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Breaking Your Novel Out of Your Circle

"Write what you know." Author Elif Shafak asserts in her TED Talk that taken too seriously, this piece of advice locks our creative work into an airtight bubble where it will shrivel and die. She beautifully describes the value of stretching our imaginations and writing diverse characters who live differently than we have.

I heartily agree with her. I believe that it is not only ethically good to seek an understanding or imagining of what others' experiences may be like--it is artistically important to include a variety of different characters in a work of fiction to let it come alive.

On the other hand, I also believe in the notion I've seen floating around social media lately, that in this culture of high criticism, everyone has not become "too politically correct" or "too sensitive"; we've collectively become wiser and more empathetic. We know better, and we're trying to do better. I see this striving toward representing humans better in films, books, and children's media, and where the media has not yet caught up to the mainstream public's "knowing better," there is a huge deal of criticism flooding the internet about misrepresentation of people based on gender, sexuality, race, family structure, disability, and more.

I believe that this is a promising shift, and it challenges today's storytellers to tell more thoughtful and nuanced stories with more complex characters. I think that's a good thing.

I believe that authors have both an ethical and an aesthetic obligation to produce better work than has been acceptable in the past. As an author, I challenge myself to push outside my comfort zone and take risks, knowing that I can't possibly please (or avoid offending) every person who reads my work.

I think that we should stop asking ourselves, "Should I even try writing a character who is unlike me?" and start focusing on, "How do I write my diverse characters well?"

Knowing how to write an "other" character well isn't exactly about liking people who fit the description so much as being truly interested in their experiences. It doesn't require agreement or approval, but it does require empathy. As a woman, I am acutely aware of when female characters written by male authors come off as real, vibrant humans or frail stereotypes. I don't believe men shouldn't write from women's points of view; I do believe they should try to write them well. And the only way to write a human character well is to know human people well. Based on aesthetic, qualitative issues alone, I can tell that Anton Chekhov had a better rapport with ladies than his contemporary Hans Christian Andersen. And I enjoyed reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a deeply flawed character who was nonetheless more than a simple, tired stereotype. I got the sense reading this book that Tolstoy may have had issues with women, but those issues--and women themselves--fascinated him and inspired him to write interesting narratives about women. To use another gender example, author Joyce Carol Oates has been frank about her lifelong wish to understand male violence toward women, which compels her to write almost painfully intimate narratives concerning the motivations of such men.

As a reader myself, I'm no enemy of the good. I can acknowledge the flaws in a work of art and also see its value at the same time. One of my all-time favorite books was written by a wealthy German man in the 19th century and populated with vibrant characters of all ages, both genders, and diverse classes, religions, and nationalities. Ekkehard: A Tale of the Tenth Century by Joseph Victor Von Scheffel, is filled with characters who don't stray radically far from expected roles of gender, class, religion, or nationality, giving it a strong feeling of historical realism, but they are dimensional enough to often surprise the reader and catch each other off guard. They strike a lovely balance between familiar and lively so that they feel like real, individual, human people. They are neither boring nor too far-fetched. In a hilarious display of self-awareness, Scheffel even wrote dialog for his heroine critiquing Virgil for doing a poor job of writing a believable female character.

In this same book, however, there is one ethnic population of people that is portrayed as a flat, historically inaccurate caricature. (Read my review for all the details.) This might not be apparent to a reader who knew absolutely nothing about the population misrepresented in the novel, but to pretty much any modern reader of any background, it sticks out as a jarring flaw. And even if we give the author himself a "pass" on racism or insensitivity or whatever moral failing he may not have been aware of committing in his position as a 19th century German gentleman (which I don't feel I must do, based on the evidence of his broad knowledge of the world and its human diversity), the scenes involving the ugly caricatures stand out as simply ugly.

