How to Offend Everyone and Make Yourself Cry: Writing Diversity in Fanfiction
The strange and wonderful world of fanfiction has only one common creed, resounding across megafandoms and yuletide titles alike: I do what I want.
Critics like to point out that fanfiction communities lack the rigor and review of the editorial process; but leaving aside all the other problems with that observation, the ability to do what we want is one of fanfiction’s greatest assets. We have no editors to please, no publishers to satisfy, and no markets to appeal to. We have the freedom to write absolutely anything and make it available to thousands of readers, to be truly radical and transformative, to tell stories that push boundaries and challenge assumptions.
So why do we keep writing the same goddamn stories over and over?
Representation and diversity are a hot-button topic in fandom. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fannish Tumblr that doesn’t feature reblogs about feminist action, racebending, and queer history, but the themes of those blog posts are just as absent on the AO3 as they are in mainstream media. We give lip service to progress, then pour hours of work into supporting the same systems and ideas that make progress impossible.
Just like any big problem, I think a lot of what holds us back is not knowing where to start. As much as we want to write more inclusive stories, it feels lot like trying to clean someone else’s basement. What is all this stuff? Where does it go? Is there a system? Will it eat me?
Writing diversity in fiction, even specifically fan fiction, is way too much to take on with one article, and I won’t pretend to try. Instead, I’m going to focus on practice and practicality and propose seven questions you should ask yourself every time you sit down to write.
1. Ask yourself: What is normal?
From the moment our little baby brains realize that we aren’t the only entities in the world, we get a whole mess of signals telling us how to think about certain things. Dark = sleep. Soft thing = toy. Big people = parents. This mental training goes on throughout our lives in different degrees with input from every possible angle, whether its family, friends, commercials, or random YouTube videos. We’re trained to think that money = good, blue = boy, and cleaning = mom’s job.
We’re also trained to think that normal = straight, normal = white, normal = male, normal = cisgender, and normal = conventionally able. Don’t believe me? Think about it this way: A class where you study books by white men in the US is called American Literature, right? So what do you call a class about books by white women in the US? What about books by Black people? Asian people? Queer people? Are you seeing the pattern?
Because the world around us has made every effort to whitewash our brains, we tend to gravitate toward characters who are, you guessed it, straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied men. This is the character at the center of the story that we’re supposed to identify with and cheer for, not because we actually have anything in common with him, but because he is the “Everyman”, the default, normal. Oh, and look, all his friends are also straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied men, except for his one non-white buddy, who is there to dispense ethnically humorous wisdom, and the solitary straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied woman who functions as the Sexy Lamp – I mean, Love Interest.
Our instincts tend to repeat this pattern in our own stories, often (since we’re talking about fanfiction) replacing the only woman in the formula with whichever other white, cisgender, able-bodied male character we prefer. Our instincts are wrong. Our instincts, which have been finely honed by a lifetime of media consumption, tell us to erase or minimize identities that stray too far from “normal”, and our instincts are therefore racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist.
Okay, now don’t freak out! It’s not your fault that your brain works this way. These are systemic problems that exist in our culture way beyond any one person’s actions and feelings. Just because your instincts are awful and bigoted doesn’t mean that you, personally, are an awful, bigoted person. Once you wrap your head around that, the really important thing is what you do next.
2. Ask yourself: What would make this more interesting?
What if one member of my OTP was transgender? What if one of them is biracial or white-passing? What if my character doesn’t get important romantic advice from the other white guy, but instead goes to the Black character that they are also friends with? What if these random OCs that I wrote in as plot points aren’t named John Smith and Mary Jones, but are John Singh and Maria Juarez? What if some of the unnamed background characters in this fight and/or crowd scene are referred to as she?
What if I look at what’s normal and decide to do something else?
These are small questions with minimal impact on your actual story, but retraining yourself to ask them can make a huge difference in your writing. This doesn’t even address the possibility of moving beyond the White Dude Duo and taking advantage of the existing diversity in canon, rather than ignoring or erasing it.
Remember, one of the most exciting things about fanfiction is that you can take what’s already out there and do something more with it.
3. Ask yourself: What do I need to know?
The internet is an amazing place. Not only has it brought us an endless supply of porn and cat gifs, but it also provides easy access to a breathtaking variety of information and gives millions of people a free, unrestricted platform on which to talk about whatever the hell they want. Yes, some people use that platform to post pictures of bugs dressed as the Jurassic Park cast, but a lot of people use it to just talk about their lives.
Using blogs and wikis for research might sound like something that would make your high school teachers cry, but when you’re talking about real people, those are often your best resources. If you’re writing a story set in a country you’ve never been to, you’re going to look up facts about the landscape and climate and maybe read a few travel articles to get a sense of the place and make your descriptions ring truer.
Your characters’ lives are like a place you’ve never been. The more research you do, the more you understand what it’s really like to live there, the better your story will be.
4. Ask yourself: What am I getting wrong?
A lot. Seriously. When it comes to writing representation, the very first thing we have to do is recognize that, despite all of our meticulous research and caution, we’re going to get things wrong.
The second thing we have to do is take a deep breath and remind ourselves that it’s okay.
