We are all limited by our own personal experiences. In other words, you cannot truly understand what it’s like to be someone else … unless you ARE that person. Well, durrr. Obvious stuff.
EXCEPT … As writers, we need to present DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES via stories and characterisation which maybe we have never experienced??
And this is when it gets really tricky, because everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – has their own unique set of prejudices, based on various things like the environment in which they raised; the bodies they inhabit; the mindsets they possess; how much money or education they have (or not) … and so on.
Again, the above may be obvious stuff, yet it gets forgotten, over and over. This is why I don’t think the notion of “checking one’s privilege” is particularly useful, because in recent times it appears to have become rather divisive, or a way of smacking someone down for being a perceived over-privileged arse, which of course is someone ELSE’s POV, not the “offender’s” (but as a white, heterosexual cisgender female, wouldn’t I say that??? :P)
Fact is, if we are to accept everyone has their own unique set of prejudices, then we must also accept we all have our own unique set of privileges, regardless of how low down on society’s “pecking order” we are. For example, I campaign a lot on behalf of teen parents. I feel this group is unfairly targeted by the right AND left, because one side believes we’re irresponsible sluts who can’t keep our legs closed (and thus don’t deserve access to healthcare, abortions OR help, financial or otherwise with the costs of raising children) and the other infantises us and STILL says it would be better if we just didn’t exist at all. I believe at the root of all of these messages is a hypocritical and misogynistic belief that females should not have body autonomy and that young females in particular are “tainted” by their sexuality.
However, even though I feel this group is oppressed as a whole, I must also recognise my own individual privileges within that group. I am white British, which meant in the very least I was able to discuss my issues with the benefits system with the people at DWP without the added problem of institutionalised racism or a language barrier; similarly, I was not deaf, blind or in a wheelchair, which would also have made communication and travel difficult. I lived in a rural area, which was both a problem AND a privilege, because although I was unable to source a job (there weren’t any, plus I didn’t drive and even if I did, I couldn’t afford a car), but it DID mean I lived in a place that had clean air and was completely crime-free (bar the wandering tramp that broke into the garage once to get out of the rain). And possibly most importantly, though poor, I was from an educated family and was able to attain an education myself, meaning I was able to get off benefits and create my own work, ultimately.
But it’s also worth noting: would I be as passionate about the teen pregnancy/parenting cause if I had not been a teen single Mum myself? Well, I hope I would have noticed how society does this group down and certainly, I don’t think you **need** to be part of a particular group to notice the injustices done to them – that would be ridiculous. But equally, maybe I would never have thought about it? Not because I’d automatically be selfish, inconsiderate or self absorbed either, but because it is simply not possible to think of every POV of every group of people in the entire world … Quite simply, I’d probably be thinking about something else.
But this is NOT a post about letting writers off the hook by saying, “Oh well, we’re limited by our own experiences, so keep writing what you know.” Absolutely not!! We need to represent our characters in authentic, truthful and ultimately, VARIED ways, but as many Bang2writers ask me, HOW?? Well, try these tips:
1) Recognise society’s mixed messages, myths and harmful stereotypes for what they are.
When it comes to the media – TV, film, newscasts, even social media statuses, even this blog post! – analyse everything you see, read and hear and ask yourself, “What is the message here?” Because there is one. That’s the point. Nothing is accidental. When you know what the message is, analyse it for potential harm. Does it oppress a particular group, even by simply excluding them? I was about 21 when I started to notice the absence of people of colour on TV and in films: yes, it took that long, because I had grown up in Devon, where there were very few PoCs. So even though one of my best friends in school was of mixed heritage, I had simply accepted the status quo on Film and TV in having a “token” black person, because it literally reflected my life. Then I moved to an area where I was the minority. It was a big eye opener for me.
TIP: Now do the same for your stories and characterisation. Do your stories empower or oppress minority characters? Do you have a good story reason for excluding female characters, disabled characters, LGBT characters? Why/why not? MORE: Check out The Girls On Film (And Beyond) & The Boys Are Back In Town Pinterest Boards.
2) Ask EVERYONE their life story.
Every writer knows research is important, but what kind of research? I see lots of writers consulting books, maps, visiting the workplaces their characters would work at, even tracing the routes of the ways their characters travel. These are all handy little details to have, but ultimately a distraction from the good stuff IMHO: your character’s LIFE STORY. In other words, not so much what your character ACTUALLY DOES, but how they were AFFECTED by it.
