Too often, as a writer, it’s easy to throw in the towel and say: “I can’t write about that, it’s not my experience.”
Neither is slaying dragons, living in Victorian England, or surviving a pandemic. It would appear that experience is not necessary for an engaging narrative. In fact, we seem to want to read about people unlike us as often as people like us.
Writers are amongst the most creative professionals around, but for many writing a different sexual orientation, race, or gender seems daunting. Pulitzer prize winning author Junot Diaz once said that: “If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: You’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women.”
I disagree with Diaz, but I concede the point that it’s difficult to write from a perspective you haven’t considered, yet men wrote many of my favorite female characters, and women have written some of my favorite male characters. Writing outside of your experience is a challenge, but one with rewards.
Unless you want a book filled with clones of yourself (you don’t) you’re going to need to write a cast. A cast of characters with differences creates a dynamic and exciting read with dialogue that pops and wants and needs that are often at odds. A clone army often sounds like the flock of seagulls from Finding Nemo. Seriously, that should not be what your cast looks like. No one wants to read this book.
So, what are some steps you can take to writing outside of your own perspective?
1. Start with a Beating Heart
You need to have a link to the inside of all of your characters. This is a place of commonality that allows you to understand what they’re thinking or feeling. It can be as simple as loving the same types of movies, or understanding what first love is like. Take honest emotions and use them to write your character.
Real people make the worst characters, but every character should have a touch of real in them. People that have changed your world are a great place to start.
A lot of discussion has been given recently to The Fault In Our Stars, so I won’t belabor this point, but the character of Hazel was inspired by a real girl. Esther Grace Earl was an early Nerdfighter who befriended author John Green. Like Hazel, Ester suffered from thyroid cancer. Green said that he was inspired by “Esther’s unusual mix of teenagerness and empathy: She was a very outwardly focused person, very conscious of and attentive to her friends and family. But she was also silly and funny and totally normal.”
Writing a book about a girl who has cancer but who isn’t defined by it, who is still a whole person, is the element that has been dubbed the most subversive to the legacy of cancer fiction that precedes it. Though John Green created a story that was wholly his own, he used real details from his friendship with Esther and also from his time working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital.
2. Bring Your Sparkle
One of my instructors at the New School gave our class some amazing advice that has changed my writing immeasurably. At surface level, it seems obvious. She told us to bring our ‘sparkle’ or the things that made us different and that made our narrative journey unique.
As writers, our urge is to connect and unite. Writers are great at building commonality. But as a result, we often shy away from exposing the things about us that we think people won’t find appealing. Our uncertainty, our struggles, or our upbringing are some of the things that made us, but they’re also the things that we’re the most eager to hide.
And we shouldn’t.
When Allie Brosh, author of the webcomic series Hyperbole and a Half, did a series of comics on depression, her readership exploded. As a reader of Hyperbole and a Half, it was astounding. Brosh’s comics were always amazing, but the episodes about her struggle with depression quickly became among her most popular. The Bloggess likewise has generously shared her experiences with anxiety, and has found an eager audience.
Think about it this way, are you more likely to make friends with: the person who says they like pizza or the person who loves the same strange cult classic movie as you?
People bond over unique experiences and shared weirdness, so let your sparkle show.
3. Get Out of Your Mind
“The most toxic formulas in our cultures are not passed down in political practice, they’re passed down in the most mundane narratives. It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of sexism, racism, homophobia passes from one generation to the next.” – Junot Diaz
Too often writers build characters based on stereotypes and characters that they’ve found in popular media. This is like building your house on a foundation of sand. Not only is it unbearably difficult, but one wrong move and the entire thing is going to crumble. Instead, do two of the things that authors are amazing at. Research and lose your mind.
Research what the life of your character would be like. Read books, read blogs, read novels outside of your usual repertoire. Then get out of your mind and into the mind of this character. Explore them the way you would any new character, figuring out their deepest wants, fears, and formative experiences. Once they feel real to you, start writing.
4. Avoid Tokenism
This might seem like the exact opposite of the rest of this advice, but don’t include diverse characters just because you don’t want to be accused of having a white heteronormative cast; do it because that’s the way our world actually is.
Look around next time you’re in the grocery store or taking public transit, (that fount of writer inspiration) and tell me that the world you see looks anything like the world portrayed in books or in movies.
So, don’t be afraid to write outside of your experience, but like all things in writing, do it well. These four tips should help you write realistic characters that fill out your cast of characters.