My story idea and setting usually come before the main characters, who are then developed to fit the location and have the characteristics and personalities to move the plot forward. From there, I populate the novel with a lot of secondary and minor characters as the need for them comes along.
In real life, there are tens or maybe hundreds of people who move through our lives each day, but have no importance for us. Don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not saying some people are more worthy of our attention than others. Neither am I implying we should ignore or not see those people: quite the opposite. We should be kind, civil, respectful, sympathetic, caring, and interested in them. We should listen to what they have to say. That doesn’t mean they are integral part of our lives physically or emotionally.
I’m always nice to the cashiers at the grocery store [even the rude ones], and for the most part they are pleasant with me. Sometimes we talk briefly about what’s going on around us, in the news, or in our lives. We exchange a few sentences. I attempt to learn and remember their names … always a challenge for me. After five or ten minutes we part, and if we never see each other again, neither of us will be left with big holes in our lives.
But I digress. As far as my fictional characters go, when the need for a minor character comes up -- a baggage handler, a member of a tour group, a waitress, etc. – I usually don’t know what role the person will play. They may ends up:
Kicked out of the novel Murdered off in the novel Be given a role in the novel
▼ ▼ ▼
Those words of wisdom are some of the first “rules” beginning authors learn. While the guidance is, without question, useful at the start of a writing career, after a while most writers amend the advice to “write about what you know about” and realize it doesn’t necessarily mean should only write about yourself, your family, the town or country you grew up in, or anything specific in your background. It does means, “Do your homework first.”
There are many ways of accumulating knowledge besides “living it.” Granted, personal experience is vivid -- even mundane incidents or incidental knowledge can remain with us for a lifetime -- but human beings can, and do, learn through other means.
Nevertheless, writing about the experiences, events and feelings of others and understanding them are not the same.
That’s when an author, even one who has done their homework, can stray off the path when creating characters who do not resemble the writer’s own background and experiences -- including experiences in and with other backgrounds.
Hold that thought!
Then, quickly this data is moved to parts of the frontal cortex responsible for analyzing the various sensory inputs and deciding if they're worth remembering. If they are, they're shipped off to the various parts of long term memory. Much of it returns to the sensory cortex areas where the brain originally received it.
Thus, if our long term memories are essentially who we are, our values, and what we believe in, then everything we see and do is filtered through that lens.
Hold that thought also.
WRITE WHAT YOU UNDERSTAND?
Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object -- such as a person, situation, place, message, idea -- whereby one is able to think about it, use concepts to deal adequately with that object or thought, and make inferences. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding
I spent a lot of effort trying to get my mind around the difference between intellectual and emotional understanding, although I’ve used those words myself on many occasions. The best articulation I found is from an article written by Elinor Greenbers, Faculty New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, describing the “practical differences between intellectual and emotional empathy”, which is not quite the same thing. Her example, slightly reworded, is below.
"If we see someone fall down and spill their groceries on the ground, persons with emotional and intellectual empathy are almost equally likely to help.
The intellectual will consider how the other person will react to the help, if other people are moving to help, and if helping the other person will inconvenience them. The intellectual might actively decide not to help at all, though they are also likely to ask the other person, “Are you all right?” or “Would you like a hand?”
So, while the mechanics of the two kinds of empathy differ, they have few practical differences."
To me this means, intellectual understanding is listening to the words and what they mean, really hearing the story, realizing the kinds of impacts the incident had on the particular person telling the story, and being sympathetic to how the person is saying they felt about the situation.
Emotional understanding is all of the above plus the visceral feeling in your gut. Therein lies the rub. Even though being familiar with the details of experiences and feelings of others, understanding them are not the same. Is it possible to feel exactly as another person feels, both emotionally and physically?
The answer is, “No, you can’t completely understand.” No two people have exactly the same lens and process the information the same way. But people who have shared the same experiences or many of the same experiences can come very close to it, and having shared similar backgrounds and experiences gives a much better sense of what the other person thinks and feels.