The same sources that have trained us to think of certain kinds of people as Other have also fed us great big spoonfuls of misinformation and stereotypes, which means that most of what we think we know is wrong. If you’re writing a character who identifies themselves in a way that you don’t, the worst thing you can do is assume you know what their life is like.
Most of the information we get is filtered through whatever medium is bringing it to us. If you’re writing about a character with a disability, for instance, unless you happen to be close to someone who both has a physical disability and has talked to you about their experiences, whatever you think you know about disabilities has come to you through people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Is that your fault? Of course not, but it is a fact, and it is something you have to account for in your writing. Even if you have a friend who identifies in the same category as your character, don’t assume that the experiences of one person necessarily represent everyone else who fits that description.
5. Ask yourself: Is this a PSA?
This is a PSA. Your fic should not be.
Our absolute number one job as writers of fiction is to entertain and engage, not to instruct, incite, browbeat, or pontificate. We have a responsibility to write certain characters as accurately and sensitively as possible, but it’s not your place to make sure all the other straight white fangirls know What Life is Like for These People.
One, that makes for a boring story, and people don’t read boring stories, so any good points we make will be lost in the wilds of AO3.
Two, it’s not our place. I don’t mean that in a “Shut up and keep your head down” kind of way. What I mean is that by using our stories as a platform to educate our peers, we’re speaking on behalf of people who are probably pretty sick of having straight white people speak on their behalf. Reducing the experiences of real people to a Very Special Episode of Fanfiction isn’t helping; it’s dehumanizing and distracts from the stories being told by the people we’re trying to include.
The best way to educate is to promote the presence of underrepresented fans, whether it’s blogs, fic, art, articles, or anything else that happens across our line of sight. Seek out great fan creators of color, of other genders and sexualities, other abilities and perspectives, and make sure that everyone in your fannish circle knows how awesome they are.
6. Ask yourself: What if I make people mad?
This isn’t a question; it’s a given. No matter how careful we are, there’s going to be some detail we miss or some word we get wrong, and someone is going to call us on it.
And that’s a good thing.
Getting called out for our mistakes is the best chance we have to improve. Is it embarrassing and awful? Of course. Can people be mean and douchey about it? Absolutely. As with everything else in life, the most important thing about getting criticism is what you do next.
Let me put it this way: Imagine there is a lady named Jan whose coworkers keep calling her “Jane,” no matter how many times she corrects them. Her name is even listed wrong in the company directory, and IT keeps telling her it’s too much work to fix it. Jan starts the day with two emails, both of which refer to her as “Jane,” and she sends a polite correction. One sender replies with “Oops! Typo! Sorry about that. :P”, while the other doesn’t reply but uses the correct name in their next email. Later, Jan is introduced to a new hire as “Jane” and sighs, “It’s Jan, actually.” The coworker who introduced her scoffs, “Why didn’t you say so before? Now I feel like a jerk!” Finally, a colleague addresses her by the wrong name, and she interrupts to say, “Jan. Not Jane.” Her colleague informs her that the directory says her name is “Jane,” so she’s obviously wrong, and there’s no reason to be rude.
Can you rank the levels of dickery in this story? I bet you can.
Being left out means that a lot of people have to deal with a constant barrage of dismissal and ignorance, both from the system and from individuals. Just coping with the daily implications of invisibility is stressful and exhausting, even without the added burden of alienation, lack of resources, and outright discrimination. There’s not much energy left to deal with people being wrong on the internet.
If someone does call us out for a problem with representation, the only appropriate response is:
- Acknowledge the mistake
- Correct the mistake
We should not, under any circumstances:
- Ignore the comment, even if we intend to correct the mistake
- Express our feelings in response to the comment (e.g. “Now I feel like a jerk!”)
Basically, don’t be a dick. Wheaton’s Law is always a good guideline, but it’s never more important than when you’re dealing with issues of representation.
7. Ask yourself: Why am I even doing this?
I write a lot of fanfiction. I write other things, obviously, but the bulk of my daily word count usually goes toward the woes and romances of licensed fictional characters. (Ssh! Don’t tell my editor.)
A lot of what I write – fanfic or otherwise – deals with representation and exclusion, and when you write about people who aren’t used to seeing themselves in stories, do you know what the overwhelming response is? Thank you.
I can’t begin to tell you how angry that makes me; not because I don’t appreciate the gratitude, but because it shouldn’t be necessary. As much diversity as there is in fan communities, it shouldn’t be difficult for people to find reflections of themselves in fic. Fan works aren’t restrained by the same conventions as mainstream media, so we can’t blame editors or producers for telling us what we’re allowed to write. The go-to feeling for reading a fic should be based on whether you like it, not gratitude that it even exists.
It’s okay that we’re scared to try. The whole concept of diversity is politically loaded, and we want to tell stories that a lot people will read and like. It’s easy to stick with what we know and not venture out of our comfort zones. It’s not okay that we let being scared stop us from making room for everyone, and it’s not okay that we’d rather be comfortable than take responsibility for our stories.
I do what I want, and what I want is more fics that recognize the incredible variety of people in the world. No one’s asking you to eradicate inequality and become a champion for social justice. I’m just asking you to think a little differently and ask a few questions. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s a damn good start.
Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.