Writing Characters Outside the Box

Fisheye Scorn - You're in Deep TroubleI hate stereotypes. I get why they exist; human brains like order. They process a lot of information, so they want to sort things into boxes and get on with the day.

But we—individual people—are not tick boxes on a form. We are not the sum of the things people claim we are. We are not X, Y, and Z because our skin is a certain color, or our grandparents were born in a particular country, or because of whom we love.

When I think about how stereotypes apply to writing, I keep coming back to an amazing author and professor I studied under years ago, who cautioned women writers never to write from a man’s point of view. It’s a topic I’ve tackled before but it still applies to so many situations.

“Stay out of their heads,” she implored, because according to her, it’s simply not possible for us to understand how they think. “And if you ask them,” she continued, “they will lie.”

“So,” I answered, “That means I’m only able to write point-of-view characters who are female, have not reproduced, are descendants of Eastern European Jews, and are my current age or younger?”

She stopped calling on me.

I believe in imagination. I believe that if I can imagine it, I can write it. If I pay attention to people, if I have empathy and compassion for them, I can write their stories. I believe we’re more alike than we are different. We want to be loved. We want to belong, we want to be acknowledged, and we want to feel useful. Maybe I’m deluding myself; who knows? Also, if you plunk me beside another female who has not reproduced, is a descendent of Eastern European Jews, and is my exact chronological age down to the moment I took my first breath, I’m pretty damned sure she is not going to think the way I do or react to things the way I do.

I’ve written several stories that have had male point-of-view characters. I think I did these characters justice, but because I burn to get it right, I ran those manuscripts by actual real-life men before I published. I don’t believe they lied to me when they gave me their feedback that in some of my fictional situations, a guy probably wouldn’t say or do whatever I had them saying or doing. So I fixed it.

As if I need more challenges, the characters I’m working with now are pushing me so far to the edge of the envelope that I might need overseas postage and a customs form. Nearly every day I wrestle with my worthiness to take them on, and how readers will react to my writing from the head of a person I’ve never been.

I just know that I have to try. Whatever cosmic radio station gives me my characters and stories has given me this one. Like a challenge. Like a dare. Like a triple-word, triple-letter, triple-dog dare. And I can’t let go of it.

Tell me what you think. Do you think writers have the right to write as a character they are not? Have you read any books where an author has gotten it right? Or gotten it terribly wrong?

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About laurieboris

Writer, editor, proofreader, stand-up comedian in another life.
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24 Responses to Writing Characters Outside the Box

  1. JD Mader says:

    Jesus, if I only wrote me my writing would be boring as shit. ;)

  2. Laura Clark says:

    I wrote a story called “Double-edged Sword.” It’s from the point of view of a guy who happens to be a successful musician in LA. I have not lived that life; I have not been that character. But I have been told by an actual male, LA musician that I got it right. That the story exudes truth. That it hit the nail right on the damn head.

    So yeah, I think it’s just fine to write characters you’ve never been. (And if anyone can do those characters you speak of justice, it’s you.)

  3. I believe we can call on our observations and experiences and extrapolate from those for many things, including creating characters we could not have met and known intimately. That said, I also think we must be extremely careful not to assume we know what a person from another culture, class or way of life thinks. We must always remain aware enough that we do not attempt to appropriate their voice. For myself, I would, for instance, never assume that I can write about the emotional experiences of a black woman in Africa today. Yet, because I write fiction and have experienced abuse and oppression, I can use those to create believable characters readers can identify with. But I avoid attempting to say that my characters truth is the same as that African (or a childless, descendant of Eastern European Jews), or even that I understand that truth. I don’t and it would be wrong of me to assume that I can speak for her. It’s a very fine line and we are wrong to try to cross it. I think that writing fiction does allow more leeway than non-fiction but even here we must tread with cat’s feet. It was a very hotly debated topic when I studied feminist theory.

    • laurieboris says:

      And hotly debated at every women’s writing conference I ever attended, Yvonne. No, I’d never assume to know what some cultures and ethnicities experience. There are some places I don’t go. But when I do go into someone’s head, I go carefully and with great respect. Or at least I try to.

      • I agree. Which takes me back to my first sentence. What bothers me is that there are so many that believe they CAN speak another’s truth. They just don’t ‘get it’ that they don’t ‘get it’. That’s why it’s such a slippery slope.
        And I have created a few compelling male characters, as well. Like you, I try to do that with respect.

