Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to Write a Person

Literature is a vast and salty plain. And by salty I mean, you know, white. And often very male, too. Can a salty plain be male? Well, it sure as hell is, at least in terms of the hiercharchical access to power and legitimacy.

Part of this, sadly, is conscious. Some writers will simply choose to perpetuate these false (though often culturally reinforced) tropes. Conscious denial, conscious positionings of power, are out there.

Other times it will occur out of ignorance. The surrounding culture inevitably finds its way into the headspace of writers, sometimes with a fanfare of trumpets and sometimes with soft cat-like feet (but clawed, oh yes). And I don't entirely blame people for their ignorance. I mean, it's my ignorance, too. How much of what we know comes in on the backs of assumptions that we forget to question and interrogate? I have a few bucketfuls myself, I'm sure. Eyes wide shut. Sometimes, though, I can blink, and when I open my eyes I realize I'm an idiot and I get a little smarter.

And then there are the people who would like to do something, but are scared. And this fear is normal. They would like to write minority characters, complex female heroines, and the disenfranchised. But what if they do it wrong? I think our culture emits an almost overwhelming vibe that it's better not to try than to try and do it wrong, or do it badly. Especially for topics like this.

It comes down to decency, I think. A lot of writers are simply decent people who don't want to offend. They would like to write a black or brown character, or a complex and real female heroine, but it seems risky: what if they offend black people or brown people or women? The thought of having people consider them a racist or misogyinist is almost unbearable (even though this fear often helps propagate these very things). Deletion, then, becomes easier than risking offense. Forgetfulness is safer and more comfortable than accidental cruelty. "Black people? Oh yeah, there's some black people in this country over here somewhere. But they don't have any dragons."

The task seems too large. How do I write a Black Person?

I think, in a lot of people's minds, it's capitalized just like this. It gets big. How do I encompass Blackness? Or Brownness? Or Being a Woman?

The thing is, of course, that this is impossible. You can't encompass these things in a single character. If you try, the characters will likely feel sort of unformed and hollow, silhouettes ghosting across a stage. They might have a familiar shape, but they'll be empty and unreal.

It helps to take the capitals away. It helps to remember that you're not trying to encapsulate anything, except this particular person.

And that's the key, in my opinion. First, think of them as people, think of all the other things that influence them. Characters will be influenced by their race, and by their ethnic and gender identities, but they'll be influenced by a million other things, too, the same as everyone else, the same as the people you "know" (whether from real life or the familiarity born from cultural consumption) and feel you can write about. Family, loss, work, reality television, cancerous cell phone emissions - they're all in the mix.

It helps to start with the other things. It helps to start with the little things that help make them the people they are, rather than overwhelm yourself with the big capitalized words from the get go. Once you have a person, once you have some sense of a history, of an emotional logic, then you can reintroduce important concepts like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and otherness.

Now they are no longer abstracts you're trying to encapsulate in the form of a walking symbol. Now you have some sense of a person. Now you can ask how these things will influence the character. How do they change, knowing the facts of their gender identity? Of their ethnic identification? These ideas are now fulcrum points between the characters and the culture around them. How do they exert pressure on each other, seeking or preventing change? accomodation? legitimacy? power?

Better to try, and then try again, than to forget that other people may wish to hold dragons in the palms of their hands.


Rick Daley said...

"If you try to please everyone, no one will like it."

- One of Murphy's Laws

This is such a double-edged sword. Write a racial character wrong and you're racist. Leave a race out and you're racist. Same with a female character and misogyny (for a male writer).

Whatever direction you go, there will be someone to tell you you're going the wrong way.

I try to go with my gut for the most part, but I do make good use of feedback from a diverse group of trusted critique partners.

Matthew MacNish said...

At first I thought this would be an instructional article about how to writer letters, but then I remembered we have email now.

Personally I write black characters, Asian characters, Latin characters, gay characters, mean characters, nice characters, pretty much whatever comes to mind, because the characters I write are like the characters I know.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether I'm any good at it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I hesitated to write a female character until my second book because I was concerned I'd do it wrong.

Bryan Russell said...

Yeah, I think most writers are concerned they won't do it right. But I think it's better to try. And I think it helps to think of it individually for each character. Because no one experiences being black or being a woman in just the same way. The goal isn't, say, to write blackness correctly, but to write that particular character's experience of blackness correctly.

Marsha Sigman said...

Very well said. Remember we are all people first.

D.G. Hudson said...

The same goes for a female writer trying to create a male protagonist.

We have to step outside our familiarity zone.

In my stories, I have military men, corporate suits, and many male characters good and bad. It's a challenge to ensure the dialogue is realistic for the character.

The trick is to remember - as you said - all the little things that make us behave the way we do: our background, hometown experiences, family, friends, and sometimes one's race or culture.

Writers explore when they try to understand. It's a fine line, but someone's got to do it.

I liked this post, Bryan.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love the key piece here - to write the character not some stereotypical representation of the Gay/Straight, White/Black Man. It honestly never occurred to me to be worried about this ... until someone decided to call me racist for including a description of skin color. Of course, I ran right out and researched ... what's the "proper" way to do this, without offending people, only to find that someone, somewhere will be offended, no matter what you did.

So, I went back to doing what I did before - writing a character who was as thoroughly real a person as I could dream up with only my imagination and scribbles on paper. And leave the worrying to someone else. :)

dolorah said...

thought provoking. I like the insight to write the person first, then all the other stuff that make up the character - race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural history . .


Deniz Bevan said...

Yes! A timely reminder. I'm trying to juggle Ottomans and Greeks and Castilians and more in the 15th Century - it definitely helps to think of them as people first and ignore all the cultural trappings while in drafting stage...

Kendall said...

Very interesting post! I took a baby-step for my second novel and wrote it from a teenage boy's perspective. I did all sorts of research into boys' psychology and how they make friends and how they talk and think, and I was so concerned with getting it to sound and feel "right" that it was crippling.

Then I just started thinking about his voice, letting him talk in my head, and bam--fully-fleshed-out character and not some cobbled-together psych analysis.

marion said...

Found you via Nathan.

My WIP has a couple of black people--major characters. One from Nubia, one from Ethiopia. Other ethnicities, too.

The protag./narrator is male, but there are many strong--or not--women.

And there's a "little person". When I read that many metalworkers/jewelers in ancient Egypt were dwarves (just like Tolkien and all those myths)--well, I just had to go with that! He's married to a normal-height women, like Seneb, Master of the Pharaoh's Wardrobe. (There's a statue of this family.)

You got me going, that's all! Ancient Egypt was a cosmopolitan culture. How could my tale not reflect that?

By the way, I also have a couple of "cripples" who walk with assistance. One congenital, one from an accident.

It all just happened. I didn't plan it that way.

Dale Harcombe said...

If the characters are real and believable to the author, this will come across to the reader. I tend to write more female characters but have written from the POV of a young boy in a children's novel because that's what the story called for.

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