Posted by Sara Devoe, GD Managing Editor for 9.1
When writing fiction, we travel into a world with no limits. The writer is both the navigator and the passenger on a journey to which they may or may not know the destination. This destination most always, though, starts with a character. Most writers of fiction, including professor Rachel Hall with whom I took a workshop focusing specifically on writing characters with, will tell you that plot comes from characterization. A character must want something in order for there to be a story. But this raises the question–how does one go about writing a character? Sometimes, we can mine our lives for characters, but other times, the story calls for a character who is unlike us or who has experienced different things than we have.
This is a question that writers of fiction struggle to answer. The short answer is that as writers, most of us implement some part of ourselves into our characters. Albert Camus says, “Fiction is a lie through which we get the truth.” As a writer of fiction myself, I’ve found even when I write through perspectives that I’ve never experienced, I find I still see myself in these characters. Though as a White, cisgendered woman in her twenties of the LGBTQ+ community, these are the experiences that I mostly radiate towards when writing characters. But is there a limit to how far you can go with imagining someone else’s experiences as a writer?
I asked several professors and fellow students in the creative writing track at SUNY Geneseo to get their input on how they go about writing characters they don’t identify with, from characters of a different gender to characters of a different race. Sabrina Gencarelli, a senior Creative Writing major, says “…it’s important to ask permission…Even when I’ve written from the point of view of a futon that saw me and my best friends interacting it was making the people around me into characters as I recall them and events that I remember experiencing. Getting permission and maybe even asking for recall are good ways to go about that.” Kat Johnson, a SUNY Geneseo poet, says “I am comfortable writing in my own voice. However, in times when I have tried to write from the perspective of someone whose experience is not directly my own, I have been extremely careful not to overstep.” I found these takes on the topic incredibly insightful and agree that it is very important to not overstep when writing experiences that are not your own. But what draws the line between stepping into another person’s perspective and overstepping?
I also asked Professor Jess Fenn for their take on writing about characters who have experiences Jess hasn’t lived, to which they said, “I try to check my intention when I’m writing from a perspective that’s not mine,” Jess said. “The colonizing imagination of ‘I can write whoever I want,’ when unexamined, is going to reproduce harmful power dynamics.” What I’ve gathered from these perspectives is that it’s important to ask yourself questions before you start writing. For instance: What is your intention in writing this character this way? Are you being racially, ethically, and morally cautious? Author Alexander Chee wrote an article for Vulture on what questions specifically to ask when writing from an identity other than your own. One of the questions Chee asks is “Do you read writers from this community?” I find this to be crucial in writing characters of a community other than your own.
While some of these questions we need to ask aren’t always easy to answer, it is incredibly important to ask them and to write with care. It is often recommended to hire a “sensitivity reader,” or someone shares a similar experience to the manuscript being examined. Most importantly, writers should use outside resources before publishing works on experiences they haven’t lived.