We all want to see ourselves in a story.
Someone who looks like we do. Someone who talks like we do. Someone who believes, sees, moves, thinks, eats, struggles or soars like we do.
As readers, the instant we bond with a character so profoundly it is as if the scene was written only for us is the defining moment that takes that story from a “good read” to an all-time favorite. Everyone, in every genre, deserves to crack open a book and read about themselves in the pages.
But, as an author, there is a process that should be followed to bring a traditionally marginalized group or underrepresented character to life.
If you’re a querying writer, it’s likely you’ve seen #MSWL (Manuscript Wishlist) on Twitter is flowing with requests for stories featuring diversity and traditionally marginalized groups.
Writers currently penning a work in progress, editing a manuscript, querying, or thinking on a new storyline that will feature a character whose experiences differ from your own, you should do so respectfully and authentically. By following some of these practices, you can bring a traditionally marginalized group or underrepresented character to life.
Do Your Research
If you must be the person to write this story, educate yourself by engaging with the community you’re writing about. Read blogs, articles and books written by a member of the community you have chosen to write about. Be mindful that, unfortunately, many TV shows and movies do not accurately reflect the groups and people they focus on. More often than not, there are discrepancies in scripts as they pertain to certain groups and people. Be sure your information and education is coming from reliable, first hand sources.
Research is a first step, but keep in mind research is still not first hand perspective. It is an important stepping stone, but is not equal to that of a person’s first hand experience.
Queer author and sensitivity reader Dill Werner (https://www.dillwerner.com/servicesoffered) says “Research is crucial. However, it's impossible for an author to be perfect. Some things can't be learned, like how dysphoria feels or what it's like to live as a person of color.”
Hire a Sensitivity Consult
A sensitivity consult takes place in the earliest stages: When the idea is born but before the manuscript is written. Trinica Sampson of QTPOC Reads (http://trinsampson0.wixsite.com/qtpocreads) says “Sometimes, we get manuscripts that are so problematic in their very nature that the best advice is to toss it and start over. That puts SRs <Sensitivity Readers> in a bad position and of course the authors aren't happy, either. A consultation would help point out any issues before an author gets the deep work done.”
Sampson also says one common error she often encounters is ignorance regarding historical context. “A writer might want to write a black character, for example, the same way they might write a white character in order to avoid tokenism. However, there are some huge differences historically that end up affecting modern choices for the character.”
Hire A Sensitivity Reader
The job of a sensitivity reader is to read and advise on scenes, plot points, context or dialogue where a description, phrase or idea could be misrepresented or imprecise in a harmful way.
If you are writing a character or storyline that you do not have first hand experience with, a sensitivity reader is a must to ensure the words you have chosen are both authentic and benign.
Keep in mind, a culture, disability, or lifestyle that your best friend, neighbor, parent, etc. has experienced does not equate to you as a writer experiencing it. Sensitivity readers offer a first hand knowledge and perspective of the subject you have chosen to write about.
You will benefit from more than one sensitivity reader. Everyone experiences situations and responds to them differently. Multiple sensitivity readers from the same groups of people may offer different perspectives regarding the same situation. Not everyone responds or reacts to an experience the same way. Different perspectives offer depth and authenticity to your character(s) and manuscript.
Take your sensitivity readers’ advice. They are there to help you! If they recommend a change to something you have written, work to understand why the edit is necessary, and what you can write instead to keep your work in tact, but more authentic/less harmful.
Don’t Claim Something That Doesn’t Belong To You
#Ownvoices is a hashtag that can be used for materials across many genres and demographics as long as the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity. (FAQ, http://www.corinneduyvis.net/ownvoices/
In other words, #ownvoices is reserved for authors who have the same first hand experience as their main character, ie: the exact same disability, culture, belief, etc.
Similarly, #DVPit is a Twitter event that showcases pitches from marginalized voices that have been historically underrepresented in publishing. (What is #DVPit? http://dvpit.com/about) Though authors do not have to disclose any personal information regarding eligibility, the honor system applies. Be mindful when deciding if #ownvoices or #DVPit are hashtags that are yours to use.
How Do I Find a Sensitivity Reader?
Sensitivity Readers are available through a variety of platforms. A simple web search gives you the option of finding Sensitivity Reader’s websites that include their services and prices as well as the reader’s biography.
Sensitivity Readers can also be found through a social media search. Many sensitivity readers post their services, tips and tricks, and why they are the best person for the job in their daily posts. #SensitivityReader is a hashtag people are using that will lead you to Sensitivity Readers with diverse backgrounds ready to work with you!
Trinica Sampson, mentioned above, can be found @QTPOCreads and Dill Werner can be be found @dillwerner.