Tag Archives: writing

Normalizing Marginalized Identities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.


gogglor said: Suppose your sci-fi universe is more accepting of people with marginalized identities. Does portraying a universe like this run the risk of downplaying or erasing the prejudices that people with marginalized identities today have to face? For instance, if a black character faces very little racism in this future-society, is that in a way an insult to black readers today who face a great deal of prejudice?

writingandbooksandthings said: I’m having troubles with deciding how I want LGBT+ people to be perceived in my fantasy world. I want to show the struggle/issues so it would be relatable to people, but part of me wonders if it would be better to show a world where sexuality, gender, etc. isn’t seen as an issue by almost anyone. I feel like doing so would make readers see it really can be considered “normal” by a society and with no consequences. At the same time, I feel obligated to acknowledge real issues. What do you think?

These questions, like many questions about writing diversity, are framed in a way that hopes for a yes/no answer. However, the answer to the vast majority of questions about writing diversity is maybe. There simply are no black-and-white answers to writing fiction with characters who are traditionally marginalized, and the first thing writers should do is accept this. Whatever choice you make as a writer can be questioned by readers and critics, especially when it comes to writing diversity, which has often been done poorly and thoughtlessly. Again, whatever choice you make can be questioned, so it’s important to think carefully about why you made those choices, keeping in mind that your book is yours, and your duty as a writer is to be true to the story you want to tell.

It is not inherently insulting or wrong to write a book in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are considered normal. It is a choice you can make as a writer of science fiction and fantasy — a choice that writers of realistic fiction simply do not have. If a book is set in the real world, people of color and LGBTQ+ people are not considered normal by the majority of people. Any realistic book that includes characters with these marginalized identities has a responsibility to incorporate that inequality in some way.

However, in fantasy and science fiction, things are different. That is one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction can be so liberating and wonderful: We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. I dare say that would be a better one.

One thing I find extremely frustrating about a lot of fantasy and science fiction is that many writers don’t seem to realize that everything in a secondary world is up for re-imagining. If you’re going to put unicorns or faster-than-light spaceships in your book, you can certainly also have equality for people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

Sometimes folks believe that equality for marginalized identities is unrealistic. When my first novel, Ash, was published, I was on a panel at a fantasy convention in which an audience member commented that it was unrealistic to have a fairy tale in which lesbians were normal. I responded, “There are also fairies in the book. Do you think fairies are more realistic than lesbians?”

That said, creating a fantasy or science fiction world in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are normal does not mean you can simply wave your magic wand and everything becomes a shiny happy rainbow of equality and perfect joy. You have to build this equality into your world from the ground up.

For example, let’s think about a fantasy novel set in a preindustrial past, before the advent of modern science. If LGBTQ+ people are normal, you have to consider very basic biological things, such as how do LGBTQ+ people have children? Do they adopt others’ children? Do they have children with the assistance of magic? Do they not have children at all? Is there a place in this society for childless queer people? If you’re writing about rulers in this fantasy world, one of the most important thing to think about is heirs — how would a gay king choose an heir, if he hasn’t fathered any children? Additionally, if LGBTQ+ people are normal, how will you describe them? If it’s normal, would people even discern between those in same-sex relationships and those in opposite-sex ones? Will you use the word “gay” at all, especially because “gay” is a very specific English word with a clear history?

In a science fiction novel set in the future, other questions may also arise. If people of color in your futuristic world are normal, would they remain in separate racial enclaves (Black people in this part of town, Asians in that part of town), or would they have interracial relationships? And if they are in interracial relationships and have children, that does not mean their children all become a nice shade of tan; nor do they necessarily act like contemporary white people. Children in mixed race families do not always look the same, and you need to consider genetic inheritance and what a mixed race population would realistically look like. Additionally, cultures are passed down through generations and undergo changes. People always will have ancestral practices, so even if Chinese people are normal in the future, they probably are still going to retain specific Chinese cultural practices. Those practices also may have seeped into the wider popular culture. How would they be practiced by people who don’t have ancestors of that heritage?

Basically, normal does not mean white and straight. It’s very important to remember that, because if you normalize people of color and LGBTQ+ characters and then essentially turn them into white and straight-acting characters, that would be an insult. But if you normalize these marginalized identities in a thoughtful way that is built into the world itself, I think it can be a truly liberating experience to read.

Marginalized people in the real world don’t get very many opportunities to read books in which their identities are normal — and not erased. It is totally possible to do that in fantasy and science fiction, and I think that’s one of the best qualities of this genre.

Further reading:

Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.

Writing About a Transgender Character’s Transition

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer Everett Maroon.


silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!

Short Answer: It depends.

Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?

The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.

If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.

For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.

There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.

So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.

Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.

Writing Disabilities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. Several questions focused on disability, so we’ve rounded them up in one post, answered by writer Marieke Nijkamp.


acrossthetracksrebounding said: I have a main character in a fantasy story who uses a prosthetic right arm powered by magic. Her supply of magic has varied over the years, so sometimes her right arm works just as well as her left and other times it doesn’t. My concern is that, if it’s a prosthetic that’s so analogous to a ‘normal’ arm, does it count as a disability?

There are two interesting things going on in this question. First of all, the use of the phrase “normal.” While here it’s obviously set apart with scare quotes, the dichotomy of disabled vs. normal is (pardon the pun) quite normal. And very clearly something to be aware of, because by juxtaposing disability with normality, it’s easy to set up disability as abnormal. (See also the medical model of disability, that sets up disabled people as broken, in need of being fixed or cured.) This has long since been society’s understanding of disability.

