guys — white (mainland US), Eskimo (Alaska), Asian, Latin, and Caribbean black (from Costa Rica and Guatemala).

      People’s characters have always mattered to me. Race, gender, orientation — not so much.

  20. Deb Salisbury Avatar

    One of my two POV characters is black. She’s not remotely American, since my fantasy isn’t set on Earth. I’m not sure that counts as crossing a boundary.
    My other POV character is male. Maybe more of a stretch.

    I wasn’t at all afraid of crossing boundaries until recently. But I still write the stories I want to read, and try not to worry about blow back.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Yeah. There’s gonna be blow-back.

      For me, one-hundred percent of it has been from offended white liberal women (so far).

      That might change, but I do sense a trend.

      1. Reziac Avatar

        There exist young males who will spout the same rhetoric, but it’s been cynically (and probably accurately) observed they’re mostly virtue-signalling in hopes of getting laid by the offended white liberal women.

  21. Nashira Lyons Avatar
    Nashira Lyons

    As a black woman, unless I’m only going to write stories entirely populated by black women, I have to step into the experiences of people I have never been. However, when I see the phrase “politically correct,” I feel someone baiting me. The phrase has become, “Don’t tell me what to do!” Fine. I won’t.

    However, if we step back from defensiveness and change “Politically Correct” to “Golden Rule,” perhaps we would all be a little more free to learn from each other. I don’t know what it is like have a disability. But I understand why someone with a hearing impairment would rather not be defined by being called deaf. But I only learned that because as a writer, I listen to people. I watch how their shoulders quiver with laughter. I eavesdrop when they think no one else is listening. I see the sparkle fall from their eyes when they are defined by perception.

    If instead, I chose to devote my energy to stomping around and refusing to be politically correct, I could miss learning about the richness of people unlike me.

    I haven’t read a John Grisham novel in decades; I stopped because his female characters were fantasy props. Did I wish he would stop writing female characters? Nope. I just wished he would incorporate characteristics of the real women from his life into his novels.

    In the end, I think that’s all us brown or disabled or queer or all kinds of other want. To be real. Not sassy. Not broken. Not particularly talented with a scarf. To be the wide range of tics and talents white people are allowed to be and take for granted.

    So go ahead. Include that Latina in your story. Or better yet, a woman over 40; because I’m dying to read some books about kickass women over 40 written by any gender. But as a writer, I ask you to ask yourself, “Is this character real?” or is the fantasy merely a mash-up of the tiny prisms of Other we are imprisoned into via pop culture?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Not sure if your response is aimed at the readers of the post, or at me directly. I’ll answer as if you’re speaking to me directly.

      Politically correct is the term that was chosen by the folks who want people to live inside the boxes they build, where these arbiters of what is fair (not just) get to define not only what people do but what they say and what they think. I use the term BECAUSE it’s a bullshit term that encompasses a hideous broad spectrum of attempts to imprison me inside the cage of the Tyranny of the Most Sensitive, in which people attempt to rule others by being offended and claiming that their feelings are more important than individual rights.

      Political Correctness is an offensive movement, an offensive philosophy, and if it doesn’t offend you, you haven’t been paying attention. So the fact that you find the term offensive is good.

      Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) seems fine… until you run into the folks who are willing to blow themselves up to kill others, the folks who are willing to live in poverty if they can force everyone else to live in poverty with them, the folks who are willing to give up their own rights as long as they can demand that no one else has any rights either.

      What works is: Your rights include your thought and your speech and extend to the end of your fingertips and the edges of your skin. As long as you don’t hurt anyone else or initiate actions of force against anyone else (defensive force is always appropriate), you can do anything you want and be anyone you want. The moment you initiate non-informed, non-consensual action against someone else (and FWIW, prepubescent children are incapable of giving informed consent) you relinquish all your rights except the one to a fair trial with legal representation.

      And beyond that? I wrote Cady as a real person. You can judge this for yourself, or assume that I didn’t. Your call. The books so far are Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood and Warpaint.

  22. Connie Cockrell Avatar

    Well said. I may bookmark this page for the inevitable flack I’m going to get because in my most recent book, Troubled Streets, my main protagonist and the person the series is about, is mixed race black.

    No one tells me I shouldn’t write male characters, so why should I not also write black, hispanic, asian characters?

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Misty Avatar

      I’m actually really surprised you’ve managed to operate in the publishing world without being told you shouldn’t write men!

      A list of characters I’ve been told I “shouldn’t” write because of who I am:
      – Men
      – White people
      – POC
      – Transgender people
      – Asexual people
      – Straight people
      – Gay men

      The list goes on. I’m not sure what magical character I could write that would manage to escape the criticism of all groups, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the talent to find them, and even if I did, the book would be unforgivably boring. I gave up a long time ago on listening to any criticism that comes from someone who hasn’t actually read my work. 🙂

      If a person criticizes the racial composition of a book without reading said book, I put them in the same category as the people who choose not to read an author’s work because they once found a book with too-small margins. In short: ridiculous and not worthy of my time or energy.

      1. Misti Avatar

        You’ve been told you shouldn’t write ACE people? O.o

        Speaking as an asexual, that surprises me…although it really shouldn’t. Any label is gonna have its policers who are more interested in being “right” than in being actually right or even logically valid.

        But I like your attitude about it. 🙂

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