Writing outside of your perspective

Redlin5_v1legacy

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Hi there. I'm a white male[footnote]and fully aware of all the social benefits of the genetics that made my skin what colour it is are. I know. [https://az616578.vo.msecnd.net/files/responsive/cover/main/desktop/2015/08/03/635742384244128548732660208_check-your-privilege-300x271.imgopt1000x70.jpg][/footnote] with a thing for video games, novels and movies. I like stories. I like writing.

Yup, that introduction makes me cringe too, but its not one of those kind of posts. I'd rather lets just talk about stuff. Its been on my brain and I won't shy away from putting this on OT. Let's crack on then.

I would like to write outside of my box more. Race, gender, sexual preferences... Whoever the main characters are or aren't doesn't matter if its a good story right? That's what I believe...

Talking with a friend of a friend about a story idea, I mentioned that I was wanting to write a story from the perspective of a disenfranchised Moroccan in a future society and he told me to write to my strengths, and write white. We had a spirited discussion but ultimately we parted ways with him saying I do not know what its like to live with darker skin, so how could I justify myself writing a character like that? Making up a race and a new world to work inside was one of his suggestions but I don't see it for this project.

I've been thinking about that conversation for a while now. Why should I have that apprehension to write outside of my own experiences? Context for the story aside, how tied is the author's personal identity to that of their project?

Some books I have read never describe the race of the protagonist, because it may be entirely irrelevant to the tale. What if its not a story tied to skin colour in anyway but you want to make a point of specifying it? It seems a taboo topic and the push back this person had to the idea of me writing with that voice was disconcerting.

This all comes back to my own creative process I suppose, I just hate defaulting to my own race as protagonist/antagonist for every story I imagine. Its a box and I live in a very multicultural North America.

I think that if you do genuine research about cultural relations and make it make sense within your written word, you shouldn't shy away from it. Game of Thrones is full of different ethnic groups portrayed in a fantasy environment. Strangers in Paradise [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangers_in_Paradise] is a graphic novel series seen from the perspective of women as written by a man.

Race and gender relations are a difficult topic, and I understand that, but if we dodge the existence of them or make creatives work only within their own experiences; we're limiting the well from which a writer can draw.

This is not an argument for free license to be insensitive. If I write from another voice and it uses too many stereotypes or genuinely hurts someone, I want to be called out on that. Research, and not just four hours on wikipedia, should help avoid most of that but humans are imperfect creatures and inevitably not everyone is going to feel satisfied with the end result of someone writing out of their comfort zone.

It took some words to go through it all but I guess what I want to ask you all is...

What are your thoughts on someone writing in a voice totally removed from their own personal identity?

How deep must the research go before a writer can arguably say it was in depth?[[footnote](Did George RR Martin speak with the current Little Person community as research or did he read extensively about how dwarfs were treated in Medieval society? I honestly do not know what he did in preparation for his books.)[/footnote]

When does the creator's personal heritage vanish from how you perceive your media?


I have a genuine interest in what your thoughts are on this. I do not have an interest in seeing any racial rants or angry arguing over other posts. Civility would be greatly appreciated but I'll hold my finger over the trigger to lock this if it becomes a circus.

TL;DR: Redlin was up writing waaaaaaay too late, started dwelling over his character biographies and whether it was right or wrong to hesitate writing multi-ethnic roles in his story when he himself is whiter than sour cream. [http://24.media.tumblr.com/f33de368cbc1bbee18e1bfcb72af5058/tumblr_mmss11Vpaa1qciesyo1_400.gif]
 

Thaluikhain

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Your own biases and prejudices are going to show up in your work, but consensus seems to be to try and write outside your own experience anyway. Though yeah, this requires a lot of research and acceptance that you will get things badly wrong every so often.
 

Barbas

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It's useful practice. What's better is going there and talking to a taxi driver or a shopkeeper. That's not much help in some situations, such as when I had an idea for writing from the perspective of a war criminal, rapist and cannibal. Start small.

