A Question of Voice

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.

28 responses to “A Question of Voice”

  1. Screw it. There are no rules to writing fiction except writing good fiction. Keep doing what you’re doing, Hugh, cause you’re doing it well

  2. I think it’s a matter of imagination and empathy. We do write fiction after all. I’m not Death, a reaper, a vampire, an angel, a magician, a troll-raiser, or a dog, yet all those characters appear in my story. I also write about marginalized people, yet I’m not that either. Does that make me a thief or a writer?

  3. I was going to say exactly what she said. My characters are seldom like me, but I want to see their diversity represented in my fiction as they present themselves to me. (I’m just doing the typing.)

    My last novel featured a black main character, so of course I was careful. But in the end, my main character isn’t presenting “the black experience,” or “the black American experience,” or even necessarily “the black American adopted into another family” experience, though he probably could. Those would be other stories, and not for me to write. “Write what you know” means write the truth as you understand it, and that alone gives writers a larger playing field than they’ll ever be able to fully explore.

    (And, saying the obvious, my characters are all pieces of me.)

    1. Thanks, J.D. for expanding the concept you perfectly,

  4. I think critics are wrong to attack writers for creating different characters because any nuanced character can’t possibly stand in for a “universal” type if there were such a thing. Readers, on the other hand, often draw the conclusion that they know now all about a category because of a character. If, for example, they read a story about a relatively well=treated house slave, they think that’s how slavery must have been. Is it paucity of reader knowledge and experience the writer’s fault? I shouldn’t think so.

  5. Hello, Hugh Howey.
    I’m Sid, SkiddyJim on Twitter. I’m due to write you soon concerning my thoughts on Wool and Shift, but this opportunity to sharpen my pencil just popped in on my phone.

    At the risk of sounding like a starry-eyed fan, let me say that you are so damned smart! This question of whose voice is someone allowed to use has bugged me all my life. Whether it was with my own limited writing, or critiques I’ve read of songwriters and bands, or rabid discussions of who has the right to portray a gay character on the screen. With what I’ve seen, there is a bias in favor of limiting the right of expression. And that has never set well with me.

    The case you lay out here makes absolute, well-informed sense. I’ll not cite details because it’s all of the above, and I do believe in brevity. So thank you for laying some things to rest for me. I’ll feel stronger in my opinion as this issue arises in the future. You’re definitely one of the good guys in my life.

    Seeya ’round the campus,
    Sid (a starry-eyed fan)

  6. Screw the critics and haters. Your fiction is your art, and art is supposed to offend and challenge. I love your work and hope it continues. Especially a continuation of the Silo Series…

  7. Patrice Fitzgerald Avatar
    Patrice Fitzgerald

    You and I have talked about representation in novels before. It’s an important issue, and I’m glad it’s being examined, even when that involves some difficult discussions. The contrary position is that a white male writing from the POV of a Pacific Islander is fine, but is it taking a publishing spot from someone actually of that background? That’s a lot of what this is about. And yet nothing starts from zero. You worked your way to bestsellerdom, and now the Howey name–your “brand”–puts you in a position to have your work looked at first, and for readers to be inclined to buy something new you write. Though it’s fair to say that self-publishing has removed a lot of those gatekeeping barriers.

    I am not trans myself, but I believe that someone who is would object to a cis man’s statement that he never “wanted to be a woman” as in any way comparable to a trans individual’s experience. I don’t believe that’s the way they see it. They would say they were in fact always female, or queer, or non-binary, and were simply living in a body that didn’t reflect that, and in a society that didn’t accept them for what they are.

    1. I see it the other way around. Writing a successful work with an under-represented cast can show publishers that there’s an audience for these roles and open more opportunities. Publishing doesn’t say: “We already have two Pacific Islander protags this season, so our quota is full.” They say: “Hey, that Pacific Islander novel did really well, let’s do fifteen more of those!”

  8. Knowing how deeply a writer must delve into the psyche of a protagonist, I would say that to write a novel from the POV of a person who does not look, think or love like you is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of empathy an artist could attempt — provided it is done with sincerity and kindness. Creating a character to represent a negative stereotype or to demean a group would be the opposite of that, but such a work would say more about the (damaged) writer than anything else.

    IMO, we need more empathy and understanding in our society, and fewer hard boundaries and sacred cows. I applaud your efforts and those of Ms. Rhimes to open your hearts and minds to characters unlike yourselves.

    1. This is my feeling. If I have a large audience, and I can use that platform to create more diverse characters, hopefully that opens doors for other authors to do the same and for readers to seek more of the same.

  9. This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about as a hetro white male writer. I’ve had a lot of gay characters in my books and even transgender because of friends/family gave me enough to write what I thought was a believable person even if was not my experience.

