There are a lot of ways to look at storytelling, but one of the crucial ways to look at it, in my view, is by who it includes. I think this is true of any genre, but since I write speculative fiction, that’s how I’m going to consider it here.
Some very talented writers have addressed this already. If you haven’t read what they have had to say, I’d highly recommend you read:
Daniel José Older: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other”
N.K. Jemisin on Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF and more recently Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking
These are just a few of the people writing on these issues.
I’d like to highlight what Daniel has to say about ignoring diversity in your writing. He quotes Kwame Dawes: “Racist writing is a craft failure.” That’s what it is, aside from the moral and ethical considerations. If you are ignoring people who are marginalized in your writing, either deliberately or because you don’t want to look at your own default settings, then you’re not looking deeply at the world. And a writer who doesn’t do that isn’t going to come up with work of much depth.
So why does inclusion matter in speculative fiction?
Consider what Malinda Lo says here: “If you’ve never seen yourself or people like you in a story before, you have to imagine them out of nothing. This might sound like the very definition of imagination, but imagination is bounded by culture and belief systems and iterations upon iterations of stories already told. It requires a giant symbolic leap to imagine a story that breaks the mold of what’s already out there.”
I think it’s especially important because in sci-fi, fantasy, horror and other genres that expand or extrapolate or exaggerate the known now, the author is explicitly creating the world they are writing about. They can thereby exclude others from existing through ignorance, discomfort, or prejudice.
(GIFs above from Feminist Disney.)
I am not saying it’s up to the privileged to write stories for those who are marginalized. There are plenty of awesome writers out there already doing just that. But if you are privileged and don’t usually have to battle with systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, prejudice against neuroatypicality, or other human-created barriers, maybe you can at least not reinforce them in your fictional world.
You can do a lot more, of course. You can challenge those barriers in what you choose to write about. You can subvert them.
- In your fantasy world, do all the evil races have dark skin, behave savagely or cruelly, ally themselves with a “dark lord”? Hm. What might that be reinforcing?
- In your future world, are all disabilities “solved” by genetic manipulation, cybernetics, or some other “fix”? Maybe consider what that says to a reader alive today about those conditions.
- In your alternate history, do the same people/classes/civilizations come out on top as in the world we live in? What social order might that implicitly espouse?
Doing that can be a way of showing that other people’s stories matter to you, that we are sharing a society. It doesn’t mean you have the right to declare your version or interpretation of said experiences or identities or circumstances is the correct one. But you can show that your fictional world is wider than your lived experience.
One argument against doing this is, “what if I do it wrong?” Well — yeah, you might screw it up. You might reinforce tropes you don’t realize people have been trying to demolish for years. You might also, despite researching and listening and getting feedback, still not “get it” and produce something that is tone-deaf, or boring, or harmful.
I still think it’s worth attempting.
Because if you ignore marginalized people or their experiences in whatever fictional world you are writing about, for fear of “getting it wrong,” you haven’t just written one more story that doesn’t include them — you may have created yet another world that doesn’t.
The stories we tell are more than just entertainment, even if you are “just” writing to entertain.
As Bailey / @the_author tweeted:
Media reflects and reinforces what we think of ourselves and others. Everyone deserves to see themselves in that reflection.
— Bailey (@the_author_) January 12, 2015
Confronting privilege in what you write is different for different authors. Those who have been aware of it and the intersectionality of power structures in society for a long time can often do it better. I count myself as a latecomer to being aware of these things, and I hope the sense of being embarrassed of things even my recent stories seem to be saying means some kind of progress.
First, I acknowledge my privilege: as a white cis straight middle-class dude living in Canada, a lot of doors are not actively shut in my face.
Second, I admit that even when I’m actively trying not to replicate assumptions that go along with being ignorant of my own privilege, I’m still screwing that up, in life, and in my fiction.
Third, I’d like to do a lot better.
I think erasure is worse than getting things wrong. Errors can be corrected, edited, revised, done better next time when you learn you’ve screwed up. But erasure denies someone — in fact a lot of someones — from inclusion in humanity.
I’m far from the first person to say things like this. But it bears repeating.