They say when you sit down to write that you should write what you know, but is that really good advice? I’ve come across a few instances where it just might be the worst advice you could follow.
This past year there has been a big blow up in the speculative fiction community about gender stereotypes in writing. More recently there was an analysis of the seven season of the new Doctor Who series using the Bechdel test to determine if the show was sexist or not. Now I have issue with that test, not because of what it is trying to test, but the way it does it. That’s a topic for an entirely different time. Right now what concerns me is the way writers deal with sensitive issues such as race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
Race I think I have handled. I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, but not exclusively. I consider myself blind to race, as in I do not treat anyone different because of how they look. I never have. I wasn’t raised that way. I am very race conscious. I know racism exists and I deplore it in all its forms. No one should have to experience that. I have filled my writing with a variety of races and if they were every to turned into movies (I know it’s a pipe dream, but no writer can help it) and cast according to how I see the characters, there wouldn’t be many roles for white people.
But it has come to my attention, through some of the things that have been happening, that my treatment of gender may be a little too close to how I was raised. There have been few working women in my family and there are few in my stories. An oversight I intend to correct. As I have pondered just how this came about, I have reached the conclusion it is because I have followed the advice and written what I know. No bad intention on my part, but the things that influenced me when I was young, and from which I continue to be inspired, tend to be male dominated. Just about everything I watched or read is male centric.
It is odd. I was raised by women (with few strong male figures in my life) and I portray women as people with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve even been told that when I write female protagonists that they are stronger characters than my mail protagonists. Even so, the ideas I come up with for stories lack many women characters. Men and women share this world 50/50. The characters in my stories should follow the same split, but I was well into my fourth novel when I realized what I was doing.
And this applies to how I portray sexual orientation. I knew of no one who was not straight when I was growing up. I had some good influence from one of my favorite writers on the topic, but found religion for a while and was quite against it for a while until I realized 90% of the stuff they were feeding me was untrue. It took me a while to come back to a better place and I consider myself to be very forward thinking. I support marriage equality and early detection of gender identity (so a young person can get hormone therapy before hitting puberty so their body can develop as the gender they see themself as). But because this is something I have little experience in, I am hesitant to write characters like this because of that advise to write what I know.
So we come to today and my writing, and that of many people, which does not correctly reflect our world or our beliefs because we are writing what we know. It is drilled into us and I see that advice, while great for looking for a genre or story idea, is horrible advice when it comes to populating our stories. Our world had changed considerably and we need to change with it. Not just in our beliefs, but in the characters we fill our stories with. No, I may not be comfortable writing about a gay or transgender character, but I need to expand my horizons and learn and grow. No, I may not know enough right now, but I can learn, study, ask questions, seek advice, make new friends, etc.
So I propose a corollary to Write what you know. That is, if you don’t know it, learn it. And don’t stop with what society sees as issues. Imagine your own. In speculative fiction we have opportunities to imagine things that may never be reality, but it can let us explore these issues. We can make our writing a platform for equality for all while telling damn good stories. In fact some of the best writing has a clear message.