The creator's personal heritage doesn't matter to me, since I don't read the About The Author stuff until I'm done with the story. I like to guess as I read, sometimes, because that's a fun little game.

Oh, and you don't have to justify anything, so don't let that worry you.

. . . Race and gender relations are a difficult topic . . .
I don't think so at all, but you can let yourself care too much about it to the point that it paralyses your writing efforts. Fiction you write can't really hurt anyone, and the only way you'll get better is if you put pen to paper. Realize that someone will be offended if you do almost anything at all, so dismiss that and start writing for yourself first of all - write to get better at something you have a genuine interest in.

And I don't think they're called "Little People" any more. At least, Peter Dinklage isn't - he prefers Peter, from what I've heard.
 

Redlin5_v1legacy

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Barbas said:
And I don't think they're called "Little People" any more. At least, Peter Dinklage isn't - he prefers Peter, from what I've heard.
I wanted to use the term "Small Folk" but then I remembered that's the regular poor people from Game of Thrones. I didn't know how to collectively call the community tho since the plural of dwarf leads to Lord of the Ring connotations.
. . . Race and gender relations are a difficult topic . . .
I don't think so at all, but you can let yourself care too much about it to the point that it paralyses your writing efforts. Fiction you write can't really hurt anyone, and the only way you'll get better is if you put pen to paper. Realize that someone will be offended if you do almost anything at all, so dismiss that and start writing for yourself first of all - write to get better at something you have a genuine interest in.
I'm not going to let it stop me writing, I just thought it was interesting that the impulse to put on the brakes was both there inside of me and from an outside perspective of 'a guy I met at the mall with friends'. Just interesting getting that response from a total stranger is all.
 

Thaluikhain

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Barbas said:
Fiction you write can't really hurt anyone
Yes...but then again people use propaganda to affect social attitudes because it works.
 

Saelune

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If you consider what makes us similar, it is likely to make it easier to write other characters. I don't think its as hard to write characters that aren't you, as long as you aren't trying to specifically write a character based on what they are.
Or just think of similar feelings. If I, as an LGBT person wanted to write a black character who is distrustful of police, Id remember how the events of Stonewall rile me up. Whenever I read about those events, I feel very "fuck da police".

If you wanted to write a character who is ostracized for something, just try to think of something you were mocked for. Even something small that upset you. Mocked for being too fat? Too thin? Maybe people mocked you for being uncool, or having an interest in something niche that people looked down on.

Its not that hard to relate to other people if you just think of times you were put down for something about you, and transferred that feeling to other things. It may not be to the same degree, but its a start.

Plus you can always have others read your work and give opinions. Just got to find people who would understand the situation you are writing and willing to be helpful and not offended by it.

In short, use feelings. We all feel anger and happiness and sadness, even if for different reasons.
 

sageoftruth

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My advice, provided you don't do it already, is to do a character writeup before you begin. This is where all your research into the person's cultural and societal differences should go. Use it to help you define the person's past, personality, likes, dislikes, personal strengths and weaknesses, relationships to other characters, how that person sees his or her place in the world, etc.

Once that is done, just write your story the same way you would normally, using your writeup as a guide to help you figure out how the person would behave in different situations. This helps to ensure that you continue to write the character as a person with depth rather than slipping into stereotype/archetype territory.

Also, feel free to update the character writeup whenever your writing uncovers new depths about your character.

It served me very well once when I wrote a story with a female main character.
 

MythicMatt

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Redlin5 said:
It took some words to go through it all but I guess what I want to ask you all is...

What are your thoughts on someone writing in a voice totally removed from their own personal identity?
If your storytelling is good, you can write in whatever voice you want. Dark-skinned human, light-skinned human, skinned non-human... whatever you want.
How deep must the research go before a writer can arguably say it was in depth?
Research as much as you can. Make notes. Make notes on your notes. Question life. Make more notes. When you think "Ok, way too many notes to read here", then you're there. Or what inu-kun said.
When does the creator's personal heritage vanish from how you perceive your media?
Ideally? All the time. When I read, the only thing stopping me from reading is the quality of writing.

