Writing: Inclusive or Exclusive?

I’m just thinking with my fingers on the keyboard tonight. I think I’m on to something and writing it out helps me. Maybe one of my commenters can add something to clarify it. I may be adding some of this to my living document soon.

Some story elements come across to me as being inclusive or exclusive for the reader. There have been good stories written both ways. I’m convinced this is not a popularity contest, but I’ll keep an open mind in the comments.

Inclusive:

In my definition, the reader could participate as one of the characters in the story. There is a special world, but it’s within the reader’s reach.

The best example I can come up with is the Harry Potter world. Some magical folk are born to muggle parents. Since the idea isn’t delved into in depth, the reader can keep the hope alive.

These stories include Kung Fu ideas, sports stories, sword swingers and more. The idea is that if one trains hard enough, it is possible to join the cool kids.

Exclusive:

The world element excludes the reader from playing along. It’s possible that stories about Royal families would feel exclusive to the reader. This doesn’t mean we don’t like reading along, but that world isn’t our world. Stories about oracles and seers might feel the same way, depending on the point of view. Some sports movies could also come across this way, depending upon how elite the event is.

I think maybe The DaVinci Code type stories could fit this category. The world is so unique, and small, I have a hard time joining the search. Doesn’t mean they aren’t fun reading. Like I said, I’m thinking as I write this.

One thing I’m convinced of: the author has to pick a lane and stay with it. Let me illustrate with the big failure of Star Wars. In 1977, I could have become a Jedi. All I had to do was harness the power of The Force. It remained that way for a couple of decades. You know you tried to move that gum wrapper using The Force, just admit it. I did.

In 1999 everything changed. The description of how metachlorians work excluded me from The Force. Now it’s just a consequence of birth. The franchise lost some charm for me. I’d already formed an opinion, and I was wrong +/-20 years later.

I think it’s important to establish this element early, and to stick with it. It’s like the lesson to establish a character description early, or not at all. Dumping it in chapter 12 will conflict with visuals the reader already has.

I had a mild idea of this when writing The Cock of the South. I wanted readers to imagine the story going on. I wanted the reader to believe they could join the Black Hats, or the Amazons. I even made sure humans were welcome in this society. I’m not saying this is a better way to go. I am saying I challenge myself with each story, and this was one of my challenges.

This has nothing to do with sequels. I’m not in love with them, but would consider it if sales justified it.

A story about Major League Baseball probably excludes most people. (And all women.) A story about a child who works hard and makes it to the majors, probably includes most readers. (This could be a female breakthrough story.)

Thinking about Wild Concept, it’s exclusive. None of us will ever be an experimental robot. What if I’d written it from a different point of view? What if I’d added a sidekick/biographer as the point of view character. Readers might imagine having a robotic friend. Maybe??

I’m looking for an element of clarity here. Writing it out helped some. Let me hear it in the comments. Am I close to a breakthrough, or just confusing myself? Is one style better than another?

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32 Comments

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32 responses to “Writing: Inclusive or Exclusive?

  1. I hear ya! One of the major issues I had with the book Gone Girl was that the couple was, besides weird, just too high society…like I was reading about tabloid people. Not normal, ever day people. Lots of folk raved about the book and the prose was great…but I felt removed from the story, unable to fully immerse in it.

    I read both, stories where I’m reading about lives I can’t live and inclusive stories. Just depends on my mood and maybe the genre. I’m like that about first and third person also. Sometimes I want to live it, and sometimes I just want to be told a good story.

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  2. I think you do have a point. That is probably why I enjoyed Will O’ The Whisp so much. I could have been that 14 year old girl. Things in her world paralleled mine. And you have a point about Star Wars that I had not really considered before. Damn that stupid gum wrapper and the midichlorians.

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  3. I dunno…I think inclusive is easier, because I like to feel like I’m part of. But then, I enjoy reading stories written by women, for women, about women. I’m not saying I won’t read other things, but I prefer to relate. I think we all have an audience, and the trick is letting them in. Like music, not everyone likes the same things, but each band or musician has their people, you know?
    It feels good to love a good villain or a twisted sidekick, but I want to identify with the protagonist — maybe we all do, depending.
    But then, sometimes it’s safer, and more fun to watch from a distance.
    This is a great, thought-provoking post.

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    • I’m glad it provoked you. I feel like I’m close to something, but can’t quite wrap my hand around it. I think both can be good or bad. I think inclusive has the potential to be humongous. Star Trek, Harry Potter, etc.

