Stereotyping is one of the biggest concerns for modern writers. After centuries of popular writing in the Western world only focusing on a select few, more and more authors seek to branch out.
But is branching out truly necessary? I’d have to argue yes, and it is neither much to ask nor something I know anyone lacking representation disagrees with.
As someone who permanently changed hairstyles at the age of eleven for the love of a character I identified with, representation has always seemed like powerful common sense to me. It’s uplifting to find a character you can relate to, especially if you relate to them based on experiences you otherwise felt alone in. At eleven, I already knew that no one expected me to be intelligent or logical and that being blonde had something to do with it, so it was comforting to see a character also go through similar experiences and succeed when I’d never seen it done before. That was just the first time I felt represented and being blonde isn’t even being marginalised. I’ve since had these experiences seeing confident female characters or LGBTQ+ characters accepting themselves and it’s even more meaningful (I cried a lot watching Superwoman and the TV show Sex Education).
These things may not seem important. A lot of people today have been raised with well-meaning parents that raise their children to treat everyone the same. They, and I, can enjoy reading about characters that may not really be very like us at all. And that’s good. If a book is high quality, people will praise it even if it lacks representation and that’s OK. The problem, however, is that we don’t all live our lives the same, and while I do enjoy reading about male main characters and don’t see those books as lacking, it’s clear that different people react to things differently every day based on their lived experiences.
To me writing is meant to be believable and ever since I started writing, aspects of who I know or who I want to know have crept into my characters. Representation is not just throwing in a certain cookie-cutter character. When I was younger that was what I thought it was and it was so cringy even to write it. It doesn’t feel believable and if you’re not a part of the group you’re representing it feels preachy too. This is where representation gets stereotypical and, for people trying to do it well, uncomfortable.
If you want to represent people, you’ll have to expand your bubble. You can spend years learning about racism, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. (I have) and it won’t save you (or me) from making either stereotypical or Mary Sue characters. What did help me was moving out of my white middle class community and meeting some great people from university with very different backgrounds and ways of thinking. The characters I’m writing now feel real to me because not representing different people felt like a false view of the world and relying on education over experience felt unnatural.
Don’t get me wrong. It would be pretty classist of me to say ‘going to uni makes you a better person’ or ‘travelling to experience different cultures is the only way to be a good writer’. In my opinion, I left it too late and focused on the wrong things. I focused on educating myself about oppression, which is really helpful and important, but I should have been chatting with people online way more. For so long, everyone I followed was white and middle class and talked about stuff I knew about. It was comfortable but it wasn’t realistic. Now I’m not saying to go interviewing people from outside your social group or only following people online to use them for writing inspiration. Using people is not going to make you a good person or writer. That said, if you are in a similar position to what I was, find some friends that talk about things you don’t know about or experience differently from you. Listen to them and accept that you have different experiences that you can’t always relate to.
It shouldn’t be difficult. Following some people on social media that you like is always easy. Learning about something new is interesting. Having a genuine conversation with a person that’s not about their experiences with oppression or about writing is not a high standard to meet. So use the magic of the Internet. If you want to represent people, you first have to know people.