How to respectfully write from the perspective of characters that aren’t you.
We are always writing the other, we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories. When we create characters from backgrounds different than our own, we’re really telling the deeper story of our own perception. We muddle through these heated discussions at panels, in comments sections, on social media, in classrooms — the intersections of power and identity, privilege and resistance. How do we respectfully write from the perspectives of others? Below are 12 guidelines to get you started.
1. Research is only the beginning, and barely even that.
Almost every lecture/essay/blog/panel I’ve seen about writing the other boils down to this single takeaway: “Do your homework.” And then, the unspoken inference continues, everything will be all right; all those complicated, impossible puzzle pieces of privilege and power will fall into place. Except no. Writing about people who have a different experience or identity from our own is not a simple narrative challenge, and it doesn’t have a simple solution. Plenty of writers who are “experts” on a given culture still create miserable trite stereotypes when it comes to fashioning that expertise into actual characters. The roots of Westernized research practice include eugenics, vivisections, forced sterilizations, and the often dehumanizing gaze of anthropology. This is not to say “all research is bad,” but rather we have to be aware of the complex, often painful histories we’re taking part in so that we don’t repeat that trauma.
: “We had done a lot of research on dark magic and obviously, there wasn’t a lot from life to pull from because none of that is true [laughs]. But when we did research, we found out a lot about fertility symbols, and we wound up mixing and matching that stuff to create that ceremony.” Regardless of how you feel about American Horror Story, here is an excellent example of how research is only step one. Having done “a lot” of research, the writing team then opted to throw it all into a potpourri mix of fertility ceremonies and come up with something new. Notice that the very idea that any of these beliefs have truth to them is laughable to Mr. Wong. A mixing of cultural elements can be done well, but when combined, as it usually is, with a blatant disdain for the belief systems at play, the result is a standard mashup, neither here nor there, synthetic version of sacred ceremony that is rooted in racist and disrespectful tropes.
2. “The baseline is, you suck.”
Here’s Junot Díaz: “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck.” The mark of a great musician is not their chops but their ability to listen. Patriarchy has taught men from day one that we’re supposed to be automatic experts in any given topic, so why listen to what someone else has to say about it? To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.
Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.
3. Power matters.
They say conflict is the true backbone of story, and power is what makes conflict matter. But fiction classes rarely offer up a real discussion of power and its discontents. As fiction writers, we’re not expected to be well versed in writing about power, the minutia, subtlety, complexity of it, the heartache. Usually, factual research replaces the in-depth conversations about oppression and resistance. There is only so much time.
Understanding power matters more than the factual details.
Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma. Power affects a character’s relationship to self and others, and their emotional and physical journey through the story. If you ignore this, you get cutout dolls or white faces painted black.