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    • Jim Lambert

      I stumbled over the phrase in your post: “written by women, for women, about women”. You went on to say you read other things as well, but it brought to mind that some people live by rules like that.

      I read mostly Science Fiction, but even excluding tales told from the POV of aliens, AIs, or sentient lobsters, there are great stories written by women, for women, OR about women.

      Lois McMaster Bujold (I’m a huge fan) has one of my favorite male characters (Miles Vorkosigan). She does other stories from female POVs.

      David Weber has an entire series with a female protagonist (Honor Harrington).

      Terry Pratchett has Discworld books with female protagonists (Equal Rites, Monstrous Regiment, Wyrd Sisters, all the Tiffany Aching stories).

      And there are authors who for one reason or another don’t disclose their gender or don’t have names immediately recognizable as female (AK Turner, James Tiptree, Jr., JK Rowling, Tofa Borregaard).

      I guess I’m just saying that relatable, inclusive stories can come from anyone, be for anyone, and be about anyone. But I do agree if I can hit a couple of “by/for/about people like me” it’s got a better chance entertaining me. I thoroughly enjoy Charles Stross’s Laundry series, which features a geek computer guy and is written by a geek computer guy. Even if Stross and I come from different sides of the Atlantic.

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  4. I have no trouble with “being” a character, male or female, human or not, first-person or third-person, whether I’m reading or writing.

    If we’re writing a continuing story about the same protagonist in her next set of adventures, the new book will just be a piece of the old one, and except for the inevitable evolution of personality and motivation, both books should show a strong family resemblance. But if we’re not writing that tight of a series, and especially if we’re writing stand-alones, anything goes.

    We should write in the style, person, POV, tense, and voice that feel right for that particular story, and not try to write for a market, or to match the last book we wrote, just because what we did before “worked.” The same goes for sticking to one genre and its traditional conventions, within one book or between books.

    If we write from the heart, we won’t go wrong.

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    • That’s an interesting point. I read stories with female protagonists all the time. I never feel excluded. I’m a big Cherie Priest fan, and all her leads are female. Maybe I’m asking if it’s desirable to add the occasional element where Everyman can be part of the action. With four houses at Hogwarts, everyone is going to fit in. As far as doing something different, every story I write is different to some degree. I believe you have a copy of Panama, and all my other tales are different genres, some with female leads, etc.

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      • I’m probably one of only three Anglophones on Earth who have not read Harry Potter (at least, among those who aren’t pre-literate infants or occupying an Alzheimer’s unit), so I’m not qualified to pass judgment there.

        But I wonder how much of the second-guessing which afflicts so many writers, about what people read and how to write, has to do with several generations of confusion caused by the continuous curriculum tinkering that has gone on in schools, ever since they unbolted the desks from the floors. Every time a new theory has come out about how to teach reading and writing, student performance in grammar and comprehension has deteriorated, but instead of returning to common sense instruction techniques, more new theories are demanded. These theories are usually developed in accordance with the latest social engineering trends, rather than what it really takes to communicate.

        Communication is the purpose of Written Art. It was poor communication that killed Star Wars for you. It wasn’t because you were excluded, it’s because the new take on the story line was too badly written to capture your imagination, in a genre you had already enjoyed imagining (this is leaving aside the lousy acting, which also didn’t help). Since you don’t have any trouble identifying with characters you read about who aren’t exactly like you, your imagination ain’t broke, so don’t worry about fixing it. It’s the Star Wars writer’s problem that you weren’t tempted to search your genealogy or get your DNA analyzed, for traces of whatchamacallits.

        You don’t need to bend over backwards to accommodate Everyman, Craig. If you keep writing the way you read, all you have to worry about are the 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing.

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      • Healthy views. Knowing what a problem is, can be the first step in avoiding it myself. The U.S. schools are a joke too.

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  5. I agree with Christine. Perhaps that’s just because I got lucky early in life with English teachers that stressed the importance of emerging myself in the MC’s POV. For example, I read a poem today about a pair of vintage platform shoes, written from the POV of the actual shoes… And as I read it, I became those shoes. I also agree with Victo Delore that one’s mood when they read can determine whether they prefer inclusive or exclusive POV. I think your examples were excellent and you made some really good points as you thought it out. I would add, though, that rather than seeing if sales justified a sequel, you might consider that some people look for sequel sets when they buy books in the first place. For example, may of my favorite authors, (VC Andrews, Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter) pretty much only write books that are in 3 or 5 part sequels. So when I look at new authors of those genres, I go out of my way to find the authors who do have more than one book on the same story.

