A Blind Date with a Character (when we all look the same)

I’ve always been in love with the concept of a blind date with a book. The book is almost always wrapped up in plain brown paper with a description written in sharpie on the cover. You read these little hints, and you never know what book you are choosing until you’ve selected your perfect little match and finally get to unwrap it. You almost always discover a little gem you would have browsed right past on your own.

This is a beautiful concept that I would love to see more of in the world, but recently it got me thinking. What if we did ‘blind date with a character?’ What would it look like if we chose our favorite characters from our favorite books and wrote a little blurb about them on the brown paper cover?

My fear is that everything would look the same. Our men would probably be white, straight, young, able-bodied, good looking, physically strong. Our women would probably be white, straight, able-bodied, good looking, preoccupied with love. I read voraciously, and while I notice slight differences in the personalities, the stereotypes are still present. There are variations and outliers. But the main plots center around characters like this.

Truthfully, it breaks my heart. We all deserve to see ourselves in the books we read, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. These imaginary worlds we escape to have infinite power to make us better people, to show us sides of life that we might not see, to show us that we are capable of far more than we thought we could be. They remind us that the world is much larger than the little piece of it we claim, and that we belong to something much bigger than we could imagine. They remind us of our shared humanity and grant us the gift of compassion. So what happens when we are only told one story? When we only see the humanity found in people who look or live like we do?

Name one book who’s main character is overweight where the sole focus isn’t her dropping pounds to look like ‘those other girls.’ Name one book about a person with MS. Name one book about an Asian girl who wants to go to broadway, or a black girl who wants to be a NASA scientist. Name one book with a boy who is desperate to teach a younger generation about the art of meditation and humble living. Name one book with an old man who is raising his granddaughter on his own. Name one book about a Muslim man or woman advocating for equal rights, or a gender fluid individual trying to make their place in the world. Name one book that focuses on mental health, or chronic pain. Name one book where the nerdy boy or girl with glasses that fog up in the rain saves the day. Name one book that is different.

The only books that I can point to as examples of these are all nonfiction. The irony is not lost on me that every single example I can give comes from real life, but not from our fictional literature. And I find this troubling. The world is so much more than the stereotypes and story tropes we have created. So why don’t our books reflect this rich culture?

Most studies have centered on diversity within children’s literature, so I’m going to focus my statistics in this area, though I think there is a strong correlation that can be found in young adult and adult books as well. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, diversity in children’s literature was pretty stark. Based off of ethnicity alone, representation was as follows in 2015:

  • American Indian/First Nations: 0.9%
  • Latinx: 2.4%
  • Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans: 3.3%
  • African/African American: 7.6%
  • Animals/trucks/etc: 12.5%
  • White: 73.3%

To be clear, these are specific to children’s literature and do not discuss other subsections of minority literature, such as sexual orientation or ableism. But it’s a good starting point when analyzing our own work. We spend far too much time telling a single story when the world is full of so much more.

As a writer, I am also guilty of this crime. I don’t show enough representation in my character groups. While I try to have some diversity, I am painfully aware that most of the diversity is found in my supporting cast. My main character is all too often a girl who looks a lot like me. This isn’t inherently wrong, because everyone deserves representation, but women like me oversaturate the market. I can see my physical likeness in a book whenever I want. I’ll probably have to follow along with a love story in the process, but I am present in the pages. How lonely it must feel when you never get to see yourself? Why can’t I ever find a girl who struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks when she enters a room? Why can’t I find a book about someone who has been physically injured and doesn’t know if they will ever feel normal again? Why can’t I find a representation of my less common traits? It isn’t fair to us as writers or readers when we don’t get to fitness the full picture of the world we inhabit.

When you don’t see yourself in the pages of a story you can’t help but wonder why. What is wrong with you that made your traits undesirable to a writer? What flaws do you possess that make you less important than the people who get to see themselves. I struggled with anxiety and depression- these aren’t struggles that the heroines in my stories face. The absence of them adds to the sense that there is something wrong, something ‘other’ about me. When we continually write about single characters, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We represent so much more than one story.

Now, the contributing factors to this issue are complex and interconnected. Perhaps it is the fact that there is not enough ‘minority’ representation in the literary world (though I see issues with this mindset). Perhaps it is the makeup of the publishing industry itself choosing books that look like them. After all, studies have been done in this area too.

Credit: blog.leeandlow.com

And then we come to the issue of recognition in terms of prizes and awards given within the industry itself, as well as time and money spent on advertising the books that we create. Large literary awards lean heavily towards male authors and male characters. When you review the gender-split of winners for the major literary prizes over the past 50 years, you will see that female representation makes up only about 10-35% of the winners in each contest group. In fact, the ‘most equal’ award presented was the Man Booker Prize, which sat at 35% representation of female winners, the Pulitzer cane in a close second with 34%.

This correlation is also present in the gender of the characters written about in the winning books. In the instances where women do win, they are usually writing from a male perspective. When looking at the Man Booker Prize (our most ‘equal’) you will see that out of the past 15 years, 80% of the winning books were about male characters, 13% were about women, and the remainder was split with two main characters of opposite genders. If you review the results from the Pulitzer, out of the last 15 years, not a single book written by a woman about a woman made the list. Not one.

