What Does Our "Motivations” PSA Mean?
I've been on your blog a lot and it has a lot of really insightful information, but I notice a theme with some of your answers where you ask the writer reaching out what their 'motivation for making a character a certain [race/religion/ethnicity/nationality] is' and it's discouraging to see, because it seems like you're automatically assigning the writer some sort of ulterior motive that must be sniffed out and identified before the writer can get any tips or guidance for their question. Can't the 'motive' simply be having/wanting to have diversity in one's work? Must there be an 'ulterior motive'? I can understand that there's a lot of stigma and stereotypes and bad influence that might lead to someone trynna add marginalized groups into their stories for wrong reasons, but people that have those bad intentions certainly won't be asking for advice on how to write good representation in the first place. Idk its just been something that seemed really discouraging to me to reach out myself, knowing i'll automatically be assigned ulterior motives that i don't have and will probably have to justify why i want to add diversity to my story as if i'm comitting some sort of crime. I don't expect you guys to change your blog or respond to this or even care all that much, I'm probably just ranting into a void. I'm just curious if theres any reason to this that I haven't realized exists I suppose. I don't want y'all to take this the wrong way because I do actually love and enjoy your blog's advice in spite of my dumb griping. Cheers :))
We assume this is in reference to the following PSA:
PSA to all of our users - Motivation Matters: This lack of clarity w/r to intent has been a general issue with many recent questions. Please remember that if you don’t explain your motivations and what you intend to communicate to your audience with your plot choices, character attributes, world-building etc., we cannot effectively advise you beyond the information you provide. We Are Not Mind Readers. If, when drafting these questions, you realize you can’t explain your motivations, that is likely a hint that you need to think more on the rationales for your narrative decisions. My recommendation is to read our archives and articles on similar topics for inspiration while you think. I will be attaching this PSA to all asks with similar issues until the volume of such questions declines.
We have answered this in three parts.
1. Of Paved Roads and Good Intentions
Allow me to give you a personal story, in solidarity towards your feelings:
When I began writing in South Asia as an outsider, specifically in the Kashmir and Lahore areas, I was doing it out of respect for the cultures I had grown up around. I did kathak dance, I grew up on immigrant-cooked North Indian food, my babysitters were Indian. I loved Mughal society, and every detail of learning about it just made me want more. The minute you told me fantasy could be outside of Europe, I hopped into the Mughal world with two feet. I was 13. I am now 28.
And had you asked me, as a teenager, what my motives were in giving my characters’ love interests blue or green eyes, one of them blond hair, my MC having red-tinted brown hair that was very emphasized, and a whole bunch of paler skinned people, I would have told you my motives were “to represent the diversity of the region.”
I’m sure readers of the blog will spot the really, really toxic and colourist tropes present in my choices. If you’re new here, then the summary is: giving brown people “unique” coloured eyes and hair that lines up with Eurocentric beauty standards is an orientalist trope that needs to be interrogated in your writing. And favouring pale skinned people is colourist, full stop.
Did that make me a bad person with super sneaky ulterior motives who wanted to write bad representation? No.
It made me an ignorant kid from the mostly-white suburbs who grew up with media that said brown people had to “look unique” (read: look as European as possible) to be considered valuable.
And this is where it is important to remember that motives can be pure as you want, but you were still taught all of the terrible stuff that is present in society. Which means you’re going to perpetuate it unless you stop and actually question what is under your conscious motive, and work to unlearn it. Work that will never be complete.
I know it sounds scary and judgemental (and it’s one of the reasons we allow people to ask to be anonymous, for people who are afraid). Honestly, I would’ve reacted much the same as a younger writer, had you told me I was perpetuating bad things. I was trying to do good and my motives were pure, after all! But after a few years, I realized that I had fallen short, and I had a lot more to learn in order for my motives to match my impact. Part of our job at WWC is to attempt to close that gap.
We aren’t giving judgement, when we ask questions about why you want to do certain things. We are asking you to look at the structural underpinnings of your mind and question why those traits felt natural together, and, more specifically, why those traits felt natural to give to a protagonist or other major character.
I still have blond, blue-eyed characters with sandy coloured skin. I still have green-eyed characters. Because teenage me was right, that is part of the region. But by interrogating my motive, I was able to devalue those traits within the narrative, and I stopped making those traits shorthand for “this is the person you should root for.”
It opened up room for me to be messier with my characters of colour, even the ones who my teenage self would have deemed “extra special.” Because the European-associated traits (pale hair, not-brown-eyes) stopped being special. After years of questioning, they started lining up with my motive of just being part of the diversity of the region.
Motive is important, both in the conscious and the subconscious. It’s not a judgement and it’s not assumed to be evil. It’s simply assumed to be unquestioned, so we ask that you question it and really examine your own biases.
