Thursday, November 1, 2012

Can White Men Jump? Writing Other Races and Genders Than Your Own.

What is your best advice for writers looking to write characters of other genders, races, economic statuses, etc.? How do you make sure you best portray someone "not you" as accurately as possible when you write him or her?

H. David Blalock: There's only one real way to properly do it. Find someone of the gender, race, belief, or whatever and talk to them. No amount of research online or in books or on TV can compare to the face to face reality of dealing with someone. Answers to those things are personal, not objective. Description cannot equal experience.

William Preston:
Recognize your limitations. Though no character is exactly you, how far outside yourself does your experience extend? (Flannery O'Connor, for example, knew full well that she couldn't write from within black Southern experience; she could, however, portray black characters richly and vividly from the outside, often by viewing them through the bafflement of her white characters.)

Rely on observation, inquiry, and personal interactions. If all or much of what you know of this "other" comes from books, films, and TV that rely on stereotypical characterization and obvious racial and gender "cues" that make white males feel that their prejudices and stereotypes are perfectly acceptable, you need to extend your reading, viewing, and experience (and discard whatever has constrained your comprehension).

Not every characterization requires the foregrounding of, say, race and gender issues, but certain circumstances within a story may force those elements of a person to become primary factors either throughout or at a given moment (and the same may be true of age, sexuality, social class, or any other socially defined component of a person's background and self-definition). Regardless of whether a particular personal element is foregrounded or critical to the story, all such elements contribute to a character's perceptions of the world, thus shaping what they see and how they understand what they see. Every character functions with a set of eyes which are not yours though, again, to accentuate any one of these elements because you are aware of a box you're checking off may do a disservice to the humanity of that character rather than fairly represent him or her.

John Morgan Neal: I try and use my experience with other types of people and my observations. But most importantly of all I use my instincts. Because despite whatever racial, sexual, gender, national or regional differences, we are all human.

Raidou Kazunoha: It really depends on the culture at hand. Some are are more cut and dry than others. I think its very important not to step in the wrong places, when you are writing. There are things you can understand and know, through reading or talking to friends. There are also many things you will never know, and never be able to properly empathize with no matter how hard you try.

I also feel that if you are writing characters of other ethnicity, you should really not describe them as 'so in so race' every time you mention them. To often i will read stories, and they will be described simply as their race, nothing more. Yet the other characters get these glowing descriptions on their hair, and weight and eye colour and all that. That can get really annoying. If you are properly doing your job it will be obvious what your characters' races are.

B. Chris Bell: I think respect is the key. If you know enough about the culture to be able to imagine what it's like to walk in their shoes, know some history, and don't get too hung up on trying to be trendy or follow a stereotype, then it's no problem. The problem of course being the same one the writer has all the time: Is it believable? I lucked out when I picked Crankshaft to be THE BAGMAN'S partner, because the whole point was that he isn't stereotypical. He's based on a number of curmudgeons I've met in my life, some white, some black, and one an old Jewish man. Hell, he's smarter than the hero most of the time!

Linda Drue Hays-Gibbs:
Empathy! The ability to put yourself in someone elses's shoes. Walk a mile in my shoes, research, concern for fellow human beings to feel for them and their circumstances.

Joe Bonadonna: I sort of base the characters on people I know. I also just sit and talk with friends of the opposite sex, of other colors and creeds, and get some insight. Then I try to write as honestly as I can. As far as other races . . . I always say, there's only one race -- the human race, and we all bleed red. That's our common denominator. Human emotions are universal. It's what believe and how we think that divides us. Those are the things I try to get a handle on, to lift me out of writing from the POV of a white man. Don't know if or how well I've succeeded, but the key is: write with honesty.

Marcus Blakeston: I'm writing as a woman at the moment, I just write her as a man with tits. She's a bare knuckle fighter, and it's aimed at men, so I figure I'll probably get away with it.

Mike Pascale: Great question. The easy answer: RESEARCH! No excuse with the 'Net. Go to areas where that group live. Talk to the people you want to represent. Read other fiction by those who either are part of that group or who are known for doing it well; note how they do it before adding your own voice. All that said, though, never forget that people are PEOPLE. Human nature is identical regardless if one lives in Bangladesh, Burma, Boston or Birmingham. Characters are characters. Write the personality first and the specifics later.
K Anthony Pagano:
I tend to journal from the POV of the character if I'm having a hard time with the character at that particular moment. It helps me get some perspective on an opinion. Otherwise I stay away from "ethnic" because it's a trap. For the most part people don't define themselves by their skin... or accent... or what have you. They think about it, and defend it, but it's not the only lens. Besides, the best journeys are the ones that bring the character home.

Hannibal Tabu: Research. Even when I deal with other countries I've never visited, I sit down with people, I ask them about their upbringings, the things they like, and look for both contrasts and comparisons in my own experiences. Little details make big impacts. I try to be comprehensive where I know nothing.

Luckily, I've been blessed to meet lots of types of people from lots of ethnicities. Arrogant Indian programmers. Sci fi fans from Kenya. Two very funny Ukranians. Et cetera, and so on. I draw on my time with them, the details I gleaned, the idiosyncracies, and try to see how they would react to the plot's situation.

Ron Fortier:
there is really only one answer to this question;  a writer uses his or her imagination to believe they are that character.  All good writers are ultimately the penultimate actors.  I've written stories, both comic and prose, in first person narrative as a woman.  I didn't find it particularly difficult.  I've never personally tackled being of another ethnicity but again, I would trust my talents of observation and imagination to do it should I make the attempt.   How well I succeeded or fail would be up to the writer to decide.

But research, etc. isn't the key here, we can never truly be someone else in reality... but in our imagination there are no such bounds.