Why do I have so many characters?

Seemingly, the norm for most forms of storytelling is of one main character who travels through the story learning and doing what they need to get to the end of the story (aka the Hero’s Journey). At least, that seems to be the default because those who deviate from the one main character story motif are “outliers” rather than just writing. The one person story follows just the one main viewpoint, where the main character is the sole hero, or the “good guy” and most of the time the other characters in the story only have an identity in relation to the main character, like “love interest”, “best friend”, “mentor”, without any or much independent motivations or characterisation of their own other than their “function” in relation to the hero.

So, given this abundant cultural backdrop, I was never surprised that one of the common criticisms of my writing was that I have too many main characters and too many points of view. In fact I have a friend who constantly tells me that I should build my writing career on the short stories I do for bonus content, because the multiple viewpoints are too complicated for people. The irony is that I actually write this way deliberately. I’m not just writing how I want because it’s at my whim, I have designed most aspects of TSU very deliberately, and the multiple viewpoint has been a part of the story since I was 14.

I truly believe that our fictional, cultural, and media stories mimic and inform our beliefs about ourselves and life, and if we choose to change our stories (and the method by which they’re told), we also change our culture. But people under-estimate the power of our stories to affect and mold our culture and perceptions. Writers also tend to under-estimate the impact of their fiction and the responsibility for that impact to society at large. Writers just want to tell their story, and the potential impact isn’t usually a thing they think about very much because it’s just fiction, right? I disagree.

When we’re taught by story and myth that there is always a hero, a person who’s more important than others because of destiny (or whatever), we’re laying the foundation for oppression because the “hero” is more important than the side characters. Until recently, most of our stories had the same kind of person as the “hero”: a thin or muscular white cis het male. This informs our cultural subconscious that only this type of person is important, and everyone else is a side character, a “love interest” or the “fat/black best friend” or the “old mentor”. Our very stories tell us that some people are superior to others, so it’s no wonder we have an unrelenting racism and bigotry in our western society.

By focusing on one “main” character, we’re not only adding to the narrative that some people are heroes/important and others are not, we’re also adding to the viewpoint that the individual is the most important thing in the world.

We live in a world where we expect our needs and wants to be met, without much thought for those who help supply those needs. Your place in the social strata can of course vary how many of your needs are met (and how oppressed you are), but over all our society focuses on the single individual, on single dreams, on the pursuit of individual happiness and perfection, and often of being better or more fulfilled than our neighbours. There’s also very often the underlying belief that your greatness must always come at the cost of others well-being or greatness. That the poor deserve to be poor so that the worthy rich can get richer. We are all the hero in our “hero’s journey of life”, and everyone else gets relegated to the plucky side-kick or the romantic love interest or the asshole antagonist. Our individual humanity is the only one that matters, not because it’s true but because we’ve convinced ourselves that the pursuit of individual happiness is the only way to live one’s life. And one of the reasons we believe this is because the only stories we’ve been given to describe our own journeys through life, mirror this mindset.

Our stories have told us a lie, that humans are individualist creatures. We’re not. We are literally pack/herd animals. We’re emotionally, mentally and physically wired to exist in relation to others, and because our stories (and the messages from capitalism) have been based around a single character and their needs and their wants as an individual, we’ve collectively forgotten our connections, our community-based nature. We’ve forgotten how to connect to others, how to work together, how to trust. It’s almost as if our very culture has developed PTSD, and we’re curled up in the corner with a weapon expecting every other person to be a threat, and then wondering why we’re so terribly lonely and miserable.

The healthy, empowered human is one who functions in relation to their community. For evidence of this you only have to look at the native peoples around the world and how their social structures existed before colonial invasion, and perhaps how our ancestors might have lived before invasion as well.

We’ve been so focused on the individual, on dominance and conformity, that we’ve forgotten our base, core nature of community and connectedness. You cannot be connected while looking down your nose at someone who’s different. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t understand something that has no stories with which we can tell and explain a concept. I only understand what I do because I’m a member of a number of oppressed minority groups, so I have a different perspective. For those who fit in the mainstream, they have been taught by our stories to be prejudiced, to be separatist, and entirely individual-focused. And in order to change that in a meaningful and effective way, we must change how we tell our stories, and what stories we tell. People have already cottoned onto this concept (also called diverse representation), which is why we have far more movies and tv series with diverse stories and characters, but we all add to this shift towards a kinder world with our own stories.

So, with intention to help bring about a better future for our society, I choose to write my stories in a format that is as the world really is. There is no one main character because the troubles and problems that come to the characters cannot be solved by one hero, they can only be solved by many, many people coming together and fighting together to survive. In reality, as a species we are stronger together, we are wiser as well, particularly if we share our wisdom and actually listen to each other. And like the fiction world of TSU, the real world cannot be saved by one person, only by a large group of us coming together cooperatively, and saving the world together.

