I’ve been thinking about diversity in my science fiction novel project for a while. I always get nervous doing that, because I don’t want to hurt anybody by mis-writing a perspective I don’t have. I’m female and bi (or pan), but that’s basically it. I can’t speak for everyone who’s female or bisexual, certainly, but at least I can speak from my own experience and that much will be accurate. It’s not just about not offending people — inaccurate and ill-advised minority representations can be literally harmful in the grand scheme of things. I want to help with representation, not make it worse.
The basic milieu for my novel is already in place, but I have some wiggle room, specifically with one character, Sky Marshal Rene Denman. I have a good handle on his character, but not a lot on his background or the details of what he’ll do, just the overall picture, so he’s a good candidate for diversification. I know he’s got a wife and two kids, and he’s a pretty stable and emotionally healthy individual, although he has some tendencies toward revenge.
Here are the options I’ve considered. None of them are mutually exclusive:
- At first I was thinking of making him female, because there is a slight gender imbalance, but I feel like that’s basically fixed now since I improved the existing female roles, and I randomly assign genders to the incidental characters so there are a number of interesting women elsewhere. One of the major characters is a plant-based alien who’s both male and female depending on the life cycle stage, but aliens don’t always count for representation purposes.
- Basically everyone in this future is thought of culturally as bisexual, although they tend to know their own personal orientations. (It’s complicated, I’ll explain later if there’s a demand). I already have gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters so there’s no real need to mess with Denman’s any of those ways, even if it would work with his personality to do so. I don’t have any characters who are asexual that I know of though…
- There are various races/ethnicities in the What Dreams universe but it’s a big hodgepodge. Characters have different skin tones and ethnic/planetary backgrounds, but on the high-traffic planets where the book is set, it’s not really an issue. (It’s mentioned in descriptions, but not of plot relevance). I kind of like it that way, because I like to think we’ll get over racism in the future the same way we’ll get over homophobia, but Denman could certainly be described as a different ethnicity (other than just sort of generically whitish) for representational purposes.
- The idea of representation for people with disabilities is pretty new on my radar, and honestly I’m never quite sure what counts as a disability and what doesn’t, but that’s an option. I have an important character with a developmental disorder who plays a big role, and then later on I’ll have war-related injuries and whatnot, but those won’t be in this book. Still considering this.
Just a few weeks ago, I started wondering about Denman being transgender. I don’t have any other transgender characters. I kind of like the idea because it wouldn’t change a damn thing, I’d write him exactly the same way I would have before. At the same time, it presents a problem. Rose mentioned in this post that Mercedes Lackey doesn’t think she’ll write transgender characters because she writes pre-industrial fantasy and a trans person would have a problem that wouldn’t be solvable with the medicine of that time. This would be the opposite problem — he wouldn’t have had any medical difficulty transitioning and the culture wouldn’t care either. Maybe instead of an unsolvable problem, it’s a problem that’s too easily solved to be relatable, or it would be making light of the real-world issues people face. On the other hand, I like Star Trek and Doctor Who because I like seeing futures where some problems have just been solved.
So, here’s the question I’ve been coming around to this whole time: How would it be if I changed Denman to a trans man by just mentioning once or twice that he had been assigned female? How do you write about post-transition characters in a future world where transitioning is easy and people are totally open about gender? Having him be from a “conservative planet” would be an obvious cop-out and just a way to graft in moralizations that don’t actually belong in this future, and I don’t want to do that. My current idea is that the Sky Marshal service provided his transition, so some people think he joined the service for free medical care and that pisses him off, providing a reason for him to be thinking about it at all. That would be natural for him, he loves the service and takes it extremely seriously, and that explanation would fit naturally into a scene or two without being a Very Special Episode kind of scene.
My Googling has mostly revealed lists of really bizarre novels from the 60s-80s that have characters who are sort of transgender for various reasons, but none of them were held up as shining examples. It mostly just seemed like authors wanted to include something controversial and shocking, so they made it as weird as possible, and that’s really not the point.
Like I said up top, I don’t really know much about this. I have some acquaintances, and I’ve done some reading on the internet, but I don’t know what I’d like to see in a trans character if I was trans. In fact, for most of the above-mentioned options, I know that representation is lacking in the sci-fi genre as in others but I don’t know exactly what should be there instead. So, I’m throwing it open to the internet for input.
This has mostly been an example. I might incorporate any combination of the above ideas for Denman, or I might use other ideas I haven’t come up with yet, and it’s all contingent on relevance because I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing why a character is diverse if it doesn’t relate to anything else in the story.
Still, in a wider sense, do you think authors should “write what they know” when it regards real issues? I don’t think authors should just write what they know, one of the great things about fiction is stepping outside yourself and embracing other viewpoints, but are there special cases? Discuss.
Unkind comments will be deleted. (And if I’ve said anything that sounded jerkish, please correct me, it was unintentional).