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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet on Literature as a Conversation

Society and culture

This is the sixth interview and the eighth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, we get to finish the discussion we started some time back with writer Leah Bobet.

LUC: In our first round of questions, you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite’s book Drawing Blood, saying “Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories,” and you went on to describe how that has affected how you see and understand many kinds of people in the world. Are you consciously trying to create “aha” moments like this for your own readers? Are your goals for inclusivity in your writing explicit and specific?

LEAH: I’m not, no – and I’m not sure if one deliberately can create that moment.  Every reader’s set of experiences and stories and, well, their brains are different.  The “aha” moment is when the story being told combines with the rest of your life and data and experiences in a way that tips over a realization you’ve been on the verge of making.  It’s so very rooted in the reader that I’m not sure crafting it is possible.

What you can do, I think, is present the world as you see it, or the questions you’re sitting up nights asking yourself.  And people will either agree or disagree with what you show them, or go off asking all new questions that you never could have predicted.

As for goals for inclusivity, mostly the goal for me is to have it — which could be read as extremely explicit and specific, or not at all!  But to be clearer:  I don’t write to a moral point, or to proselytize in any way.  It didn’t take more than five minutes’ experience as an editor to learn that there’s a difference between a story and a piece written To Make A Point ™, and that the latter is very difficult to make into an interesting or engaging read.

What I do try to write is the kinds of stories I want to read as a reader, and those are stories that challenge me; stories that can both sweep up my heart and make me really and truly think; stories that examine social values without trying to sell them to the reader.  The stories I write are populated by all kinds of people because I want to read stories like that, and because that’s the world on my block, in my neighbourhood, in my city.

LUC: When a writer tackles a story that includes someone from a group they’re not a part of, what tests or steps or touchstones should be used, in your opinion, to do the job right?

LEAH: Youch – I am not at all qualified in any fashion to say how one can do the job right.  You can do all sorts of recommended things and still drop the ball on this sort of thing, or do none of them and do a really productive job.  It’s all situational, and it depends, also, on what job you’re trying to do.

I think there are two main factors to look at when you’re writing characters from a marginalized group, however you choose to tackle them.  The first: What’s the existing social and literary conversation around how that group is portrayed?  What are the in-person stereotypes about them, and what are the fiction stereotypes?  Because even if you’re not aware of or writing out of that stereotype, literature’s a conversation, and your comment (to stretch that metaphor!) will be taken as part of the larger conversation.  If it’s just reinforcing that, or not acknowledging in certain ways that there is a conversation going on, then it’s very easy to do harm.

I’ve tripped on that one myself: Thinking I knew the ground around how a minority is treated in fiction, and not in fact knowing it at all.  That particular piece of work hurt readers, and I can tell you unambiguously that causing harm with your work – using the trust a reader grants you carelessly, or using it ill – is a horrible feeling.  It’s not one I personally care to repeat.

The second factor?  Remember that your characters are people.

This sounds small, but it’s actually pretty big.  Remembering someone’s a person can mean remembering that someone from group X will have things that make them laugh and cry and roll their eyes just like someone from group Y will.  It can mean that they’ll be more or less attached to the culture and religion and society they grew up in, or in different ways, depending on their personality and experiences.  It can mean looking at their reactions as not something opaque and Other and strange, but as reactions to people around them being kind or cruel, or what has been expected of them, or what success and failure were laid out to mean when they were young.  It also means that they have a personality, and that there isn’t a standard, textbook way for people of group X to react to those things: anyone who’s ever had an argument with their siblings can pretty much back that one up.

In short, you are writing a human being.  Treat them as such: as someone complete.

This means, a lot of the time, learning not just to watch, and to see, but to empathize.  Which doesn’t mean to feel bad for someone; it means to, to the best of your ability, shift your own perspective.  What might your street look like to someone with mobility issues?  What would a character who grew up on a farm notice when they walk into a city park, and what would one who grew up in Manhattan notice?

