Recently in a fiction workshop someone asked the question every sensible writer dreads: how do I write characters who are outside my own personal experience, who are not white/ straight/ cis? I say that every sensible writer dreads this question because in my experience the ones who steam roll right in with more bluster than caution are morons. And their lazy attitude is doing everyone - their readers, their characters, and other writers - a disservice.
Begin with humility, I told the group in my workshop. Your ignorance is an uncovered manhole and if you’re not careful, you’ll topple in. For example, do you have just one gay character in your cast? Does the character die? Does the death happen soon after the character finds love? I’m not psychic. Your character is a trope (google: Bury Your Gays). This is why we must begin with humility. Because, to quote a certain blustering steamroller, of the known unknowns.
What we are striving toward in our fiction is truth. Accuracy, veracity. And how can you paint a realistic portrait of, for example, a non-binary character, if you are cis? Without humility, without research, without knowledge, guess what you’ll do? You’ll make that character magical. Or die. Or both.
Friends are a great resource. I’ve been helped along the way by so many of mine. For example, In Indonesian there is one word for temperature hot and a different one for chilli hot and these words are pedas and panas and non-Indo speakers can never remember which one is which and this is such a fantastic nugget that I was like a child on Christmas when I used it in a story. And also the contraction “Indo” is wonderful. How was I ever going to know that on my own? (That story, by the way, is called Lord of the Manor and it was published in The Dalhousie Review.) So step two: have a diverse group of friends. But that’s really just life advice.
Devour books and articles and whatever you can get your hands on to help you understand the worldview and background of your character. Read other fiction featuring characters like the one you want to create. If your character is Muslim, please read books written by Muslim authors. Seek out interviews with the authors of these books. A while back I was listening to Jen Sookfong Lee on the podcast Can’t Lit. She was talking about naming her Chinese characters and the importance of choosing names that could be pronounced by Chinese parents. I immediately filed that nugget of knowledge away for later. (Thanks, Jen)
Sensitivity readers are professionals you can hire to steer you clear of those manholes. Remember the known unknowns!
Months ago, while was casting my new novel, I created this fantastic character called Emmanuelle. She’s a 13th-generation Nova Scotian from an evangelical family with a minister father (hence her name). Em is a teacher and an extrovert. She’s got a rowdy group of friends who come to her apartment and sit around painting their nails and watching Survivor (this is circa 2001). I know her apartment, the bo-ho chic furniture and wall hangings, the sticky kitchen floor, the triangular rainbow sticker just beside the peep hole on her front door, the humid bathroom with its patch of black mould by the tub that always returns no matter how often it gets scrubbed away. I have an image of Emmanuelle too, tall with very dark skin and tight curls that spray out the top of her head like a fountain. She is wonderful. I know her so well I can hear her voice, deep, a little husky, a singer who might break out in jubilant song at any moment. She sang in her church choir for nearly two decades and though she threw over faith when she came out, she still loves all the old gospel hymns.
But then I was plotting out the book and because Em’s not the main character, because she’s a semi-minor actor who is there in service to the main character (as all the characters are of course), the plot dictated that she had to die. And at some hideous point I realized what I had been about to do. Kill my only lesbian character. Worse, kill her in order to trigger an emotional epiphany for the straight dude. (That’s two tropes, by the way) I was in Vancouver having dinner with Dina Del Bucchia. I told her my dilemma. I probably had my hands over my head, quite possibly tugging on my hair. Dina was kind but the verdict was unanimous. So now I’m back to the drawing board with the plot. Because, I want to be fair to my characters and one gay character getting killed in a book full of gay characters is fine but what I was doing was diving face first into a manhole.
KNOW YOUR TROPES
Here is what happens. Gay and trans characters die so often in fictional stories, we see this plot point repeat over and over, and then it becomes a cliche that’s lodged into our brains as fact. (The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about this cognitive bias in chapter five of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
Then when we straight/ cis writers sit down to write a gay or trans character we unconsciously reach for whatever information we have and up comes this tired refrain, which we don’t even realize is a trope, and we unthinkingly, unconsciously, repeat it on the page. It is a self perpetuating cycle. This is the danger of writing from outside of your own experience. Without caution and care, without humility, without research, you will perpetuate a lazy cycle that does everyone a disservice, most of all the community of real people who you are trying to recreate on the page. And then if your ego is fragile because you’re a special snowflake, and someone calls you on your bull shit, you’ll dig your heels in and yell: “Political correctness has gone too far! Don’t tell me what to do! This is fiction and I’m a writer!” And the rest of us will be over here, eyes rolling out of our damn heads.