So, I choose to break a number of writing “rules” by deliberately having many main characters and many points of view in my stories, not because I’m trying to be a smart ass or because I’m following a whim. I’m choosing very deliberately to make sure (where possible) that my stories will help to improve the world, to help build a better world without bigotry through my choices of story and perspective.

In summary, I view us all as threads, and together we weave a tapestry of story and experience which becomes history and, hopefully, a better world.

And that’s the perspective from which I write my books.

Normal is the greatest evil in the world

Bold title, no? Perhaps, but it’s actually true.

Think of some of the most horrific crimes done by societies on this planet in history, and look at the core issue that caused the violence. It’s usually one group of people dehumanising and annihilating another group of people who are different to them in some way.

Nazis believed that people like them were “good” and real citizens, and blamed all of the bad things in their lives on those people not like them. In World War 2, the German Nazis murdered millions of people just because they weren’t like them, because they were Jews or gay or non-German, or disabled in some way or any number of other “not us” things. Modern Nazis are everywhere these days, killing, beating, maiming and raping people because they believe themselves to be more human than the “other”.

Look at what’s happening all around the world, even here in supposed egalitarian New Zealand. People identify those who are like them and those who are not, and convince themselves that the people who aren’t like them are less human or less worthy of freedom or even existence. When another person is viewed as not as human as me, then the me can discriminate and be cruel. Poor people can have their needed help taken away from them because those in power dehumanise them and blame them for being poor. The homeless are stereotyped as being hostile and dangerous, as being at fault for their situation, so people can justify treating them inhumanly. Politicians can take away funding to feed kids in their schools because they can blame the parents for not being good parents, all the while the kids still go hungry. We have become a very cruel world, or perhaps the cruelty has always been there, we’ve only just recently become aware of it.

People are being murdered around the world because they’re “other”. There are innocent African Americans being murdered by American police in certain regions because the cops believe that just being black means someone is a threat. A kid with a plastic gun got shot by a policeman last year or the year before, because that policeman didn’t see a boy playing pretend, all he saw was a criminal with a gun. Because being white is this great NORMAL, and not being white is an excuse to kill and oppress people.

Closer to home, in New Zealand if you’re obviously Maori, people immediately assume that you’re a criminal. You get followed around shops because you’re Maori and that means you’re in the shop to steal stuff. If you’re a large Maori man with facial moko tattoos you can just stand there and smile, and still someone will accuse you of being threatening or dangerous. If you go to court for the same offence as a pakeha person, the judge will often subconsciously believe that the pakeha person is good and deserves a second chance, but if you’re Maori, they will more often than not assume that you’re a career criminal, as if the mere existence of Maori genes in your blood means that you will always be a criminal and violent, and you will get the maximum sentence or certainly a harsher one than your pakeha compatriot. Because being pakeha/white is “normal” and good, and being anything else is “bad”.

There are so many people out there who genuinely believe that Islam is a religion of hate and cruelty, without any knowledge of the actual religion. I don’t know much about Islam, other than it holds a lot of the same beliefs, religious structures, and doctrine to the other Judeo-Christian religions, but I know enough about the body count of the major religions in the world throughout history to understand that if you actually did a tally of religious violence throughout history, and used that as the benchmark of the “most violent religion”, Christianity is much much higher on that list than Islam. They’re the ones who used their religion to colonise the world, to murder millions and millions of native peoples around the world in the name of God, they’re the ones who tortured, raped, drowned, and burned to death millions of “witches”, and they’re the ones who, in the modern age, still justify killing, maiming, and allowing people to die of things like AIDS in the name of God because being anything other than heterosexual is being a “deviant”.

All of this hate, all of this rage and violence… almost all of it comes out of the defence and enforcement of this weird fluid thing called “normal”. In some ways even the gross amounts of violent greed in the world is down to this concept of normal because the super rich view themselves and humans and “good”, and the poor “masses” that they steal from aren’t human, aren’t “normal”, so they’re justified in taking everything.

Everything horrific in this world, at least the human world, so often comes down to this idea of normal and that it divides people into one group who are allowed to live without oppression, bullying or death by mob, and the other group who are “less” and deserve to be oppressed as a punishment for not being normal.