Writer Eliza Andrews, in her article, quotes a friend of color who told her, “You can’t tell white people a story about white people and expect them to understand.”
She writes that no one can take their own experiences and then paste them over the top of race … or another person. I am white. I grew up at a certain time in a certain place and I’ve lived the life I have lived. I will never understand what it means to grown up being a person of color. I can only empathize and relate at some level.
We all “think” we understand, because anyone who is interested and/or even a little empathetic relates the topic of discussion to something that they are familiar with or have experienced personally which seems to replicate the other person’s point of view, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Everything we see, feel, learn, experience in any way, comes into our brains through unique filters.
That is a hell of a lot of words to say respect the fact that everyone is different.
SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING CHARACTERS WITH BACKGROUND DIFFERENT THAN YOUR OWN
This blog was intended to list a few simple guidelines for writing characters who have different backgrounds [ethnic, cultural, national, sexual orientation, linguistic, interests – whatever the author didn’t experience directly]. Instead, my To-Do list morphed into a complicated research project. Apparently, I have no lens for pithy.
I believe that most writers want their works to be read, enjoyed, appreciated, and respected. I doubt most authors – at least not any that I know -- sit down at the computer to create characters and a story line for the purpose of spreading discriminatory practices and hate, or the intention of purposefully hurting, offending, disparaging, or damaging other people.
But authors are human. Not only do we see things through our own lens, we flat out make mistakes sometimes. We can be insensitive to something and be totally unaware of the results. What authors can do is be conscious of the problem and make an effort to lessen or eliminate those unintended offences from our writing. [If an author intends to be hurtful or offensive, there’s probably nothing anyone can say or do to make a difference.]
After running all this information through my own filter, I formulated these guidelines for writing about any characters and communities different from our own and those we are familiar with.
● Respect the people and their culture of the people you are writing about.
● Accept the fact that you may not “understand.”
You probably don’t, or at least not completely. Come to the task of writing your novel expecting to question and challenge your own filters on an ongoing basis to keep on course.
If your major characters are of different background from your own, and you want to tell their story, ask yourself why. Why are you writing this book? Who is your audience? Why did you choose to this character whose background is different from yours?
Be ready to do as much research as your novel needs, which can consume much time and effort sometimes.
▪ Seek out one-on-one contacts, literature, research data, movies, etc. originated by the community you are writing about. Ask questions about things you don’t get.
▪ Listen! Pay attention! Set aside your own experience, beliefs, and filters. Try to suspend critical judgment in order to hear and understand, at least intellectually. How does this community see and represent itself? Be aware that in any community, the manner in which that community perceives and defines itself will vary from person to person, group to group, and may often seem contradictory. Don’t expect all members of any community to think alike or experience the same things. Don’t state or imply in your work that they do. Expect and represent a wide range of opinions.
▪ Research the speech characteristics and terminology used at the time and location of your novel. Language and dialogue are weak points in portraying accurately a community you are not familiar with, and certainly can be unintentionally incorrect or offensive. My research informed me, loud and clear, that black English is not English with bad grammar and slang. It is a dialect.
In dialogue, slang, pronunciation, and accents present potential pitfalls. More so if the setting is one which did or does not respect certain communities of people. The reality is that disparaging words are or were used to refer to others. Those words may be hurtful to readers.
Just sayin’. At times it is almost impossible to be true to history and at the same time be respectful of the feelings of the community in question. I don’t have the answer.
● Build and populate your world with sensitivity
Get your facts straight and keep them correct. This is not the time to “wing it.” Research your setting, history of the time, and language, and create, with sensitivity, the world your characters occupy or occupied. Numerous people of color pointed out that in many novels not one character, even a walk-on, is a person of color. Even though the main characters may not be a person of color, could the individual float through life without ever seeing one?
At the same time, be sensitive to stereotyping and dropping in "tokens."
