Throughout my blog posts about writing minority characters, one piece of advice should jump out at you.
Get a sensitivity reader.
If you’ve written a book (or other story-telling creative work) focusing on a demographic that you are not a member of, you probably need a sensitivity reader, with very rare exception. The consequences of not being the exception can cause genuine harm to real people in worst cases, so I would recommend you not take the chance.
If you’re straight and you’re writing a gay main character, hire a gay sensitivity reader. If you have a Chinese character and you are not a Chinese, hire a Chinese sensitivity reader. If you’re neurotypical and wrote an autistic character, hire an autistic sensitivity reader. If you wrote a Muslim character and you’re not Muslim- you get the idea. SENSITIVITY READERS. You can find them online with a simple google search, or ask your preferred social media platform’s people or writers group for sensitivity reader resources and references.
Now, I understand that money is tight for a lot of people and hiring someone may be difficult. In my experience, there are many sensitivity readers out there who are willing to work with people with tight budgets, though I always advocate for paying people what they’re worth. If you think you can’t afford a sensitivity reader, at least ask. The worst that happens is you say, “Sorry for wasting your time, I’m unable to afford that rate right now. But thanks for getting back to me, I appreciate it!”
Another note that’ll help you save some money on this front is don’t send them the entire book if you don’t need to. For example, I have a side character who is a trans man with multiple very significant scenes, but is not a main character. So, I put together all the scenes including that character and asked a sensitivity reader who is a trans man to review just those scenes, with some notes for any context that was missing. Most sensitivity readers will charge by the word, some by time spent reading, so this will help you out financially while not wasting the reader’s time with irrelevant sections of your book.
If you happen to have a friend of an identity that aligns with the character/s you need a sensitivity reading for and they’re willing to help you out as a beta reader or without charge, that’s also great! But I would still recommend hiring someone if you’re able to (and always avoid badgering people to do you a favor because they happen to be the right minority: it’s a bad look). Sensitivity readers have specialized knowledge about representation in media that the average person might not be able to provide, and that expertise is what you need.
If you are absolutely flat broke and hiring a sensitivity reader is completely impossible for you, the next best thing I would recommend is trying to find a beta reader of the demographic you need sensitivity reading done for (though again, don’t badger people to do stuff for you because they’re a minority). Beta readers are awesome people who love books and volunteer to read your manuscript before it’s published to give their opinions. There’s a chance they won’t have that specialized knowledge of a professional sensitivity reader, but it’s definitely better than nothing. You can also offer to do an exchange with another writer – they beta read for you, you beta read for them! Check out online writing groups and shout into the void of the internet to see if anyone is interested in your story. Sometimes, the void shouts back.
Once you get the feedback from a sensitivity reader, the most important thing to do is don’t disregard what they say if they say something you don’t like. For example, I thought that a reference I made for one character I had a reading done for was a clever cultural connection, and I was very proud of it, but was told that having people outside of that group (such as myself as the author) reference that specific thing was considered very wrong to the point of being taboo, which I did not know before writing it. So, I cut it. No arguments, no saying it’s okay because the character is part of that group or I’ve seen it before in other media. I am the one who wrote that character and I am not part of that group. It’s out, done and done.
You’re not hiring a sensitivity reader to give you a pass to write something offensive or to give you a little approval check next to your name. You’re hiring them to make your work better. Listen to what they have to say, or your writing will suffer for it.
Now, I know there’s a lot of [assholes] people out there who think everyone takes offense too easily and so what if a character is a little offensive? People need to toughen up, right?! When I had a writing partner, she (a non-Native American) wanted to have a Native American character with a drinking problem. I said we needed to cut that because it was stereotypical, offensive, and completely irrelevant to the story. Her response was that she could write whatever she wanted and it wasn’t a big deal, that people needed to get over all that politically correct stuff and stop taking things so seriously. Thankfully, I’ve severed ties with that bad writer, so I have no need to try to reason with or compromise with someone who insists on causing harm.
Not writing offensive characters isn’t about preserving feelings. It’s about not causing harm. Stereotypes and offensive tropes influence the way outsiders view a demographic, influencing how they interact with them, and can lead to real harm in many ways. Worst case scenarios see negative stereotypes that can lead to murders of actual people because someone believed something wrong that was reinforced by the media they consumed. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but historically, it’s not. Plus, you know what? Hurt feelings count as harm and you shouldn’t be writing characters into existence while ignoring that you’re hurting the real-life people those characters are based off. If you write a queer character that makes actual queer people feel like dirt, then you would be better off writing nothing at all.
If you mess up, course correct and do better in the future. Don’t double down like some kind of middle-school bully incapable of self-reflection because your brain hasn’t finished developing.
Sensitivity readers do important and vital emotional work to elevate story-telling. They make work better, can add nuance, and help you confront implicit biases that may have snuck into your writing without any malicious intent. There are very few works of media that exist that couldn’t be improved in some way by review of a sensitivity reader. Ignoring their skill will at best leave your work wanting and at worst harm people. So please. Just hire a sensitivity reader. For all our sakes.
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