Now, there are broad scales of this idea. Lots of incarnations. World War 2 is just a very large scale, as are all of the current “ethnic cleansing” events that are going on in the world. Those things are obviously immoral to much of the “civilised” world. But what about the kid at school being beaten, threatened, and verbally abused because he prefers reading books over playing rugby? What about the drunk mobs who beat up some random guy on the street thinking he’s gay because he’s wearing a pink shirt? What about the transwoman who is assumed to be sexual predator just because she dared to choose to live as herself instead of the man that society decided she had to be? What about women who get beaten for asking questions, for being smarter than the boys? Or shot for wanting to go to school? Hell… what about the smokers who just want somewhere safe and under cover to have a smoke without the entire world lecturing them about lung cancer. Or the fat person who can’t go into a food court in a mall and eat their lunch without multiple people telling her what she should and should not be eating?

Every time you correct someone for not being normal, that’s a kind of violence. Telling a fat person that she should be eating a salad instead of hot chips doesn’t seem like a sort of violence, it’s certainly not on the same scale as mass murder, but it’s still violence. Just as refusing to respect someone’s preferred name and gender doesn’t seem like violence, but it is. Those “corrections” are telling to each person who are receiving them that they’re not allowed to even exist, that they don’t deserve basic human respect, because they’re not “normal”. If a fat girl can’t eat in public without someone “correcting” her, that message says that she’s not allowed to exist in that public space. If a smoker can’t just sit and have their break far from people who might be harmed by the smoke without being harassed, they get the message that they’re not allowed to exist anywhere but their own homes, that they’re not allowed lives with work and kids and partners and go to the mall or the movies or whatever, because they’re not a person until they’re non-smoker, or until they’re no longer fat, or no longer brown skinned, or until they wear a short skirt with cleavage, or until they walk everywhere with a smile glued on their face. When you “correct” someone in a public space for not complying to your beliefs about what people should do and be, you’re telling that person that they’re not allowed to exist in a public space unless they fit what you think of as “normal”. You’re erasing their very right to exist in public spaces. Now does it sound like violence? I think so.

I live in a small coastal town in NZ. It’s a pretty nice town with lots of different sorts of people, but if you’re weirder than the locals they generally respond in a similar shitty way. I was sitting outside a bakery one day a while back, and a kid wearing a full goth outfit, a Mohawk, and heaps of piercings was walking down the street towards me. He looked amazing… beautiful even. I sat and just admired the fierceness of his manner and all the details of his costume. And as I watched, the locals on the street coming the other way were all so afraid of him. They gave him a wide berth, some even crossing the road to avoid walking past him. Here was this beautiful example of diversity, and they were all afraid of him. I remember that day thinking that it was such a tragedy. This kid was just a kid, just an ordinary young person living his life as he chose and dressing as he chose to express himself externally, and because these locals perceived his lack of normality as a threat he was othered, he was avoided and treated like a pariah. That fear, that assumption that diversity is always a threat, is a sort of violence. You’re telling someone that unless they’re normal, they can’t possibly be a good person.

Our culture enforces the norm with different kinds of violence. And this idea permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s so prolific that a lot of people bully and correct other people, but do not even recognise that they’re being violent towards those other people.

I genuinely believe that we will never ever stop the violence in our world until we stop this enforcement of the norm. People are people, whether they’re like you or not. Individually, some people are good, some people are mean, some people are loving, some people are cold and grouchy. But belonging to one group, say gender or sex or culture or race or religion, does NOT define whether an individual is good or not. And if we pretend that it does, we’re being culturally violent towards those people.

I once had a person tell me that I must be inherently a bad person because I did not follow their particular religious sect. They believed entirely that without their specific faith, humans had to be evil. What’s ironic is that they were a part of Christian sect that prayed for God to kill LGBT people, and celebrated when other groups of people out in the world killed an entire race. Now does that sound like goodness to you? Because it certainly doesn’t sound good to me, but do we assume that all Christians are evil bastards like this particular sect? No, we do not because they’re a part of the “mainstream”, the normal, and so any deviation from goodness is considered an issue of an individual being evil. But the moment an individual in a “minority group” does something horrible, the entire group is held accountable for it. The only evil in the world is individuals, not entire races, religions, cultures, sexualities, genders… ONLY individuals. But everyone is so focused on policing the norm and making everyone the same, that they convince themselves that their bigotry is true to make themselves feel better about the world.

But you know what? If you collected together all of the people who in one way or many ways did not fit this invisible “norm”, who had been bullied as a kid or treated badly because they belonged to a “minority group”, what proportion of the population do you think those people would belong to? Perhaps, let me put it another way, how many people do you know in your life who haven’t been bulled at school or at work, who haven’t been treated badly because of something that they are? I don’t know about you, but I know no one who has never been bullied in one way or another. And I guess, that could just be the fact that I don’t fit into this “norm” in very many ways so I tend to befriend fellow freaks and weirdos, but I would still guess and probably be right to assume that actually, the majority of people don’t fit into the norm in some way. Which makes it not a “minority” problem but actually a “majority” problem. For example, take 50% of the world of women, they are oppressed in patriarchal societies, then add gay men they too are oppressed in patriarchal heterosexual societies, add straight men who aren’t white, and now I ask what proportion of the total population would all of those groups be? Certainly NOT a minority. The problem is that the proper group that is completely “normal” are the actual minority, and they subconsciously (or consciously) enforce the idea that they’re the majority, that they’re the norm by making everyone oppress each other for the singular bits of them that do not fit the norm.

