Fear can be a healthy thing for a creator. Fear can drive writers and artists to strive to be their best, but as cartoonist and writer Gene Luen Yang points out in this thoughtful speech, it can sometimes prevent creators from writing characters with different backgrounds—and that's a shame.
Yang, creator of the comics American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, and, most recently, The Shadow Hero—among many other comics—delivered this speech at the 2014 National Book Festival gala. You can watch the speech above (a little bit is missing from the beginning) or read the entire transcript at the Washington Post.
Yang talks a great deal about how characters from diverse racial backgrounds—even when they are imperfectly portrayed—can have an immense positive effect on readers. He notes that the late comics creator Dwayne McDuffie found inspiration in the Black Panther, a black character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, even if the Black Panther came with some problematic trappings. Yang himself was delighted when he first came across Xombi, an Asian American character created by a white writer and a black artist who helped Yang feel that Asian Americans were a little less invisible.
The key to creating diverse books, Yang says, is for creators to not be afraid to develop diverse characters, even if that means that some mistakes and stereotypes emerge in our early drafts—and he offers advice on how to correct those mistakes:
But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We're afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we're afraid of getting it wrong. We're afraid of what the Internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.
I told you the story of Dwayne McDuffie to encourage all of us to be generous with ourselves and with one another. The Black Panther, despite his flaws, was able to inspire a young African American reader to become a writer.
We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it's okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It's okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you're human.
Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you're writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don't, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.
Also, it's okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them – definitely correct them – but do so in a spirit of generosity. Remember how soul-wrenching the act of writing is, how much courage it took for that writer to put words down on a page.
[via The Mary Sue]