Write what you know. It’s a trite piece of advice for writers struggling to find a subject to which to put their pen, and a dire warning to those embarking on literary excursions into the unknown. But many feel this saying is a load of crap. After all, if we can only write what we know, then we have no business even writing a memoir: our view of ourselves and our lives is so myopic, and our blind spots so extensive, that we can’t claim to truly know even what’s going on in our own lives.
However, when we plunge into writing about something we don’t know, it pays to be cautious. After all, when you’re an “outsider” with respect to your subject matter, those on the inside are going to know if you get it wrong.
I’ll start with this piece of advice: Write what you want. Writing is an art, and stifling that art with a bunch of rules and warnings isn’t going to help anyone. You have something to say, and so say it, with your whole heart and to the best of your ability. But I’ll add this caveat: if you’re going to write about a type of character or situation that exists in contemporary life and yet is outside your personal experience, I advise you give it deep thought. The agonizing, soul-searching variety of deep thought. Your characters, and your readers, deserve no less.
Most of us have heard of the We Need Diverse Books movement. It is a worthy cause. Stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are an integral part of social change. Books help connect readers with people and situations that they may never have encountered in their day-to-day life, and can broaden understanding and acceptance in a way that no amount of preaching or direct social activism can do. Books are a safe way to explore situations that we’d be frightened to become involved in in real life, and can help to lessen our fear and misunderstanding of those situations. For instance, a person frightened of foreign travel might be more comfortable after reading a million guidebooks. In the same way, the more diversity people are exposed to in books, the more comfortable they’ll be with it in their real lives.
It is precisely for this reason that we need to be mindful of how we portray our diverse characters. I’m not saying that we should never let a diverse character be anything other than a shining beacon of perfection, so that we don’t give readers the impression that all people of that diverse group are “bad”. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is, the character has to be realistic; that way, our readers will be able to identify with them on a human level. If we get readers to identify with a diverse character that they have little to no experience with in real life—a character that they may even be afraid of or prejudiced against in real life (whether they know it or not)—we have truly achieved our goal in diverse writing.
In order to write realistic characters, we have to be comfortable in their shoes. We have to know them like we know a human being, and relate to their struggle. Otherwise, we’ll portray them as an issue, instead of a character—or worse yet, as a stereotype. We’ll miss an opportunity to let readers identify with them.
It’s not always easy to walk in someone else’s shoes, and, I’m afraid it’s not something that all writers achieve with their diverse characters.
I love it when books have diversity, but when editors or agents say, “If there’s no diversity in your books, don’t worry: it can be added,” I cringe. Don’t get me wrong: it’s possible to deliberately add diversity in this way and still have a great book. But, if you’re adding diversity purely for diversity’s sake, be very cautious. After all, if you’re inserting a diverse character just to make the novel more marketable, then you are exploiting the group to which that diverse character belongs. So, if you’re changing the color of a character’s skin, giving her a limp, or modifying his religious practice, take a long moment to get to know that character again, because you have changed who they are. Make sure you don’t overlook some of the issues that the character might face in his or her daily life. Otherwise, you run the risk of your character being a blue-eyed guy with shoe polish on his face asking John Wayne to smoke-um peace pipe.
Remember: you’ll have readers that identify with the group your diverse characters belong to, and if you tell their story incorrectly, you’re selling those readers short and hurting them on a personal level.
For instance, I’m a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, and a victim of physical and sexual abuse. I have thrown books across the room and cursed authors’ very souls for, in my view, misrepresenting these issues. I’m really tired of reading about battered women who suffer their evil husbands stolidly until the day they rise up with unblemished inner strength to assert themselves. I know it may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but I feel belittled by this narrative. Abuse is ugly; it changes you. It weakens you. It can make you stoop to the level of the abuser, because you’re so scarred and hurt that you can’t function in a healthy manner. I do recognize that not all survivors of abuse see it this way, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that my story is being exploited and told incorrectly for profit, when I read a book that gets it “wrong”.
Additionally, I’m tired of seeing drug addicts portrayed as objects of pure pity or contempt; soulless beings with no hope, intelligence, or inner life. Drugs can make people into a hot mess, it’s true, but that hot mess can be interesting to examine, and you’ll make your story better if your character is well-rounded.
