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?