My main character, Rohan, is of (half) South Asian descent. I am not. I’m a white, straight, more-or-less-normally-abled person, but I’m writing a main character who is a member of a group I don’t belong to.
To be perfectly honest, I have gotten very little flack from anybody about being a white guy writing a minority (at least, a minority where I live) character. I’m sure 99% of that is because almost nobody knows who I am. If I had the sales or name recognition of Brandon Sanderson I suspect a lot more people would angrily call me out for appropriation or something (this is a problem I’d lovingly embrace).
I don’t want to say conclusively that I can give you guidelines for writing a character who is not like you the right way, or even that there is a right way. I can say that I’ve thought about this a great deal and I have at least some insight into what you should or shouldn’t do. Don’t look at this post as the final anything on this topic, and if you ARE yourself a South Asian person (or a member of ANY OTHER underrepresented minority) and disagree with what I’m saying, please leave comments! I’m open to discussion.
What do you mean “The Other” and is it ever okay to write it?
I’m glad you asked!
In a superficial way, any non-autobiographical novel is ‘writing the other.’ Every character is different from the author in some way. But that’s not what people mean when they talk about ‘own voices’ or ‘writing the other.’
Our media are dominated by stories told by, about, and to a certain extent for, straight white Christian able-bodied men (SWCAM). This is shifting now (which is good!), but if you look at the books published, movies released, TV shows aired, songs sung, and plays produced from any point in the past, you’ll see what I mean.
That means that every living person (at least, everyone who consumes media) is intimately familiar with the life of SWCAM’s (I’m Jewish, not Christian, but really my life is predominantly similar to SWCAM’s in most meaningful ways, so I’m going to lump myself in with them). There is very little about my life that derives from my identity that you don’t already understand. I don’t have unique experiences relating to the world – being harassed by the police, discriminated against applying for a mortgage, not being allowed to adopt kids, being unable to access public spaces – that people who are of color or LGBTQ+ or differently-abled experience.
The reverse is NOT true. While a Black gay wheelchair-bound person has a pretty good idea of what MY life is like (because they’ve watched Seinfeld), I don’t have an equivalent media exposure that would lead me to understand THEIR life experience – or at least the portion of their life experience that directly relates to being Black, gay, or wheelchair-bound .
If I WANTED to understand these experiences, I could, but I’d have to actually work for it. I’d have to talk to people that aren’t naturally in my circle of acquaintances, buy and read books that aren’t at the top of amazon’s search results (“you might like this:”).
NOBODY who is like me should ever assume that they understand underrepresented minorities the way that underrepresented minorities understand us.
That also means that a non-SWCAM person is most likely going to be able to, if they choose, write about SWCAMs and do that perspective justice, BUT the converse is not true.
Black people can write intelligently about white people, because they’ve been immersed in white culture their whole lives (willingly or not). White people can never ASSUME that they can do the same, unless they’ve taken special measures to LEARN about Black people’s lives.
You Didn’t Answer the Question, Joe. Is it OK?
Some people will tell you it isn’t. Some people will argue that if you’re a SWCAM you shouldn’t write about non-SWCAM characters.
I have argued before, and will continue to argue, against that position. There are certainly bad ways some SWCAMs write about others. Some SWCAMs have done a terrible job while trying to be inclusive. The fact that some people do a thing badly does not mean that the thing can’t be done right.
Some Specifics, Please?
Gladly! I love specifics. Here is a non-comprehensive list of things to think about if you want to include ‘the other’ in your stories.
Are You Writing Out of Love?
I made Rohan South Asian because I wanted to pay homage to a part of South Asian culture (specifically, Tollywood movies) that I love. I’m certainly not going to say that I love or agree with every aspect of South Asian culture(s), but whatever issues or criticisms I have weren’t part of this motivation, and they don’t (and won’t) show up in my books.
