Writing Characters as Human Beings Part II, or The Mistake of Self-Segregation

I have a number of blog sites I like to check frequently, one of which belongs to author and social commentator Foz Meadows. Her recent post “The Andrew Smith Thing” caught my attention, even though I hadn’t heard of Andrew Smith until I read that post. Apparently he is a successful and acclaimed author of YA fiction who’s interested in shedding light on male protagonists’ struggles with a number of confusing forces, including their sexuality. Nothing wrong with that at all, but his reasons for avoiding female protagonists and relegating female characters to the background strike right at the heart of my previous blog post, my response to Kate Elliott’s splendid “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings.”

(My fondness for Elliott’s essay tickles me a little, since so many of the characters I enjoy reading about, and writing about, are non-human.)

Smith can’t give female characters important roles in his fiction because, apparently, he has no interest in women — not so much in sexual terms as in any terms at all. He wasn’t close to any girls and women while he was growing up. (His mom must have been absent from his life or all but invisible in his household.) He never bothered to forge any friendships with girls or women. He has a daughter, he tells us, but about where this child’s mother is, or what role she does or doesn’t play in their lives, it’s probably best not to speculate. Even with his daughter now in her late teens, girls/women and their stories still don’t interest him, though he notes he’s “trying to do better.”

And this is sad. Whether you’re male or female, straight or gay, writing off half the human race as not worth learning about, let alone writing about, is nothing short of tragic. One of the biggest traps any writer (or any person at all) can fall into is self-segregation — when a man decides to befriend and associate only with other men, or a woman with other women, or a white person with other whites, or a black person with other blacks, and so forth. I remember a moment from back in my college days that helped move me to abandon the church I grew up in: one of the leaders of the denomination’s student group told me that my soul would suffer if I chose to hang out with non-Christians. She saw self-segregation as a religious imperative. All self-segregators make that choice in order to shield themselves from an “Other” they perceive as dangerous, or else too mysterious to be comprehended. “Get rid of the word of ‘them,'” Elliott advises us — and one root of the whole concept of “them” is self-segregation.

The slogan “It’s a (blank) thing; you wouldn’t understand” is meant to be funny. I find it frightening.

The best thing writers can do, the most beneficial to our work and to our souls, is open our hearts to all kinds of friendships with all kinds of people. I don’t mean making “token” friendships so we can feel good about not being sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. I mean taking an interest in people outside our own little group, talking to them, finding out what they love, learning who they are as individual people rather than as members of that perceived Other. The more interested we are in the people around us, the more interesting we and our work are likely to be.

I don’t say this because it’s easy for me. I’m an introvert by nature, inclined to drift into my own little world even when I’m surrounded by people. I’m all too aware of the temptation to self-segregate, though I do it based more on “nerditude” than on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. I will gravitate toward lovers of sci-fi and fantasy, the sort of people who go to events like DragonCon, before I’ll hang out with people whose driving interest is in sports or fashion. Yet might people whose interests and hobbies diverge from my own have something vital to teach me? One of the things I enjoy most about my “day job” as a Composition teacher is that my students are very diverse in terms of interests and skills, and I learn from the essays they write, even the ones full of grammar errors.

We should also avoid too much self-segregation in our reading, or in the stories we take in. One anecdote I heard on an evening news program a couple of decades ago burned itself into my brain. Two young African-American men, after seeing Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, started a conversation about the movie. One said to the other, “Why did we watch this? This isn’t our story.” His friend replied, “Pain is pain, isn’t it?” The first young man couldn’t see what relevance the story of thousands of Jews being saved from the gas chamber could have for him, since he wasn’t white, European, or Jewish. But the second young man, with an obviously more fertile imagination, could see across the divide of race and ethnicity and identify with the suffering undergone by the characters in that film. This young man understood. Books help build this understanding even better than movies, I think, since every time we open a book we have the unique opportunity to share the mind and soul of someone else. We can use that opportunity to get to know people we might never have the privilege of meeting in real life, people removed from us not only by “group identity” but by time and space. Speculative fiction, in particular, invites us into the minds of dragons, werewolves, elves, goblins, and all manner of aliens. We often find them surprisingly and delightfully “human.”

I can only improve as a person and a writer by paying more attention to those around me, regardless of whether they look and/or talk like me. When we self-segregate, we do a massive disservice to ourselves and our readers. Don’t we all deserve better?



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