These days, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the social model of disability as being the prevailing paradigm. The social model differentiates between impairments (a medical condition that leads to disability) and disability (the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and, basically, the way the world’s set up). The social model of disability sees disability as:

“the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.
“A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual. However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity.
”The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.” (See: http://ift.tt/1O7DBbx)

Which brings me to the question: “does a [magical] prosthetic count as a disability?” That then depends on quite a few things. Does this prosthetic allow your character to navigate physical barriers in their world? Does it depend on her energy and how does it depend on her energy? Would that be akin to a chronic illness maybe? What is society’s attitude toward her? Is her society systematically and inherently ableist, like ours is? How would she personally identify? What fits best with the way she looks at and understand the world?

And on that note, did you research or talk to people about living with prosthetics? Because representation matters, and even representation of magical prostheses can have repercussions in the real world.

gnomer-denois said: I am writing a fantasy novel and one of the secondary characters I have is a veteran from a war about 20 years prior where she was a surgeon, mostly just sewing people up because of her tailoring/embroidery skills and now she’s working as a tailor again, pretty high end. I was considering that she might have lost a limb in the war, and I lean toward her non-dominant hand. Still a set back for a tailor. There is magic in this world that might aid a prosthetic to be more like current ones. But I’m still not sure if this would be an unrealistic portrayal of an amputee’s ability because I don’t want magic to just fix the disability like it isn’t there, but more allow a prosthetic to receive some input from the skin interface and have some return of mobility for grasping, etc. Or if there is a more accurate way to show how someone missing a hand/lower arm would be able to sew, etc. If I can’t figure out how to do it realistically, I may change the disability, but I wanted to try.

Let’s divvy this up in a few steps too, because that’s a lot of information to process.

First of all, I think it’s important to make clear what “fixing” disability means and what it doesn’t mean. The dreaded magical cure or fixing disability usually presents itself by way of erasing the disability. Either through magic as a complete solution or by retconning the disability entirely. This often includes both the impairment, to use the terms above, and the way the disabled person interacts with the world. For example, a girl who has limped the entire book gets magically healed by the end of it is suddenly who she was always meant to be: whole, normal, and seen like that by everyone else. (And despite having learned to compensate for her limp, becoming suddenly non-disabled does not cause her to relearn to walk. After all: she is now “whole” and “normal.”) Her disability, and everything around it, gets completely erased.

This is very much informed by the medical model mentioned above, by the way, which claims that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed. Only then can they have a happily ever after. (This also happens the other way around — the “healing” happens in the interactions with the world because the character becomes more “likable” and as a result of that, they are healed.)

Hopefully you get why both of these options are super problematic — not to mention ignorant of the fact that for a lot of us, disability is an important part of our identity, exactly because it shapes the way we interact with the world. It actively informs us and that isn’t something you can easily erase.

Now assistive/adaptive technology (prosthetics, orthotics, and assistive devices), on the other hand, does no such thing. They make living with disability and interacting with the world easier, but they do not erase the disability completely. Using assistive technology is about accessibility. It’s about independence. As someone who uses canes and braces, in my experience it can even be about pride. (The flip side of it is that is doesn’t always change attitudinal barriers — and can even increase those.)

So whether or not this is about magically fixing disability depends on a lot of nuances. And those questions mentioned in the previous answer come into play here again. (On that note, let me also point out that I am no amputee and I have never used prosthetics, so please do be mindful of your research.)

Now, as for the second part of the question: how would someone be able to sew one-handed? By pinning material to a pad. By using a sewing bird — a table clamp that pins fabric to a table. By using a sewing brick or other weights. By using different needles, perhaps. In any case by adapting her process. By adapting to the situation. In a way, these are assistive devices too, after all.

thefrostbackbasin said: One of my main characters is disabled due to traumatic injury to the spine but my sci-fi story takes place in the far future so I’m concerned how developed the medical community should be in terms of ‘fixing’ disability

About a year ago, I was asked to be part of a panel called “We can rebuild you: disability in science fiction” about precisely this question. Considering we spent a good hour talking about it, I can tell you now there’s no easy answer — and a lot of it is up to the world you build.

There are a lot of variables in this equation. The most important one we’ve already discussed — the way society views disability. There’s a lot you can extrapolate from that in terms of how developed the medical community should or shouldn’t be. (And ask yourself: is the medical community as developed as it “should” be now? Under what paradigm? Should by whose measurement?)

The second point to consider has less to do with development and far more with accessibility. Even if the medical community is as developed to immediately fix traumatic spine injury … is that development accessible to all? What are the costs? The conditions?

And also — what are the costs to hospitals? Or to pharmaceutical companies? Is “fixing” all disabilities cost-efficient? There are plenty of medicines that exist in theory, could be produced, and could improve quality of life. If only their target audience wasn’t so small. Ask yourself how politicized the medical community in your world is and what the ethical discussions are about.

And if a solution is available: what are the physical costs? What kind of technology is used? What effects does that have on the body? How lasting is this solution? Is it a solution that’s surgical or based on medication? If the latter, what is society’s perspective of that? Because I can tell you from experience that even something as deceptively simple as taking daily pain medication is frowned upon by people who do not live with chronic pain.

Or look at it from a different perspective: if the medical community has evolved to a point where spinal injury cures are as common place as flu jabs, what does that mean for the overall development and society’s perspective of human health? Is life extension or enhancement normal? And if so, what effects does that have on the way injuries are perceived? The way disability in general is perceived?

In the end, there are a hundred different ways in which to portray disability in the future. There are a hundred different reasons why the medical community will have developed well enough and a hundred different reasons why they won’t have yet. In the end though, it’s your story. So go for what works best for you, your character, and their society. Just be mindful that it is and remains respectful or real lived experiences, whatever you do.

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. Her debut young adult novel This Is Where It Ends will be published by Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016.