IMG_20180210_133358 Center For Inquiry Darwin Day cake, 6 of 6
IMG_20160730_160308 Writing The Other panel
Left to right: Nicky Drayden, Stina Leicht, Wesley Chu, Kirk Lynn, Marshall Maresca, and Arianne "Tex" Thompson.
This was a panel on writing about characters that belong to different demographic groups than yourself, in short known as Writing The Other. Typically that means writing characters of a different race, ethnicity or gender than yourself, or stories set in different cultures than the one you live in.
It goes without saying that you need to research it very well. But then there are nuances. If you want to write about minority groups with the due sensitivity and respect, what should you do and not do? Should you write about them at all? Some writers are sufficiently afraid of making an offensive faux-pas that they doubt whether they should write about other cultures / minority characters at all.
The almost-unanimous advice from the panelists who themselves were members of underrepresented groups was: do it. Don't be so afraid to write something unintentionally insensitive that you don't do it at all. It is better to see minorities represented in fiction, even imperfectly, than not be represented at all.
However, one panelist said that you should talk with the members of the group you are writing about, and if they don't want you to use certain of their stories (whether myths or historical events) in your fiction, you should not do that. This is especially true about Native American tribes, and that there had been instances of Native Americans asking white writers not to write stories about their tribe, partly because they want their own writers to write about it.
This advice sparked a debate among the panelists. Another panelist (who is a minority person) said that no, there should not be taboos in writing if you do it with the proper sensitivity and nuance. Not to mention that in most cases it's impossible to find a "representative" of a certain group whose opinion on what can and cannot be written about would be definitive. Who is the representative of the Thai people? (With smaller groups, such as Native American tribes, this may be somewhat feasible.)
But if you do it, make sure to uplift the voices of the artists and creators of that group as well. Buy their books and art work and promote them. Give them away to friends and leave them in coffeeshops. Ask some people of that group to be your beta readers, and pay them for that, because they are providing you a service by scrutinizing your book for cultural gaffes. In short, have a 2-way relationship with this group, as opposed to the typical imperialistic 1-way relationship, where you borrow the "exotic" bits of their culture and not give anything back.
If you are writing secondary world fantasy or science fiction, avoid basing your fictional culture on the cliches of some existing Earth culture. In other words, do not make it Japan-with-serial-numbers-filed-off or China-with-serial-numbers-filed-off.
If you have only one minority person in your story, it will be easy for the readers to think that that person reflects your views on that minority. A way to avoid it is to have several minority characters and make them different from each other, to reflect the whole breadth of human personalities.