characterization and blah de blah

So, I graduated. Well. In a manner of speaking. I went through the graduation ceremony and completed all my credits … but due to unforeseen circumstances (unexpected death), I have not yet received my final evaluation, credits, or diploma. That’s just a paperwork delay though — all the courses are completed and requirements fulfilled. As a result, my days are no longer filled with classes and homework and commutes … which I love.

My son is in school. My husband is at work. And four days a week, I have almost 7 full hours of completely uninterrupted time to write. Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays are still an utter wash when it comes to having uninterrupted time to focus on writing, but Tuesday through Friday are fantastic.

So I’ve been averaging between 1000 – 1500 words a day on the work in progress. It’s a sci-fi/ futuristic thingy, which has spun me for a bit of a loop in terms of diversity. I was reading something online, I forget where, about diversity in characterization. The problem, of course, is that you can’t simply call Dr. Smith a different name, like Dr. Yu or Dr. Tanaka, because it’s all about social location.

Consider that Dr. Jane Smith, raised in 1940s America would be different from Dr. Jane Smith raised in 1940s England. One would have been raised at a distance from a war that devastated the world, while the other would have been in England during the infamous London Blitz. Consider how changing Jane’s gender to John also changes the dynamics and background of the character; how they would have been raised and the expectations put upon them by society.

Writing Jane or John Smith is still something that comes easily and naturally to me, with minimal research. British Jane likes eggy bread and coffee with milk for breakfast. As an adult, British Jane still remembers the way the wool stockings of her school uniform itched at the back of her knees as she waited on a crowded train platform to be shipped out to the country.

American John doesn’t like to eat breakfast, but his mom used to insist that he eat a bowl of Cheerios every morning. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she would say. His mom was full of sayings like that. He can still remember her carefully counting pennies to purchase war bonds, telling him that a penny saved is a penny earned.

These are historical narratives I was steeped in my entire life. They are the stories of my parents and grandparents, the storybooks of my childhood, and even though John and Jane are not me, they share a cultural background with me. This makes them easier to write, like slipping on a new coat. It’s different, a new color and a cut I don’t usually wear, but it’s still a coat. A coat is a pretty basic garment. Not hard to figure out.

Now, consider that simply shifting the time drastically alters the character background, not even taking into account location and gender and class and education. By bringing Jane or John forward or backward 50 years, their entire upbringing and expectations shift … yet it’s still a basically familiar cultural background to me.

Now add a twist. What if Jane’s last name is Tanaka? How do I write an American Jane Tanaka in the 1940s? She would be in the American Concentration Camps. Is she a first generation Japanese immigrant, or a second-generation one? Does she come from California, which had more intense discrimination, or Washington? Which camp did she stay in? All these factors influence Jane’s experience, background, and character. They change the level of suspicion she was treated with, both by the government and other Japanese Americans. It even changes how long it took her to be released. And on top of that, I need to know the culture of her family, and how it infused her worldview.

Again, to draw comparisons, consider my own background. People look at me and see a white American girl. They do not see the Norwegian flags that were strung on my childhood Christmas tree, or the dirndl or bunad that I used to wear to church for fun. They do not taste the weinerschnitzel and spatzle I ate at family dinners. They do not know that my worldview, my character, my interactions with the world are infused with a deep love and connection with my personal family history.

I speak a little bit of German. Not enough to really converse, but a little bit. My parents lived in Heidelberg for 5 years, and my German accent comes from that area. Apparently, this is subtly different from the dialect/ style of German that is taught in most German courses. If you’re an American, consider the regional linguistic differences between North and South America, or the West and East coasts … it’s not simply accents, but colloquialisms and localized slang. And even though I haven’t been to Germany since I left 4 months after my birth, the little bit of German I know carries the localized accent and slang from my birthplace.

So if I am writing Jane Tanaka, or John Tanaka, I need to figure out things like that. If I write a Jane Smith from London or a John Smith raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I don’t have to think quite so much about their linguistic history and colloquialisms … these speech patterns, while not inherently natural to me, are closely aligned enough with my own experiences that it’s just less challenging to write.

But for the Tanakas, I have to learn enough about Japanese culture and history to write their background, without getting lost and overwhelmed in the research. I need to take into account their social location when I write their characters — how the social structures would shape their personalities, like ivy forms to a wall. Or, perhaps more aptly, how a bonsai tree is shaped by the restrictions of the environment and the needs of the socially powerful (the artist).

Anyway, I guess I’m thinking about all this because … well, because I’m not sure how the setting in my book affects the character building. It’s a diverse cast, but the social location is so entirely different as to render a lot of these concerns as moot. It takes place on a different planet, almost 500 years in the future.

Think about that for a moment. Five hundred years ago, it was 1514. Slavery as we now understand it, with its distinctly racial component, had not yet been invented. A successful colony had not yet been established in the Americas. It would seem, from the present state of research, that the plague which wiped out up to 90% of the Native Americans prior to European colonization had not yet occurred.

In 1514, King Henry the VIII was still married to his first wife. He had not yet split with the Catholic church to create the Church of England. Hell, most of the current map boundaries we think of when we imagine the European countries hadn’t been formalized yet. The world of 1514 was so completely different from our modern world as to be unfathomable. They pretty much did not even speak the same language as us! If time travel became a thing, communication would not be easy or intuitive, and the social mores and expectations were just eons apart from our modern beliefs. If time travel became a thing, we would be further hindered by our mistaken beliefs about the past, especially in regards to race and gender.

So as I write these characters, 500+ years in the future on a different planet altogether, I don’t really consider our current social location in their character development. The ongoing disparate impact of racialized systems of control in the 21st century Western hemisphere is an extremely minimal factor in who they are and how they interact. It is a thread in their shared history that is woven through the tapestry of humanity and influenced their current place, but it’s one of those threads that is worn pale and thin in seeming importance by the winds of time.

The planet these characters live on was colonized roughly 300 years before the start of the book, with a formalized government coming into play within 75 years. This is roughly analogous to the timeline of the colonization of North America and inception of the U.S. government; an intentional parallel. Similar to the myths, imagery, and debates regarding our own (highly documented) national backstory, the everyday lives of my characters are heavily influenced by the founding events of their society.

The thing is, my characters are predominantly people of color in a position of social privilege. This creates a bit of  quandary for me. On the one hand, I strongly believe in the value of a diverse cast of characters for readers to identify with. On the other hand … am I taking the easy route and participating in cultural erasure by creating a situation where the current expectations of discrimination and social privilege are upended? Do the same rules of character development apply in futuristic sci fi?

I dunno. Honestly, I’ll worry about it later, during revisions. Right now, I want to focus on finishing the book. Then revising it and editing it and revising some more. Then submitting the manuscript to publishing houses and dealing with rejections until I can’t anymore, or it’s picked up by someone. If it isn’t picked up, then I plan on revising and editing it some more for self-pubbing.


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