It appears that the issues regarding representation go much deeper than simply reflecting on what people are writing about; the publishing and publicizing industries still hold a lot of biases that we see in our culture on a daily basis. These don’t disappear overnight. And while self-publishing can help with the availability of more diverse books in the market, it is difficult when your readers cannot easily access or find your special work. The problem needs to be solved from the ground up; more readers demanding representation and more writers willing it provide it, in spite of the challenges that may be faced during the publishing process.

We are writers. It is our responsibility to tell the stories that the world needs to hear. We’ve always told stories, we’ve always had the ability to bring people together or tear them apart. There is great power with this concept, with this ability, with this passion. We must be self-critical and aware of our place and our role.

Representation matters. It mattered when Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Shuri, and Daredevil showed the disproportionately represented that they could be heroes. It mattered. It mattered to me when I saw a woman who looked like me play a role that traditionally went to men. It mattered to my friends when they saw someone who looked or thought or acted like they did in a role that was usually meant for someone very different. Representation matters. It always has, it always will. And as writers, we are in the perfect position to bring these stories to life, to inspire the love and passion that burns in the hearts of those who see our creations within themselves.

Non-Traditional Camp Nano (ready or not)

I finally did it! I have officially registered for Camp Nano! (Cue the fireworks, alert the parade, start the countdown for the trapeze artists, and someone please feed the dancing bears before they go on stage). Okay, so technically I meant to sign up at the beginning of the month, but it felt impossible simply because I could not decide on a project to dedicate the entire month of April to.

When it comes to Nano, I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist. I love a 50,000 word count goal, even during Camp. I adore starting a fresh project to push me through the month. There is nothing more thrilling than waiting for midnight (or the next day after work) to start filling in that blank page with the feverish creations of my own off-kilter mind. It’s an intoxicating moment; the total elation you get when you start a new project and the words flow smoothly, unencumbered by plot bunnies, storyline inconsistencies and wayward character. The page is like a blanket of freshly fallen snow, just waiting for you to come running out in the morning and start building your own little winter wonderland. I’ve always loved the thrill of a brand new Nano project.

And yet there is one big problem with continually brining in something fresh and new to the Nano table; if you do not diligently follow through on your editing during the post-Nano snooze, you wind up with a half dozen partially complete projects that are nowhere near being ready for public consumption. And this, my dear friends, is the dilemma that I have been facing. I need to spend a lot more time on my editing; it’s no secret, I will sing it from the mountain tops, I am well aware of the traps I set for myself in my literary haven. 

The problem really boils down to the fact that editing can be difficult and tedious work. It’s not nearly as thrilling as the first draft where anything goes and you can be a bit loose with your story line, reveling in the comfortable knowledge that you can fix it later. But if you keep on saying ‘later,’ eventually you realize that it will never really happen. Can I truly continue to hold on to the title of writer if I am unintentionally so resistant to the editing that I’ve had sitting on my to-do list for ages?

So this Nano, I have decided to be bold and try something a bit different, something that scares me more than I care to admit. You see, Camp Nano has added some pretty awesome new features to their website this year. When you go to register your story, you are presented with a few options that were not present a year ago. Instead of just the traditional word count, there are now three other tracking methods that will assist with different types of projects. Moving forward you can now track your progress by counting pages, lines, or hours. That’s right- they are making life about a hundred times easier for those pursuing projects that don’t fit the cookie-cutter word-count model. So in honor of this new change, I have decide to embrace it by throwing myself into my very first non-traditional Nano. 

I am going to spend my Camp on an editing project for an old story that I truly believe has a future. It’s a dystopian style novel that I wrote a couple of years ago, the first in a series. It has a decent storyline, but really needs to be pulled together. The prose needs to be tighter, the characters etched with a touch more definition, the plot carved into the soil a bit deeper. My first drafts always tend to come out a bit too fluffy- like I threw the pages into the dryer with an entire box of fabric softener. I have to chip away at the nice edges and force a bit of grit, inflict a dash of pain, boil the pretty words down until the rougher edges of the underlying humanity start to take shape. 

There will be a lot of re-writing involved, but it didn’t feel right to limit myself to a word count this year; I want to focus on the quality of the work for this round, not just the quantity. And if I work hard enough, perhaps I will be able to reward myself with the beginnings of a brand new novel during the summer Nano.

My next adventure will be all about finding a cabin for camp, a daunting task when you are working on something a bit non-traditional. However, I believe that particular quest is one I shall embark upon tomorrow. Stay tuned, my friends, I am quite sure I will be continually updated you on these little hopes, dreams, misadventures and potential bouts of begging for help.

If anyone is interested in joining (or if you have zero idea what Nano is and think I have finally lost every single marble I once possessed), take a peek at Camp NaNoWriMo. If you want to challenge yourself and your writerly ways, it is a fantastic motivator to get your booty in the chair every single day.  NaNoWriMo (which stands for National Novel Writing Month) holds two virtual camp sessions every year; you get to pick your own project, set your own goal for the month, and if you wish you can opt to join a ‘cabin’ or have one randomly selected for you. A cabin is basically just a message board with a specific group of other writers who are also participating. You track your progress and help one another on your journey. It’s addictive, and I have met some fantastic people over the years. The community is large and extremely supportive. I also find that a lot of them are just a tad odd- so I tend to feel more at home with them than with a lot of the ‘real’ world. If you are interested in joining, let me know- perhaps we might even be able to set up a private cabin. When it comes to Nano, the possibilities are endless.