Write what you know–and what you want to know

Got followed on Twitter today by a neat new collective of writers, focused on folks writing PoC characters. Not sure how they found me, but I’m glad they did.

In one of their first posts, they link to this Slate article, talking about whether a white guy can write about race issues (their answer: yes, if he’s a good writer.)

Naturally, this subject is of especial interest to me. I have a laundry list of things that have made me personally familiar with prejudice and oppression, but race isn’t one of them. Pretty much the only thing I could claim there is some dismay at not having a connection to my Cherokee and Chickasaw ancestral culture (I’m 1/8 each, if my dad tells it correctly) because my NA great-grandmothers were pressured into assimilation. My Irish genes trumped theirs (and the ones of my Italian forebears), so I’m glow-in-the-dark white, and my only childhood experiences with Native culture at all were eating Indian tacos at an event at a high school on the Paiute rez. The community I grew up in was pretty much just wall-to-wall poor white folks, too. So for all practical purposes, I’m white, with the privilege that comes with.

And yet … The three novels I’ve written so far are full of people of color. Dozens of them.

Only 9 of my 50+ characters with more than a few lines are straight, white, humanoid males, and the straight, white, humanoid females are, respectively, a tomboyish young feminist in an intensely patriarchal culture, a goth poltergeist, a late-60s professor, a fundamentalist Catholic, a 20something opera singer, and a 16-year-old architect prodigy.

Everyone else is queer, a PoC, non-humanoid or some combination thereof. Oh, and one of the straight, white guys is a first-generation Russian-American.

Conventional wisdom would have me believe this is a bad idea. From a “commerical” standpoint, I might never sell any of these novels, no matter if I’ve written them well or not. Without a straight, white, preferably male protagonist, no-one’s going to read the books, or so marketers would say. Indeed, the only one that might sell at all is the one with the tomboy feminist protagonist, even though virtually everyone else in the story (if not her culture of origin) isn’t straight and/or white, or at least isn’t humanoid. Novel #2, with a bisexual, biracial protagonist? May as well be poison as far as most mainstream agents and publishers are concerned, and we won’t even get into novel #3, since its protagonists are a pair of bi guys married to a half-Brazilian woman. (Yeah. ;) )

Now, why did I write these stories this way? Why so many PoC characters when I’m white? Well, the short answer is: “why not?” On a similar line of reasoning, some might ask me why these characters have to be PoC or GLBT, etc. Again, my answer: why do they have to be straight and white? For the record, these aren’t white people who have just been painted brown, either, nor are they stereotypes. They are not defined in spite of their race nor by it. It’s a part of who they are, along with everything else that makes them unique people. Y’know, like how real people actually are.

It’s true that I did write these characters that way deliberately, and that I am doing it in part for socially conscious reasons. They’re not tokens to fill some arbitrary political correctness quota, not by any means, but I did deliberately include so many of them because I’m sick of how homogenous, and thus how utterly unlike reality, most characters in mainstream storytelling are. I may have grown up in a mostly white community, but the metro area I live in now is incredibly diverse. Hell, the most-diverse zip code in the country is only a few miles from my house. I want stories that look like this landscape, and like the landscape of my life. I want stories about people like me and the folks I know and see.  Straight, white, wealthy people living in NY or LA are not the only people with stories to tell, though you’d never know it based on the stories that the publishing houses and TV and movie studios based in those cities send out to the world. Those people might not publish my stories, but I’m still going to write them the way I do because it matters to me to do so. (And yay for self-publishing, which I may do if I can’t get any bites otherwise.)

I suppose some people might say I’m not qualified to write characters like this, and while I understand that concern, and fully welcome any feedback about something I may have gotten wrong, I disagree. Conventional wisdom says to write what you know, but that’s far too limiting. I think writers should also write what they want to know, and what they have learned about in the course of life. I could write all sorts of stories starring author-avatar characters, and while that might be cool (in that hey, there aren’t a lot of stories about people like me), I’m not the only person in my life. I’m not the only person I interact with and see regularly. And even the people I interact with and see aren’t the only people I want to do that with. I write not only people I know, but people I want to know. I make up interesting people I’d want to learn about, and a whole lot of those interesting people are not straight, white dudes. I’ve met hundreds of straight, white dudes in 40 years of experiencing other people’s stories. I want to meet other people, now. And since most publishers and studios aren’t letting me do so with the works they put out, I’m writing those people myself.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Books, Entertainment, Fiction, Geekery, LGBTQ, Politics, Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Write what you know–and what you want to know

  1. Herein lies the problem. In order to create compelling stories, you must create characters that the audience will care about. How can you create characters that are compelling and will create empathy within the audience unless you know those characters more than you know thyself?

  2. Eve says:

    Hi! I just discovered your blog, and I think you write very engaging and interesting articles. How can I follow you on Twitter?

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