If I feel this way about the portrayal of groups I’m not even proud to belong to, think how much more it could hurt someone if you wrongly portray a group they ARE proud to belong to. So, do your research if you’re writing about characters from different walks of life as you.
Like I said before, it’s not always easy to do this research and live in shoes different than your own, because the best research is not academic research, but experience.*
My own books are pretty darned diverse. I have a lot of Mexican-American characters. I feel comfortable writing from this perspective because I speak Spanish, am steeped in Mexican-American culture, and have Mexican-American beta readers. If, someday, a reader gets angry at me for getting a Latino character “wrong”—well, I’ll still listen to their complaints, and it will upset me, but I’ll have the consolation of being able to grumble and laugh about it with my Hispanic friends, and I’ll probably be able to toss it off in the end as “you can’t win them all”. That’s because I know my characters, and I’m comfortable with them.
I also often write about characters with mental illness. I have personal experience with mental illness, including psychosis (don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you—that’s never been part of my psychosis).
When I was inspired to write a series with a schizophrenic main character, I reached a point where I felt like I was getting it “wrong”, despite all my personal experience. So, I went down to the local park and made friends with a young schizophrenic man I’d seen hanging around.
My friendship with Phoenix was never about writing a novel. I don’t hang out with him because he’s schizophrenic, but because I enjoy his company. That’s why I’ll stick by him when he’s kicked out of places because people are uncomfortable with his behavior; why I’ll endure the hurtful and paranoid rants on his bad days; and suffer the anguish and worry when he’s in the hospital. He’s worth it to me, because he’s not just a “schizophrenic”: he’s an amazing, intelligent, and hilariously funny person.
Just like I don’t hang out with Phoenix because he’s mentally ill, I didn’t write my book about the schizophrenic character because he is schizophrenic. I wrote it because he’s an interesting character, with a really good story to tell. He’s a human being (well, not really, but you know what I mean). Readers will identify with characters and want to spend time with them if they’re interesting people, and not just a list of symptoms or character traits you gleaned from internet research or arm’s-length observation.
I don’t expect or recommend that writers to display my level of dedication to developing their characters, but it definitely helps. Even for all my experience, however, I cannot be said to be writing what I “know” with regard to my Hispanic and schizophrenic characters, because I’m not Hispanic or schizophrenic myself. I’m sure I’m still lacking insight and getting it “wrong” in some ways. But I am comfortable with and proud of my books. I think they can add to people’s understanding, rather than detracting from it by creating false impressions or pandering to stereotypes.
This is what we should strive to do when we write, whether it’s from a diverse perspective or not, and whether our tale is a lighthearted romantic comedy or a dark “issues” novel.
Always treat your characters (and your readers) with the respect they deserve, and you will be able to bear any criticism with dignity.
*For the love of God, man, don’t apply this concept to writing about drug addicts and ex-cons. I’d rather your characters be trite and wooden than for you to go get thrown in the slammer for a PCP binge you embarked on for novel research.
About the Author:
ELIZABETH RODERICK grew up as a barefoot ruffian on a fruit orchard near Yakima, in the eastern part of Washington State. After weathering the grunge revolution and devolution in Olympia, Washington, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, she recently moved to a small cluster of houses amidst the vineyards of California’s Central Coast.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and worked for many years as a paralegal and translator. She is a musician and songwriter, and has played in many bands, rocking some instruments she doesn’t even know the real names for, but mostly guitar, bass and keyboards.
Elizabeth writes novels for young adults and adults; short stories; and memoir which is way more interesting than it should be. Her stories are about love, death, gang warfare, and madness; her characters tend to be of the type that society generally shuns: addicts, convicts, and the mentally ill. She believes if people get to know these characters in stories and in real life, they’ll find them more likeable than they originally thought.
She applies Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo method to fiction writing. It often gets a little heavier than what she had in mind, but she chalks it up to forced consciousness expansion.
She would love to hear your story, as well. You can find her on her website: http://www.talesfrompurgatory.com/
by Elizabeth Roderick