Apart from any ethical concerns, it's a weak point in the aesthetic fabric of the novel. Being dense or insensitive about human beings isn't just an ethical issue for an artist; it's an aesthetic issue for the artist who creates portraits of human beings, whether pictorially or in words. Questions about whether the artist "was a racist" or "is a misogynist" or any other label attached to the artist are irrelevant to the work itself; the fact remains that for whatever reason, the work has failed to represent its intended subject.
So how do authors learn to "get it right" when writing diverse characters? First of all, it's critical to have a healthy interest and empathy in other people's life experiences. Characters written simply to shore up a stereotype or make someone else look good by comparison are doomed to flat inhumanity. It helps to get to know real people who share something in common with the character. When it's hard to do that, I think the next best thing would be to read a variety of books written by various people who are like your character.

author Alexandre Dumas

This careful work does not guarantee that every reader will like your character or that no one will be offended by your characterization. But I believe it's a risk that any serious artist--artist, not simple craftsperson--should consider worth taking. Otherwise, as Elif Shafak warns, we risk walling our creations into small, sterile circles of safety where they can wither away.

I found a great resource on giving advice on how to write people of color, with illustrated examples from a variety of writers.

Now let's turn the question around, because all serious authors are avid readers too.

How do you feel when you read a character who is like you in some way, written by an author who is not? Are there different times when it has it felt good, not so good, or something more complicated? Why?


  1. Well said. It is a struggle and not just for white writers. I'm only a minority in the way I'm treated, but I grew up in the whitest of white towns with the whitest of white influences. I don't really identify with urban struggles so often portrayed as monolithic for black people. So in an attempt to write a love story in Detroit, I became increasingly uncomfortable with attempting to write a black man. I have no experience and I haven't talked to enough men of color to be writing about them. That book was scrapped and now I'm struggling because the fourth book in my series has a blonde, white heroine and my gut keeps wanting to pair her with a Japanese man, which again, I know nothing about that life or culture and also I'm hesitant to write an interracial romance with a blonde white heroine because of the political implications of it. Eurocentric standards of beauty and all that. It's hard. Ultimately though, it is our role both as artists and people to explore the things we don't understand. Of course this means we may fail at it and others may not like it, but I think it's a natural part of learning and growing. We can't hamstring ourselves out of fear of criticism. We're gonna get criticized anyhow.

    As far as reading? A Yellow Raft in Blue Water was a book that I read over and over as a teenager. It felt like my life. Except it was about a mixed race girl who lived on a reservation. But I identified so strongly with the character that I couldn't imagine the author was anything but mixed race. He was not. White dude. White dude who wrote with unbelievable sensitivity and understanding. He rocked my literary world.

    Also, Boys Life by Robert McCammon. One of my favorite books. I loved the character of The Lady as a child. She's amazing and I read so few black characters that she was a breath of fresh air. As an adult, I discovered that 1) she's the most magical of magical negros and 2) she says things like, "Readin'. Writin'. Thinkin'. Those are the rungs on the ladder that lead up and out. Not whinin' and takin' and bein' a mind-chained slave. That's the used to be world. It ought to be a new world now." Which I don't disagree with but... knowing it was written by a white guy gives it an unpleasant undertone.

    I found Memoirs of a Geisha to be complicated. Not because I identified but because I loved the book and it felt like the author put a lot of thought and time and care into his portrayal of a Japanese woman. Many Japanese people did not share that sentiment. I cannot argue right or wrong there. But I found the portrayal to be empathetic and made me want to learn more about the culture, which didn't feel like a bad thing.

    Not so good? Every black character Stephen King has ever written. Ugh. They might as well be shuckin' and jivin'. I can't with his two-dimensional black characters that only come in two varieties, Magical Negro and thug. Again I loved his work when I was a kid. As an adult it makes me so annoyed that I can't re-read any of it.

    1. Thank you, Christina! It's so good to be on this journey with you. I'm grateful for all of your unique perspectives, insights, questions, and struggles that you share with me and our writing group. I've never heard of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, but I may want to look at that!

    2. I haven't read Yellow Raft in Blue Water since 9th grade, but I remember blubbering like a baby and reading it over and over. Beautiful prose. I stole it from our HS library until they threatened to hold me back if I didn't return it.

    3. Bahaha! Your school must have thought it was overly successful in nurturing your love of literature.

  2. Great post, Jeannie. Thank you Christina for sharing this. I'm enjoying all of the discussion on this topic. Very helpful!


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