Commentary

Understanding Exploitative Plots

This post is 2 in the series: Social Justice Concepts for Storytellers
Last time, I described why it’s important to have diverse characters that represent people with marginalized traits. I also described how storyteller carelessness can sabotage attempts at representation. However, many storytellers not only add characters to represent marginalized groups but also choose to make their stories about marginalized experiences.

How We Overfocus on Marginalized Traits

Example

A Japanese family moves into a new neighborhood. They are invited to join the neighborhood block party. But when they show up, the host will not let them just have fun. On entrance, the host loudly announces, “Hey everyone, it’s the Japanese family! Did you know they’re Japanese?”

The family reaches for the pizza that everyone else is eating, but the host blocks their path, shoving a tray of sushi in their hands. The host spends the rest of the night trying to get every family member to bust out ninja moves, refusing to believe they don’t know martial arts.

When storytellers depict characters with privileged traits like being white or cis, they don’t think of those traits as defining features. So they make those characters stand out with distinctive personalities – such as being rebellious, strict, or witty. But when a character with a marginalized traits is depicted, storytellers often think of that trait as the character’s defining feature. Instead of giving them unique individual characteristics, they emphasize the trait. More often than not, this turns the character into a stereotype.

This is not to say that characters shouldn’t have features that reflect their race, gender, disability, etc. We may not realize it, but when we depict a character with a privileged trait we share, we includes lots of subtle cues that reinforce this. Marginalized characters should also have these cues. For instance, if all the straight characters are dating but none of the queer characters are, it will feel like their sexual orientation is being erased. But just like privileged characters, marginalized characters should be individuals.

Focusing almost exclusively on marginalized traits shows that the storyteller thinks of marginalized people as “other.” Besides stereotyping, this can manifest by writing plot arcs about marginalized traits. A cis person may focus on a trans character’s transition, or an able-bodied person may focus on a disabled character’s adjustment to their disability. For comparison, women don’t write plots about circumcision or sexual stamina every time they have a man in their stories. That would be weird and off-putting to men.

At this trend’s worst, storytellers start thinking that they shouldn’t include marginalized characters without a “reason.” This blatant bigotry uses a double standard, whereby privileged traits such as whiteness need no justification to be present in a story, but marginalized traits like neurodivergence can only be justified if the plot specifically requires a neurodivergent character. Not only does this discourage including marginalized characters, but it almost guarantees that any who make it in will be shoehorned into roles determined when plotting.

Is “othering” marginalized people the only reason for creating plots about marginalized identities? No. But if that identity isn’t yours, there’s a good chance it’s a contributing factor. If you automatically assumed that having a marginalized character meant you should focus on their marginalized trait, take a step back and rethink things.

How This Focus Becomes Exploitation

Example

A couple of proud parents are throwing a graduation party for their daughter, who is entering college next fall. Everyone’s having fun when the parents call all their guests to the living room for an important discussion. “We’ve heard there’s a lot of sexual assault happening on college campuses, so we’d like everyone to share their experiences of sexual assault.”

The guests who’ve been assaulted quietly flee the party. Everyone left has a boisterous discussion of all the secondhand accounts they’ve heard. It seems like a great discussion to them; they don’t even notice all the people who left.

We’ve all had moments when a story impacted us because it reminded us of our own lives. Sometimes this creates warm fuzzy feelings, but sometimes it brings up experiences we’d rather forget. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when high school dramas remind me of my actual high school years. Watching stories that remind us of bad experiences turns a fun, escapist story into a deeply uncomfortable one.

Now let’s consider all the stories focusing on marginalized traits. Storytellers create plot arcs by finding problems significant enough to generate conflict. By definition, it requires looking for experiences that are unpleasant for the character. That means a storyteller writing a plot about a marginalized trait is deliberately seeking material that is uncomfortable for people with that trait.

Unless that storyteller has that trait themself, they probably don’t have the same level of personal discomfort with the problems they are putting in their story. Their depiction will reflect that. They will be more likely to depict things like violence or discrimination in graphic detail. They will also more likely to glorify violence, intentionally or otherwise.

All too often, the result is a story that’s about a marginalized person, that uses painful experiences unique to that marginalized group, and that only privileged people can enjoy. These stories exploit the pain of marginalized people for the benefit of privileged people. Exploitative stories are often accepted by publishers and studios run by privileged people. Then, they do well in the market because they are popular with privileged audiences. Very quickly, the privileged perspective on marginalization drowns out the voices of marginalized people.

When Is It Okay to Tell These Stories?

Stories about marginalized experiences should definitely be told; the question is whether people without those experiences should be doing it.

