Should writers write characters UNlike themselves?
In the 2020s, writers frequently want to write characters UNlike themselves. I do, too! Looking at my books, I have written characters who are not like me. My characters may be (in no particular order): male; older or younger than me; gay; American; black; Romany; British Chinese; transgender; Australian; upper class; homeless and many more besides.
The debate on social media often focuses on the notion certain writers are being told NOT to write characters UNlike themselves. It’s no accident the average writer lamenting this ‘fact’ is usually part of a dominant group, either.
We’ve all seen them online: they will complain that ‘fiction is fiction’. They may make well-worn jokes about writing science fiction (‘But I’m not an alien!’ Yet aliens are not a marginalised group), or crime fiction (‘But I’m not a criminal!’ – erm I write crime fiction and what if I was a criminal: now what?? Arf).
But here’s the thing. Literally no one sensible is saying writers can’t EVER write characters UNlike themselves. Sure, there are some who give side-eye to the idea, but often for very good reasons. As I’ve written before on this blog, marginalised people have been misrepresented or even mocked way too many times in fiction!
Then there is a small, but vocal contingent of people online starting unjustified flame wars and pile-ons about this topic, but show me something where this doesn’t happen. I’ll wait …
… Oh, hi! You’re back
Yup, you guessed it: there isn’t a single topic on the internet that doesn’t inspire this sort of behaviour in the deepest darkest depths of Reddit, Facebook or Twitter. The internet is an angry place: SHOCKER!
Writing is no different, then. No one is getting at us writers ‘more’ than anyone else. This notion writers ‘can’t’ write what they want or are being ‘censored’ is utter BS.
And let’s swap it around. It’s not difficult to see why some people believe writers suck. Certain movies, TV shows and novels have perpetuated all kinds of harmful stereotypes, clichés and tropes about people for years, decades and (in the case of novels) even centuries.
Many of these stereotypes, clichés and tropes have real-world consequences and make people’s life significantly harder or even dangerous. As someone with significant mental illness, I can attest to how problematic this can be. When people believe others with psychosis are literally a threat to others 24/7 (often confusing ‘psychosis’ with PSYCHOPATHY thanks to various bad representations in the media), getting the help you need can be a real uphill struggle … and that’s the best case scenario!
Yes, writers should write characters UNlike themselves
I met with Professor Sunny Singh to talk about the ethics of writing and critique last week (video at the bottom of this post). As both an academic and an author herself, as well as the founder of The Jhalak Prize for BIPOC writers, Sunny had LOTS to say about whether writers should write characters UNlike themselves … and her answers may surprise you.
As mentioned, this debate is frequently told from the dominant group’s POV. White/male/straight/able-bodied (*delete as appropriate) writers will gnash their teeth and say they shouldn’t be ‘locked out’ of writing characters UNlike themselves.
They’re right … but probably not in the way they think. As I’ve written before on this blog, if we insist writers stick to ‘what they’re like’, this means an unwelcome knock-on effect for the marginalised writers. They get ‘pigeon-holed’ so …
- Women only get to write about ‘female stuff’
- BIPOC writers only get to write about race
- LGBTQ writers only get to write coming out/transition stories
- Disabled writers only get to write about disability or – shudder – ‘inspiration porn’
In other words, dominant writers get to write whatever they want, because white/male/straight/able-bodied characters have plenty to draw from … but marginalised writers only get to write about ‘issues’.
Now, writing about issues can be cathartic and therapeutic if we choose this. If we don’t and have to do it to ‘earn’ our place at the table?? No thank you!
The #1 Tip That Makes All The Difference
So, yes – obviously writers should characters UNlike themselves. We all should, because that way the various barriers come down. But how do we do this without ‘getting it wrong’?
i) Think of a character
First up, think of your character and the aspect (or aspects) that’s UNlike you. Perhaps your character is gay, black, Asian, disabled, neurodiverse or something else. Maybe they have several marginalised identities.
ii) Now make a list
What stereotypes, clichés, tropes etc are most closely associated with a character with this background?
Or these stereotypes, clichés and tropes may be from reality. An example here would be the harmful tropes used by politicians and the the media about certain groups (as in the current culture war about trans people).
Or maybe these stereotypes, clichés and tropes are from BOTH! Whatever the case, write them all down.
iii) Now you have your list of what NOT TO DO with your character!
Sometimes, all you have to do is NOTHING … Just don’t write the toxic trope or offensive stereotype and you’re golden.
Other times, it’s about subverting expectations and twisting the trope, cliché or stereotype. You can utilise the familiarity of what’s been seen before, but deliver it in such a way that it’s NOT stale, boring or offensive.
Whenever someone says ‘don’t’ write a character UNlike yourself, generally what they really mean is …
… Don’t write them if you’re not prepared to do the work.
In this case, ‘doing the work’ means not rehashing or recycling old stigmas, prejudice or unconscious bias accidentally.
You really can write whatever you want … as long as you’re intentional. Be thoughtFUL, not thoughtLESS.
Start this process by considering how characters UNlike yourself have been represented in the past. Simple, yet effective.
Want to watch the video with Professor Sunny Singh?