Some days–most days?–my twitter feed can feel like an ongoing scolding, with writers reiterating the need for more diversity in fiction, by which they mean characters who aren’t white, male, and straight. It sometimes feels like these young ’uns don’t realize that diversity has existed in SF for a very long time.
Today all this has gotten me thinking back to my youth, and the impact a writer had on me in the early ’80s, merely by the way she used unnamed, secondary characters. I think this writer was CJ Cherryh, though it could have been Elizabeth A Lynn. Memories fade. At any rate, the technique was simple and it went like this (I’m not quoting, just making up an example.):
The cop approached with narrowed eyes, looking ready to slam someone against the pavement. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
What’s the big deal in this made-up passage? Well, in my early ’80s mindset, at the end of the first sentence I am visualizing a big, tough-looking male cop. Then at the end of the second sentence, my assumption gets kicked head over heels. I remember that this delighted me, and it happened over and over again. I even began to think “Oh, she got me!” every time my mind insisted on visualizing what turned out to be the wrong gender, as if it was a game the author was playing with me.
What this approach did, in a very simple way, was to illustrate a society where women are neither victims nor inferior partners, but just people who fulfill diverse roles, to the surprise of no one living in that story world. And of course the approach can be reversed to show men in what we might consider non-traditional roles.
Let me reiterate, this was in the early ’80s, and these were secondary characters.
The experience really woke me up. I took the lesson to heart and I still use the technique all the time. Here’s a quote from my recent story “Through Your Eyes”:
Cops are everywhere, all of them in armor, and their communications gear seems to be working just fine. I start to look for Elliot, but one of the cops gets in my face. She’s almost as tall as I am, and she’s used a pigment to give herself spooky gray eyes that lock on mine. “ID?” she barks.
I understand the ongoing calls for more diversity in the genre, but it’s not like we haven’t been working at it for decades–and “show don’t tell” really can work wonders for getting the point across.