STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART VI: RESEARCHING FOR AUTHENTICITY
Whatever category your marginalized character falls into – main, secondary, tertiary, or background – you will need to research for authenticity. I recommend doing this even if the character is marginalized in the same way you are because it’s important to have other reference points other than your own. Understanding the many perspectives of people from that community will help you develop a realistic, fleshed out character.
I follow three steps when doing this type of research. Let’s go through these steps now using the autistic community as an example.
STEP 1: Use sources that are supported by the community you are representing. This can be challenging because marginalized communities often don’t have access to the same resources as more privileged communities (fame, wealth, political/legal support) and therefore may have a limited reach. But this step is vital. Each community has its own culture – languages, shorthand, red flags, humor, shared experiences, etc. – and you’ll need to learn it to develop your character. The best way to that is to research blogs, articles, social media posts, and videos produced by those who share your character’s voice.
• Do not rely entirely on scientific and/or sociological studies. These are often done by people outside the community. Their interpretation of any data they collect will be filtered through the lens of their experience rather than that of people from the community itself.
Autism Example: The definition of autism by the medical community is persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts … Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity … Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction … Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.
The medical definition, pathologizes and views autism through a negative lens. The autistic community, however, generally sees autism as a normal genetic variation – the “deficits” then are based on an arbitrary set of social rules created by allistic (non-autistic) people. In other words, autistic people may experience, perceive, and interpret the world differently, but that doesn’t make them deficient.
• Do use a search engine to find organizations that support your character’s marginalized community. Do not assume the most popular/well-known organizations offer this support! Double check with members of the community to see how they feel about any organization before you use it as a reliable source. You can do this by searching through social media platforms, including Twitter, Quora, and Reddit.
Autism Example: If you search autism in Google, Autism Speaks is the top organization listed. It’s a famous organization with celebrity endorsements and big fundraisers, so it must be reliable, right? Well, let’s go to Twitter and do a quick search. The top tweets by autistic people describe Autism Speaks as a hate group. So that organization is not a reliable source for your character.
Let’s check the second organization listed in your Google search: Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). A search through the top tweets on Twitter reveal it is not only supported but also created by members of the autistic community. And ASAN does not support Autism Speaks, further proof the latter is not a reliable source.
• Do follow advocates from the community you are representing. You can do this by searching through social media posts, using hashtags, joining educational groups, and outright asking the community itself.
Note 1: If the educational groups you are joining ask you to fill out a questionnaire, please do not lie and say you are a member of the community (unless you are!) to gain access. Be transparent and let the admin decide if accepting your membership is appropriate. These groups are precious scarce spaces where vulnerable communities feel safe; please do not abuse that sense of safety.
Note 2: Once you’ve been accepted, be prepared to answer questions. These communities have been burned before by outsiders. Be open. Explain how you plan to develop this character and ask for suggestions on how to do it better. If you start to feel defensive, step away for awhile. Go through the research you’ve already done and consider how much trauma these communities have experienced by outsiders, even those who are well-intentioned.
Autism Example: There are so many examples of outsiders trying to tell stories from the perspective of autistic people. Even the well-intentioned ones have caused harm to the community by perpetuating stereotypes, endorsing dangerous practices, or creating characters who are caricatures rather than real. When autistic advocates try to educate, they are dismissed and/or attacked for their mode of communication. Autistic people tend to be direct and literal but allistic people often interpret their words/tone as aggressive and subtextual. Because of this communication difference, the autistic community is ignored even when it comes to autistic representation!
A recent example of this is Sia’s movie, Music. In this video, autistic actors respond to the representation.
STEP 2: Now that you have explored the community through the viewpoint of its members, research how outsiders view it. This is the time to look through scientific/sociological studies, organizations that are not supported by the community, blogs by people who know community members (parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, doctors) but who are not part of the community themselves, and so on.
Why is this important? you may wonder. Well, unless you are building an entirely different world (and frankly, even then it is useful to have knowledge about existing societies), you will need the socio-politico-cultural context of what it is like to be marginalized in your story’s society. That means knowing why your character’s perspective is what it is.
For example, many marginalized people have anxiety. Would they be as anxious if they lived in a society that supported their needs?
• Do view this research from the perspective of your character.
Autism Example: Imagine being autistic and watching this video.