  • Personal experience translates to expertise on a topic, so people without those experiences are more likely to get it wrong.
  • Since the story is covering things the storyteller is inexperienced with in more depth and detail than if they were just depicting characters with marginalized traits, the risk of getting the depiction wrong is higher.
  • Since the subject matter hits close to home, the results of getting it wrong are more disastrous. A woman described as super sexy is one thing; a rape scene described that way is at a whole new level of grossness.

There is definitely value in bringing important issues to light, but marginalized storytellers can write about the issues they want everyone to know about in the way they want them to be depicted. In fact, because publishers and other production companies see similar stories as competition for each other, privileged storytellers writing about these issues are probably making it harder for marginalized storytellers to publish stories about their own experiences. Given that, it’s questionable whether there is any upside to this practice.

This is why at Mythcreants, we recommend against telling stories that belong to marginalized people. If you’re wondering exactly what does and doesn’t qualify, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the story or experience associated with a marginalized group?
  • Is it unpleasant or personal in nature?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then we advise staying away. Of course, there will be exceptions for the rare storyteller. Maybe several of your loved ones have had these experiences and are supporting your efforts to tell a similar story. Maybe you’ve studied hard for years and are dedicated to getting it right. But these situations are not common.

We do get occasional pushback on this advice. Naturally, privileged storytellers chafe at hearing that they’re not supposed to do something. Marginalized people sometimes worry that this advice erases them or will discourage privileged storytellers from including them in stories. I understand this; I’ve been there. But like I said in my last post, no one asks to be invited to a party expecting their new host to turn around and call them names. We all know how we want our lives to be portrayed, so it can be hard to imagine all the hurtful things storytellers might do. But they do it a lot, and we don’t have to choose between being excluded and letting them abuse us. Storytellers can do better.

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Comments

  1. Cody

    As a privileged writer reading stuff like this, I have to say the whole thing feels daunting. Make sure you include other groups. Know that you’re not part of those groups so you’re most like going to screw things up. Make sure you showcase who they are. Don’t dwell on who they are. The list goes on. I try to keep a varied cast, however reading stuff like this almost makes me want to do the opposite, not out of spite but out of fear really. It’s easy to be self conscious enough about what you’re writing without worrying about what is it I’m screwing up about these characters because I’m not part of these groups.

    • Cody

      Just to clarify where I’m coming from. In my current work my protagonist went through a gender swap between drafts because female test readers overwhelmingly said they didn’t think a woman would do that. Their advice on what a woman would do was varied and contradictory so I just tossed up my hands and made the protagonist a man and the complaints stopped. I was just trying to write an over protective person who would throw themselves at trouble to keep the people they care about out of it. My readers just didn’t like that kind of person to be a woman I guess. So I’m just trying to understand how I can avoid similar problems.

      • Chris Winkle

        Oh I see. Well I don’t know what your protagonist is doing, but depending on the readers you have, sometimes readers actually apply stereotypes to characters themselves. I’ve had instances where the men in my life told me completely wrong things about men. If you’d like to submit our ask a question form, I’d be interested in knowing more about what happened in that situation: https://mythcreants.com/ask-a-question/

      • Cay Reet

        It’s more difficult to write a female character as a man than writing a male character as a woman, I guess, because men are very much the standard.

        However, unless you have your main character father a child, there’s not much a woman couldn’t do. It depends on the woman’s character, the situation she is in, her background, and many other aspects, but you can make it believable to have a female characte take on a classic male role.

        • Niconamo

          “Men are the standard”?
          What you mean by that?

          • Kalani

            I think he means that men play a dominant role in our society, so for years straight white men were the primary characters in books. If a LGBTQ+ person, woman, or person of color were in it, they were probably stereotypical. A man is the ‘default profile’ for storytelling, so to speak. Sorry, this was kind of a rambling explanation.

          • Cay Reet

            I mean that if you don’t define the gender of your main character and the name gives no hints (because it can be used for both men and women or is not given), most people will think that hero is a man. The ‘straight white dude’ is the standard hero in storytelling.

        • Cody

          You’re right and it was kinda the point I was going for. I made a list of all the traits I wanted my main character to have and none of them required them to be a man. Next got to thinking about their situation and the original concept of the character was that they were a regular person that got their power from a fairy.

          From there I decided that the main character had to be female because a woman using fairy magic would likely be called Tinkerbell by people as the common I think I’m funny joke, where as the man using fairy magic that joke would probably be a lot closer to a common slur used against LGBTQ+ folks and I didn’t want to write that. I just figured people being people it would be a lot like a blonde hearing blonde jokes all the time or a short/tall person hearing hearing jokes about their height all the time.

          Eventually I decided since urban fantasy + fae was becoming cliche and changed things I left the protagonists gender as female until the whole a woman wouldn’t act that way. It may be like Chris said with the personal bias since my main character acts like an action hero at times, but I figured so does Sarah Conner. Why not let the woman be the hero when it doesn’t take physical strength to cast a spell or pull a trigger? It’s also possible I was writing her who knows.