2. Motivations Aren't Always "Ulterior"
You can have a positive motivation or a neutral one or a negative one. Just wanting to have diversity only means your characters aren't all white and straight and cis and able-bodied -- it doesn't explain why you decided to make this specific character specifically bi and specifically Jewish (it me). Yes, sometimes it might be completely random! But it also might be "well, my crush is Costa Rican, so I gave the love interest the same background", or "I set it in X City where the predominant marginalized ethnicity is Y, so they are Y". Neither of these count as ulterior motives. But let's say for a second that you did accidentally catch yourself doing an "ulterior." Isn't that the point of the blog, to help you find those spots and clean them up?
Try thinking of it as “finding things that need adjusting” rather than “things that are bad” and it might get less scary to realize that we all do them, subconsciously. Representation that could use some work is often the product of subconscious bias, not deliberate misrepresentation, so there's every possibility that someone who wants to improve and do better didn't do it perfectly the first time.
3. Dress-Making as a Metaphor
I want to echo Lesya’s sentiments here but also provide a more logistical perspective. If you check the rubber stamp guide here and the “Motivation matters” PSA above, you’ll notice that concerns with respect to asker motivation are for the purposes of providing the most relevant answer possible.
It is a lot like if someone walks into a dressmaker’s shop and asks for a blue dress/ suit (Back when getting custom-made clothes was more of a thing) . The seamstress/ tailor is likely to ask a wide variety of questions:
What material do you want the outfit to be made of?
Where do you plan to wear it?
What do you want to highlight?
How do you want to feel when you wear it?
Let’s say our theoretical customer is in England during the 1920s. A tartan walking dress/ flannel suit for the winter is not the same as a periwinkle, beaded, organza ensemble/ navy pinstripe for formal dress in the summer. When we ask for motivations, we are often asking for exactly that: the specific reasons for your inquiry so we may pinpoint the most pertinent information.
The consistent problem for many of the askers who receive the PSA is they haven’t even done the level of research necessary to know what they want to ask of us. It would be like if our English customer in the 1920s responded, “IDK, some kind of blue thing.” Even worse, WWC doesn’t have the luxury of the back-and-forth between a dressmaker and their clientele. If our asker doesn’t communicate all the information they need in mind at the time of submission, we can only say, “Well, I’m not sure if this is right, but here’s something. I hope it works, but if you had told us more, we could have done a more thorough job.”
Answering questions without context is hard, and asking for motivations, by which I mean the narratives, themes, character arcs and other literary devices that you are looking to incorporate, is the best way for us to help you, while also helping you to determine if your understanding of the problem will benefit from outside input. Because these asks are published with the goal of helping individuals with similar questions, the PSA also serves to prompt other users.
I note that asking questions is a skill, and we all start by asking the most basic questions (Not stupid questions, because to quote a dear professor, “There are no stupid questions.”). Unfortunately, WWC is not suited for the most basic questions. To this effect, we have a very helpful FAQ and archive as a starting point. Once you have used our website to answer the more basic questions, you are more ready to approach writing with diversity and decide when we can actually be of service. This is why we are so adamant that people read the FAQ. Yes, it helps us, but it also is there to save you time and spare you the ambiguity of not even knowing where to start.
The anxiety in your ask conveys to me a fear of being judged for asking questions. That fear is not something we can help you with, other than to wholeheartedly reassure you that we do not spend our unpaid, free time answering these questions in order to assume motives we can’t confirm or sit in judgment of our users who, as you say, are just trying to do better.
Yes, I am often frustrated when an asker’s question makes it clear they haven’t read the FAQ or archives. I’ve also been upset when uncivil commenters have indicated that my efforts and contributions are not worth their consideration. However, even the most tactless question has never made me think, “Ooh this person is such a naughty racist. Let me laugh at them for being a naughty racist. Let me shame them for being a naughty racist. Mwahaha.”
What kind of sad person has time for that?*
Racism is structural. It takes time to unlearn, especially if you’re in an environment that doesn’t facilitate that process to begin with. Our first priority is to help while also preserving our own boundaries and well-being. Though I am well aware of the levels of toxic gas-lighting and virtue signaling that can be found in various corners of online writing communities in the name of “progressivism*”, WWC is not that kind of space. This space is for discussions held in good faith: for us to understand each other better, rather than for one of us to “win” and another to “lose.”
Just as we have good faith that you are doing your best, we ask that you have faith that we are trying to do our best by you and the BIPOC communities we represent.
*If you are in any writing or social media circles that feed these anxieties or demonstrate these behaviors, I advise you to curtail your time with them and focus on your own growth. You will find, over time, that it is easier to think clearly when you are worrying less about trying to appease people who set the bar of approval so high just for the enjoyment of watching you jump. “Internet hygiene”, as I like to call it, begins with you and the boundaries you set with those you interact with online.
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