The typical writer’s maxim is “write what you know,” but how does that gel when you are writing about cultures other than your own?
After all, I’m a straight white male, which means (if I understand the weird collective that is the internet hive mind correctly) that I have to both “check my privilege” and avoid using the word “problematic.” I’m not quite certain what my privilege might be, nor how I go about checking it (correct my hopeless naiveté and ignorance down there in the comments section), but I’ll happily forego using a word as ugly sounding and awfully constructed as “problematic,” it sounds like corporate business speak and that’s never a fun thing to invoke.
More seriously, it means that I have a harder time finding the voice and authenticity of characters who are non-white, non-straight, or non-male (and combinations thereof) particularly in works set in an approximation of the real world. That doesn’t stop me from writing them, but I can’t help thinking that they probably sound less authentic than characters with a closer resemblance to me. That’s probably why the majority of my stories tend to have male protagonists. It’s not because I’m a sexist as a writer, just that I have an easier time relating to men, because I’m a man.
Also, given my upbringing in a region of England that was so overwhelmingly white (the 2011 census puts it at 7% non-white, and that’s doubled since 2001, when I last lived in the area) that a non-white person attending my secondary school qualified as a major news event, I don’t have a great perspective on the minority experience to inform my characters with. I don’t try to be overtly socially conscious or politically correct in my writing, but if I’m writing in a setting that would logically have a mix of ages, races and genders then my characters will represent that. I don’t write minority (I word I don’t like in this context but my brain is bereft of a better alternative) characters though, I just write characters and if they happen to be a minority, so be it.
I also don’t like the unfortunately common practice of killing off a male characters wife or girlfriend to give that character a dramatic motivation (the so called “women in refrigerators” issue, named for a Green Lantern storyline) , as it seems like a waste of a potentially interesting female character and relationship dynamic. I prefer characters to break up in a more natural manner as it allows me more flexibility to deal with the fallout and reconciliation (or lack thereof) in relationships.
I also try and not write my female characters as either superior or inferior to my male characters. For example, in my 2011 NaNoWriMo, I had a male lead and a female lead. Both were FBI agents and the climax involved a shootout at a train station. For the story to proceed as I needed, one of them had to shoot a saboteur and the other had to be incapacitated enough to be hospitalized. In my original conception, I had gone with the more cliché option of the female character being the one hurt. However, as the two of them had developed distinctive voices over the course of what I had written, she was far more likely to be the one making a kill shot, so I ended up with the male character hurt. While it was a choice I made, the characters were string enough that it could have been completely arbitrary and decided with a coin flip, if I could bring myself to be that random in my works.
So, how do you handle “write what you know” with characters of differing orientations, ethnicities and genders to yourselves?
(Photo by: B S K)