Can a white writer write a POC character? Can a cisgender writer write a trans character? How do I write a character with disabilities? How do I write a character of an age different than my own?
This week in writing group, one of my writers posed a crucial question. “Can I write a person of color? How should I write a person of color?” she asked. She explained that one of her main characters was an African-American woman, and that at first, she had not given it a second thought. But then, as she started to realize the potential pitfalls, she wanted to make sure to get it right. Some writers admit that they are so afraid of getting it so horribly wrong that they do not even attempt to write a character that is “other,” which is unfortunate. But our writing group is diverse and inclusive, and various members were able to weigh in on this question, in honest and supportive and real ways. Here is the takeaway from that conversation:
-It depends on the intention. Are you writing about a person from another group or identity in a way that exploits or doesn’t seek to reach a sincere understanding? Are you generalizing? Are you being lazy in your characterization? Be objective and rewrite if you need to. Are you coming from a place of respect and openness? Write away.
-As authors belonging to a society that consists of people from all racial, national, social, economic, and sexual identity backgrounds, not to mention ages and abilities, we should be able to write about characters that reflect our experience. We can also attempt to describe a society other than our own, provided we think it through and do our research. Be careful about judgement and frame of reference. Even when writing about an imaginary society, in SciFi, for example, we must be careful not to let biases and stereotype sneak into our writing.
-We should be careful with our descriptors and potentially problematic vocabulary, and steer away from stereotypes and negative tropes. Avoid food names when describing skin color. Do not describe characters of a race different to your own any differently than you would characters of your race. A character of another race is not simply their skin color, hair texture, or shape of their eyes. They are a person with an entire history, motivations, and unique personality.
-That old “write what you know” concept is actually useful here. Of course, you can’t know about everything 100%, but the aim is to gain an honest understanding of that which you are writing about- whether that understanding is gained through experience or research.
-People are more than their gender, sexual, racial, or national identity, or their ability, age, or looks. Make sure you flesh out your characters so they are not just a “token” something or other, or the convenient sidekick that makes the main character shine, or a villain whose other-ness is a shortcut to antagonist status.
-If you’re writing about a community/background that exists: do you have people from this community in your circle? Have you read books or watched movies or shows or seen art or listened to music by or about people in that community? If not, you may want to think about why you want to write this story or this character, and you should be conscious of the fact that you will probably need to do more work to gain the kind of understanding it takes to accurately represent the character/community. However, keep in mind that there is diversity within communities. Do not generalize communities into too-large categories. “Native American,” for example, is not a unified, monolithic community. Neither is “Latin” or “Hispanic” or “African American.” Sure, start from there, but then break it down further by geography, tribe, family structure, economics, beliefs, and more.
-If in doubt, ask someone! Read some books, watch some documentaries, have some beta readers let you know if you could do better.
-Most importantly, we’re all always learning. It’s a conversation. If you somehow mess up, apologize, listen, learn, and try again.
More questions? Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, is a good start.