TL;DR: Redlin was up writing waaaaaaay too late, started dwelling over his character biographies and whether it was right or wrong to hesitate writing multi-ethnic roles in his story when he himself is whiter than sour cream. [http://24.media.tumblr.com/f33de368cbc1bbee18e1bfcb72af5058/tumblr_mmss11Vpaa1qciesyo1_400.gif]
Lucky you. All that happens when I write for too long is the characters decide that the story needs more sexy stuff [Which always ends up awkwardly written, because I'm not confident in that sort of writing].
 

rcs619

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inu-kun said:
Okay that really pissed me off, you want to write non white characters? Then write them like you write every other chracter, as opposed to what might think, black, muslims, women, LGBT and all those are not some "exotic" animals that we should appreciate like a fucking zoo, but human beings How will a black person act when a bad or good thing happens to him? The same as a "white male", women, gay or any human being alive on the world will act.
Pretty much this. Humans are still humans, and they tend to have relatable human drives, emotions, hopes and dreams.

Now, ethnicity, culture and social circumstances *will* of course have some impact on how their character comes across to the reader, and there's kind of where the challenge of writing comes in. That's where you're going to need to do some research. Basically, the more they diverge from your own circumstances, the more research you're probably going to have to do to portray them accurately.

The research is more about the supporting details than the main ones though. A white guy from Ohio, a black guy from Chicago and a persian woman from Iran can all have similar hopes, dreams, motivations and such, but there's going to be some very different cultural quirks and some very different circumstances surrounding them.

People will be people, but the world immediately around them and the circumstances that rule and shape it can vary a good bit, and it's those details that can be toughest to get right if you're writing outside of your personal experience.

It really depends on the genre you're going for too. In science-fiction and fantasy, for example, a lot of those issues don't really matter. You can have a future world or a fantasy world develop however you want it to. Although, you do need to try and keep a handle on your personal biases there too. In your example of a future Moroccan, you're definitely going to want to look into Morocco, its history and its culture some to get a baseline idea. Then you can shape that idea through the future events of your story.
 

manic_depressive13

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I think it depends why someone might want to make their protagonist Moroccan, to use your example. Is it for a legitimate reason, or is it because Moroccan seems ethnic and exotic, and the writer believes it would earn them Progressive Brownie Points? Because the latter that feels squicky to me, and if they were to come at it from that perspective, I suspect it would show through in their writing no matter how much research they did.
 

JoJo

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Personally, I enjoy writing outside my own perspective and I think it's a healthy thing to do as a writer to stretch yourself. At the moment I'm writing a novel about a little mixed race girl in the far future, so she's entirely different superficially to myself, but scratch beneath the surface and in a lot of ways she's quite like me. So yeah, you can write a character from a different background and still draw on your own experiences. I agree it's probably a good idea to do some research though if you're basing a character on a real ethnicity, you'll learn a lot along the way.
 

Chanticoblues

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I also write, and have written female protags more than once. I usually talk to my editor (who's a woman) about them, but she's usually pretty on board. I don't have any apprehension about writing women, as I feel that the people I know best in my life other than myself are women. I would need to do some research and get to know some more people if I was incorporating or writing about trans or non-binary folks, however.

That said, I'm also a white guy, and I don't really feel it's my place to make stuff about cultures that are foreign to me. I don't have anything compelling to say about the immigrant experience, or warlords in Africa, or discrimination in the Middle East. I'm no authority on those topics and I know someone else, far closer to those subjects can do better than me, and I'd rather not muddle up discussions with an approximation.

It's because of that, that I'm just not interested. I have plans to tell stories about my city and surroundings, I don't feel any need to reach a whole lot further. If I was driven, or really interested in telling stories that are wildly outside of my own experiences, I would probably do so, though. So just do it, but consult people. If it isn't your truth, make sure it's true to the people you're representing.
 