  4. I think it’s easier for women to write from a man’s POV than it is for men to write from a woman’s. For decades, if not centuries, men dominated the field of literature, and most of the books we think of as classics were written by men. As readers, both male and female, we’ve been marinated in that male POV, that male voice. There may be nuances in the Modern Male Experience that women can’t get without help, but it ain’t impossible. Not by a long shot.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thanks, Lynne. For one, most women grow up watching men, taking care of men, responding to men. So I think we know them pretty well. More frequently I see men getting women wrong than women getting men wrong. One in particular stopped my reading cold. Steve Martin. I do like him, but several scenes in “Shopgirl” felt all wrong to me.

      • I haven’t seen “Shopgirl” — and now I may not. :D But I agree with you that men get women wrong more often than the opposite.

        Hi from the IU blogfest, btw. (waves)

      • laurieboris says:

        The thing in Shopgirl (the book) that stopped me cold is that he has a female character neatening up her, uh, bikini area with a razor, and rinsing the razor in the toilet. Not a woman alive (at least that I know of) would do this.

  5. melparish says:

    Great post Laurie. The main protagonist in all my novels so far have been male. Why? I have no idea. As you say, the characters arrive as they are in our imaginations for us to deal with. To try and force them to behave within the limits of our own experience is pointless, we might as well just make ourselves the main character, but as JD pointed out above, that would be boring. Besides writing outside the box allows or even forces us to consider different ways of looking at life than we might normally do and go down paths that we wouldn’t dream of doing in reality.

  6. DV Berkom says:

    Great, thought-provoking post, Laurie! As you know, I LOVE writing from the male point of view. I also run my male characters by several of the male type species to make sure I’m not just projecting my idea of what a guy would think. Most of my best friends growing up were guys and I think I have a handle on at least a few of ‘em. And, well, I love men. Always have. Don’t get me wrong, I really love being around women, too, so it’s not an either/or kind of thing. I think it’s a prerequisite that writers generally like or at least are fascinated by other humans. Empathy helps, too…

    I believe writers should write whatever the heck they want/are moved to write. And certainly, don’t listen to teachers who obviously haven’t got the cajones to stretch their writing chops :-D

  7. Karen Wyld says:

    Laurie, I agree with some of your points, but think writers need to be careful where we step. Yvonne has already voiced some of what I would have said (and did it better than what I could), so instead I will stick to the questions you have posed.

    Do we have a right to write about characters vastly different than us? Sometimes yes; if done with respect and research, it can enhance our stories and support diversity in literature. However, being a writer doesn’t grant us an All Areas Pass. There are characters and plots we should not be delving into, at least not without proper skills, personal experiences and some expert advice to call on when needed. An internet search and popping down to the library isn’t enough. As an Australian writer of Aboriginal heritage, I see writers blindly going where they shouldn’t, and this can cause harm to others. (I’ve written about this before, on my blog).

    Your other question: Have I read some recent examples of writers getting it wrong? Yes, when I was ‘researching’ self-published e-books. Two non-indigenous American writers come to mind: their books included Native American characters, and one had a small race-based sub-plot. I’ve never been to USA, but even I could tell that their portrayal ranged from cringe-worthy to outright racism. Another that made me uneasy was a self-published book that explored invasion-era Tasmania, written by an overseas-born author; supposedly from the first nation people’s point of view. Reading the author bio and sample was enough of a warning to not read any further. Then there is the self-published e-book I came across this week, written by an American woman (who appears to have never even been to Australia). It is set in ‘outback’ Australia and includes at least one Aboriginal character. Again, the sample and author bio was enough to tell me that the writer had stepped into territory she had no right going to. Even the book blurb included offensive terminology, and showed no respect for cultural protocol (inc. mentioning cultural factors of a secret-sacred nature).

    I would hazard a guess and say that books like these haven’t done well in sales, and so harm to others will be minimal. In this era of social media, books of this nature that do become well-known usually get a public slapping – which grants the author an opportunity to grow as a person and writer. Perhaps we should look at it in a commercial sense: writing outside your expertise does not sell books or help you gain devoted readers. Instead, it can turn people off any future work, and might earn you a bad reputation. My advice – write whatever you want when learning the art of writing, but be very mindful and respectful of what you publish.

