Writing as/about Someone I’m Not

It’s always good to know what you’re writing about.  One way is to base the stuff you’re writing, to some extent, on personal experiences.  That isn’t to say writing should be devoid of imaginative conjecture, but when other people are involved, people who exist in the real world who’d be affected in some way by what you’ve written, it is definitely good to learn about them first.

There’s a growing demand for diverse books, featuring characters of other ethnicities, nationalities, genders, cultures, etc.  An author can always throw in a “token” character for the sake of diversity, like that one Caucasian character in the cast of dominantly Hispanic characters (or vice-versa), or that one straight character among a primarily LGBTQ+ cast (or vice-versa), just so they can pat themselves on the back and say they’ve done their best to include everyone.  But it takes more than a mere presence of a “different” character to be truly inclusive, no matter how much you stress in your writing that they’re there; portraying them accurately and convincingly is also very important.

When writing about anyone who is somehow different from me (by different, I simply mean someone I’m not), I’m always afraid I’ll fall back on stereotypes to establish a character’s identity: gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, cultural stereotypes, you name it.  It might not even be intentional – it could be because of my lack of understanding, as I’ve never actually walked in this person’s shoes.

Portraying the opposite (or rather, another) gender convincingly was initially challenging for me.  When I started writing Elite Falcons, I remember my hesitance at writing from Maxwell’s point of view.   I’m not a boy, I’ve never been a boy, and I can’t exactly walk up to any of my boy[SPACE]friends and ask them all sorts of prying questions about what it’s like to be a boy.  How could my character be convincingly … boyish?

A few years ago, when it was announced that the I,Q series was passed on from Roland Smith to Michael Spradlin, I decided to read some of Spradlin’s books to see how I’d like his writing style.  One of his popular series is Spy Goddess, which is about a girl who fights villains named after Greco-Roman mythology.  I wasn’t impressed; I felt like the protagonist’s only character trait was sass.

I guess that’s a step up from being demure little damsels in distress, but it seemed to me like the author’s only experience dealing with teenage girls was when they’re acting out or talking back to adults, etc.  I write from experience when I say teenage girls can and do act this way – but not every day, all the time.  It’s an inaccurate stereotype in of itself, but I accept that it’s a way to break down the stereotype that girls are lesser creatures who can’t “kick butt.”

When writing for Maxwell, I told myself I wouldn’t make him extremely “macho” (to prove he’s the “ideal” manly boy) or extremely quiet and sensitive (a counter-stereotype to prove that not all boys are macho manly men).  I was just going to write the way I would my other characters, who have mostly been female.  Even then, I don’t write girly-girl, distressed damsel characters.  I write about people.  And I find this kind of equal treatment works out just fine, in this case.

In other cases, it may not always be so simple.  As a given, please, please, please do research and ask consenting real-life people for input before you write fictional characters who share a common attribute.  I’ve read multiple books and series where oppression and inequality are projected on my religion and its culture.  It seemed to me like the authors were pulling from sources which offered only one perspective (a negative one); I feel this inhibited their understanding and, thus, the accuracy of their portrayal.  Mind you, I’m not offended so much as I’m concerned that these particular stories are all some people will ever bother to learn about the subject in question.

I have a project that I hope to work on in the far future which centers around a character with a disability.  Even if I won’t be narrating the story in their voice, but from the perspective of someone close to them, their presence and perspective is an integral part of the story.  I still have to write for this particular character, even if I don’t write as them.  I want to spend time doing research so my portrayal of this subject is both convincing and respectful of real people who have disabilities.  The premise is based in part on personal experience, but there’s still so much I don’t understand.  I won’t begin to tell this story, which may also broaden my readers’ horizons of understanding, until I am confident enough in my understanding that I know what I’m talking – rather, writing – about.

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