Writing Without Using Labels

In the October 2010 issue of The Writer Magazine, Lynn Capehart writes a powerful article, entitled “The importance of inclusionary writing.” Before Capehart even begins her article, she asks a question that might stop any writer in his or her tracks:

Are you unwittingly saying more than you mean to in your treatment of characters of other races?

She doesn’t write about whether or not characters of color appear in our stories. She draws attention to the way some writers describe those characters when they do play a role. A description – or lack of description – of a character of color may fuel a sense of inequality. Capehart says that often  “[white] writers…will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white” (p. 34).

When I read that quote, I immediately thought of one example where I did just that. And, like Capehart points out, I did it without thinking. My choice, to include the race of a particular character in a story I wrote, never sat well with me. But, I had considered and re-considered my use of language. I thought I had a good reason for using that description. And, I never pinpointed the real source of my discomfort.

Capehart’s article suggests that I didn’t need to mention race at all. She does admit that sometimes “[a] writer will find it…constructive to the story, to simply mention a character’s race up front” (p. 34). But often, as proven by the writing samples Capehart analyzes in her article, the mention of race does little more than add a label to the character; it rarely adds texture.

The solution Capehart offers, in lieu of identifying race, is a technique writers turn to all the time when constructing narrative or dialogue — Show, don’t tell. Capehart says:

If a writer does a professional job constructing a character, readers will know the race without being told directly (p. 34).

She also highlights several benefits of using inclusionary language in our writing:

  • Inclusionary writing helps a reader see a character beyond their race, as an “individual with a unique set of talents and tics” (p. 34), and breathes much more life into that character.
  • Inclusionary writing shows respect for readers of color and, in doing so, broadens a writer’s audience.
  • Inclusionary writing gives each character the weight they deserve in the story, whether they play a major or minor role. As Capehart says, “[e]xclusionary writing diminishes any character who is not white” (p. 35).
  • Inclusionary writing supports equality, because “it treats all races alike” (p. 35).

To be fair, Capehart doesn’t let Writers of color off the hook, saying they must do their part to avoid labels as well and give white characters “the same relevance as nonwhite characters” (p. 35).

Capehart’s message throughout her article remains powerful, yet simple: a character is a character, no matter their gender or race. If I, as a writer, make an honest effort to study and describe each character as an individual, I am more likely to find myself writing inclusively.

*****

Capehart, Lynn. “The importance of inclusionary writing,” The Writer. October 2010: 34-35. Print.

You can also read Capehart’s article online here.

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14 responses to “Writing Without Using Labels

  1. I’d say exactly the same goes for disability, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and the rest. Unless it’s central to the plot, it’s probably best just to draw the character rather than label them. In science, we long ago learned about gender free writing, using ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ ‘he/she’ or alternating throughout the text. We’re also required to talk about people instead of patients, clients, or service users wherever possible. I hadn’t thought about this issue in fiction but your blog entry has brought it right home, thanks for passing on the message 🙂

  2. One of the most interesting points is that “[white] writers…will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white.” And I think that crosses over to what Suzanne said as well …

    Thanks for a a thought-provoking post, it will make me think even more about how I show bias or make assumptions in a lot of things in my writing based on my background.

    • Cathryn,

      You’re welcome. I keep thinking about this article. Capehart’s message also forces me to *really* see my characters, even the ones with similar backgrounds as me. What details about them will I discover once I look past the labels?….

  3. Good point to bring up, Christi. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Strange, how we sometimes fail to see the obvious unless it is pointed out to us. Interesting post, Christi!

  5. Thanks Christi for posting such a great analysis of my article, and opening up the disucssion to so many more people. I continue to learn more as I read others’ comments about the piece. And I agree that all writers need to think carefully before short changing a character with a label, any label, rather than paying them the respect of a description.

  6. I would love for Ms. Capehart to read some of my ms to see if I made any faux pas. I’m out with it, but my story is about race, racism, reverse racism, and the like.

    Race being the topic or theme aside, I still want to know just for descriptive reasons. Just like I’d like to know if they are male or female. But showing, like she suggested, instead of telling, not only reads better, but avoids the label issue.

    • I love how an article like Capehart’s challenges us to look deeper into any descriptions we give characters and analyze our true purpose for using those descriptions. And, you hit on another important point – to find readers with similar backgrounds as our characters who will tell us whether or not our details interrupt the reader’s flow or add strength to the story.

      Thanks for your comment, Tricia!

  7. Liberte Sexuelle

    Wow, I can’t believe my luck, when I stumped upon your blog, especially this post. I just started writing a novel, and the narrator is deaf, but I haven’t mentioned that at all. I don’t feel it is necessary. Besides, I plan to surprise the reader. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but now, after reading this, I am sticking to my plan.

  8. Liberte, Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I’m almost finished reading Danielle Evan’s debut book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which is a great example of inclusive writing. She describes most of her characters without any mention of race. Then, when she does mention a person’s ethnicity, it’s with intent and purpose and adds to the story – it doesn’t detract from the character’s worth at all.

    On your novel, I agree to go with your gut on those kinds of decisions. Best of luck to you! And, Happy Writing 🙂

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