By Camilla Zhang
As one of the lead advocates for building women’s representation in geek culture, “The Mary Sue”—a female-centric blog devoted to comics, sci-fi, fantasy, tech, and beyond—developed and hosted “Fight What You Know,” a panel on demystifying the writing process, at this year’s New York Comic Con (October 9–12).
Empathy and how writers use it to create stories that resonate with readers was the panel’s thematic backbone, and Susana Polo, “The Mary Sue” editor at large, moderated the panel, which included Amber Benson, author of The Witches of Echo Park (Ace Trade, January 2015), Brenden Fletcher, co-author of comic book series “Gotham Academy” and “Batgirl” (both DC Comics, 2014), Danica Novgorodoff, artist and author of The Undertaking of Lily Chen (First Second, 2014), and Wendy Xu, creator of Tumblr blog, “Angry Girl Comics.”
Polo set up the presentation by stating that she intended to debunk the myth that writers can only write what they know. “I understand the fear beginner writers [have] of reaching outside their own perspective, and I also see the lie in a lot of the dumb beginner excuses for [tropes] like, ‘The characters just speak to me,’ and ‘As an artist, I just follow my muse,’” she said to SLJ. “…You’re the person who creates [the characters] and makes them do things… [so] you have responsibility for the level of diversity in your work… and whether they perpetuate horrible [clichés].”
Among the many tools the panelists use, Google was the most popular. Fletcher cited it as his first step in any research process. Benson agreed, saying that she used a car crash scene she’d found on Google Maps to construct a car crash scene in one of her books (which book, she didn’t say). When it came to writing believable characters, conducting research on people was a common approach. Novgorodoff, a self-admitted introvert, emphasized listening as her tool and said that she preferred eavesdropping on conversations on the subway to build characters.
Writing characters of diverse ethnic and racial identities can be a challenge. After receiving feedback from cultural and historical experts, Fletcher “had to totally trash a relationship in one book, because [he] found it was culturally inappropriate.” Crowdsourcing for information on your blog is also a way to conduct research, said Xu, who wanted to create a character of Chinese and Nigerian descent in her upcoming graphic novel about Asian-American witches. To make the character seem authentic, she put a call out on her “Angry Girl Comics” page, asking to hear the stories of Nigerian immigrant families and/or families with mixed-race backgrounds. The responses enabled her to create a well-rounded character with a solid back story.
Specificity in description is also a key element in writing believable scenes. Novgorodoff literally went the extra mile and traveled to rural Oregon for her book Refresh, Refresh (First Second, 2009). “I wanted to go there and see what the trees looked like, and what kind of houses were there, and what the air smelled like.” On the flip side, Benson explained how to make the fantastical relatable and real. In one of her fantasy stories, she’d based the world around the idea of a suburban mall with conveyor belts. “You have to start with a kernel of reality,” she said.
Meanwhile, Fletcher, “Batgirl” writer, explained how he got into the young female mindset. “I started as an actor and that’s what acting is all about: being able to put yourself in the shoes of another person. So much of my work in writing is channeling what I did as an actor… The authenticity comes from inside me, in that sense. The details come from research, but the voices, the people, their feelings are mine in some way… It’s all empathy.”
One final takeaway from “Fight What You Know,” is the acceptance of criticism, which goes back to being a good listener and empathizer. “If… people are saying [something in your book] is an issue,” Xu said, “…then it’s worth taking into account.” She added that forgiving yourself and learning from it is just as important to a writer’s growth. “We’re human beings, we make mistakes… In the end, if you’re pleasing yourself and writing something that moves you, you’ll find other people who like it.”
Originally published on School Library Journal.