Something Amyss

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Redlin5 said:
Its a box and I live in a very multicultural North America.
Can I move to your North America, then?

(Did George RR Martin speak with the current Little Person community as research or did he read extensively about how dwarfs were treated in Medieval society? I honestly do not know what he did in preparation for his books.)
Dude, George RR Martin didn't even bother to figure women, roughly half the world's population out before writing and there are laughably bad examples strewn through his books.

And I bring this up because I think it helps answer some of your questions

How in-depth you should be depends on part on what you want to do. If you're writing Lord of the Rings fanfic, maybe you don't have to know how roughly 50% of the population lives. If you want to deal with the character in any sort of in-depth sense, maybe you should do some work. How much work? How far are you going? What are you writing? Joss Whedon practically gets fellated for his works, which are culturally inappropriate and often sexist, but the dude makes mostly shitty action flicks or action flicks with a thin veneer of substance. or are you writing character pieces?
 

WhiteFangofWhoa

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Unless you're writing a serious novel, I wouldn't overthink it too much. No matter what you try your identity will come across. The key factor is the breadth and flexibility of one's imagination when crafting characters.

In narrative, identity is forged by social pressures. By how other characters treat the POV character, and how he/she chooses to think and act in reaction to it. The POV character is the one you usually put the most thought into anyway, so think about these:

Just how rough a life has this character experienced specifically because of being an ethnicity that may or may not be mistreated by others? Have they become more bitter or more compassionate because of it?

If there are other bitter people of their ethnicity or gender who warn them to only trust 'their own kind', did they ever take that advice to heart?

Have they done that enough to think like that all the time, and thus commonly take a negative approach when describing people of the other race?

I doubt J.K. Rowling did that much research into perfectly capturing the mindset of a headstrong 11-year-old boy as he matured across 7 years. But you can see why Fantasy is so popular to write- you can make characters of various fictional races without worrying about all that. You still should though, since it brings more detail to both character and race.

Funny story I happened upon recently- apparently Stephen King almost gave up on writing Carrie because he found it impossible to mentally get into 'the world of teenage girls', in other words the mind of the main character and many of the others, trying to capture the mean-spiritedness that drives them to relentless bullying which in turn drives the main character to... well, you know. His wife convinced him to give it another try though, and the rest is history.
 

Revnak_v1legacy

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...is impossible. The good news is that as a human being you can expand that perspective quite easily, and you can attempt to empathize with other people and your characters to understand what they would do in a given scenario. However, if you're not a particularly empathetic human being I've got nothing for you.
 

Recusant

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Let's think about this for a moment: if a person is only "allowed" to write of things they've personally experienced, we'll have no one writing about dying. Or aliens. Or World War one. It would all but kill sci-fi, and fantasy too. This is an attitude that you need to not merely resist, but fight against with all your strength. If not for yourself, then for the sake of the world we live in and the people who have to live in it.

You want to avoid insulting ideas and stereotypes; that's good. But people are people, no matter where they're from. Identity is not formed by society, it's formed by the individual- not what they do to you, but what you choose to do to them. That's true of all of us.

To answer your questions:
1. I'm an American of Irish extraction. I have direct ancestors who fought and died to free their country from the English. Does that "allow" me to write from their perspective? Even though I have essentially no experience with physical violence? What I think about writers going outside their personal identity to write is that it's a good exercise for them. I live in reality, which is far more objectionable than anything anyone's going to write. I'm a lot more insulted by the cowardice of refusing to write for fear of "offending" than I am by being offended.

2. Research about factual matters is inherently different from research about beliefs and opinions. Experiences are much the same. (Also, Martin's story doesn't take place in the middle ages. In a world inspired by them, yes, but I have read through countless medieval manuscripts, and never once have I encountered a reference to the oncoming horde of ice zombies.)