This isn’t just a tool for writing characters different than you; it’s a tool for writing any characters well.  And it’s a tool that ends up bleeding, like all the best ones do, into your life: Because real people are complete and complex humans too, and once you’ve gotten into practice in taking other perspectives and not assuming your own is the only perspective?  You’re seeing people.  And that will reflect in your interactions; in how you treat your neighbours in the small things; and in how they notice, and treat you in return.

LUC: We’ve talked a little about Drawing Blood. Are there other books or stories that, for you, stand out in this regard? If so, what did they do right?

LEAH: Actually, this might appear to come a bit out of left field?  But: Anything by Sean Stewart.  Specifically Galveston, or Nobody’s Son.

If you subscribe to the theory that every author has a couple themes or problems they keep returning to, picking at around the edges, then one of Stewart’s is about realizing that you’re actually a complete asshole, and then what you do after that realization hits.  This is useful to everyone, I think, because I have not yet met a person of any identity makeup who hasn’t been an asshole to somebody.  In activism or just in daily living, the skill of what you do after you’ve been hurtful to someone else is a very useful one to practice, no matter who you are.  They’re flawed books about flawed people, and I’m not put off by either the books or the protagonists being flawed, because they’re also clear-eyed and kind.

So, what did those books do right for me, as a reader?  Aside from being quite well-made in a lot of ways – Stewart has a real skill with subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to his characterization – the thing that affected me about them was that they’re so non-judgmental.  They let you in close to people who are wounded and recognize those wounds as valid and real, and then show how the behaviour that woundedness causes hurts other people, and how that pain is valid, too.  And I think that’s the key: That pain is valid too, not instead.  There’s an immense compassion in recognizing that we’re all capable of simultaneously being the people dealing the hurt and receiving it, or acting out of old hurt while acting well or badly.  Rendering that into fiction is a very tricky thing – almost as tricky as practising that kind of compassion in life.  And it’s just as worthwhile, I think.

Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Anaea Lay on “An Element of Excitement”

Society and culture

This is the fifth interview and the seventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Anaea Lay.

LUC: Modern fiction–and some might argue fiction throughout history–seems to have a much more limited cast of characters than real life does, often putting characters who are straight, Caucasian, fully able, neurotypical, relatively young, and otherwise a lot like the typical American CEO or politician center stage. From your point of view, what difference does it make? What, if anything, is there to be gained from having a more diverse range of people in the center of our novels and stories?

ANAEA: I’d specify that modern English-language fiction does that. You get a much broader cast if you branch out into fiction from other parts of the world.

That said, the biggest risk with limiting your cast is that you’ll be boring. There’s nothing wrong with writing about a straight white middle class American male in good health, but you better give me something that’s going to set that work apart from all the other stories about the same character. If you stretch out and write about somebody else, somebody I haven’t read about a thousand times already, you’re starting off on stronger ground.

It’s one of those truisms you hear all the time that there are only x number of plots and every story is just a variation on one of them. Expanding your cast of characters opens up your possibilities for variations. It lets you tackle new problems, see new obstacles, go to different places and play with new ideas. As a reader, I like to see different characters because finding new things is part the joy of reading. When I get bored, I start to nit-pick what I’m reading and everything falls apart for me.

There’s also an element of excitement when I run into a character who’s like me in a way that I’m not used to encountering. There really ought to be more child-hating polyamorous women in fiction, because I’m a sucker for them.

As a writer, creating interesting characters keeps me engaged. I’m not a planner, so I rely on my characters going interesting places and doing interesting things to find my plot and get me through it. “Unmarked” characters run a high risk of winding up invisible to me while I’m writing. But the characters who challenge me, who come at the world from a different angle or background, force me to be a better writer. World building matters so much more because they way they interact with the world and the world interacts with them is different.

Making sure your prose is spot on matters because you can’t rely on the assumptions of what everybody knows about your default character to do your work for you and you might be bumping up against expectations trained by those defaults.

LUC: So does a broader range of groups of people attract you when reading fiction, too? What do you look for in fiction you read? What kinds of novels or stories would you most love to find in this regard?

