Last month I blogged on why I choose to include diverse characters in my stories. Today I’d like to touch on how to do that.
How can you create characters who aren’t your own race, gender, culture or sexuality without falling into stereotypes?
I posed a similar question to one of my first professors at my master’s program. Jacqueline Woodson is known for her amazing characters and has reached across many boundaries to create them. I asked Jackie how I could produce characters like her (many of whom are African American). I’ve never forgotten Jackie’s answer. She returned my question with one of her own.
“How many black friends do you have?”
We laughed. “Not many,” I replied. Then I realized I did have other friends, Arab, Latino, Peruvian and from many other places and cultures.
The answer seemed so simple, yet at the same time, it’s complicated, isn’t it? If you want to write characters who are different from you, start with your own life. Who are you spending time with? Are your friends people just like you, raised in the same place, from the same ethnic group, with the same values? Or do you have friends who spoke a different language growing up, or grew up in a large city as opposed to a small town. Maybe your friends hold different political views. Those are the types of relationships that will help you begin to understand how to write from other people’s viewpoints.
This weekend I attended a literary festival where Jacqueline Woodson spoke about the themes that drive her work. The overarching themes in her books from the picture book Each Kindness to the young adult story If You Come Softly, focus on peace which comes through empathy for others, their lives and their experiences.
Empathy is a powerful word. When we create characters unlike ourselves, we’re imagining what it would be like to live someone else’s life. That’s something many of us probably don’t practice enough, but if you’re a writer wanting to challenge yourself by writing diversely, practicing empathy is key.
Of course, there are other actions you can and should take to create real, fully formed characters. Research has never been easier. You don’t have to imagine what the scenery looks like in Tibet. Google Earth will show you. Familiarity with the culture or people you’re representing is important, too. Can you find ways to spend time immersed in that culture? Can you use the connections you have with friends to help broaden your circle so the characters you create don’t become unhelpful stereotypes?
Finally, if you’re a writer representing characters from cultures or races not your own, ask friends of that race or culture to vet the book for you. No matter how hard you try, you’ll still stumble into some stereotypes, misuse the language, or misrepresent the culture. Utilizing your friends from these communities will challenge those misperceptions and strengthen your work and your characters.
Creating diverse characters can be scary at first, but it’s worth the effort to challenge yourself to work outside your own experiences. The kids we write for deserve to see a spectrum of characters as diverse as the world we live in.
“Boy Reading” and “Diversity” courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
“Read, Write, Live” by Natalie Mourton