    Now I have gotten to a point in one of my stories where I was toying with gender bending narrative that I don’t know if I am crossing the line from believable character to “experience” of a group. Basically, A woman is married to robot woman. Robot woman’s body is destroyed. Because it’s a comedy, Robot woman’s body is replaced with Robot man’s body but AI matrix is the same. Thus the conflict of the story. Is it about the person inside or the package they come in to determine love?

    I am packaging this into a transgender/lesbian narrative, and I’m writing about and experience that I’ve never been through. No I know has had this particular experience (Even now, I ask myself, if my wife declared herself to be man, and went through with an operation, I would be supportive, and I’d like to say that I would still be in love, but could I really do that? It’s one thing to say it while commenting on blog, but it’s an entirely different to live the reality). So can I write about something that truly, I have no idea. But, at the same time, if I approach this as what would by character choose to be authentic to her, and not try a mouth piece for the LGBTQ+ community, can I tell this story? I definitely want to interview a F and F couple where one F changed to M before I even try, but I’m stuck on is this something can I even write.

    You bring up a really deep question. I also feel the boundary is really fuzzy between authentic character/ the experience. I feel like it’s a constant struggle with what I write, because I have a streak of idealism, and I believe the easiest way to show people they have no future is not include them in it. So as I Sci Fi writer, it’s my duty to be as inclusive as possible.

    It all comes down an interview I heard with Whoopi Goldberg. When she was little, she saw Star Trek, and started screaming at her mom. “Mom! Mom! There’s a Black lady on TV, and she’s on the bridge with all the White people. ” She said that made her realize she could be an actor. I was like, damn, Sci Fi can be force for good in the world or evil, I want my stuff to be force for good. But I don’t want my idealism to ever turn into arrogance that I know what it’s like to be another person.

    1. Brilliant. I didn’t know that about Whoopi.

    2. Patrice Fitzgerald Avatar
      Patrice Fitzgerald

      Speaking of representation, and Star Trek in particular, I hope you’ve heard Nichelle Nichols talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. was the person who persuaded her not to leave the show after the first season. Here she is talking about it: https://youtu.be/pSq_UIuxba8

  10. Hal+Jay+Greene Avatar

    I think you touched on it when you said, “A white man can write about a black woman, but he can’t write about the ‘black experience.’” Actually, there’s no rule says he can’t. History is replete with writers who wrote about the experience of groups to which they were an outsider, and got it right. But it requires an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, one very few writers can achieve. It usually occurs after the writer has lived among the group for decades.

    There’s three things going on here: Writers who create characters very different from themselves (this is the main function of being a writer!) writers who write about the experience of groups to which they do not belong (possible, but more difficult) and writers who attempt to “be the voice” of their group. I’d contend no one should ever attempt the latter, regardless of how much experience they have being a member of a group. Individuals are way too diverse for any one person to attempt to be the voice of an entire group. You said it yourself: “Only a black woman can attempt that, and even then it’ll be her take on that experience.”

    And fwiw, you already know the answer to this one: “How do you write from the female perspective?” Ans: “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability”.

    1. Great stuff! Thank you.

  11. Marc B DeGeorge Avatar
    Marc B DeGeorge

    We were just having a similar conversation in a Facebook group about a man writing a lesbian protagonist. There were many opinions offered, some constructive, some highly critical, and while I am not gay, nor a woman, I think that it’s important to understand the difference between writing a character, and writing as an authority.
    Firstly, characters, like people are more than what you describe them as. A trans woman from the Phillipines may have certain thoughts and feelings because of who she is and her experiences, but she is also human. That means she has human needs and human desires just like everyone else. It’s just that her experiences and perspectives are different.
    If you write with the respect to making your characters real and believable, nobody can fault you for that. The bottom line is that you try to respect the culture, heritage, sexual orientation, etc by first doing your best to understand, then put that down on the page.

  12. Mel in Georgia Avatar
    Mel in Georgia

    Good writers are very empathetic, keen observers, good listeners, and have far-reaching imaginations. And even those very different from us have common experiences. Those traits and habits and experiences allow writers to be able to create believable characters, no matter how far they are from their defining identities. When in doubt, you can always check with the type of person you’re writing about to see if it sounds authentic.

    I remember reading Stephen King’s “The Stand” long ago and being struck by a particular scene. It was (don’t laugh) when a woman was lying naked on a bed looking up at herself on the mirrored ceiling. She was thinking to herself how much better her boobs looked while lying flat on her back. It was so specific, and so true, I wondered how Mr. King came up with that. Did a woman say something like that to him? Did he himself notice this? Or did he just put himself into the scene and imagine what he would see and how a woman might react to it? Doesn’t matter, I guess. Stephen King just writes women very well.

