Can You Write Someone You’re Not?

As you may or may not know, the author of the Harry Potter series is a British woman named Joanne “J.K.” Rowling. The story I’ve heard regarding the use of initials instead of her given name lies with her publisher: he feared that the target audience (young boys) would eschew the series if they knew the author was female.

It’s been nearly fifteen years since the boy wizard took over the imaginations of children (and adults) everywhere, and by now everyone knows that “J.K.” is a lady. Does anyone care? Well, I don’t think so. I haven’t heard of anyone denying the glorious joy that is Harry Potter because the author is a woman. Not now, anyway. Fifteen years ago, though, would Joanne Rowling have sold as many books as J.K. Rowling did? Is it surprising that the publisher worried that they would lose readers if the audience knew the author was a woman?

People get really weird about gender. And race. And sexual orientation. And age. And really, anything that’s foreign to them in any way. That begs the question, then: can you write someone you’re not?

“No, I wouldn’t know anything about what it’s like to be a cat. As you can see, I’m just a very handsome man.”

Students actually don’t ask me about this topic nearly as much as you’d think. If you’re a white person can you write from the perspective of a black person, or a Latino person, or an Asian person? If you’re American can you write from the perspective of a British, Canadian, African, or Japanese person?  Vice versa on any of those? If you’re gay, can you write a straight character? If you’re straight, can you write a gay character? If you’re a woman can you write from the perspective of a middle-aged man, a male drill sergeant, or even a boy wizard? If you’re a man can you write from the perspective of an old woman, a sorority girl, or a female executive? If you’re in perfect health can you write from the perspective of a cancer patient, anorexic, or AIDS patient? Can you write someone you’re not?

Well, sure you can. It’s been done before, and quite successfully. Obviously Ms. Rowling did it (and HP is written in the third person, which is a little different from writing from a first person POV), but she’s not the only one. Another book I really loved (and movie I really hated) that sticks out to me is Memoirs of a Geisha, written from the perspective of a Japanese geisha (read: woman), by an American white dude named Arthur Golden. That’s just one other example–believe me, there are many.

Of course, it’s also been done extremely poorly. I’ve heard some really painful first-person readings from the POV of women written and read by men that made me, as a woman, squirm with discomfort. Victimization galore! I’ve read and heard really terrible hateful depictions of “othered” characters, too.

Here are a few things to remember when you decide to write a character who embodies nothing that you’ve experienced:

1. Make your character a person. A human being. NOT a stereotype. This goes for supporting characters too, actually. Characters should be individuals, not token versions of whatever they would check off on a driver’s license application or dating website questionnaire. Your character is not just his gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, race, or medical condition. He has to be more than that.

2. For crying out loud, do some research. It’s downright irresponsible to not take the time to do research for something like this. Look it up. Do interviews. Ask lots of questions. Take notes. And please, look for credible sources. Wikipedia articles never count.

3. Have people read your work and give you brutally honest feedback. Tell your readers to tell you when you’ve said something ignorant. It’s okay to get things wrong, as long as you’re willing to fix your mistakes. A brilliant (male) writer friend of mine once wrote a story in which a female character took her birth control from a bottle of pills. Birth control doesn’t come in bottles, it comes in packs. It was a totally honest mistake and he was fine with fixing it once someone pointed it out to him. He just didn’t know. Luckily he ran the story by some people who corrected the error and all was well. Now he knows.

4. Don’t make the character one of a group of people totally 100% different from everyone (unless it fits the story for some reason, which would probably be a stretch). This goes back to not making the character a token character–you know, the one black guy who only hangs out with a bunch of white kids. I’m not saying that doesn’t ever happen in real life, but in writing it’s very easy to stereotype in order to show how the person is “different” from the rest. No stereotypes!

5. Work on being authentic. You don’t want to avoid the fact that there are differences between sexes, races, and so on, because that’s unrealistic. If you’re taking the time to do your research and you’re doing everything possible to avoid stereotyping, the differences should feel natural. You don’t want the differences to scream from the page.

6. Don’t let the same old things happen to the same characters or let them say the same old things. Not all women are victims, nor are rescued by handsome heroes, despite what Disney will have us believe. Not all gay people are flamboyant, nor do they refer to other people as “girlfriend.” Not all cancer patients have lost their hair and have a friend who, in a show of solidarity, shaves his head. Again, your characters need to be unique versions of themselves, not stock characters we’ve seen over and over.

Of course, you can make the effort to do everything right and still receive criticism for getting it wrong, and at the end of the day you just can’t please everyone. Keep your target audience in mind. Don’t be a jerk. If you’re not comfortable with writing from the POV of someone different from who you are, don’t do it (publicly) until you’re ready. Practice in private.

I’ve surely forgotten some things since this is such a huge topic. Please leave your advice in the comments!


About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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