And let’s pause to think about this trope for a moment. Why are all these gay and trans characters dying all the time? Is it because the rest of us have a deep buried hatred of them and are enacting mass murder on the page because we can’t do it in real life? Think on that and tell me if you still feel good about knocking off your only trans character.
I don’t know if Em will make an appearance in this book I’m writing because I’m reworking the plot. But she’s in my head now so she’s bound to turn up somewhere. I’m not killing this particular darling. I’m saving her for later.
MANHOLES TO SKIRT
It helps to know all the ways you can unintentionally fuck up. I brainstormed a few tropes to get us started. Please chime in, in the comments, if you know any others. I am still learning just like everyone else.
The magical/ wise old black man
Related: the magical Indigenous character
Indigenous characters who are described in animalistic terms. Please. NO.
The predatory lesbian (Who invented this nonsense - religion? hysterical men? all of the above?)
I love Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and in my opinion (not every brown person’s opinion) he works because The Simpsons is a show full of tropes. That’s the whole gag. But if there’s only one brown character in your book and they are driving a cab or working at a 7-11 and have an accent then you have FAILED. Fifty points to Slytherin if said 7-11 guy dies.
The white saviour
The token. You know how on TV shows the token black or gay or brown character has all white/ straight friends? Yeah. That’s not a thing in real life.
In fantasy stories: the good guys are white, the bad guys are black. (Chandler Bing voice: Could you be more racist?)
Adorable asians. RO Kwan writes about this stereotype playing out in real life so have a read and take care with your descriptions.
Last Fall Tom was reading a book by John Updike. I don’t know which one because it’s not important. Tom said: It’s about a man who leaves his pregnant wife for a younger woman. Uh-huh, I said, bored already with this predictable bit of masturbatory fantasy certain male authors seem keen to replicate. Then a few days later, Tom reported that the book had taken a dark turn. Let me guess, I said. The wife goes nuts and kills the baby? Tom was amazed by my psychic abilities. How did you know? he asked. Have you already read this book?
LOL. I’ve read enough books by male authors, particularly of a certain vintage, to know that some (#notall but #toomany) men are lazy and incapable of writing realistic female characters. To them women = hysterical, doe-eyed, back-stabbing, dangerous, sex-pot, BOOBS. They get pregnant and either terminate the pregnancy in some back alley way that results in death or they throw their babies off a cliff because…I don’t know??… bitches be cray, I guess. Or more likely because on some fundamental level these men believe we aren’t responsible enough to care for children and therefore shouldn’t have the right to decide what happens inside our uteruses. Yeah. Suck on that nasty thought for an hour.
We have a running joke in our house about these seminal authors and their jerk off fiction. It’s also the subject of ridicule all over the internet. If you’re a man writing about a woman, DO BETTER. My pal Jamie Fitzpatrick is a great example of a straight man who writes convincing, complicated, wonderful female characters so I know it can be done. It probably helps if you respect ladies and believe we are equal members of society. Once again, just some basic life advice: don’t be a raging asshole.
Specificity is the soul of strong writing. Real life is specific and your fiction should be too. Every time a light-skinned brown actor plays a south Indian on screen, an angel in heaven dies. Skin colour isn’t something you just slap on a character like height or glasses. Skin colour is specific. People from north India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have lighter skin than anyone from south India or Sri Lanka. Even in Sri Lanka, there are significant differences. Tamils are darker than Sinhalese. Burghers are even lighter. Some could pass for white. And why does it matter? Because shadeism is real and pernicious and you have to know the character’s skin tone if you’re going to know the most fundamental things about them. By the way, if you don’t know what shadeism is, you have no business writing from the point of view of a brown character. Go do some homework. Ask your loved ones who are brown (not strangers or acquaintances…please don’t force strangers to teach you things you could learn on the internet). Hire a sensitivity reader.
Recently, I was sharing the stage with another brown author and the moderator asked her the following question, AND I QUOTE: “I was surprised by your book because your characters are from Iran but they didn’t seem oppressed.” This is the kind of bullshit non-white writers have to deal with but that’s a post for another day. Please don’t be like that ignorant moderator. Remember that everyone has agency and all your characters should have some degree of it too. This is really important, especially when you are writing about characters who come from communities that have been sidelined in the western canon. Making characters passive to their fate is lazy writing. Find where their agency lies and explore it on the page.
Diversity on the page begins with diversity off the page. Are all the radio programs and podcasts you listen to narrated by straight, cis, white people? Ditto the books and essays and magazine and online articles you read? What about television and movies? What about the people in your life? Diversify your life and you’ll find it easier to bring that richness to the page.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Luckily, there’s a chorus of other voices singing the same song. Here’s some further reading: