When writing about minorities

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It all started when I clicked this link on Twitter. Go ahead and click that, you’ll need to read it to understand what comes next.

Done? Good. I favourited that tweet because I agree that if a reader criticizes a book on the sole basis that the main character is not a straight white man like him, the problem is with the reader.

But it got me thinking. If I were to write from the point of view (I’m going to start using POV from here on) of, say, a deaf, genderqueer Peruvian with a disabled son, would I be able to? Bearing in mind that I’m a childless Irish cis woman who has never left Europe?

They say “write what you know”, although that rule can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I don’t think adhering to it necessarily limits your writing to first-hand personal experience, but when it comes to portraying a character with an entirely different background to you, can imagination be enough?

I first took the question to Joanne Harris (whose books I have declared my undying love for in the past), because she actually responds on Twitter and her opinions are always interesting. Her first response to the Tumblr article itself was this:

Interesting indeed. In the same way that one of my characters is a white-blonde identical twin simply because the dream she was born from painted her that way, why shouldn’t I decide to write characters that are pansexual, disabled, Asian or female just because? Places, after all, don’t have to be visited for us to write realistically about them – several authors have proven that sufficient research is enough to write a good seeming of them. Luckily so, or else historical fiction, fantasy and sci-fi simply wouldn’t exist.

But the difference between places and people is that people have emotions that can be hurt, and those from social minorities very often are. So if we do presume to write from the POV of somebody who belongs to one of those minorities that actually exist today, we must be careful, not only because our portrayal of that one character can be seen to portray the entire minority, but because how we portray them can, at worst, have the potential to do harm even to those individuals in that minority who have not read your story.

At best, mistakes due to insufficient research will just make you look a bit ridiculous in the eyes of said minority.

So: can a middle-class, straight white man from Kent write from the POV of a poor black lesbian living in Somalia? And moreover, should he?

When it comes to social debate, I’m a fan of the “shut up and listen” method. I’m aware that being white, European and not extremely poor makes me privileged, and as such I would never presume to speak in the name of black people or homeless people for instance; rather, the aim should be to help those people to get their voices heard by sharing it. On the other hand, I’m a woman living in a country that doesn’t pay me as much as a man for the same job. While I’m grateful for any support men can give me and other women, should a man presume to speak in our name on the subject (as opposed to speaking in favour of womens’ rights), as well-meaning as he may be, I’d be inclined to politely tell him to listen and not interrupt while we tell him what it’s like to be a woman living in a patriarchal society. In fact, most of the male feminists I know understood this even before I did, and it’s widely accepted as the most logical way to proceed when it comes to any social cause.

But stories are not debates. They can open and contribute to debates, but stories in themselves are stories: things that occur in writers’ brains that the writers then feel the need to get out on paper (or screen, as the case may be). And although stories can have morals and themes, the plot of the story, though influenced by the issues it discusses, will not usually be entirely dependent upon them, in the same way that good characters – like individuals – are not defined purely by which social groups they belong to.

Inspiration works in strange ways. Sometimes, no matter what I do, the story just won’t work the same if I turn the main character into an Irish girl who grew up in the England and France. In fact it’s like that most of the time. Should it stop me from writing that character, even if they come from a minority I don’t belong to?

I think it depends. Toni Morrisson was never a slave, but she has second-hand knowledge of slavery and first-hand knowledge of what it was like to be a black girl growing up in the 30’s, during segregation. No matter how much research I do or how many people I interview, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write about being a black girl growing up in a black community in the 30’s with quite the same authenticity as her.

On the other hand, I doubt David Mitchell knows first hand what it’s like to be a Mexican female reporter in the U.S. in the 70’s, never mind an eccentric bisexual composer in the 30’s, but he got both those and six other characters’ POVs across astoundingly well in Cloud Atlas. How?

Research? Aside from television, your local library and the inexhaustible Google-sensei, there are *some* resources aimed specifically at writers who want to write characters who are blind or Russian for instance. Once you’ve researched the basics on your subject, do a search for “common misconceptions about…” and see what was comes up.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who gets so caught up in the research (including for this article) that I tend to forget the writing part. So how much research do you need to do in order for your character to seem authentic? I think Holly Lisle has the right of it here. I’m paraphrasing, but in one of her essays she once said something along the lines of: “Only research as much as you need for your plot to work. If what you’re researching has nothing to do with your plot, stop.” (Or maybe she was talking about world-building. It works anyway.) Likewise, when researching another culture or social group or a disability, you need to keep your plot in mind at all times so as not to get too carried away (although learning more can’t harm you).

For example, I once wrote a short piece of fiction from the POV of a piece of mint gum, and for that I only needed to find out what the ingredients were, but not how it was made (still, I don’t chew gum any more).

So, say I’m writing from the POV of a character fundamentally different to me and politically sensitive. I’ll be bearing the following things in mind while I create my character:

– Preferably, he must not seem to represent his/her entire community in the story. I’d other secondary characters provide variety, which is realistic when you’re talking about a community.

– No stereotyped, 2D characters. My character may be a devout muslim man, and he is certainly affected by that: He is an Indian whose family was killed by Hindus in the riots, who was taken to England and raised by his grandmother who tried to teach him kindness but who died before she saw her teachings reach him. He struggles with his prejudices daily because although he knows what prejudice feels like when you’re on the wrong end of it, his neighbours are Hindus, like the people who killed his parents, and also Sikh and Christian and also Arab Muslims who worship a little differently to him and whose daughters don’t even show their faces, and he wonders where they got their interpretation of the Q’ran just as he knows they wonder about his. He is also a doctor who has to ignore his religious beliefs at work, and who has actually come to believe that abortions are, in some cases, necessary, but the belief hurts him and he feels guilty about it.

But on the other hand, his parents and grandmother were people who believed in the value of knowledge, and so he is delighted to pass this thirst on to his daughter, and all the while guiltily frustrated with his son, who has cerebral palsy. He likes music of all sorts, and fell in love with his wife’s voice over the phone before even seeing her face to face. His medical training has taught him to forget social barriers, which is how he one day ends up saving the life of his Hindu neighbour, whose wife, in thanks, offers his daughter piano lessons, during which it is revealed that she is something of a prodigy…

Some of the elements I just listed would only be applicable to a muslim Indian having grown up in those parts of India where riots between Muslims and Hindus still occur. Others could happen to anybody. There has to be a mix, and the elements that are specific to whatever group your character belongs to can affect the elements that have nothing to do with said group. An earthquake will affect everyone within its vicitiy, but if you’re in a wheelchair, it might be a bit more difficult to get to safety.

– I have to understand my character and be able to empathize with him. Initially, I wouldn’t be inclined to write from the POV of a muslim Indian doctor anyway because Islam (religion in general actually), India, medecine and life in England are not things that I find particularly fascinating, or at least not half as fascinating as, say, old fairy tales and the Victorian era or, if we’re talking specifically about social groups, polyamory and feminism. So I’ve added some aspects to his character that I *can* empathize with. My parents are very much alive, but I know what it’s like to be genuinely afraid for someone’s life, and for my own life, and I know what grief feels like, and what it’s like to be slightly estranged from the country you’re growing up in (believe it or not). I have no children, but I have sisters much younger than me who I feel incredibly protective of, and I’ve bonded with enough children during my nannying career to know what it’s like the first time a child says your name or buries their head in your shoulder to hide from a stranger. I also have basic knowledge of childhood development, so maybe I’d make my doctor a pediatrician. Sometimes it can’t hurt to write what you know while you’re figuring out how to know what you write.

– Whether or not you decide to use whatever minority your character belongs to to create conflict for the plot, remember that the conflict is there in his or her life whether you want it to be or not. If you ignore that completely in your writing, it’ll read false. I’m not saying you can’t write about the way things should be, rather than how they are, but remember that solutions bring their own problems. If, in your futuristic sci-fi world, men and women have unquestioned equal rights, remember that those countries in which equal rights are most prevalent have lower birth rates because women there tend to have better careers; logically, with medical advances leading to longer lives, in a few hundred years, it might be considered shocking for a woman to get pregnant before the age of 30. Use that conflict to drive your plot. Utopias don’t exist, and change is the only constant.

You might be thinking “I only write high fantasy, so my world and characters can be whatever I want them to be.” You’re right, however: every society has rules, and the ones you create for your imaginary society will affect your character. Never forget that they will have grown up with those rules, and will not be unaffected by breaking them: it will change them. And if they belong to one doctrine and convert to another, remember that this, too, will cause conflict which you should at least acknowledge, if not take advantage of and work into your plot. Personally I always find it more fun to create the rules first and the character after, and make them bend to the rules the way an individual must bend to society and its laws, instead of creating a world for the character.

I think that while it is easier to write what you know than to know what you write, knowing what you write opens up your mind to far more knowledge and wisdom, and cultivates empathy in both you and your readers, and that empathy is essential in order to write authentic characters, no matter how much like you they are. So rather than “write what you know”, I’d say “write what impassions you”, because that’s what you’ll be the most motivated to learn about. You don’t actually have to actually have or sell horses to write from the POV of a horse-seller, but it might help if you know bridle from stirrup.

What do you think?

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