Hello again! Last week I (endever*) wrote about the fine lines of being Evil – specifically, the importance of differentiating between being evil towards your characters versus having an evil impact on the real world. Today I’d like to work forward from that discussion of how oppressions can show up in our writing to the broader idea of making our writing a resistance practice/part of the revolution/a small way of changing the world.
I don’t know about you, but the state of things out there is pretty depressing/terrifying. I live in the United States, and as previously noted I’m queer/trans/disabled/low-income, so the current political environment ranges between “generally unfriendly” to “actively trying to kill me”. I know that the sense of despair this plants in me isn’t unique to my identities/my country; people all around the world are in similar-or-worse scenarios, and tons of them with far less privilege than I have. And so the question faces millions (billions) of us – how do we fix this? And in the meantime, how the hell do we keep convincing ourselves to try to get out of bed every morning and face it all?
When Trump took office I started a Google Sheet for tracking my resistance actions, because I’m often not able to be an activist in the ways considered normal/traditional, and I want to self-validate the positive ways I CAN and do contribute so that I don’t lose momentum. The idea is to think of “resistance action” broadly – not confined to “call my senators”, but including things like helping a friend apply for food stamps, retweeting threads about ableism, and (especially on the hard days) simply stubbornly staying alive in a world that thinks I shouldn’t exist. Because these “small” actions do have an effect. Reminding myself of this helps me keep going. And it was using this action tracker that made me realize I can conceptualize many aspects of working on my novels as part of my resistance.
So how do we write for revolution? Here’s some ideas:
As oppressed people (on any axis), we can tell our #ownvoices stories loudly, proudly, and complexly in defiance of the stereotyped representation and lack of representation dominating mainstream media. On a regular basis (and these are only a few examples), cishet actors get hired to play queer characters, white people get away with profoundly racist worldbuilding, men get famous for their girl protagonists while women creators’ content gets ignored, and abled people who pass off their harmful ideas about disability as the truth get believed without question. So when we choose to write about our marginalized identities and the ways they shape our experience of the world, we’re fighting back against the normed narratives that hurt us and an industry that too often rewards people with privilege for speaking over those with lived experience.
We can also write characters which our readers might identify with in a way they’ve never identified with a character before. The We Need Diverse Books movement is doing amazing work getting people to realize how important it is to grow up seeing people like us in the books we read – and how existing power structures create an environment where that’s unlikely to happen for many people with marginalized identities. For example, I know as a kid we were constantly assigned books featuring white characters… For me, that means I had the privilege of always feeling comfortable relating to them, yet classmates of color were having a completely different experience and no one did anything about it. Or on a different axis: I didn’t read a book with an explicitly nonbinary-identified character until last year, so in that way I grew up feeling as if I must be different from everybody in the entire world. What if you and I can create fictional people who end up being that one character that a reader finally feels represented by? What would that mean to said reader? That’s making a difference.
From another perspective, when we do write accurate, nuanced, positive representations of characters with marginalized identities, the readers who don’t share that identity can often learn a lot through the narrative. They might better realize, in concrete ways, the kinds of privilege they hold. And if we get them emotionally invested enough in those characters, maybe they’ll feel inspired to do something in the real world that fights the injustices people like our characters face.
Being careful with our writing can turn it into a resistance action. By “careful” I mean being diligent and deliberate about considering our work in terms of social justice. For example, something I already listed a few weeks ago on my tracking sheet was, quote, “started researching autism tropes so I don’t end up perpetuating oppressive shit”. Because sure, I’m autistic – but I’ve been conditioned into ableism just like everyone else, and I don’t want to recreate any of the nonsense that probably still lies hidden in my brain. This kind of research and the reflection and revision it should lead to (as also discussed in last week’s post) help us create writing that has a positive impact on the world.
In our worldbuilding, we have tons of opportunities to eloquently portray the things that need changing in our world, including facets which dominant narratives usually gloss over. Perhaps most readily, we can write versions of the dystopia we already live in which call out aspects of our world which our readers might not otherwise notice. In my own dystopic trilogy, the seceded society my characters grow up in is shaped primarily by intense youth-targeted ageism… My goal is to exaggerate the fictional manifestations of ageism just enough to force my readers into an understanding of how the oppression plays out, such that when they set the book down and look around our own world they’ll start noticing all sorts of things I wasn’t exaggerating.
If we do build this kind of world for our writing projects, we also have tons of opportunities in our plotline to explore how exactly one goes about making change. Change is what drives stories and tests characters; it has to show up in your plot anyway – so what better playground is there for testing out models of social change? We can write revolutions, and they can serve as models for what we’re trying to pull off. By researching how to help our characters reshape their worlds, we ourselves learn about how to reshape our own. (Half the reason that the course I signed up for next term is “Intro to Nonviolence” is that it’s novel research.) But even better yet, our readers engage with these ideas too, and more and more ideas are born that build on each other to carry forth the movement.
Finally, we can even just bring to life ways of going about being a decent person that may instruct our readers where the kyriarchy has failed. I suppose there are very few models of how to do things well in my trilogy thus far, given the dystopian nightmare – but I do have characters who (rather creatively and brilliantly, IMHO) figure out for themselves that they can change how they talk about people’s genders. Through their conversations my readers are gently but firmly introduced to ideas like neopronouns, singular they, not making assumptions, and standing up for others when they’re misgendered. The story gives in-context examples that will hopefully help readers who haven’t previously known how to talk about trans people respectfully do so better the next time they try.
That’s what I’ve got, friends! What do you think? Do you use any of these ideas in your own writing to make it revolutionary? Then give yourself a high five (…tentacle?), mark it down as a resistance action, and keep working. And if you have a moment, comment below to say hello!
Oh, and look – I know all these ideas are starting to suggest that us octopi are actually Be A Good Person Authors rather than Evil Authors, but look at it this way: evilness is about perception. From the oppressors’ point of view, revolution is evil. So let’s all go be as evil as we can.