Writing lives that aren’t our own

Here are some things you probably know about me. I’m a white straight woman. Christian, too. And while it’s kind of a weird version (Unitarian), it’s still part of the religion that pretty much designed the calendar here in America.

My characters don’t look like me. In Woven, two of the main characters are men, and one is a black woman. In fact, in book two half the cast are black. In Station 86, white people are the minority. Sennett is a black woman, and Godfrey is a culturally ambiguous man. I also include homosexual characters, atheists and polytheists.

I don’t write people who don’t look like me to pander. I don’t do it because I’m trying to be PC.

I do this because writing just straight white girls is boring. I’m a straight white girl, I don’t want to write about myself all the time. Also, there’s enough of us in stories.

I also do this because I grew up seeing some of the coolest, most badass characters in shows I loved as women of color. I saw women in general very well represented in science fiction, to be honest. In fantasy, too. Sure, I can go on about movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test and I have. But good fiction has never had that problem because they wrote real characters who were real people and didn’t rely on shitty old-fashioned stereotypes.

I do this as well because I wanted to see more of people I don’t think we see often enough. What I didn’t see much of was men who were actual people instead of just meathead heroes. I didn’t see a lot of gay people who were reflective of the gay people I knew in real life. I didn’t see a lot of other religions in anything, literally everything. Seriously, why aren’t there more Hanukkah movies? It’s a cool holiday, why don’t we have movies, damn it?

I do it mostly because I want to write real worlds with real characters. And the reality is that more than just white people exist.

All that being said, writing for a gender, race or creed that isn’t my own takes some consideration. I grew up in a very specific way, and have a very specific life experience. So it behooves me to keep that in mind when I’m writing characters that have very different life experiences than me. Here’s what I do.

Do some research

I mean, you really should be researching any character you write. Unless you’re making up an entirely new culture. Which, by the way, is stupid hard. So, if you have questions, ask.

Fun fact, I didn’t grow up with a lot of black people around. I live in Western PA, it’s pretty vanilla. So when my life expanded and I started making friends who didn’t look like me, they had a good time making fun of me for understanding little to nothing about their worlds, but wanting desperately not to offend them. I’ve spent a lot of my time around minorities just trying to not accidentally make an ass out of myself.

That should tell you that I’m not really going to seek out a person who happens to be a member of the minority in question and ask them a bunch of awkward questions. I don’t like ordering pizza, let alone sitting down with someone I don’t know that well and asking them to explain to me how their culture differs from mine. Fortunately, the internet exists. So if you don’t know, find out!

Don’t assume you know what you’re talking about

And by the way, if you didn’t grow up as part of a certain demographic, please don’t assume that you know. You probably don’t. At least, it’s better to assume you don’t know. The worst that can happen there is that you’ll find out you were actually right. The worst thing that can happen if you make an assumption is that you’ll reinforce a harmful stereotype. We’ve got enough of that.

Understand that you’re telling a story that’s not yours

I can tell a story about the Vietnam war, or about the Holocaust. I can do tons of research, which I have, listen to people who lived through those events, which I have, and still not understand what it was to live that life. I need to understand that if I write those stories, they don’t belong to me. So I need to represent the people who really lived through it honestly.

I can also do a ton of research about another faith or demographic, but not know what it was like to grow up living in that world. I don’t know what it was like to have racial slurs thrown in my face, or have to listen to the constant war on Christmas bullshit while having the Christian faith enforced at every turn. I have blended into every crowd I’ve ever been in, and I don’t know what it’s like to stand out just because of how I look. I don’t wear a hijab, or have to make sure that the food I’m eating doesn’t include anything I’m forbidden to eat. These stories don’t belong to me. I need to remember that.

Understand that there’s a whole world of experiences in any demographic

Something that was brought up to me when I was listening to a great episode of Writing Excuses is that you can’t just listen to the story of one person and assume you know the entire culture. That’s dumb as hell if you think about it. I mean, should we all assume that just because I like American Horror Story, Starbucks, and Neil Gaiman that means all white American women like those things? (Yeah, most of us do like Starbucks. It’s damn delicious, leave me alone.) So if you’re going to ask questions about a faith or another culture, please seek out multiple voices. I can’t just read Mya Angelou and assume she speaks for all black women. Though, if you haven’t read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, do it right now. That book is a work of art, encompassing a life that mirrored and contrasted my own. Read it.

Write a person first

Finally, and I know this is something I’ve said a thousand times, but I’ll say it over and over again until every writer get it. Write a person first. Don’t feel like you have to write a character that represents all gay people, all Muslim people, all black people. Write a full person with likes, dislikes, hopes, and dreams. Write a man who loves memes, dark coffee and cats, who happens to be black. Write a woman who paints and has collected a sea shell from every ocean she’s visited, and she’s visited a lot. She just happens to be from the Middle East.

Honestly, a lot of this just comes down to understanding that there are people who live a very different life than yours. Almost all of them, actually. And your characters should reflect that none of us walks in the same world we do. We all have our pasts, our pains, our scares on our hearts. Write your characters with that understanding firmly in place.

Please, whatever you do, don’t write another cookie cutter character that just shows another stereotype. That’s the last thing your story, or the world needs.

What better time of the year could there be for a Christmas story? Enjoy twelve little Blue WoodChristmas tales, ranging from heart felt to horrifying. Meet a young man who recieves a surprise Christmas gift, a little boy who gets an unexpected visit from Santa, and a young woman spending Christmas Eve in a new coat.

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