On Writing Different Stories

Writing is a subject that comes up on my blog from time to time, because it is something I care very much about, and as it is currently National Novel Writing Month, I thought I would revisit it now.

My previous two posts on the subject have focused on how we write women: how to make female characters more well-rounded, and why that matters.  But this post needs to be about something else, something I think is under-discussed with regards to writing diverse characters and stories, and that’s this: we need different stories too.

We need stories that are willing and able to begin to grapple with some of the things society does not necessarily want us to talk about.  I know it is a risk, because there is a good chance that your book will end up banned by schools and/or libraries in numerous towns and/or states, but take the risk.  After all, Harry Potter was banned in lots of places because it “dealt with the occult” and “encouraged unnaturalness”, meaning the whole genre of fantasy writing is basically a gamble if you want young people to access it.  Write the stories anyway, especially if you write YA literature.  I know that no demographic-oriented literature is looked at quite like YA literature, but give teenagers some credit.  Adolescents in the United States have a lot to deal with, between the pressure to do well in a school system increasingly obsessed with testing, particularly standardized testing, external pressures to look well which can undermine a person’s healthy exploration of their own sexuality, and high rates of mental illness including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  These individuals are not just the carriers of Bieber Fever (is this still a thing?), they are growing into well-rounded young adult selves, and they deserve real stories to grapple with.

Perhaps even more importantly, many young people need stories to grapple with, stories that tell them it’s okay to be who they are, that they can get through it, that they are not alone.  We already do this in literature with issues such as divorce, breakups, and being unpopular in school,  We are making progress, I think, with issues like when a person is ready to lose their virginity, and what it means to struggle with weight issues.  We are getting more stories which feature LGB characters, which is incredibly important.  But we need more; we need stories about surviving abuse, not just violent physical abuse, but other kinds of abuse as well; we need stories about surviving sexual assault, which one in four women in the United States will experience.  0% of the population will get to play with dragons, but that’s already a more common literary element than sexual assault, something a significant portion of the population will engage with?  We need stories about recovering from mental illness, stories that tell people it is possible to wake up one day and start to feel better.  We definitely need more stories about trans people, and gender non-conforming people, to tell readers that these identities are normal, and to tell readers who may be struggling with their gender identity that it is okay.

One of the things that makes literature so magical, so great, is that literature allows us to see ourselves in a completely different context.  It gives us a mirror through which we can begin to grapple with some of the difficult truths of our reality.  This is one of the reasons that Harry Potter has had such a lasting impact: it provided a lens through which readers could examine issues related to racism, genocide, modern slavery, and the nature of evil.  Books give people something to identify with, to see that there are other stories out there that resemble their own, and that is incredibly valuable.

Instead of simply  going on about this, I am going to include what I think are good examples of novels dealing with some of these issues.  This is obviously nowhere near an exhaustive list, and I obviously haven’t read all the literature in the world, but here are a few select examples:

  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Anderson has publicly noted that while this book does deal with sexual assault, its biggest impact has been on readers struggling with depression.  Both matter, and she is one of the few authors I have encountered who has really directly dealt with the aftermath of sexual assault in a young protagonist.
  • The Earth, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: Mackler does an amazing job depicting a plus-size young woman struggling with body image, societal expectations, the exploration of her sexuality, and depression, all at once in this novel.
    • See also: Vegan, Virgin, Valentine by Carolyn Mackler, which deals even more explicitly with young women exploring their sexuality
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley: In this, Headley successfully discusses not only what it’s like to feel different as a young adult, but what it means to survive in an emotionally abusive household.  It has all the trappings that make it a fun YA read: romance, adventure, the end of high school…but underneath that are even bigger themes about finding who you are and what it means to survive, and to thrive.
    • See also: Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley, which touches on sexual coercion and depression
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithanwhile I’ve never personally read this novel, the book has received acclaim for being a heart-warming story focused on the same-sex relationship between two young men, both named Will Grayson.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket: if this seems an unconventional choice, revisit the first book.  Snicket’s series provides the story of three children who are abused by a person who is widely respected beyond their home, such that no one believes them…something any number of young people across the U.S. may be able to identify with.
  • The Wish List by Eoin Colfer: like Snicket’s books, this book features a protagonist who is a survivor of childhood abuse; again, these are stories we need told, if only to tell others that they’re not crazy, they are not alone, and they can survive
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher(SPOILER) this book deserves a handful of trigger warnings for suicide, sexual assault, and bullying…but for all those reasons, it tells a valuable story about the impact of our interactions towards others, and how easy it is to shape another person’s story

It is obvious, looking at this list, and at others, that books like the ones I am describing do exist.  But I stand by what I said: we can always use more.  Stories which don’t even necessarily fixate on these issues, but simply include them-~-stories where characters simply are gay, or are survivors, where these facets of their backgrounds shape who they are but are not necessarily the central conflict for the story.  We need more stories like this which cross genres-~-science fiction, fantasy, cheesy romance novels, that include different elements besides simply “hero slays dragon” or “girl meets boy”.  We can do better-~-we already are.

But if you are writing this November, or you’re thinking about writing at all, consider not just what kinds of stories might be easy to write, or funny to read, but what kinds of stories you or those you love needed most when you were younger.  Let’s write more of those stories, too.

For more stories featuring LGBTQ protagonists (not overly featured in this post), please click here.

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~ by Randi Saunders on November 13, 2014.

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