Here’s a question: How many of the characters you create are versions of yourself?
Here’s a better one: How many of your characters are radically different from yourself? How many are a different ethnicity, religion, social level, sexual orientation?
If the answer to that second question is “not many,” you may want to rethink your approach to writing fiction.
The world is a big place and almost everyone is different from you in some way or other. Shouldn’t your writing reflect that world?
I’m sure you’re thinking right now, how do I reflect the experience of someone very different from me? Isn’t it hubris to try? What if I give offence? And you’re right, of course, there are risks. All the same, your writing will be richer and more honest if you explore the region beyond your doorstep or town.
You may be thinking it’s not your place to write the definitive novel about Kolkata or the great gay love affair, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m saying if you’re telling a tale of a family living in Birmingham in 2017, shouldn’t at least one or two of your characters be Muslim? I’m saying art, if it is to have any value, must be truthful. Avoiding a large part of the population around you and sticking with people who are exactly like you is a falsehood and unworthy.
I’ve spent some 30 years of my working life in various health care facilities, and one thing I know for sure is when someone is ill, it doesn’t matter what his skin colour is, or what God he prays to, or who he takes to bed. All human beings react the same way to pain, to bereavement and to fear.
We may look different on the outside, but we all bleed red.
I have written characters who were black, gay, straight, white, Jewish, Christian and many more. Possibly I haven’t always hit the mark, but it wasn’t for the want of trying. I’ve made the effort and I’ve tried to deal honestly with all my characters.
Exploring the red blood of others takes commitment, but here are some ideas that may help you:
- Make a decision to explore the lives of people very different from yourself in your writing. Yes, it’s difficult. It can be intimidating. But doing so will not just make you a better writer, it may make you a more compassionate human being.
- Do your research. Talk to your friends from different backgrounds about their experiences. Ask them if they have read books written about their culture by writers from a different background. What did they get right? What did they get wrong? What would they like to see? Listen to their tales and try to do justice to them.
- Avoid writing your “other” characters as a homogenous mass. No race, religion, or other group has a monopoly on victim-hood, or evil, or goodness. Don’t write “black” characters; write about a man who happens to be black. Don’t write gay characters; write about a woman who is gay. Ethnicity, etc., are just components of a person’s makeup, not the entire thing.
- You don’t need to sound a trumpet. A character in my short story “And Righteousness Shall Look Down”, Vialula, is black, but other than her speech and her relationship with her employer, her ethnicity is left for the reader to deduce, which they do.
- ‘Vialula’ is based on a real person, someone I knew well. It will help you a lot if you can base all your characters on at least one friend or acquaintance. This helps you to avoid making your characters cardboard cutouts.
- Think about the “other” in books you have read. Did you think the author captured those characters accurately?
- Read books that reflect the lives of people different from yourself, or that address issues of diversity, and see how they handle the issue. Here are a few to try:
To Kill a Mockingbird (about black-white relations in Alabama in the 1930s.)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (the main character is deaf-mute.)
Oranges are not the only fruit (about a gay woman.)
The English Patient (in which a variety of cultures coexist in a time of war) It’s worth watching the film for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the conversation between the Sikh and the Patient discussing Kipling’s description of India. NOTE: If you don’t have time to read the novel, check out this brief scene from the film in which Kipling is discussed from two very different cultural perspectives. Here;s the link: Kip Reads
A Passage to India (about the British colonization of India.)
Heart of Darkness (written in English by the Polish Joseph Conrad. It is set on the Congo River and features a white man working for the Belgian Mining Company. You can’t ask for a broader canvas.)
Brick Lane (about a Bangladeshi immigrant woman living in London.)
- Finally, accept that you will almost inevitably make a mistake. Perhaps more than one. No matter how honest and noble your intentions, some people may be upset at your portrayal of their culture. Try not to take it personally. Learn from your mistakes and try to do better. Also, remember, not all criticism is justified. There are people who like to gripe, who are so protective of their realm, they get offended just because someone else has dared to walk on what they see as their turf. Good luck!