If you, on the other hand, want to write about a particular culture because you think it is doing something wrong, or you think it should be improved upon, and you want to write about a member of that community overcoming their background and transcending it, let me tell you how to do that:
Walk. Away. From. The. Keyboard. And. Don’t. Touch. It. Again.
This is not your job. Even if you’re correct in your analysis, do not do this. If you feel the urge to write about how Black or Jewish or gay or trans people ‘should’ live or behave in order to have fewer difficulties in life, take a a breath, try to recognize that you’re talking out of the wrong end of your digestive system, and stop.
Are You Including or “Writing About”?
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.
Suppose a straight person writes an action book with a gay protagonist. We can imagine a whole spectrum of ways to handle this. On one end, the character’s gayness might be trivial. The whole book might pass with only a couple of sentences to indicate it. Maybe there is no romantic subplot, but the character casually mentions their husband back home, or happens to linger for a moment next to an attractive same-sexed person.
In other words, imagine the character is clearly gay, but the book is such that a very quick re-write could change that (you’d only have to alter a few sentences or scenes). The book could even include a romantic subplot – could you pretty easily change the gender of the romantic interest? If so, then congratulations, your book is not ABOUT being gay, it just INCLUDES a gay person (which is a fine thing to do!)
On the other hand, imagine long, heavy storylines where the character is rejected by their family for their sexual orientation, or they are suffering some legal consequences for it (it’s the recent past and they can’t marry their partner). Those kind of storylines would have to be changed dramatically if the character weren’t gay – congratulation, now you ARE writing ABOUT being gay.
I am not going to definitively say that NO person should EVER write ABOUT ‘the other.’ I will say that at the very least you should have done a ton of special research first. Talk to a LOT of people in that community to make sure you’re getting the details right. Read a LOT of articles written by members of that community. Don’t be a schmuck, and don’t assume you know what you’re talking about just because you watched Roots on Amazon Prime.
Check Your Stereotypes
This is a tricky one.
I’ll be honest – there really ARE traits common to certain groups. I don’t mean universal, but common.
For example, I know a good deal of South Asians. A lot of them like Bollywood movies and music. As in, if you walk the streets of New York and quizzed random people on the street, the number of Indian people who love Shah Rukh Khan would be much higher than the number of white people who did. It wouldn’t be 100% of the Indians (or 0% of the non-Indians), but it wouldn’t be the SAME.
My South Asian main character, Rohan, loves Bollywood music. Is that a stereotype? I guess it is. Is it harmful? I certainly hope not. I can absolutely promise that I did not include that detail with any intention to mock South Asians (or Bollywood music, which I also love, despite my personal melanin deficiency).
Yet we all have seen instances where stereotyping like this is meant to be ugly and demeaning. You’d better think twice about writing a Black character eating watermelon and fried chicken.
What’s the difference?
To come fully clean, I’m not sure. If your Indian character digs into a bowl of biryani at lunch, I don’t think anybody would blink an eye. If your Black detective digs into a bucket of fried chicken on a stakeout, a few eyes would be fluttering.
I think part of it is historical – the fact that Black people were historically mocked for those preferences in popular media. Again, this is a thought, not fully worked through, so don’t take it as my final say on the topic.
I won’t tell you to NEVER have your characters engage in these kind of stereotypical behaviors, but think hard about them. It’s probably okay for your Mexican character to be very close with their extended family but please don’t have them wear a sombrero everywhere.
Differentiate Your Others
Imagine you’re a SWCAM writing a heist novel with a team of characters working together. Being a decent, well-intentioned person, you decide early on to make a diverse cast.
You include safecracker Raju, who eats curry constantly (the smell of which bothers everybody else on the team), complains about his arranged marriage a lot, and has nine children. You include getaway drive Jamal, who has seven girlfriends, each with kids he has to take care of, and wears a lot of blocky gold jewelry. And Mr. Cohen, the man behind the scenes, financing the operation, who has a huge nose, an overbearing wife, and cares only about how much profit he can make.
