Writing Diverse Characters

Before you read today’s post, please note: This can be a sensitive topic. It’s one in which someone may find offense, so please, please know that everything herein is from my own personal search. I offer my words with the utmost regard for individuals and groups involved, and with genuine curiosity about how to portray characters outside my own experience with respect, realism and authenticity. If I give offense, I promise it is unintentional. I offer apologies, and ask that you help me to recognize and correct my mistakes by pointing them out (nicely, please!).

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A few months ago, I began to toy with a short-story idea about a transgender character. As the concept took shape in my head, it occurred to me that I know nothing about how to portray a believable trans person. Do they think about things the same way I do? Where are our relationships similar? Where are they different? How do they interact with society? Do we love the same way? Get angry? Grumble about our work? How are we the same? Where do we diverge?

Now before you mumble something about stupid questions, hear me out. As a cisgender female, clearly there are some differences between myself and a transgender individual, but I suspect those variations go deeper than the obvious. Different lifestyles usually forge different cultures. For example, my beautiful, loving cisgender sister-in-law is Christian. I am not. While we love each other and share many things, a common culture is not among them. We think in completely different ways, but since I was raised in a Christian church, I understand that culture. I know (for the most part) how it works. I know what to expect from it. I could write a believable Christian character with little effort above and beyond the challenge inherent in writing any interesting character.

I’ve never been transgender. I’ve also never been Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, African American, Columbian or Japanese. I’ve never been a man, or emigrated to another country, or lived in a mansion. I’ve never been paralyzed or epileptic. I’ve never been pregnant. Characters written for each of these circumstances or backgrounds would embrace quite different worldviews and necessities of daily life. Some of these groups of people couldn’t care less if I write about them. Others might, unless I do it very, very well. So if I want to write a character who is or has been any of these things, I will need to do some intense research—much more than a search on Google or Wikipedia, though I might start with those.

For instance, if I want to write a transgender character, I need to enlist the assistance of transgender people, as many as I can manage. I must ask them those stupid questions I listed above, as well as others. I must ask them to read what I’ve written and provide feedback as to authenticity and sensitivity. Without their input, my story and my character will never go deep enough to feel real. However, approaching people from these cultural groups may be awkward.

I read several blog posts on writing transgender characters when I first began to ask these questions. One blogger said trans people are tired of being poked and prodded in this way, as if they are aliens or some newly discovered species. I can understand that, and will absolutely respect a trans friend who says “bug off” when I ask for their input.

In a workshop on this very topic led by Erin Beaty at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference this year, someone in the discussion pointed out that in movies, it might be difficult to find trans actors to play trans roles, because the pool from which to draw is still very, very small by comparison with the cisgender pool. I hope it won’t always be that way, for actors or for writers. In the meantime, the same blogger (above) said that trans people are tired of being portrayed in victim roles, that they want to be shown as regular, everyday people because they are. The more they are depicted this way, the less “foreign” the idea will seem to people who resist their presence in the larger social setting.

I was fortunate to find one transgender ally so far who agreed to read any story I wrote and provide feedback, which I appreciate. They said, though, that they would not normally read such a story in a magazine unless it was written by a trans writer. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it makes me wonder—must we wait for trans writers to provide us with trans protagonists? And if so, does that apply across the board to all cultural groups? How will any of us write a character whose life we haven’t lived?

As I said, this is a very touchy subject. At the conference, I mentioned to a fellow attendee that I was headed to the Diversity workshop. Her reaction, one of anger and disgust, caught me completely off-guard. Why would you want to take that class? Why would you even want to write a trans character? Her emotions stemmed, she said, from her belief that diversity has become such a “huge deal” that the molehill has become a mountain, and it’s getting in the way of writers’ creativity because they feel they need to be inclusive, when they should just write and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t agree, but to each their own.

For the record, this post isn’t just about writing trans characters. I’d been contemplating the subject of writing outside my own paradigm for quite some time. Some folks say “write what you know.” I say the heck with that! There’s a whole world full of things and people and places I don’t know – far more than what I do – and why should I avoid writing all those wonderful, heartening, inspirational stories simply because they require research? What better way to learn and grow and understand than to reach beyond the narrow confines of my own experience? As long as I tell a great story with respect and dignity for the characters and communities I intend to represent, perhaps my own learning can be shared through my words.

There is so much to say on this subject, and I am only one in a long line of people to join the discussion. A simple Google search on “writing diverse characters” brought up a long list of articles; check out some for yourself, and know that just like any subject on how to write, opinions run the gamut. Take what works for you. Leave the rest.

But I still say this: Ask. Research. Get input from the community you want to represent. And treat those communities with honor, with dignity, and with respect.

One last note: I would love to read a story about a trans character written by a trans writer. If you have a great one to suggest, please share the title and where it can be found below. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Writing Diverse Characters”

  1. I have been sitting here for a week with your post, reading and re-reading and trying to get a handle on my response. You raise difficult questions and have got me thinking hard, so thanks for that.

    I have never written a transgender character and I understand the obvious, which is that such a character’s life experience, his or her relationship to the culture, is far different than mine. And so there would be details of that daily life in the world that I might imagine but couldn’t know without doing exactly what you suggest, talking with someone who lives that life.

    I have just finished two historical novels and two of my characters can serve as my examples here. I wrote a scene in which a young soldier in the Civil War has come home because he is wounded and in this scene he is talking to my main character. He is describing to her the experience of “a friend” who lost his nerve in a battle and because of that the situation happened in which he was wounded and was sent home. He describes his friend’s fear and then his shame. And we know that the young soldier is really describing his own experience in the only way he is able.

    I have never experienced a war situation, never been injured in battle. But that fact did not hinder my writing this scene because what I do share in common with this young soldier is the experience of fear, the experience of behaving in a way I am later ashamed of, the experience of simply being unable to face or talk about that directly.

    So, while I can see that if I had talked to someone who did have that direct experience of war, I could have fleshed out the description of the circumstances, maybe even enhanced the particular flavor of those common human emotions attached to battle, still as I wrote I was able to feel that soldier’s fear and shame. Because I think that, at bottom, we all have this common pool of humanness that makes us—writers, you and I—able to write about things that aren’t just “what we know.”

    That said, the more specific I can be about any given character the better and what you have written here will change what I do with certain characters from now on. If I haven’t shared a character’s experience, I will find someone who has who’s willing to tell me about it.

  2. Dean, thanks for sharing!

    I too have written characters whose lives and roles in their stories lie outside my own experience, but since their circumstances are not common to most humans (one of my characters begins to grow inexplicable feathers), it wasn’t hard to imagine what might go through their minds. Some draw on a more-or-less common well of emotion. Another of my characters (an old woman) is badly beaten by random thieves in a park at night. Not hard to figure out what she’d be thinking and/or fearing.

    The questions in my post come from trying to write a story from a perspective where I couldn’t possibly imagine all the gradations of emotion — for instance, writing a protagonist of color in a society where racial discrimination is part of everyday life; how might that influence a character’s actions or reactions to any given situation I might create for them? Even non-victim storylines require this sort of insight to portray a fully rounded brown-skinned character. Indigenous People’s culture also flavors their attitudes and personalities in ways I could only predict through tropish eyes, unless I ask for their input. And so on.

    It’s true; we all share a pool of basic humanness, but the variations in that rainbow of experience range wide and deep. Part of my reason for wanting to write such characters is to widen my own human experience. To learn to see through another’s eyes. To enrich my own understanding and deepen my compassion. Thus my post.

    I’m glad you could “grok fully” my meaning. 🙂

    Peace.

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