          • Cay Reet

            I have a female secret agent who is more James Bond than femme fatale and it works out well enough. The point is to give them a reason to be good at what they do. A woman can be just as good a shot as a man, so there’s no trouble with that. With the right technique, she can also be good at close quarter, with a weapon or without. As long as you don’t have scenes of her lifting people high in the air or something else which requires a lot of strength, there’s no trouble with it. When my agent has to face enemies much stronger than her, she resorts to her deviousness and tricks them.

    • Chris Winkle

      It’s natural to feel intimidated. My recommendation is to start small with the marginalized traits you are most comfortable and familiar with. Err on the side of emphasizing marginalized traits less rather than emphasizing them more. You can actually do a surprising amount by writing your story with all privileged characters and then changing their traits after the fact – this helps avoid stereotyping. I think it works especially well with gender. If you have 75% men in your story, just change a third of those men to women. Edit their pronouns and names, that’s it. If you end up with two women in a relationship together, all the better.

      Then over time you can slowly learn more and gain confidence.

      • Cody

        That’s good advice thanks

  2. Anna Darksbane

    As a minority author and fan of this blog, I feel like I couldn’t disagree more with the “stay away” part of the advice.
    By far, the majority of my favorite LGBT characters were written by straight authors. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose them.
    I feel like the trend of “this is mine, you can’t have it” does nothing but make us more fragmented and divisive as a world. I encourage straight authors to tackle LGBT characters; this way, they can explore and come to understand us, instead of us being some mysterious “other” that everyone will get pissed about if they get it slightly wrong.
    If you honestly try, I won’t be pissed. I promise.
    Besides, what kind of world would we live in if white authors are too scared to put in black characters? If cis authors are afraid to make trans characters? And so on. If you think that things are whitewashed or gaywashed or girlwashed or whatever now, then doesn’t it behoove us to encourage others to explore and understand, instead of warning them off?
    I know which one I want.
    Just try to talk with some people who actually are the minority you’re trying to represent. Read about their issues. Have a friend in the minority read over your works and give you feedback. Treat it with care, like you would personally want to be treated.
    That’s all I ask. :]

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For the record, this post does not say that privileged writers shouldn’t write marginalized characters. It says that in most cases, privileged writers should stay away from specifically marginalized *experiences.*

    • Cay Reet

      I’m glad to hear that, because I’m also a straight author guilty of putting LGBT+ characters into my work. I like to diversify my cast in all direction, that includes sexual preferences just as well as gender and ethnicity.

      But I can see where Oren is coming from, saying you should be careful with specific topics about a marginalized group. Putting down specific experiences of a group you aren’t part of is always very difficult and you can quickly slip into a stereotype or something similar.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Yeah there’s a world of difference (and I think that’s the standpoint Mythcreants try to convey) between a straight author simply writing bi and gay characters falling in love, dating, having sex and whatnot, as subplots in their stories, and a straight author thinking that they’re gonna tell What It’s Like to grow up gay in a homophobic family, or be bullied and ostracized because of our sexual orientation, etc.
        Same with other things like race – it’s one thing to be white and have black characters, another to be white and think you’re gonna tell What It’s Like to be black in a racist society etc.

        • Cay Reet

          Pretty much so. In my stories, the sexual orientation of the characters has never been the main plot point (sub-plot, surely, but not main plot). Same goes for their ethnicities or other specific traits. I would never presume I could write a story about what it’s like to be gay and live in an environment where you have to hide it or what it’s like to be the only black person in a white neighbourhood. I’m just not ready for that kind of story.

        • Niconamo

          So you can write about what they are but not about what made them who they are? This limitation does not make sense to me.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            What? Growing up in a homophobic family isn’t what MAKES you gay. Growing up in a racist society isn’t what MAKES you black.

            It would be weird to write a story about a black character with serious PTSD after having been subjected to police brutality while staying away from the actual event that caused the PTSD, yeah. But you can just… write about a black character, or gay character, or other marginalized character, and just have them do plot-related stuff, have character traits and hobbies and stuff not specifically related to being black or gay.

          • SunlessNick

            Consider it this way.

            People are people, so a straight writer should be able to write about a gay person doing ordinary people things without a problem – and yes, that includes falling in love, because on most levels, love is love, regardless of orientation.

            But coming out is something very different. The terror of telling people, of *knowing* that each part of your life where that news reaches may mean that part of your life is destroyed – is something straight people are unlikely to be able to relate to. Their might be something in their lives that means they can, but the odds are against it.

            So for a straight writer, write gay characters, write gay characters in love, but think twice before you write about the point where they come out, or how they deal with the impact of homophobia. That’s the advice I’d distill out of this anyway.

            Equivalents for other marginalisations and all that.