● Avoid stereotyping
Stereotyping is making broad and often oversimplified assumptions about all members of a specific group or community.
▪ While some people within the group may embody the traits or characteristics of their stereotype, they are not necessarily representative of all people within that group.
▪ Although stereotypes are often seen as negative perceptions, they can also be positive. Either way, they can be harmful and hurtful.
▼ Spanish stereotype of American Tourist
There is always the chance that a character who seems well-rounded and deliberate to you might appear to someone else as a stereotype. To avoid stereotypes, you’ve have to know what they are from the perspective of the character you’re writing about. Time for more research.
● Take A Shot At Understanding What Being Privileged Means
Read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. There is a lot of food for thought, and it gave me a different perspective on the matter. https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf
● Base your character, closely or loosely, on a real person.
Author and illustrator Elisha Lim writes, “Consult with them as you write it. Let them edit it. Credit them generously. Repay them, at the very least with a copy of the book. If you can’t do this because you don’t have any friends of the particular background, then you probably don’t have the life experience to write that character convincingly. (Also a good moment to seriously reconsider your friend selection process.)” https://midnightbreakfast.com/writing-people-of-color
After completion of the first draft, you may want to ask certain members of the community in question to be Beta Readers for sensitivity. If you don’t know anyone, then you probably need to do more research. It’s good to have more than one. Listen carefully to what they tell you.
● Give your secondary and “minor” characters as much attention as your primaries
Secondary characters need to be fleshed out almost as much as primary characters. They deserve to be well-rounded individuals in their own right regardless of heritage or community. Minor characters and walk-ons get as much attention and description as warrants in the manuscript, but they should be accurate to the depth they are addressed.
● When in doubt, write from a place of shared understanding.
Authors must understand who they’re writing about, whether the character is a five-year-old child, a war hero with PTSD, or the worst antagonist ever.
● Remember Western culture has a predisposition to meaning of colors.
Do not always associate, in your writing, white with the definition of good and pure, and black with the definition of what is evil. We can’t escape the millennia of such references, but don’t put them in your writing. There are plenty of other words in the English language to make your meaning known.
● When introducing characters, do not point out non-white races or differences.
● Do not describe people in terms of edibles.
Describing people using food is not good in general, but it is particularly offensive to people of color and done so often that it warrants constant alertness. People of color have had a history of being used for slave labor involving food, especially coffee, chocolate, and so on, and the words have a historical context. Be aware of them. It is only a matter of selecting our words with care and sensitivity. Break the habit.
Writing With Color is an excellent website which provides alternate words for describing colors and tones of skin and many other things. Writing with Color: Description Guide – Words for Skin Ton
● Think twice about a plotline involving the whiteman saving the natives.
It’s not only the characters but often the overall premise of your story. Consider this in your plotting as well as creation of characters.
SHOULD AUTHORS WRITE ONLY CHARACTERS LIKE THEMSELVES?
No brainer. Hell, no! We live in the 21st century, in a world that is as diverse as it’s ever been. Not writing about other cultures and characters of other communities is being untrue to reality. Most important, it can only make us better writers, broaden our audiences, and give us more interesting things to write about.
Kristin Nelson puts it this way. “Make your characters realistic and grounded, and avoid falling back on stereotypes. Instead of merely describing your characters’ skin color, build a realistic and complex backstory for each character: What past experiences related to their heritage have shaped their identities and worldviews, and how will those things affect the ways in which they think, behave, and interact with others during the course of your story. Research extensively. Engage sensitivity readers of the same background(s) as your character(s). Expect and listen to criticism.” nelsonagency.com/can-white-authors-write-characters-of-color
Sources and Resources:
https://www.vox.com/2015/8/19/9173457/hispanic-latino-comic [Good explanation of the difference between being Latino and Hispanic. They are not interchangeable.
Ten Tips On Writing Race in Novels – AuthorMitaliPerkins