I want to talk about representation. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Mike, you’re a white, cis/het, male. Writing about representation is probably a really bad idea. I hear you. Bear with me just a minute.
The idea for this post came from a series of tweets by Justina Ireland where she talked about how ridiculous some of the arguments about representation sound when you take the emotion out of them. She then tweeted several comments about comma usage, and applied the same thought process people use when talking about representation. It was a little tongue in cheek and a bit humorous, but she also made a point.
I want to try to do something similar. I want to remove the emotion from the discussion, so maybe we can for a minute just focus on writing craft.
I’m a soldier. I have been my entire adult life. I write about soldiers. Today I’m going to talk about how writers represent soldiers in their books. Let me be very clear. I am NOT trying to equate the representation of soldiers to representation of other groups. Not even remotely. But by talking about soldiers, I can focus on how representation works without the extra baggage we all bring to other types of discussions. Yes, it’s a metaphor. I’m writing about soldiers. Apply it how you see fit.
Why am I doing this? Because I can. I can point out that a writer poorly represents soldiers, and specifically how they do it, and odds are pretty good that nobody is going to get offended. I’m not saying anything about the writer other than ‘hey, I don’t think you did a great job with that character.’ The writer can take that for what it’s worth and try to get better, and that’s that. It’s nothing personal. People might disagree with my feelings about said character, but I’m less likely to get attacked than others who regularly speak out on the topic.
There was a critically acclaimed movie a few years back called The Hurt Locker. It won an Oscar, and people hailed it for its realism. I tried to watch it. It was so ridiculously *not* realistic that I had to turn it off half way through. It was set in Baghdad in 2005. I was in Baghdad in 2005, so I have a different perspective. Even though the movie was popular, I can give my negative opinion on it, and people accept that. Maybe you liked the movie. Maybe you’re thinking ‘Oh, well, he lived it, so he probably knows better than I do.’
Think about that for a minute.
Let me also be clear that I don’t speak for all soldiers. I’m just one man, and these opinions are my own.
With all that said, here are my thoughts on representation of soldiers:
I’m not giving you the benefit of the doubt. If you’re a non-soldier and you’re writing a book about soldiers, I’m immediately skeptical. This is not your fault. There are just so many poorly written soldiers out there, and that’s a fact of life that you’ve got to overcome as a writer. In fact, I’m so skeptical, I probably won’t read your book. I won’t read it because when you write a chapter where you’re trying to accomplish five things, I see a hundred tiny details that you got wrong and it’s simply not enjoyable to me. There are exceptions. Jay Posey wasn’t a soldier, but in OUTRIDERS he really gets soldiers right. And even then, I wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t first seen an interview with him where he talked about how he wrote soldiers. And that’s how it goes. If you’re a non-soldier and you’re writing a book about soldiers, you’ve got to prove to me why I should read it.
All poor representation is not created equal. Sometimes your poorly written stereotype soldiers aren’t harmful, they’re just not good. We’ve all seen the two-dimensional soldier character. He’s super fit, hyper-disciplined, rigid in his thinking, and just like a hundred other cardboard cutout soldiers in a hundred other books. It’s not really a negative stereotype, so it doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s just weak writing. Good characters have depth. Are there soldiers with those traits? Absolutely. But you’ve chosen the simplest, least interesting things and it makes it seem like you think all soldiers are that way. You may not intend that, but that’s what I see.
Sometimes, though, your representation *is* harmful. For example, say you’re a popular writer and you write an ex-soldier with PTSD. He lashes out at everyone around him and gets violent in inappropriate situations. Now say that a hiring manager for a business read your book, and that character is in her head. The next day, a veteran walks in for a job interview. What’s she thinking about that veteran? Maybe consciously she knows that what she read is fiction and she can divorce that from reality. Maybe she can’t. Maybe she doesn’t even know that she’s subconsciously going a different direction in her hiring decision.
You could argue that PTSD is real, and you’re just writing realistic characters. My counter to that would be that PTSD is extremely complex and manifests in a hundred different ways. Are you sure that you’re the right person to tell that story?
Even when you’re writing what you think is a positive character, you might be doing harm. What if your book becomes famous, your character iconic? Maybe you write Rambo. Not First Blood, the second movie, where he’s a super soldier, and for years real soldiers get compared to that caricature. You probably didn’t mean it, but representation can carry a lot of cultural weight.