ANAEA: I’ll read most anything if its good, and some things even when they aren’t. Having a broad range of characters, or characters I haven’t already read umteen billion stories about definitely stands out when I’m looking for fiction. One of my favorite authors right now is Nora Jemison. A lot of that is her prose which is lush and gorgeous, but her characters are fascinating and complex and not people I’ve read tons of things about, which makes it really easy to wind up completely immersed in her story. I’m not mentally checking off tropes as I read, and I’m not switching into analytical-reader-mode just to find something interesting enough to stay engaged.

I don’t look for fiction with character diversity as an explicit criterion. That said, I hate reading things I can predict from early on because I know the shape of the tropes they’re using. Having non-standard characters is a signal that the author is doing something different, and that makes it much more likely that they’re doing something I’ll find interesting. Greek and Norse gods? It’ll take a lot to make those compelling again. Tlazolteatl, though? Do your research well enough to keep from hurting me, and I’m there. Whiny white guy who wants to get a girl? Meh. Whiny Chinese-American guy who’s lost his connection to his mother? I contemplated crying. That’s what I want to read.

LUC: What other kinds of inclusivity, apart from race and ethnicity, connect particularly well for you or raise your interest in a story?

ANAEA: Women getting to play traditionally male tropes, and and bi or homosexual characters outside their standard boxes. See Alice from the BBC series Luther for a great example of the former, “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn in Clarkesworld for the latter.

LUC: What do you hope to see happening among writers over, say, the next decade that’s different from what we’re seeing now, in terms of inclusivity?

ANAEA: I’d hope that going forward we continue to find the characters who’ve been neglected and tell their stories, and to keep talking to what’s going on. For example, I was having a conversation where somebody was lamenting the loss of the “Coming out” story as a compelling story. At this point, there have been so many stories about the difficulties of coming out, and coming out is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, that it’s hard to bring anything new to that particular story, even though it was hugely popular in the 90’s. I’d hope that we’d keep pressing the boundaries, keep making progress to the point where things that seem fraught now become normal. But I’d also hope that we don’t neglect where we are now or forget what it’s like to be breaking this ground and learning these lessons.

There’s an arc you can see over time as you look at fiction. If you look at some of the classics that try to paint a better future, or warn about a problematic future, they’re ridiculously simple and naive by today’s standards. Just compare Brave New World to The Windup Girl and you’ll see what I mean. I’d much rather have more fiction like The Windup Girl, and I’m excited about where that conversation will go from here because it’s going to have to break new ground, get more nuanced, richer. But it’s handy to have Brave New World as a yardstick to see how far we’ve come, or haven’t come.

You can do the same thing with looking at trends across time to include more characters. It’s still easy to run across cringe-inducing badly written women, but the good ones aren’t the exception anymore. There seems to be a movement toward non-white characters and pulling from non-western traditions and while a lot of that is creators deliberately making an effort to do that, audiences are getting savvy and starting to demand it, too. I’m not the only jaded and bored reader our there.

So I suppose I don’t have any specific desire for ten years from now, except that we keep doing what we are doing, and keep getting better. Though I will not complain if sparkly vampires have disappeared.

Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, and plots to take over the world. The rumors that she never sleeps are not true. She has no comment on the rumors about the disconcerting noises emanating from her basement. You can find her fiction in Apex, Penumbra and Shock Totem. She blogs about just about anything at


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet


Attending Readercon recently, I was struck by discussions I heard and took part in that brought up the problem of inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction: that is, what kinds of characters are conspicuously not present or very often stereotyped. This applies to race, but also to a lot of other categories: sexual preference, gender and gender identity, age, disability, mental health, social and economic class, and others.

The question I’m left with as a writer is this: what am I not doing and not seeing that’s contributing to the problem, and what can I do and understand that will contribute to making things better? So I’m doing a series of interviews with writers I admire who have things to say on the subject, starting with this one with Leah Bobet, whose novel Above (Arthur A. Levine, just out in April) tackles physical differences and marginalization in a novel and compelling way. Publisher’s Weekly gave it starred review: “Bobet effortlessly blends reality and fantasy, her characters are both gifted and broken—hers is a world that is simultaneously fantastic and painfully real.”

