In fall 2015 I taught a class for the Great Smokies Writing Program called “Not Like Me: Creating Fictional Characters Who Do Not Share Your Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Etc.” I offered this class for the reason I always teach: in order to learn (I’m selfish that way). Our text was Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct Press 2005). Our wonderful guest speakers included Meta Commerse, author of the novel The Mending Time; Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality and author of the short story collection Big Love; and Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her novel, Going to Water.
While not everyone agrees, the premise of our class was that we should attempt to write characters not like ourselves. The question then became how to overcome the blind spots caused by privilege in order to write those characters respectfully and plausibly. It can be done, if we identify emotional truths that we hold in common with a character (for example, losing or becoming a parent, coming of age, recovering from addiction) and then do the work to understand and respect those aspects of the character that are not “like us.”
Rather than think in terms of absolute dos and don’ts, we developed a list of questions to ask, to examine our motives for creating the characters and our choices about how to portray them. I summarize some of those questions below. If you are a writer whose traits are dominant in our culture—for example, white, male, or straight—consider posing these questions not only to yourself but to readers who share the traits of the character you are trying to bring to life. Not only will their input tell you where you have fallen short, the information and details they give you will also enrich your work.
Why do you want this character in your story? What is this character’s role?
Do they have their own purpose and story arc? Do they change by the end?
Are they there merely to redeem or guide your main character, show how compassionate or liberal he is, or how evil she is? Have you made them a token, a sidekick, or a dispensable “Star Trek red shirt?” Are they merely part of the landscape, such as the Natives depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness?
Is this character a main or supporting character? (The more central the character, the more development you will need to do). Is this character a point-of-view character? If so, which of this character’s many stories are you attempting to tell? What authority do you have to tell his or her story? In what ways is this character similar to you such that you can extrapolate from your own experience? In what ways is this character alien to you? If this character is not a point of view character, should they be, because they are best equipped to tell the story?
What space are you giving this character in your story relative to other characters? Is this character the only representative of this group in your story? Should you include others to show the diversity within the group?
Have you relied on stereotypes, either positive or negative, to create the character? As an example, the stereotype of the “Magical Negro” is an African-American character who uses magical or spiritual gifts for the benefit of a white character, plays a limited role outside that of spirit guide, and seems unable to use his powers to help himself. Likewise, the stereotype of the Noble Savage depicts a Native character as possessing mystical powers, typically tied to nature or the land, solely by virtue of his or her Native identity. Other stereotypes include the overly sexual or asexual LGBT character. Have you relied on pop-culture images to create your character? (If you’ve seen it in the movies, it is probably a stereotype).
In the context of your story, who has privilege and who doesn’t? “Privilege” is an imperfect word used to describe the immunity that members of dominant groups enjoy in our society. A white character in your fiction might be oblivious to the fact of his privilege, but as Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward point out (Writing the Other: A Practical Approach), “Wouldn’t it be strange to read a novel set in the pre-Civil War American South and discover that none of the black slave characters ever noticed that their owners were free and they weren’t?” Don’t let your own privilege blind you to what an unprivileged character would perceive.
How have you chosen to describe skin color, facial features, hair and other ethnic traits, age, impaired physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or gender? Be careful about using commodity imagery (such as chocolate and coffee) to describe African-American characters, or animal imagery (“wily as a fox”) to describe Native characters. Have you used terms that members of your character’s group would find offensive, inflammatory, or outdated?
How are you depicting this character’s speech? (For example, Natives speaking poetically or in broken English, or the use of misspelling to depict African-American dialect).
Have you cherry-picked from a culture in a way that is offensive or not accurate? (For example, selecting and combining traditions from several different Native tribes). In making your selection, have you left out cultural elements that members of that culture might consider crucial? Have you treated the culture as dead and unchanging when it is actually a living culture? Some Native Americans recently criticized J. K. Rowling for this type of cultural misappropriation in her piece, “History of Magic in North America,” which placed wizards in early Native tribes.
Finally, and perhaps most important, have you done research (primary and secondary) to inform this character, and have you sought feedback from readers and writers who share the same “other” status as your character? If not, do so, and be prepared to “kill your darlings” if it turns out you got something wrong.