What stories are we allowed to tell? Can authors create any kind of protagonist? Or do their main characters need to look just like them?
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of books with female protagonists. I’ve written a book that features a gay man. I’ve written from the perspective of aliens, robots, zombies, minorities, the young and the old.
Am I allowed to get away with this?
My last published series of stories were told from the perspective of a black mother, a black man, and a young woman. None of them had backgrounds like mine. Does this violate the rules of good literature? Is it dishonest? What do you all think?
Five or six years ago, I was at a conference with Shonda Rhimes, and we sat over breakfast one morning and discussed this very topic. Shonda has written some of the best TV in the last decade, and a lot of her characters are white men, white women, black men. I mean, you can’t be a fiction writer and only write about yourself. You have to try and imagine what life is like for others and populate your stories with a realistically diverse cast.
“Anybody can write about whatever experience they want,” Shonda said. “The problem starts when someone tries to write about a definitive experience that isn’t theirs. A white man can write about a black woman, but he can’t write about the black experience. Only a black woman can attempt that, and even then it’ll be her take on that experience.”
I didn’t understand the distinction at first, but Shonda explained that she could write a believable white man, because that’s the gift and necessity of a fiction writer, but she would never try to capture whiteness or maleness from a place of authority. It can seem like a fuzzy boundary between the two, but I don’t think it takes a lot of work to tell them apart. There is enough diversity within each group that almost any character can appear valid in isolation. The problem comes when someone outside of a group attempts to speak for that group.
But maybe the rules don’t work in both directions? And maybe they shouldn’t. Does JK Rowling get asked how she could possibly write about being a young boy? One of the most common questions I get is, “When’s the last time you brushed your hair?” A close second is, “How do you write from the female perspective?”
The more diverse a character I choose, the more untoward it seems. I have a WIP with a trans high school character, something I know nothing about. Except that high school was confusing as fuck to me, hormones and peer pressure made me question everything, and it often felt like I was trapped in someone else’s body. I never wanted to be a woman, but the discomforts and pressures I did feel make it easy to empathize. Coming out as an atheist to my parents and peers in the deep south gives me at least a hint of what it must be like to come out as gay. Having a gay uncle and gay friends helps me write gay characters. But I can never write about “THE” gay experience.
That’s how I see it, anyway. I’d love to hear your thoughts. My next planned novel is about a bisexual seventeen-year-old black girl of Pacific island descent. She also has magical abilities. I know nothing about what it means to be any of these things, but I can imagine what it’s like to be her. I want to tell her story, and I don’t want anyone who resembles her to think I’m trying to tell their story. I never could. Only they can.