So why do we continue? Why do we continue to bully others who don’t fit in? Why do we think we have the right to beat up or maim or kill a person simply because they belong to a particular group who aren’t “normal”? I’ve always wanted to meet someone who has violently beaten someone for being gay, and actually ask them why? Why was that violence the reasonable response to someone being gay? Why does being gay in some areas of the world mean that straight people are justified in hunting them down and beating, maiming or killing them? I’ve never understood this. Why in Chechnya, did an uncle feel justified in throwing his nephew off a building and killing him? Why do people do this? What is the purpose? Why is this the correct response? I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer from any bully I’ve managed to talk to, they usually just shrug and say something mindless like “they’re gay”, with no other justification. But why? Why must we as a culture use bullying and systemic oppression to suppress diversity? Why is diversity such a threat to society? And why can’t we each see that hardly anyone actually fits in the norm perfectly? Everyone is bullied, everyone is told that they’re horrible or bad or whatever, for not fitting that perception of normal. So why do we perpetuate it? Why do we not remember being that scared child facing down a bunch of bullies, remembering how horrible that was, and then as an adult refusing to bully others like that?

If we stopped enforcing the norm and accepted diversity as a perfectly natural part of being human, what wonders do you think, could we create by redirecting all of that energy into better things? How much better would the world be if we actually allowed everyone to be treated equally as human beings regardless of concepts like “normal” or “freak”?

Bigot isn’t an insult it’s a challenge

(Originally posted 1 Feb 2017 on the old blog)

My core belief with regards to social justice is that everyone should be treated equally, so when I see a comment or a post online that is bigoted or contributes to the suffering and/or oppression of others, I immediately feel the moral imperative to call out people on their bigotry. I do try to curb that instinct for self preservation or if I can see that the person just won’t understand, but the need to point out the bigotry is always there.

Other than the very common explosion that happens when you point out people’s prejudices and they’re not ready to contemplate your words, the next most common reaction for me is someone getting angry and accusing me of insulting them.

I’ve never really understood this reaction.

To me, an insult is a label describing a trait of a person that is probably permanent. Essentially an insult is a judgement of someone’s moral essence or it’s a way of making someone else less human than you are. In general, it’s usually describing something that can’t be changed or something that someone thinks isn’t changeable. Like, being called a “chauvinistic pig”, is usually a label given to cis het men who think that women exist to meet their needs and for no other purpose.

An insult is what you call someone when you know they’ll stay an asshole, so there’s no point in having a discussion with them. It’s an insult because you’re calling them something as their identity, and not just identifying bad behaviour, i.e. you’re assigning them an identity based on their behaviour or beliefs.

But when I’m calling someone out, my intention isn’t to assign someone an identity of “bigot”, my intention is to call out their behaviour, to name their behaviour and inform them of the consequences of their behaviour so that they think about their actions. So, if I take the time to construct an intelligent reply that points out to another person why what they’ve said/written is offensive, and perhaps give them other ways of responding to said situation that is less harmful, what I’m actually saying is that I believe that the person is a reasonable individual who just simply doesn’t understand all of the implications of what they’re saying. I’m also saying, that I believe once they understand, that they would care enough about other people that they would want to be a kinder person, that given additional knowledge they would choose to change how they deal with said subject to minimise the harm that they previously spread with their prejudice.

So, if I take the time to actually call you out, particularly if it’s a long post/reply, I’m not actually insulting you, I’m challenging you to understand the situation a little better, because I believe that you’re a good person who would want the opportunity to learn how not to be an asshole to other people if only you understood the situation a little better.

Being called out isn’t a comfortable process, it’s embarrassing, challenging and can hurt one’s feelings, it can feel like you’re being attacked. But, at least for me, the purpose in calling someone out on their bigotry is to challenge them to be more aware of the consequences of their actions.

I’m calling someone out as a challenge to be a kinder human being. So when you reply with things like “don’t insult me” or “political correctness gone wrong” or “grow a thicker skin”, all that I end up hearing is in fact that you don’t care. That I’ve just wasted my time and my belief in your kindness towards others. In the end you’re actually the one who is insulting you, not me, because you’re revealing that you just don’t care enough about other people.