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On Writing Diverse Characters: Reports from the Trenches

In the last month, I’ve moved into redrafting the second quarter of my novel. While the first quarter centers around a very small central cast, this new section, when my hero steps out into the Big Bad World, adds roughly double that number of new faces — and since a number of these new characters have core identity elements that I don’t share (including aspects of occupation, race, ethnicity/background, sexuality, and ability/disability status), part of my writing work this month as I develop formal character profiles for them has been to do some homework.

The above link connects to a NaNoWriMo blog essay by author and surgeon I.W. Gregorio, in which she quotes discussions by fellow authors Ellen Oh and Gene Luen Yang about how best to write characters from other cultures. The homework metaphor is Yang’s; as he puts it:

We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human. Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.

As someone who spent 24 years as a full-time student (13 years K-12, 4 years undergraduate, 7 years graduate school; roughly 80% of my life to date), I know how to do homework. In the last month, without exaggeration, I’ve checked out more than a dozen memoirs from my local library, plus a couple big coffee-table books and academic texts. My goal is to read 3 or 4 books touching on each aspect I’m trying to incorporate into one of my major characters: I figure that should give me a fighting chance to steer clear of at least the biggest generalizations and stereotypes. And as I do this work, I’m also mentally adding categories to my list of desired beta reader experts. Besides the (maybe-not-so-obvious) fact that I want some men and male-bodied folk to give my first-person male protagonist’s story a critical read before I send it out into the world, I already knew that I’d have to find a falconer or two willing to lend their expertise to my final editing process, as well as someone familiar with rapier fighting. Now, I’m bringing in one major character who’s on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum and another who’s Indian-American, not to mention four or five other supporting characters with major aspects that are different from mine in a whole plethora of ways, and my list of desired specialized beta readers just keeps growing.

Because books are a great start, especially first-person accounts of life through these different lenses; I feel like I’ve already learned a ton about how to accurately and honestly develop the people I want to include in my story. But I know that books have limits, the biggest one being that they’re one-way. By reading books about being an “Aspie,” I’ll get insights into some parts of that experience, but I’m still bound to make mistakes in translation, if only because my character’s life isn’t happening inside that book. If I want to meet my own standards for portraying the characters I want to develop, I know I’m going to need someone to spot my mistakes, as well as the new mistakes I make correcting them.

As any student knows, homework is time-consuming. I know that this research is one of the (several) reasons my writing has stalled in the last few weeks, as I try to figure out how the new contextual material changes the characters I’ve already got down on the page. But as author Malinda Lo puts it in her answer to the question “Should white people write about people of color?“:

Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.

On reading Lo’s words, my mind goes first to the difficulty of working and reworking plot decisions, a whole other can of worms and another contributing cause to the writing problems I’ve been having the last few weeks. But worldbuilding certainly eats its share of an author’s time. My story takes place in a secondary world, albeit one that’s connected to contemporary Earth; my protagonist’s native culture, one of easily a dozen different indigenous cultures that readers will be introduced to throughout in the series, is pretty much invented out of whole cloth. As a sociologist, I resolved when I started this project that my novel’s world would feature original (non-derivative) cultures, that their composite elements would make sense, and that the characters who came out of them to join the arc of my central storyline would be more than just the sum of their cultural traditions (for example, The Merchant, The Scholar or The Warrior).

If I can commit to that level of detail for my secondary world, I can take the time to make sure my Earth-born supporting characters are realistically-depicted individuals from particular backgrounds too. And so I’ll keep reading and note-taking, and take my comfort from the knowledge that the story I’m writing is becoming ever more the kind of story I want to have on my own bookshelves.

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