LUC: A lot of your fiction deals with characters that aren’t common in the books and stories we often see. From your point of view, is this tendency of most commercial fiction to prefer white, fairly young, straight, “non-ethnic”, monotheistic, neurotypical, non-disabled, and otherwise “normal” (perhaps I should say “as-though-normal”) characters a problem, or are you just taking a different path? If it’s a problem, what’s wrong with it?

LEAH: Hah – you’re asking me if this is a creative decision or a political one!  Well-played.  And, well, it’s both.  They’re inextricable.

I feel that it’s definitely a problem, yes – and it’s because of that word “normal”.  We’re none of us normal, and we’re all normal, and that’s not just the thing your parents tell you to make you feel better when some bigger kid pushed you around for whatever invented reason.  Calling one (fairly narrow!) kind of person “normal” makes people expect that their stories are the most important, and ultimately, that anyone who falls outside those lines doesn’t really have stories.  And they do.  We do.  You do.

Not only does that rob everyone of a whole lot of interesting stories, but it slowly and concretely gives us the idea that those people who aren’t “normal” don’t really matter.  They don’t have stories, so they don’t do interesting things; fight fights; reconcile; cry; learn; fail.  They don’t exist.

And telling most of the people in your society that they subtly don’t exist?  Just, well.  Seems like a bad idea to me.

LUC: So what happens when traditionally disregarded groups of people do make it into our novels and stories, especially as central characters? What kinds of impact can or do we have on readers when we write more inclusively?

LEAH: Well…just like with any work of fiction, a few things can happen.  It depends on who’s writing the work – are they in the group, or out of it? – and who’s reading it, and how well the portrayal is done.

The portrayal can be done sloppily or on the basis of the kind of harmful stereotypes that most people have about someone else without even realizing it, and then people are hurt and angry, and there are negative feelings all around.  Or, when it’s done thoughtfully, it can still sink like a stone: Books or stories fail to catch on all the time, for reasons I’m sure most of publishing would pay in body parts to figure out.  Or, well, there can be a benefit to readers, or to the community overall.

I think it’s probably hard to say where those social benefits begin and end.  Readers are people, and each person has a different and individual relationship with the various labels and roles that make up their identity (and that’s the first trap of all: thinking that just because someone is a member of a minority group, that that identity is their identity, or that all members of a given group have the same relationship to that part of their lives.  It’s not, and they don’t.)  So one reader might see themself in a character and feel like their existence, their stories, are being acknowledged by the larger community.  Another might start thinking about how their neighbour sees the world, and even if that’s not how their neighbour sees the world at all, learning to be considerate is, I think, a real plus.  Another might say, “That’s not what being X is like,” and then be clearer on what, for them, being X is actually like and why someone else might see it that way, whether that someone else is a member of the group or not.

Someone else might realize, in the back of their head, that there are more stories and ways of living out there than their own, and develop further the kind of open-mindedness that makes you not automatically reject someone living differently than yourself.

This happens.  This works.  Once upon a time when I was eleven years old, and didn’t even have much of a concept of gay people (yeah, it was a pretty isolated and homogenous suburb, and it was the early nineties.  I know.) I read Poppy Z. Brite’s Drawing Blood. Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories.  And although here and there I’ve struggled with the kind of ingrained prejudices you get when you grow up in a largely racially homogenous, economically homogenous, religiously homogenous isolated suburb, that has never been one of them.  Right story, right time, right reader.

So I guess what I’ve been groping towards here is that portraying characters and people who aren’t in that narrow band of traditional North American “normal” can, at its best, make people different from a reader not other.  It can make a reader go, “Oh, right, that person is still a person,” instead of seeing a role, a stereotype, an other.  It can make all the readers out there who don’t fit in that narrow slice of the population whose stories are always told – being, most of the population of North America right now – feel like yes, everyone else sees them; they are acknowledged as part of the community too.  That they have a voice and a place, and space to be more than the stereotypes that are frequently expected.  It gets writers who aren’t part of that narrow slice of the population out there, heard, and paid, which is really important, because having homogenous professions in a heterogenous community can be really toxic when it comes to things like public policy, and who needs what, and how it needs to be done in the everyday world.

And then?  Maybe we all treat each other better.

I’ll have more questions for Leah in a follow-up interview down the road.

Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at

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