WRITING SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T LOOK LIKE YOU
I have a confession.
I’m a white dude.
More than that, I’m not ready to say I’m a middle-aged white dude, but I’m probably closer to middle-aged than teen-aged.
Being this particular version of humanity is obviously what I know best. But, as a writer, I don’t just want to write novels full of characters who are just versions of me. I write, in part, to get away from me.
But doing that requires stepping out of a comfort zone. That’s hard. For example, one of my works in progress is not an overtly religious book, but since it involves questions about life and death and the afterlife, there is a religious component. I’m trying to decide the religious preferences of my characters and it’s giving me pause. What if I make someone a Muslim and end up insulting Muslims? What if I have a Jewish person and totally muck it up? I am neither Jewish nor Muslim. What right do I have to presume I know how to write these characters?
But, as a writer, how can I not write them? If the story calls for that, isn’t it my job to figure out how to do it?
Writing for whatever gender you aren’t is hard too. I’ve done it (my works don’t all just have dudes in them), but, sad to say, I haven’t written much where a woman is the central protagonist. Lots of male writers do this – frequently and excellently. Chuck Wendig is one. His characters Miriam Black and Atlanta Burns are tough, three-dimensional, decidedly non-cookie-cutter characters. I admire that.
Writing outside your race or ethnicity is tough too. Make it too subtle and your character’s development suffers. Make race or ethnic background too overt (unless that’s important to your tale) and you risk veering into stereotype.
There’s a temptation to find a middle road. You can’t really downplay whether your character is a man or woman. You’re not just going to call your characters “it” are you? A he or she is going to have to slip in there somewhere.
You can, however, write a character without mentioning their race, skin color, religion, whatever. A lot of the time this will work fine, frankly, so long as the character’s personality is strong enough to keep her (told you you couldn’t avoid gender) from being bland and undeveloped. But sometimes your story needs you to gird yourself and deal with those more potentially risky traits to describe the character and move the plot.
I’m going to try to stop being afraid; will fearlessly, but responsibly, describe my characters. And you writers should too.
It’s why we get paid the big bucks.