This never-ending debate came up several times in my MFA classes: can a writer write from the perspective of another race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or identity? The importance of this question has resurfaced with current events that have challenge preconceived notions of identity, such as the gender transition of Caitlyn Jenner, NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s resignation, and more general discussions surrounding cultural appropriation and shifting or redefining identity.
While the two aforementioned situations are not the same and should not be treated as such, they raise similar questions when it comes to the identity of characters in relation to their writers. What does identity mean in the author-character relationship? What are the risks of writing characters of other races, genders, creeds or backgrounds, what good can come from it, and what are we sacrificing by avoiding it? By “can” a writer do this, do we mean “allowed to,” “supposed to,” or do so successfully? How much control do and should we have over the manifestation of identity in our fiction?
Before jumping in to the arguments for and against, it’s important to consider all facets of the question in regard to writing other perspectives. First, to the question of characters: though the issue applies to any character imagined, it seems that it is most relevant to and pressing for main characters or protagonists. These are the minds in which the writer most closely and intimately dwells, and are the characters to whom the reader will be drawn and with whom he/she will identify.
Genre may also play a role. While it might be more difficult to work out the complexities of identity development in poetry, flash or short stories, a novel-length story may be more conducive to it. Sci-fi or fantasy may also be more accepting of author-character identity differences than literary fiction, as the creation of other worlds already creates a distance between the author and their characters.
Returning to the definition of “can,” the question of whether writers have written commercially successful books with characters different than themselves has, in some ways, been answered. As a “muggle” adult woman, J.K. Rowling wrote a wildly successful series about a young male wizard. Khaled Hosseini, a male novelist most known for The Kite Runner, featured two female protagonists struggling under male patriarchy in A Thousand Splendid Suns. White female author Kathryn Stockett was wildly successful with The Help, a novel about African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. Annie Proulx, a heterosexual white woman, authored Brokeback Mountain, an adapted novel about two cowboys who fall in love.
This is only a handful of the many successful books in which the characters are marginalized, struggle or identify in ways in which the writer does not, but it is important to note that success is defined as commercial success here. Some, including Annie Proulx herself, may still argue against the success of the characters in the scope of the story or their larger social implications. Thus, the question of whether a writer “should” be allowed to write such characters and can do so successfully is still up for debate.
Pros and Cons
When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came out with the song “Same Love” in support of equal rights for gay couples, it met with criticism among listeners and those of the music industry. According to Huffington Post, openly gay African-American rapper Le1f was one of them. Le1f, who has been credited for “his subversive work in [the] traditionally homophobic music genre,” criticized white heterosexual Macklemore for profiting off of a song about gay rights “without addressing his white heteronormative privilege” or doing anything to aid those in the LGBT movement. By the phrase “white heteronormative privilege,” Macklemore was criticized for both his inability to identify with being gay, and for experiencing more success and attention as a white man in a traditionally African-American genre than Le1f did. Supporters distinguished between the rapper and the effect of the song itself, deeming the popularity and reach of the song to those who may not have otherwise heard the message a success. Similar instances have arisen in the music industry, such as the debate surrounding the appropriation of elements of black culture in Katy Perry or Taylor Swift’s music. These situations demonstrate some of the issues surrounding the process of character creation in music, which are similar to those in fiction.
Those in opposition to writing different characters may claim it is more important for the writer to have “the right” to put words to certain experiences or invoke certain cultural elements in their characters. This group might define “the right” as an innate ability to write a character authentically, or perhaps a kind of ethical permission in which the writer personally and closely identifies with the character.
Those in favor may argue that a skilled writer would be able to write any character with the required sensitivity and human insight, regardless of the differences. This argument is usually accompanied by the point that writers cannot keep their own experience out of their writing, and even characters vastly different than themselves will inevitably be informed by the authors’ experience. The same people may also argue that it is more important for more characters of diverse experiences to be written and for their experiences to reach readers than it is who created those characters.
In some cases, the writer themselves recognizes the issues of having written a particular character. In an interview with The Paris Review, author of Brokeback Mountain Annie Proulx expressed that she regretted writing the novel after it was adapted to a motion picture. Of the cowboys who fall in love, she said, “[Viewers] can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality…they all begin the same way–I’m not gay, but…”. Proulx attributes these objections in part to her identity as a woman: “The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved. And maybe they do. But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.” However, she also says that it was the characters themselves that detracted from the overall message: “People saw it as a story about two cowboys. It was never about two cowboys. You know you have to have characters to hang the story on but I guess they were too real…Sometimes the cart gets away from the horse—the characters outgrew the intent.”
Given the number of diverging arguments and our ever-changing cultural dynamic, it is likely the debate around writing characters of another identity will continue indefinitely. Every author must make the choice to either “stick to what he/she knows,” or to branch out and explore different identities via his/her characters. Should a writer choose to write a character much different than themselves, there are steps to writing these characters as authentically and responsibly as possible:
Consider your message and audience. In writing characters of a different culture, gender, race, or any other identifier, the writer must consider who will be reading their book and how best to convey their message to that audience. If writing a book for children, the author may want to convey historical information that communicates the weight of a character’s struggle. If writing in a genre such as sci-fi or fantasy, the author may want to think of what a character’s identity development might look in a vastly different world (and how readers of those genres might identify with that identity.)
Avoid generalities. The best way to avoid offending or misrepresenting a given culture or identity through a character is to avoid generalizing that character’s experience. If the character is authentic, his/her experience will no doubt bear resemblance to that of some readers, but it is important to avoid cliches and to make the character’s development as specific and personal as possible. Along this line, writers must take caution with offering solutions in their stories. One of the critiques of Stockett’s The Help was how the maids were only able to escape their situation with the help of a sympathetic white female writer. Although some contest this criticism, it points to the need for writer to create realistic solutions for their characters, in which characters are able to take some control over the outcome of their lives.
Write what you know. All good characters come from a place of empathy. Even when writers are writing characters vastly different than themselves, it is imperative for the writer to consider how they might identify with that character. Perhaps the writer hasn’t been bullied or homeless, but they probably understand how it is to feel alone or scared. In order to write characters who resemble reality, writers must channel their own emotions and reality into that character.
Do your research. Before I went to get my first tattoo–a short phrase in French–I consulted with my French friend to make sure the phrasing was correct. Beyond making sure to get the details right, consulting with a friend or writer who has a better understanding of your character’s identity or experience than you do is the best way to ensure the character is portrayed authentically. This is the most important person to consult prior to an editor who, while apt at editing, might not have the necessary knowledge or experience to advise on the portrayal of that character’s culture or identity.
Ultimately, as Annie Proulx put it, the writer still “owns” their characters and makes the final call as to how they are represented. That said, whether a writer chooses to write characters who are the same as or different than them, it is my firm belief that as a molder of the literary landscape, it is also the writer’s responsibility to get it right.
“Annie Proulx: ‘I wish I’d never written “Brokeback Mountain”’,” LGBQT Nation.
Christopher Cox, “Interviews: Annie Proulx, The Art of Fiction No. 199,” The Paris Review.
Gena Hymowech, “Can Straight Authors Write Queer Too?,” Lambda Literary.
James Michael Nichols, “Le1f, Gay Rapper, Blasts Macklemore For ‘Same Love’ Success,” Huffington Post.
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