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    • I know that writers earn more with a successful series. I also know that subsequent volumes are a waste of time if #1 doesn’t take off. If it takes 9 months to produce a marketable book, it takes 27 months to write a trilogy. I could have three very different tales out in the same timeframe. There probably isn’t a correct answer. I change bait when fishing too.

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  6. Hmmm, this is interesting. I would say though that it’s pretty hard to for the author to know whether what they are writing will feel inclusive or exclusive to the reader. If I just play devil’s advocate with a couple of your examples – you say that royalty is perhaps exclusive, and yet Kate Middleton has shown that someone from a fairly ordinary, certainly non-royal, background can become a princess, so if I’m reading a story about royalty I might think of Kate, and think yes, I could be part of that world. Whereas with Harry Potter, I haven’t seen any actual magic in real life, so thinking I might be part of that world could for me feel less likely than being part of world of royalty. I think that what enables a reader to feel the story is inclusive or exclusive is more to do with certain character traits of the characters in the book that the reader can relate to, or certain situations that they’ve experienced, and the author can’t know that. So yes, of course I can’t ever be an experimental robot, but maybe an experimental robot might behave in certain ways that make me think – ooh yes, if I was an experimental robot, I’d be one like that! Whereas I might read a story about a woman in her 40s (which is what I am!) but she’s so different to me that I don’t feel included in her story at all.

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    • All valid points. I still feel like I’m on the verge of something though. Joining a bunch to go on an adventure is different than being plopped in the middle of the action. One pulls me along, the other has me watching from the sidelines. Maybe it’s in the way we sell it as writers. Kate Middleton is a good example of a character that might invite readers in. A story set inside China’s Forbidden Palace might go the other way.

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  7. Inclusive for me, because I’m an all or nothing person. I want to be fully immersed in the story I’m reading, be a part of it. The more quirky and escapist, the better. SF, fantasy or historical. If I cant be in it, that means I’m not connecting. Reading and observing from a distance does not have the same attraction for me. Although this is my personal opinion, I am a reader just like any other, so I dont think this viewpoint is unusual. Reading feeds our hopes and dreams, imaginations and aspirations. They are very personal.

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    • An honest opinion, and one I’m happy to get. Where do you stand on tales like Charlotte’s Web or Watership Downs? Does it even matter that the characters weren’t human as long as you can relate to them? I know they sold a few copies, but which side of the line would you place them on?

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      • I never read Charlottes Web. I first read Watership Down when I was 9, and read it so often after that, the book fell apart! The characters may not have been human, but actually, the book was all about how animals behaved in human ways. Like animal farm. So it wasnt difficult to relate at all. Hazel had very admirable qualities. Fiver was highly strung but intriguing. Blackberry was gruff, dependable and loyal. I’d kinda like having ‘people’ like that around me. Yep, I was definitely one of that band if intrepid explorer bunnies! Funny thing is, I hate when people humanise animals normally…

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      • I’m getting the idea that it’s much more personal to the reader. Some people will never suspend disbelief. They like more true to life stories. Others have no problem immersing themselves in the story world. Maybe that’s the cornerstone of my exclusive story thought. I know I’ll never convince someone to read a genre they don’t like.

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  8. Charles Lominec

    I think both have roles in the story. We want our readers to connect with our main characters, and readers connect most with inclusive characters. The story also needs those mysterious elements that inspire awe and intrigue, and people often most want what they’re told they can’t have.

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  9. Helen Espinosa

    Great post. As a reader, it is easier for me to engage if i can relate in some way. I think that has a lot to do with emotion and motivation. But I can also see how it goes both ways.

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  10. So many good points have been made and I have nothing original to add. I enjoy a variety of genres and if I had to pinpoint it I think inclusive may sway me more than exclusive. Don’t we all want to fit in? But exclusive has it’s attraction too. In your example Harry Potter, I can see how it could be inclusive, however, I read the series as an adult. My life experience and my age made the plot exclusive. As one of your commenters pointed out, I’ve never witnessed magic. In addition, as an adult, I couldn’t be a student at Hogwarts in any case. I enjoyed the books in any case. Thanks for something new to think about Craig. 🙂

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