I hope you see the problems here.
I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to have Raju eating curry. It might even be okay if the smell bothered people. But you have to give Raju something to humanize him that ISN’T from a racist’s list of “10 things I hate about group X.” Your characters have to be MORE than the stereotypes associated with their identity.
Make sure Raju collects comic books, Jamal plays chess, and Mr. Cohen collects porcelain cats, or something. This will make your writing better AS WELL AS less offensive.
Don’t Steal Marketing Thunder
As a writer, you will occasionally see pitches and offers directed at creators or content from certain communities. You might see a call for stories about South Asians, for example. You might be, on some level, tempted to take advantage of these opportunities. “I write about (X) people, surely my story belongs in an anthology about X!”
Don’t do that.
Those opportunities exist as an attempt to correct historic injustices. They are meant to give chances to people writing ABOUT their experiences as members of groups whose voices have, historically, been silenced or ignored.
Your story about a gay Muslim hacker should not be taking a space meant for a gay (or Muslim or whatever) writer telling an actually meaningful story about their point of view.
If you’re published, and your publisher says something like, “we don’t need to hire more authors from community X, because SWCAM person over here is already writing about community X!” please tell them not to say that. SWCAM’s writing about a community will never be as meaningful as something written by a similarly-skilled member of that community.
And yes, I am absolutely saying that nobody should read my books and think they’ve learned anything meaningful about South Asians or that they’ve satisfied some woke quota of reading about non-white characters. And I’ll never market my books in a way that says otherwise.
But Joe, I’m an Expert!
“Joe, I have tons of gay friends, surely I can write about being gay, even though I’m not!”
I am not going to tell you that you’re wrong.
There are, arguably, people who understand some others well enough to write about them. David Simon wrote The Wire after working as a police reporter for a long time in Baltimore. I’m not going to tell David Simon he isn’t qualified to write ABOUT being Black in Baltimore – his full time job was researching that very topic, for years.
That doesn’t mean David Simon got everything right, and if some Black people jump in and say that he screwed up, I’m not defending him. That’s not my place – I don’t belong in that conversation. But I think we can all agree that the case can be made that David Simon has valid insight into this topic.
Are you, in fact, the David Simon of gayness?
I can’t give you rules or guidelines to determine exactly who is or is not an expert on an other-community. I can only say this: put the burden of proof against it. Don’t assume you qualify because you hang out with a lot of Black (or whatever) people. Treat these sort of claims with a lot of skepticism. Then, after you’ve written your book, make sure a number of people from that community read it and offer a genuine thumbs-up before you’re confident you’ve gotten it right.
I will say this – I, personally, am NOT an expert in anybody who isn’t more or less me. I know more than some about what life is like for a number of groups (my wife is not white or Christian, so I know more than the average white guy about what life is like for her people), but I’m not going to write any novels ABOUT what it’s like to grow up Muslim in America.
Include, BUT Err on the Side of Caution
Here’s the thing: if you’re trying to do this the right way, if you’re giving a lot of thought and attention to having inclusion but not overstepping yourself, you’re probably going to get things mostly right. And, I know I shouldn’t speak for anyone else, but I bet a lot of people in underrepresented communities will understand if you DO make an occasional mistake. The people I know and have spoken with aren’t necessarily asking for perfection; they’re asking for sincere effort.
Am I Wrong? Tell Me, Please!
There’s definitely a part of me saying: “I’m a (relatively) wealthy, straight white guy telling people how much they should pay attention to the arguments of various minorities.” Not a great look, is it?
So, do you disagree with what I’ve written here? Do you think I’ve missed something important (or even something unimportant but worth adding)?
I’m happy to have a conversation. I’m more than willing to admit that I most likely have missed things. Tell me what they are! If you’re offended by my South Asian main character, tell me why! I promise to listen and really think about what you’re saying.