This has been something of a hot topic from the moment the idea began, and it is something I’ve touched on before in previous blogs. That being writing characters from different cultures, ethnicities and genders than yourself.
Just to be clear, before I start talking about this, I feel I should point out that I’m a thirty-three-year-old (at the time of writing), white, British female (so you know where I’m coming from), and my main point in this blog will be that I feel it is acceptable to write characters that you feel fit into your story, PROVIDED that it is done with compassion, respect, a veritable ton of research and clichés are avoided.
While we’re on the subject, I also think that writers should ask themselves if the story they are telling is their story to tell. If, for example, you are a white British female should your story be be about the experience of a young American black man? Quite probably not.
But back to characters.
The Problem at Hand
This problem, in my opinion, stems from the use of cliches as characters. People who are marginalised in society in one way or another being further marginalised in fiction. It’s disrespectful and unnecessary.
That being said, if we could only write stories where all the characters were reflections of ourselves then the literary word would be overly restrictive and boring. I, for instance, would be entirely restricted to white females from England with no particular religion, and my own sexual identity, and that’s fine for one character but my story becomes pretty damn odd when the entire universe is populated by women from England all exactly the same. As you can see this is considerably limiting and most of the projects I produced would be bloody weird and pretty dull when all the characters had the same background, life experiences, opinions and viewpoints. I certainly would not have been able to create my current projects which all have male main character’s, one of which is in his seventies and suffers from advancing dementia (very different from myself).
But that being said, I do have a measure of understanding for the argument that certain types of people shouldn’t write certain other types of people. I don’t agree with it but I can understand some of the points raised. The point that certain voices become marginalised because of sexism and racism in the publishing industry is a point that needs to be addressed and this needs to stop.
I certainly do not think any voice should be marginalised and efforts should be made to ensure diverse authorship and readership. But I do not think that restricting, for example, male writers to male characters and female writers to female charters will fix sexism in the industry. I think the forced division will make it worse, much worse. The same for races and sexual identities. The more we separate and force ourselves to see each other as ‘other’ and ‘different’ will only prevent understanding and appreciation. The more we fight to see each other as people rather than the labels we give each other and ourselves the better.
I also understand the point that characters should be actual characters and not clichés or stereotypes and that it may be easier for people of different backgrounds to turn characters who are different from themselves into stereotypes and clichés. Even the ‘best aka popular’ writers do this, just look at the uproar when JK Rowling wrote about native American wizards and went down the ‘noble savage’ route.
So how do we avoid falling into bad habits? How do we write characters different to us without turning them into clichés? Or Stereotypes? How do we do our characters and each other justice?
The starting point to writing characters from different social, cultural, etc. backgrounds to yourself is to learn as much as you can. You want your characters to be as ‘real’ as possible, to learn about your characters experience of the world, learn about their background, where do they come from, how did that shape them? Their thoughts, opinions and feelings? Learn from as many different sources as you can, as there is no single experience for someone of a certain, age, gender, cultural background, race, sexual identity etc. Read blogs, watch YouTube videos, talk to people who have traits in common with your character. Really immerse yourself in multiple sources, as not all people are alike, not all women think the same, not all Spanish people think the same, not all people living in poverty think the same. A shared experience will have an effect, but it will never make people identical. Two people growing up in the same home will likely have a thing in common but they will still be their own, unique people with their own opinions, feelings and personality.
Individuality is key to writing, good, believable and strong characters.
So while you should research as much as you possibly can from as many different sources as you can (variety is key to building a solid base of opinion), you should also keep in mind that your character will be their own person and have their own mind to make their own opinions. To use a well-worn cliché, English people and tea. Not all English people are obsessed with tea, many of us enjoy tea, and many of us have strong opinions (seriously, its ridiculous) about how tea should be made (if you put milk in first I will cut you), but then there are those of us who just don’t give a shit (they are the ones put milk in first, if someone makes you tea and does this they don’t really care about you, so run away).
So, in a nutshell, do your research (lots) but remember people are individuals.
Respect and Empathy
This ties in with research, its hard to be respectful when you don’t have a bloody clue what you are talking about. Or if you’re basing your characters on old stereotypes, not all English people like tea, not all native American people are good with animals, not all homosexual people are camp and flamboyant. It’s lazy and disrespectful (extremely so) to the experience of those who share your character’s background, to use clichés, especially negative ones.
It is also worth noting that in some instances writers will go too far in the other direction as well and this is also disrespectful. To be honest respectful to those who are different than yourself does not mean only portraying positive traits in your character either. It means being honest, your character will have flaws if they are a person. So, by making your character flawless in an attempt to be ‘nice’ does them a disservice, it dehumanises your character, and subsequently the people who share your characters traits, and should be avoided at all costs, not just to be respectful but to produce good characters.
Stereotypes are offensive and boring.
There you have the key elements, in my humble opinion, that will allow you to write characters who differ from yourself in a multitude of ways. Do your research, understand that your character is a person, not a character or a stereotype. Understand that while their traits will shape them in some ways there traits will not be the only thing that defines them, a female character will not be defined by her boobs, she will have boobs and also be a person, your homosexual character will not be defined by how he gets his rocks off, he will enjoy the company of men and also be a person. Remember charters are made up of lots of tiny parts.