I’ve been a writer for a very long time now, and I’ve had some experience writing about characters outside of what has actually happened in my life.
Some people will say, “Write what you know.”
That’s all very well and good. “Writing what you know” means that whatever it is you’re putting your effort into putting into ink, it’s bound to be somewhat authentic. But at the same time, that limits your writing to only telling people specifically about yourself and your experiences. That seems like a pretty selfish topic to me, right?
We had this discussion recently at the Gay Romance Northwest meet-up in Seattle.
Should a person only write what they, specifically, have experience with, or should they try and branch out to other topics?
The main problem with this seemed to be that many writers are afraid to write more diverse characters. And the problem is not that writers aren’t willing – it’s that they’re afraid of being offensive to the culture that they’re writing about. I don’t blame them – on the internet, people are met with a lot of scorn and negative comments if they miss what the reader perceives as “the mark” by even a margin.
Another roadblock is that many writers, should their work ever become published, fear their sales will be worse if they include diverse characters in their novels. Even in the world of LGBTQ+ romance, most novels will feature a gay protagonist rather than a lesbian or trans* protagonist. And, I’ve said in my past articles, finding a genderqueer character is pretty tough.
But the change has to start somewhere. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m getting awfully tired of reading and watching straight, white people get all the romances.
So how do you do it then?
How do you write a character that may have a different ethnic background, or have another sexual or gender orientation, or disabilities?
Well, I’ll tell you how I always start: research.
When I write, there’s nothing I don’t research beforehand, from Second World War fighter planes to technology available during the Victorian era. The most important thing to research is the background of your characters. This is especially vital if you’re writing something historical or contemporary.
First of all, what ethnicity is your character, and what part of the world do they come from? A person’s experiences might differ greatly depending on whether they are a black man living in America, to a black man living in Nigeria. What kind of culture do they have, do they practice a religion? What events in history would have had an impact on their character development before this point?
Your most important resource, other than the power of the internet search, are actual people. Don’t just write about a diverse character, ask people if they would mind if you asked them some questions. Make sure you ask more than one person, as each person’s experiences will be different.
And, if you’re feeling really daring, make more than one person from the same background. This accomplishes two things: it makes sure that your character doesn’t look like the “token” character and it also avoids the pitfall of making one character the voice for an entire group of people.
The thing is, we want to see ourselves in literature. That’s really easy for white, straight, cis-gendered people, who have come to be the “norm.” We don’t want to see ourselves relegated to the corner as some sort of “niche” genre.
If you want to ask someone about their experiences so that you feel like you did a character justice, most people are only too happy to help out. Visibility is something that I feel is very important, especially for the younger generation.
Writing diverse characters might take a lot of work, but in the end, in order to make a realistic character, all you need to do is treat the character with respect. Don’t give them one-sided personalities or give them stereotypical character traits. I can tell you right now, that gets old really fast.
Treat them like a person – because apart from having a background that you might not have experience with, they are still a person. They have good traits and bad traits, strengths and weaknesses, just like any other character. They might not be perfect, but they are believable.
I don’t believe that writers should be scared to write outside their experience. The reason that most people get angry about diverse characters is that they are a stereotype, or one-sided, or the author didn’t take the time to properly research the character’s background. Being a writer takes a lot of work, and designing believable diverse characters isn’t any different.
And it’s true: some people might be angry anyways. A writer can never really escape the reality of criticism to their work. Sometimes the critique is warranted and other times it isn’t. If someone criticizes the way you’ve written something, all you can really do is decide whether or not their critique is valid and learn from the experience.
Because sure, maybe you did get something wrong. We aren’t immune to mistakes. Mistakes don’t make you a bad person or a bad writer. You just have to make it a learning experience and move on. Don’t let the fear of critique stop you from writing.
So that’s it: writers, I challenge you to write about someone from a different cultural background than you.
Good luck, and happy writing.