3. It doesn't, because it was never there in the first place. I am, as I noted above, ethnically Irish. The only people paler than mine are albinos and vampires. Yet my great-grandparents (the first to arrive in this country) faced no small amount of discrimination for not being "white". Of course, that no longer applies; the Irish are just another subgroup of "white" in this country today, but I grew up listening to my great-grandparents telling stories about their experiences, which taught me that racial discrimination is really fuckin' stupid, because aside from certain genetic matters, it doesn't matter. And that applies to writing, too.
 
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I'm currently writing a script where the main character is a high school age girl. Fortunately I have a teenage daughter so I get plenty of references and dialog ideas hearing her talk.

One tip that I've found helpful is to travel on public transport, have your headphones in but not have anything playing and just evesdrop on people's conversations. Pay attention to what they say, how they say it and their body language. You'll be surprised what people say when they think no one is paying attention.

Other ethnicities are difficult but if you have suburbs that are predominantly of a certain ethnic persuasion occasionally hang out there. You'll be amazed what you pick up.
 

Sable Gear

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inu-kun said:
Okay that really pissed me off, you want to write non white characters? Then write them like you write every other chracter, as opposed to what might think, black, muslims, women, LGBT and all those are not some "exotic" animals that we should appreciate like a fucking zoo, but human beings How will a black person act when a bad or good thing happens to him? The same as a "white male", women, gay or any human being alive on the world will act.
Basically this^ but way less angry. Also this:

sageoftruth said:
My advice, provided you don't do it already, is to do a character writeup before you begin. This is where all your research into the person's cultural and societal differences should go. Use it to help you define the person's past, personality, likes, dislikes, personal strengths and weaknesses, relationships to other characters, how that person sees his or her place in the world, etc.

Once that is done, just write your story the same way you would normally, using your writeup as a guide to help you figure out how the person would behave in different situations. This helps to ensure that you continue to write the character as a person with depth rather than slipping into stereotype/archetype territory.

Also, feel free to update the character writeup whenever your writing uncovers new depths about your character.
I feel like a lot of writers get too caught up in the differences and forget to focus on the fact that we're all human (or intelligent extraterrestrial, anthropomorphic animal, whatever else you're writing about, etc). I'm working on a long piece where all four of my main characters are WAY outside my demographic (two homosexual males, one in his 50's one in his 20's; a 30-something STEM type guy who's self-employed; a 30-something woman of ambiguous sexuality).

One could argue that to really do this right I have to do some serious research into what it's like to be 30+ years older than I am, of the opposite sex and sexual...preference...

See how dumb that sounds? Don't bog yourself down with research for your CHARACTERS, just make your characters HUMAN. Normal quirks, natural reactions and organic dialogue overcome perceived boundaries of race, sex, etc.

If you want to research, use that for background and setting. Sageoftruth has the right idea in using research to help outline and shape a character through their past and what they know, but every time a writer talks about "doing research for a character" I fear the worst for that character becoming a bucket of factoids with no personality.

TL;DR version: use research for background stuff ONLY, get an idea where your characters come from, what they've seen and what they might know, but for the love of words just write them to be PEOPLE, don't worry about any accuracy other than "is this a HUMAN BEING I'm talking about?"
 
Apr 5, 2008
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Here's the foolproof method for writing women, according to Jack Nicholson (skip to 1m30s):

But it's no different than acting is at its core. The only difference is that as a writer you are *all* the characters, not just the one. What are the characters motivations? What is their personality? What is their mood? What is their relationship to the other characters? How do they speak among friends, family, their boss, a stranger? Where are they from? All of these things affect them. In a given story or scene, is that characters skin colour/gender significant for some reason?

On the basis that people who are different than you are also human, it's not too much of a leap to write them. I'll grant its harder on the basis that there might be issues that a someone who isn't you will see differently, perhaps thru the lens of their gender or colour. As such, that is where acting and imagination comes in. But even as a man, I know and have known enough women in my life that I could write one as easily as a man.