There was a comment to my last post that essentially asks, “How to write diverse characters?” and I’ve been mulling it over for a few days. My response is long enough that I’m putting it in its own post. Here is the question, asked by Stacey:
What I always wrestle with as a white writer, and a conscious person is how to include people of other races to my stories in a way that feels real. For that matter I have a hard enough time trying to create real characters who aren’t Jewish, not overtly but having the background experience that is of my own. How do you do that without fear of making inadvertent mistakes or only changing the physical description (this is primarily in children’s fiction)?
Hi Stacey —
First let me preface this by saying: This is not my area of expertise. I’m not even a successful writer. I’ve not studied the subject, I only have my opinions based on observations and readings I’ve come across, and my own feelings. I know of some others who have studied and written on the subject, like Daniel J. Older and Nisi Shawl (author of Writing the Other). And a quick google of “how to write diverse characters” shows a lot of results, perhaps most of them worthwhile. There are lots of people of color who have studied this, thought about this, dialogued about this and given advice.
Also: I don’t write children’s fiction. I read some because I have a young child, but her preference is stories about animals and machines; the human race barely interests her.
So now that you know all my lack of credentials, I will proceed. I will stick to a few, high-level thoughts.
The wrestling you’re experiencing ought to happen.
That’s not a bad thing at all. I’m from the school of self-torturing artists. If I’m not beating myself up about it, if I’m not growing, what’s the point? Creating art should be a character-building experience. I wouldn’t try to wriggle out of that.
Ask yourself why you want to create characters of color.
Or characters that are not of your Jewish background, etc. What and who do you want to write about? Keep knowing yourself as a writer and a human being. (Some say write what you want to read, and that’s advice I fall back on a lot to provide clarity.)
Personally I prefer for people to be honest and admit to themselves, “I’m not interested in writing about anything other than A or B” because it’s going to come out anyway in their writing (more on that later). If they try to pass off their story as being “diverse” or progressive in some way and it’s really not — yet that’s what sold me on it, I’m going to be annoyed.
What I want is for people to be honest about what they’ve created and to write about what they genuinely care about, so that I can find something that is true. Granted, I don’t tend to read for entertainment. I read for edification or information, so my opinion might not be the majority opinion. But inevitably, as diversity rightly becomes an issue in the industry, you have people trying to write diversity so they can market themselves better or worse yet – calm their nagging fears that they might not be the good, open-minded people they thought they were.
Ew, ew, ew. I hate that. I hate the murky marketing soup of lies. I hate that “diversity” can be distorted into another way to bullshit readers, and I hate that there’s now even more bullshit for me to sort through. More honesty, please.
Love your characters.
Some people really worry about whether their not-white character is a token. Well, why not make a character you initially envisioned as white, not-white? Or male, not-female? It’s okay to challenge those unconscious biases, and there are a lot of articles out there about doing that.
There’s a character in one of my stories who is of Indian descent. Any particular reason? No. Except that whenever I go to a hospital there is always an Indian doctor there, my child’s pediatrician is Indian, and it’s not even remotely a mental stretch for me. Is it a stereotype? Sure, I guess, but so is a doctor being a man. Nevertheless, a lot of doctors are men. A lot of doctors are Indian. I’m not going to freak out about whether it’s okay for my doctor to be of Indian descent with an Indian name. And beyond that, he is a good character, thoughtful and compassionate, and gives warm, bear-like hugs. [Taking a moment to squee over my Indian doctor.] He’s not a token, in part because there are other characters of color in my story, but mostly because he is real to me.
I strive to embrace my role as a writer-goddess. That’s not me being pompous, that’s me treating my characters like my babies; I made them. Even when they turn out to be assholes, I love them. I made them, and they didn’t ask to be born. It’s something of a condescending view to be sure, but I feel that way about all my characters, equally. (I do have favorites.)
Which leads me to something else I wanted to blog about: Don’t be a bully writer. I was tempted recently to mock one of my characters. It was very tempting because he is a fool. Deep down I knew that wasn’t right, but I was still undecided on how to act. Then I read an interview with author Charles Johnson that sealed the deal for me.
There is one character [in Faith and the Good Thing] … who was based on a good friend of mine, but I objected to many of his ideas, and so I used him as a straw man in the novel. John [Gardner] wrote in the margins: “Shame on you. Why present this character to us just for us to dislike this person, or to disagree with him. Why not dig as deeply as you can into his motivation, his background, his biography, his thought process, so we can understand how someone can inhabit this position?” And, you know, I think he was right. You have to see each and every character in their totality and from their own perspective. We can disagree with them, but they have integrity as human beings that has to come through at some point in the fiction.
You can take that advice and apply it to any character, who is like you or unlike you. Have respect for your characters, have affection for them, love your babies, I say. If you find you are having a hard time embracing characters who do not share your ethnicity, or class or gender, then you’ve learned something important about yourself.
Intentions are not enough.
If you’re trying to write outside yourself, you’re gonna have to learn things, you’re gonna have to work on yourself. That’s part of being an artist. Now if you’re just churning stuff out so you can pay the bills, that’s totally fair, and people do that, and I probably don’t want to read your work, but millions of other people will.
Once you decide that you want to write outside of your race or some other identity — not to be hip or marketable or to pat yourself on the back — but as part of using art as a way to explore the deep questions of life (such as who am I?) … well, that doesn’t come easily. Of course you’re going to wrestle.
The reason you still feel discomfort or anxiety despite your good intentions is because there is more to you and your work than your intentions. I’m a big believer in the unconscious, and let me tell you there are few things scarier for me personally than the possibility of unwittingly writing something I thought said one thing, but actually conveys how shitty I am. Shitty in this case mostly relates to trying to put up a front, “oh yeah, I am totally embracing this concept of X but I have no idea what I’m talking about,” or “I am a bigot in this area even though I thought I was so good.”
What terrifies people is that nasty and outdated ideas are being looked at and talked about in even the most popular literature. Oh wow, this author feels like that about fat people? Women? Muslims? Native Americans? Black people? Bisexuals? YUCK. The conscious person like yourself doesn’t want to be that writer. I get it, I don’t want to be that writer either!
So what’s a writer to do? I don’t know — I’ve already told you I only have unstudied opinions. All I can say is I treat my writing as something serious and integral to who I am as a human being. I struggle most of all with acknowledging my limitations — I don’t know it all, I am not perfect, I have prejudices, I can be an asshole, etc.
There’s a tough balance to strike with only putting out work that I perceive as genuinely Good and responsible, and not avoiding vulnerability. I haven’t achieved it. The pain of being any artist is that sharing your work opens you up to criticism. (Not to mention the risk of offending/hurting people). But these are worthwhile challenges to have. Where does my responsibility to myself and my responsibility to others in the world intersect? I’m still searching. I hold back a lot – not just worried that I’m not a good enough writer, but also that I’m not a good enough person.
That’s the path I choose, though. Others choose differently. For me, it’s about all the different kinds of integrity – artistic integrity to “go for it” and to be bold, and also a commitment to be kind and truthful.
That’s why I try to love my characters, all of them, to have compassion for them and to be
kind fair and truthful about them no matter what they are like. When I’m tempted to mock a character, I ruminate on it until it’s transformed into a better kind of humor. Don’t pretend you are something you are not. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know. If that means you need to learn more and sit with something longer in order to write with intelligence and integrity, then that’s what you have to do. It might take years for you to be able to do that, but I like to quote the Buddhist monks: “What is the difference between having a problem and having something to do?”