  3. Niconamo

    If a priviledged writer can’t write a fiction story about an experience she/he never had personally can the same person make a documentary? Or be a reporter on a subject? Can you report a murder if you don’t know well enough a murdered person?
    I’ll say yes, but do your research well. Coming from a engineering background it irks me a lot when writer just throw a lot of nonsense words on the screen when making scifi. Clearly it is not the same points as the article but I believe there is a parallel.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that you can write a story about a social group you’re not a member of, if you do your research beforehand. However, a lot of writers who do pick up on those specific topics while not being part of that group are sloppy with their research and do not seek out betas from the group in question to help with erasing problems.

      A person making a documentary usually speaks to a lot of specialists, yet some documentaries still get a lot about the topic wrong. Reporting a murder as a such is just laying down facts others present you with (the police’s PR department, witnesses you get your hands on, etc.) and that can also lead to the reporter putting down false information, perhaps leading to people suspecting the wrong person or considering the victim in a wrong light. There’s always a danger to working with topics you’re not intimately familiar with. As you say yourself, for an engineer, seeing what people make of technology in sci-fi can be horrible. For a person from a marginalized group, the same can be true for a book working on a specifc problem of that group, if the research wasn’t done. Only, for them it can actually have ramfications in society, while technology mistakes in sci-fi usually don’t have such a horrible effect on people’s everyday life.

      • Niconamo

        Thank you for your response.
        Don’t you think we could have a message exactly the opposite from this article? I would think that writing about a group that your not part of might make you better understand them. I personally believe that, for example, being born rich makes it hard for someone to understand the trials of poverty. Make it an assignment in school to write about what they think is the daily lifes of those barely scrapping by and I believe it could be a source of great personal growth. There will be the ones that get it totally wrong but probably the majority will give thought and learn about people they never considered in their daily lives. That could lead to a general increase in empathy. I think that the same process goes through the mind of a (true) writer. They are putting themselves in other peoples shoes. They might not get it right but it should be incentivized not frown upon.

        • Niconamo

          I wrote “your” instead of “you’re” in writer site… Shame, shame…

        • Cay Reet

          I do see your point in this and I surely wish you were right about personal growth. For most people, though, this won’t be happening. Yes, if you could make a rich person understand what life is like for poorer people, they might actually want to do something about it. That might be why people who started out not being rich are more likely to do charity work. You can’t make people do that, though. You can’t force someone to be emphatic and care about other people. If someone, to get back to the actual topic of the article again, is investing time into the research to understand the problem, they will portray it well. If they also use a few beta readers from the group they portray and listen to the input, they’ll totally pull it off. A lot of people who try their hands on something like that, though, will not go that far. They’ll take their impression of what being black in a white neighbourhood or being a woman in a society where women have no rights means and just go from there. There’s a lot of men writing women who don’t even understand things like high heels (and why women can’t magically walk in them once they hit 13), let alone the more ‘personal’ parts of being a woman, such as the menstrual cycle or the fear instilled in us from childhood, because we’ll normally be physically weaker than an attacker. They stereotype the characters and describe the problem in a way which has next to nothing to do with the truth.

          Yes, to successfully write from another person’s perspective, you already need to have empathy. You already need to be able to slip into another person. Then getting into a specific character, you only need research to back up your understanding of a person’s inner self.

          What Oren is warning about is to simply add a person from a marginalized group and making a story about their troubles to spice up your work – or because you think it will easily draw audience. That is what makes a plot exploitative.

  4. Dvärghundspossen

    Agree.

    It’s evident to me that it’s really difficult for the average rich or even middleclass person to picture what it’s like to be poor. When well-meaning people with money give advice to poor people on how to live cheap and save money, their advice is usually stupid and unrealistic. They fail to take into account that a lot of long-term money-saving strategies require that one has a certain amount of money to START with, and they absolutely fail to take into account that willpower and determination are negatively affected by stress and desperation.

    • Kalani

      Perfectly put. So many people offer suggestions that require money to begin the process. How am I supposed to buy 30 cans of soup ‘because they keep’ and still pay for anything else, Linda?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Also if the goal is to learn about a group less privileged than you and understand them better, you’ll be much better served by reading what they’ve written about themselves than trying to write your own account.

    • FluxVortex

      Oh my gosh, this is so true. I’m consistently shocked by how simultaneously universal and misunderstood my experience of poverty is.

  5. Lily Black

    > For comparison, women don’t write plots about circumcision

    Also want to ask about mentioning circumcision in a work. How this should be handled? What can go wrong? What should be considered if the setting is matriarchal?

    Also, what should be considered with other genital modifications, such as subincision?

  6. Tuttle

    Excellent topic. We’re all prone to write something like this that we’d really rather not re-read once the “new” has worn off. A good crit-group can help us see past our ardor for our new pages. But, of course, /good/ is the trick. Thanks for sharing.

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