My opinion carries more weight than yours. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the military. If you haven’t served and we’re having a discussion about soldiers, most rational people are going to listen to what I have to say about it over what you have to say, no matter how much you may have studied. That’s not to say that your opinion is worthless. Your thoughts have value, especially if you’ve put in the work. But it’s the difference between talking to the college professor and talking to the person who read the professor’s book. If you persist in arguing with me about something I’m clearly more qualified to talk about than you are, I’m eventually going to dismiss you.
I might not be able to explain what you did wrong. Sometimes I just know there’s something off. There are so many things that go into making a great character, I can’t always put my finger on it. When you read someone like Jack Campbell (who served in the Navy) there are dozens of little nuances in how his military characters relate to each other. They’re so minute sometimes that you don’t even notice them, but the sum total immerses the reader in a world that feels real.
If you only write one soldier, the margin for error is lower. If you have a group of soldiers in your story and they’re all well-rounded with different strengths and weaknesses, I’m likely to forgive you for the one that’s a little flat and maybe a bit of a stereotype. If you only have one military character and he’s the bad guy, complete with every negative stereotype out there…yeah, not so much. I stopped watching Supergirl in the first season because of the ridiculous way they portrayed the four star general character. He was rigid in his thinking, unable to adapt, and basically stupid. Sorry. No thanks.
What you think you wrote doesn’t matter. It’s about the reader. The reader gets to interpret what you put on the page any way he or she perceives it. I have no idea what motivation the Supergirl writers had when they wrote that general. Maybe they just needed a minor antagonist for a couple of episodes and they got lazy. Maybe they think all soldiers are stupid. A hundred different soldiers could watch it and all see it a little bit differently. That’s their right.
Just because I think something about a book doesn’t mean every soldier will. My opinion is valid, but it’s not the only one. Just because I say The Hurt Locker is unrealistic doesn’t mean every soldier thinks that. Yes, I was in Baghdad in 2005, but so were 30 or 40 thousand other soldiers who have their own experiences. We’ve all had different experiences that inform our opinions. I’m an officer. I probably see things different from enlisted soldiers in a lot of cases. An infantryman probably sees things differently from a supply specialist. But at the same time, if another soldier tells me something is good or bad, I’m more likely to listen. Because even if we’ve had different experiences, we’ve still got a lot in common.
There’s a big difference between books that include soldiers and books about soldiers. Earlier I mentioned that I’m skeptical about books about soldiers written by non-soldiers. That doesn’t mean you can’t include soldiers (or veterans) in your book. It’s a matter of degree of difficulty. To write a story about soldiers, you’ve got to get a thousand things right. There are details upon details, all of which need to mesh or it doesn’t work. If you’re just including a soldier in your book, the number of things you have to get right drops significantly. Write a three-dimensional character and do some research that doesn’t come from a movie, and there’s a good chance you’ll get it right.
Just because I don’t like your representation doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I’m judging what you put on the page, not your worth as a human being. If you write soldiers poorly, I’m not saying you hate the military. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. What I’m saying is that your book has issues. That’s it. I know it’s easy to take criticism of our work personally, but it’s not personal.
Those are my thoughts. Perhaps you have your own. Let me try to address some of the most common ones I see whenever people discuss representation.
I’m an author. I can write whatever I want. Yes, you can. I 100% support your right to do that. And I’m a reader. I can read whatever I want, and I can tell other people whatever I want about what I read. And if I do, you should accept that. It’s like arguing with reviews. Don’t do it. It’s unprofessional.
I want to represent soldiers better. Will you read my book and help me? Probably not. I’m sorry. Remember how I said I’m skeptical? Yeah. Still am. And even if you’ve done a relatively good job, you’re asking me to critique a book, which takes a lot of time. I have my own writing and my own critique partners competing for my limited time.
But you could make the soldiers in my book better. Yes, I probably could. And for my critique partners, I do. I’m not currently looking for more critique partners – I’ve got great ones already.
But you’re a soldier. You should want better representation of soldiers in books. I do. That’s why I’m using my time to write them. That’s why I support other soldiers who want to write. That’s why I buy and promote books that do it right.
It’s not fair. I want to include these characters, but if I include them and they aren’t right, that’s also bad. Right. Writing is hard. Life isn’t fair. Look, it’s good that you want to write, and that you want to get things correct. And as a writer, I know that if there’s a story in your head that’s eating at you, you have to write it. But at some point, you have to ask yourself if you’re capable of writing that specific story, or if you might want to write a different one and come back to this one when you’ve got more answers. That’s hard. Self awareness is a tricky thing.
You didn’t give me any answers. I still don’t know what to do about representation. That’s the thing with complicated issues. Nobody can give you the answers, because they’re different in every specific situation. You’ve just got to keep working at them, continue to learn wherever you can, and try to do better.