    BTW, I, too have had the thought that being an atheist is similar to being gay in so many ways. You can say that being an atheist is more of a choice, but how can you “just believe” when you really just can’t? So yes, you could totally use those feelings to imagine what being gay is like.

    I absolutely agree with this: “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.” Looking forward to meeting her.

  13. I’m not sure I understand the distinction: “A white man can write about a black woman, but he can’t write about the black experience.” Isn’t writing about a black woman relating the black experience through her eyes? Don’t we write all our main characters from some position of “authority”? Isn’t the “black experience” (or white, or brown, or poor, or rich) a collection of individual experiences? I worry that when we start telling people what we can’t and can write about, we start eliminating or encroaching on the freedoms of imagination or art, and once that goes, what’s left? I mean, is it even possible to get something “wrong” creatively when there are so many individual experiences out there that are unlike each other?

  14. Relatability. That to me, is what it boils down to. We can all relate to not fitting in, to insecurities, to troubles in life. Doesn’t matter who you are, embarrassment is relatable. Being scared is relatable. Someone once asked me about writing a character who was trans I believe. Whether they should or not (because they were). I told them yes. Because someone out there will relate to the experience.

    Experiences are relatable.

  15. Was wäre ein guter Schriftsteller, ohne die Fähigkeiten, Personen oder Situationen gut zu verkörpern! Das ist doch genau der Grund für die Anerkennung und den Sinn der Literatur! Stellt euch vor, der Lieblingsautor würde es nicht wagen! Dafür ist das Publikum zu neugierig und es ist für den Autor auch eine besondere Herausforderung, immer wieder zu unterhalten und die Leser in neue Welten zu entführen! Ich bin erstaunt, Hugh… Du sagst, du möchtest keine Frau sein…stell dir ein Leben ohne uns Frauen vor… Ich glaube, dann wären eure männlichen Beschwerden deutlich intensiver! An dieser Stelle darf gelacht werden! Und jetzt geht es ernst weiter… das Spannende an der Literatur ist ja, dass der Leser, den Charakteren, die du geschaffen hast, seine ganz eigene Farbe gibt! Es bestehen so grosse Unterschiede darin, in welcher Perspektive ein Satz oder eine Situation verstanden werden! Sicher erlebst du es jeden Tag im Alltag auch! Du sagst einen Satz, wie z. B. Das Wetter ist toll! Und sicher, werden dir 10 von 10 Menschen unterschiedliche Arten der Antworten / Perspektiven geben. Gerade als Autor ist es nicht leicht, immer die richtigen Worte zu finden! Ich stell mir deine Situation nicht immer leicht vor! Und ich mag es, wenn du dich in Frage stellst und dein Publikum um ihre Stimme bittest!

  16. Nelia Marrero Avatar

    Do you know that someone is pretending to be you and using your pictures.

    1. Not just “someone,” tons of people and organized gangs, mostly overseas. They’ve been doing it for ten years. I keep looking for ways to unplug the internet to stop them, but nothing has worked so far.

  17. The first ever fan mail I got, which I’ll never forget, was from a woman who told me she had Asperger Syndrome. She wanted me to know that it was a huge effort for her to write the e-mail but that she did so just to tell me how much she loved my book. Apparently, she really resonated with the main character. I read up on Asperger’s and realized that the way I wrote the character seemed to reflect the experience and struggles of someone with Asperger’s. I was completely unaware of this when I wrote. It’s a scifi story and the main character is a telepath. But something about his life, personality and mindset really resonated with that reader and it was for that specific reason. I didn’t set out to capture any general “experience” but I think it just goes to show that everyone’s individual experience is different and you never know who can connect with what you write and in what way. I’ve also received a lot of positive feedback on my female characters though, again, all I did was imagine their lives and mindsets in a way that made sense within the context of the story. I think we might stumble the most when we actually set out to represent a group rather than focus on depicting an individual in a way that feels honest and natural for the story. I think, in doing so, we might create avenues of empathy that we might never have been able to consciously construct.

  18. I’m gonna guess this is common to fiction. One of my novellas features the primary story told from the perspective of a black man who was the protagonist/hero. Like you said, I can’t speak ‘for’ black men, at all, but it wasn’t about his skin color (the story) it was about what happened to him and what he attempted to do about it. I’m pretty sure Stephen King had no concept of what Jon Coffey would have been like in the 1930’s, but anyone who read the story or watched the film felt that character’s power and innocence and it worked well.

  19. You can tell the story of any of your characters because that is what they are, YOUR characters. You created them. Of course, you will stick as close as you can to the experiences of people of similar circumstances. Those similarities are what give your writing authenticity. Your creativity shapes the character’s reaction to those circumstances. That creativity gives your writing life.

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