I’m drafting a new short story. It’ll be quite short, just a few thousand words. Something has been troubling me about it and I realized today what it is: While there are women and people of colour in it, they are off-stage and do nothing but provide motivation to my two white male characters.
Is this okay? Of course it’s okay, but okay isn’t really the point.
Here’s why it’s okay (I’ll get to the “but that’s not the point” bit in a minute). Diversity means telling many stories. This is one story. I’ve written from the point of view of women and of people of colour many times. I have also written stories about white men. While I’m a big advocate of the Bechdel test, no one thinks the Bechdel test ought to be applied as some minimum test of quality to any individual work. It’s a starting point, a diagnostic tool for larger problems. If your flash story about a man dreaming on his deathbed doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, who cares? If your epic, ensemble-cast full length movie doesn’t pass it, we might at least want to ask why.
So, to recap, I am not worried that writing a very short story about two white men is somehow wrong. Especially since one of the characters is in a bit of a gender-flipped role, which allows me to ask some interesting questions, and asking interesting questions is what fiction is all about.
Still, it niggled at me. And so, as I do when I apply the Bechdel test to other people’s work, I started to ask why. Why had I assumed these characters should be male? Why had I assumed them to be white?
The answer came back: these are the defaults that popped up in my head when I needed characters for this particular setting.
And that’s what’s not okay. It’s not okay to write people of colour into people-of-colour stories, and to write white people into stories. Defaults are boring lies; I say lies, because stock characters are by nature an overemphasis on one particular facet of reality. Fiction is supposed to be interesting truth.
My brain understands that there were “non-default” characters in this particular historic setting; as I said, they’re in the story, off-stage. But some deeper, less thoughtful part of my brain put them off-stage without thinking about it. And once I started examining those defaults, I realized I had the potential for a much more interesting story, with harder questions, if I forced myself to think deeper about which characters might have even more at stake in this setting, and which characters have stories that have not yet been told myriad times. The stuff going on off-stage was actually more interesting.
My initial lazy reaction, once I started questioning my outline, was to shrug and say, it’s okay, and the story is what the story is. If it wasn’t happening to these characters it would be a different story. What am I supposed to do? I’m just the writer. Talk to my muse.
But the thing is, the muse is me. I am the writer. I am the god of this 3,000-word universe. And every universe — be it the universe we inhabit or the universe contained in any piece of fiction, no matter how short — has an infinite diversity of stories within it. Which do we choose to tell, and which point of view do we choose? And why? I think this is something we writers need to ask ourselves, not only when assessing our entire bodies of work, but every time we sit down to brainstorm.