I learned something the other day: In the military it is not okay to refer to a subordinate by their first name. It implies an over-friendly superior-subordinate relationship and can actually be a punishable offense. I knew it was common to use last names but I hate doing what’s common and I thought, why can’t I use first names? So I did. Until I discovered it’s frowned upon. Now, all of my characters are referred to by their last name or a nickname.
It’s a small thing, I suppose but it highlights a bigger problem: When it comes to writing about people and cultures, you don’t know what you don’t know. You only know what you’ve seen in the movies, or read in a book, and oftentimes what you’ve seen/read are stereotypes and misconceptions.
Do you think all Americans are rich? People who live in rural areas are stupid, lazy, and speak with a drawl? Have you ever noticed that the “villain” in an animated movies often has a British accent?
As a writer, it’s critically important to know your characters. If you’re not Arabic or Vietnamese or Kenyan, how can you know the customs, the habits, the day-to-day things they take for granted that are not part of your world? What does the average American know about rugby? Hindu practices? Schools in pre-war eastern Europe?
My current work in progress is about an American and a Japanese soldier in World War II. What the heck do I know about being Japanese? A soldier? In a war? About being a guy even? Not much. I can read and research and study all day long, but there are still things I cannot know because I have never experienced them. That’s where sensitivity readers come in.
Sensitivity readers know the things you don’t know. They can easily see the mistakes you don’t see. It makes your writing more credible.
A sensitivity reader is someone who is hired to read and assess a manuscript with a particular issue of representation in mind, one that they have personal experience of. …Diversity in books is incredibly important, but it’s equally important that diverse books portray whatever they’re writing about accurately and without perpetuating stereotypes. ~Rachel Rowlands
A sensitivity reader is just as important as a developmental editor, a copy editor, beta readers. Their job is to help make your story the best that it can be. You don’t have to take their advice, but most of the time you’d be a fool not to consider it. There are things even the Internet can’t tell me, and if I fail to take those things into account I lose part of the authenticity of my story. Imagine reading a book that assumes things about your culture, your religion, that are totally wrong. You’d probably put down that book and tell your friends not to bother reading it.
Have I made you stop to think about what misconceptions you have about other people and cultures?
And while I’m at it: Do you have military and/or combat experience? Deep knowledge of Japanese culture? A guy who knows everything I don’t know about being a guy?
Wanna be my sensitivity reader?