The focus is entirely on the parents and not at all on the kids’ needs. There is an assumption that non-speaking autistic people can’t understand what others are saying (not true). There is no effort made to understand why the kids are behaving the way they are (behavior is communication).
Instead of trying to meet the kids’ needs (maybe the child doesn’t like his teeth brushed due to sensory sensitivities and/or pain), the parents and organization focus on grief, self-pity, and martyrdom.
Private, vulnerable moments are filmed (changing diapers, meltdowns). And, worst of all, one parent talks about how she wanted to murder her child (in front of said child!) and the only thing that stopped her is her other, allistic child.
Imagine hearing all of this spoken about you. This is how the world largely views you and your community. It is traumatic. And it is misinformed. Autism is not a tragedy; it is a different neurotype. Autistic people can live fulfilled lives, with diapers, sensory sensitivities, and non-speaking communication. Disabled people can live fulfilled lives.
• Do read the comments section. You get a pretty intense cross-section of opinions and some back-and-forth that can be useful to your story and, specifically, to your character’s development. You will not only learn how outsiders view the community, you also will see how individual members feel.
STEP 3: Build your character. Give them agency and have their experiences with the world help inform their perspective.
• Do create a background for your character.
Autism Example: Was your character diagnosed early in life or later? Did your character have access to a formal diagnosis or did they self-diagnose? If they didn’t have access, what were the limitations (gender, race, finances, country)? If they were diagnosed at youth, do they have trauma from ABA therapy? Or do they have trauma from being late/un/mis-diagnosed? If they are self-diagnosed, do they have imposter syndrome? (To be clear, autistic self-diagnosis is valid.)
How does this impact how your character interacts with the world?
• Do imagine/create encounters between your character and the world (i.e., with neighbors, friends, co-workers, classmates, bosses, teachers, doctors, at restaurants, grocery stores, the post office). You may not include these encounters in your story but they will help you get in-character.
Autism Example: What is it like for your character to sit in a restaurant? Do they need sunglasses for the light, headphones for the sound? Do they ask for modifications to the menu? If the server is harried, does your character show compassion and patience (despite public opinion, autistic people can have empathy)?
Don’t forget to include the happy times, too! For example, imagine autistic people sharing in-jokes on social media – finding their community, feeling safe, being light and joyous.
Character Study: Dean Simms, Claws [SPOILERS]
Dean Sims is a secondary-main character in Claws. He is a middle-aged Black, autistic man who grew up in the foster system and was abused by at least one set of foster parents. He lives at the intersection of several marginalized communities.
The actor, Harold Perrineau, is not autistic, nor (presumably) is the creator, Eliot Laurence.
[I’m going to take a moment to emphasize that the goal in diverse storytelling is to have meaningful, authentic representation that resonates with the members of the communities whose stories you are sharing. The goal isn’t to have storytellers be forced to publicly state whether they themselves are part of those communities. It can be dangerous to out oneself. People have reasons for not divulging personal information. There is a balance and yes, while we want – need – diverse storytellers, we also want to respect people’s privacy.]
Both Perrineau and Laurence developed Dean’s character by doing research. In this article, Perrineau specifically talks about watching Amythest Schaber’s “Ask An Autistic” videos. During an interview for the article, Perrineau says, I spent a lot of time there talking to [autistic people] and finding out what [their] aspirations were. I found out that if you’re autistic, the things that you want in the world are not different than if you’re not autistic. You want to find your place, you want to feel, and I remember telling that back to [the writers], and then this year they came up with the storyline of Dean wanting to do this stuff …
The collaboration between Perrineau, Laurence, and the writers helped them develop a three-dimensional, authentic character. He is a Black man with agency over his own life (very different than stereotypical autistic representation in media). Dean is loyal, funny, passionate, and full of dreams. He has a loving, consensually sexual relationship. He gets a job as an exotic dancer. He has integrity and a moral compass and beliefs. He protects his sister. He is a complex human being. Dean Simms is one of the best representations of autistic people I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.
Next Section: Consulting and Compensating Experts
It is one thing to strive for perfection and another to expect it. When we expect perfection, we don’t give ourselves the space to learn and grow from our mistakes – to acknowledge, to listen, to do better next time … to go on this very human journey.
~ Kalpita Pathak