    • dvberkom says:

      Karen, I agree with you to a point. What I do have issue with is your statement: “Writing outside of your expertise does not sell books or help you gain devoted readers.” I must respectfully disagree. On the most basic level: one of my characters is a woman who gets into many predicaments that I’ve never experienced, but for most of those experiences I track down people who have in order to get their take on the scene(s). Another character is an assassin, a profession in which I’ve never participated, to my husband’s immense relief. Both characters have devoted fans and the books sell. (Another example: I’m not an expert in explosives but have a source who is so am able to run scenes by that person.) I assume your statement doesn’t include this facet of “experience”.

      That being said, I understand your point (and Yvonne’s and Laurie’s) about being careful and respectful writing other’s experiences. Both of my lead characters are Caucasian American women, although many of my secondary characters come from diverse backgrounds. I would not attempt to delve into social issues of which I had no knowledge/experience unless I had the full support of someone who has. I will, however, continue to write from a male point of view even though I don’t intend to become one any time soon, and from the POV of whichever character asks to be written into my story. I will also continue to be sensitive to the power of words.

      • laurieboris says:

        Interesting points raised by all of you. I try to be sensitive to racial and cultural issues. Although I’ve had people of other races and cultures than mine in my books, I wouldn’t presume to write from their point of view unless I’d lived with them or knew them intimately, and even then, I’d absolutely have someone from that group read to make sure I wasn’t doing something boneheaded or insensitive. As for selling well, do you remember “Memoirs of a Geisha”? Written by a man, Arthur Golden, and a debut novelist at that. It did pretty well in sales and was made into a movie. But…he lived in China and Japan, interviewed many women who had been geishas, and even put on the whole geisha outfit himself to get a better feel for the character. If I’d torn off the cover, I wouldn’t have believed the book was written by a man.

      • Karen Wyld says:

        DV – I think we are on the same wave-length (I really like how you phrased your second paragraph). I’m not so good at phrasing sometimes – I should have said ‘does not always sell books’, as one-size statements do not fit all. I should have made it clearer I was referring to writing about ethnicities and cultures outside of your own heritage and/or personal situation. I was referring to those books that make you shake your head because the author’s representation of diversity is not respectful or well informed.

        Writers successfully research and write outside of their expertise all the time – like the example of the assassin you gave. And its so much fun! Regarding gender, I believe that a writer who is able to observe people and reflect on human behaviour is able to write from the POV of a different gender. How boring would literature be if we didn’t have the ability to do this!

    • Erm. I hope neither of those American indies was me….

      I, too, write stories that feature characters who come from places I haven’t been. The only thing I can do is research their experiences out the wazoo, and then draw on my own similar experiences to express what they feel. I didn’t grow up Native American. But I was bullied as a kid, and as an adult woman, I’ve been discriminated against, had my intelligence discounted, and so on. I’ve experienced the sense of anger and impotence that comes from this kind of treatment — and that may be what drew me to the stories I write, with these characters, in the first place. It’s not that the details don’t matter; of course they do. But I truly believe that at base, we’re all the same.

      • laurieboris says:

        I think so, too, Lynne. I’ve never found a false note in your characterizations. (But I’m not Native American, either.)

      • Karen Wyld says:

        Lynne, I’ve seen the level of research and reflection you put in developing your characters. This respect and understanding of others probably comes from both who you are and what you have experienced. I love how writing gives us opportunities to both develop writing skills and personal growth.
        I certainly have your books on my ‘to read list’ :)

  8. S.A. Molteni says:

    Visiting by way of IU Blogfest. Great post, Laurie! Love your blog :-)

  9. jimdev7 says:

    To add to the conversation above (not the hi from IU one) It think that racism is racism, bullying is bullying and experience as a victim is experience as a victim. This probably doesn’t make a lot of sense yet. But, if you’ve experienced any of these things, then you can translate those feelings into different characters.

    After all, its the transference of those emotions that make for a good book or character. Simply writing a stereotypical scene of a southern black family eating fried chicken and watermelon in old Florida does not deliver the feelings of those characters, however, if you’ve ever experienced racism and can express the feelings of life under constant threat of violence, poverty, unequal chances and more, then I believe you can write as a character that you are not.

    I hope this came out right???!!!

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