I stumbled upon this by accident, when I was training as a journalist as a teenager. We went to speak to some elderly people for a section on VE Day and I ended up talking to a chap who had been fought at D Day. He regaled me with gusto about his role, talking in vivid detail about the event and the horrors he had witnessed. But one thing struck me as I listened; he didn’t say how it had made him FEEL. So I asked him.
“No one has ever asked me that before.” He said, his eyes wide.
And so he told me … and it was mind blowing. As a sixteen year old girl with no interest whatsoever in the miltary, I had never thought about seeing my friends mown down by machine gunfire; or what it must be like to return to a new wife and a three year old daughter born in my absence whom I’d never even seen before. I had no concept of what it must be like to live with PTSD when it hadn’t even been recognised yet; or oppressing troubling memories for decades because “men weren’t supposed to talk about that sort of stuff”. I found myself empathising with him, a man I’d never met before, nor would again. Again: it was a massive eye opener for me.
TIP: So if you find yourself talking with people open to telling you about their life story, don’t just ask them what they DID. Ask them how it made them FEEL and WHY. MORE: Check out The Decision: YOUR STORY and the Relationships Pinterest boards.
3) Don’t let emotion rule you.
It’s very easy, especially on social media, to feel angry when you read someone’s POV that clashes with your own. Barring obvious trolls (who should be blocked), I venture this is not a real conflict, but an OPPORTUNITY to learn something – even from someone whose views you may find abhorrent.
Fact is, as writers we get too comfortable in our own skins, especially if we’re left leaning. We tend to get scared by opposing viewpoints and place those who believe differently in a little box marked “EVIL DON’T TOUCH”. But this is lazy. People usually have reasons they believe the things they do, even if those reasons are mistaken or plain wrong. Over the years, by talking to those people I may otherwise have dismissed, I have discovered a racist man, who was actually literally afraid, because he saw his best friend murdered in front of him by a black man on a night out; multiple misogynists and man-haters who had been abused by their mothers or fathers respectively as children, or they had been married to abusive partners; not to mention various religious people AND atheists seeking succour in their overly zealous beliefs because they feel out of control in every other aspect of their lives. And that’s just for starters. Life is complicated, which means people are. Sure some people are easy to understand form a distance, but TBH most aren’t.
It’s also worth remembering we can hijack people’s experiences by turning the conversation back onto ourselves. We may also feel frustrated with someone’s worldview, especially if we disagree … But ESPECIALLY if we held that same view once, but came out the other side. So don’t try and cajole people into your views: it erases and patronises, making people feel invalidated. Simply LISTEN. If you’re not sure what to say, I find asking questions saying things like “I understand” and “I hear you” work well, especially when talking about something difficult. But one caveat: never, EVER, say “I know how you feel” — though undoubtedly well meant, end of the day you DON’T know how that other person feels, even if you went through a similar experience. Equally, avoid saying, “You poor thing!” if you can; if you want to express sympathy appropriately, “I’m sorry that happened to you” works far better, generally. (Also, if you feel words are inadequate to express what you mean, it’s far better to say so than bluster through and/or change the subject).
TIP: You’re more likely to learn something from someone you disagree with, than agree with. By talking to them, you are not condoning their thoughts or actions – and what’s more, by learning those you fundamentally disagree with are just human like the rest of us, you’re far less likely to write “comic book villains” as a writer. What’s not to like?
4) Challenge yourself.
This is the thing. Everything you think and feel has probably been influenced in **some way** by the way you’ve been raised; by the body you inhabit; by the mindset you possess; by the amount of money or education you have; by the media you see, read or hear. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article: obvious stuff, yet it gets forgotten. Just because you’re a writer does not mean you’re somehow magically immune … But as writers, I DO believe it is our duty NOT to simply recycle those BS myths, mixed messages and stereotypes I mention in point 1.
TIP: So, challenge yourself every time you come up with a character. Don’t go for “the usual” by not putting him or her under extreme scrutiny, but not in terms of what s/he’s wearing, had for breakfast or where s/he went to school … Instead, consider the character’s LIFE STORY … How did s/he get where we join him/her in the story? How did that journey affect him/her – and why?