Accept that you can’t please everyone when writing about a character of another gender, race, or religion. Avoid using the first image that comes to mind and steer way clear of stereotypes. Don’t take the easy way out. Challenge your own assumptions when creating characters even remotely different from yourself.
In other words, forget the blue scales and spaghetti noses.
Below, three novelists talk about their experiences writing “the other.” The questions were provided by Nisi Shawl, co-author with Cynthia Ward of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction.
Nisi Shawl: What is your best and worst experience writing a character of another race, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion or sex?
Writing police novels there are a number of characters from all walks of life. I usually try to base them on someone I know personally. My series about the ATF features a young agent whose parents were born in Uruguay and I have had many people tell me I captured the Latin concept of family. At the same time my worst experience was writing a Panamanian military officer who plans to commit an act of terror against the U.S. It is a fine line to write a character from another ethnic background in a negative light. It is now considered politically incorrect. You will always upset someone. But there is often no choice. Someone has to be the antagonist.
You cannot make everyone happy. I was once at a book festival where a woman approached me and said that I wrote the best female characters she had read by a male author. The very next woman who spoke to me, less than a minute later said that I had no idea how women thought. I couldn’t argue that point.
Ed Greenwood is a prolific Canadian writer, best known as a fantasy novelist and game designer.
My best experience in writing a character of another gender was a short story about a shy, withdrawn, rather awkward teenaged female. Several reviewers and dozens of readers were absolutely certain that the story must have been written (could only have been written) by a shy, withdrawn, rather awkward teenaged female – – so I deem that tale a success.
My worst was a project I backed out of, in which a television production company wanted several science fiction writers to each design an alien race for them, for characters to be used in an ongoing science fiction series. The problem was, they started shooting scenes, doing cheapie makeup jobs on actors to give them a different-hued skin and scales or floppy ears or weird spaghetti-tube noses, and they repeatedly changed “what the aliens looked like” without telling us writers (or showing us the rushes, which had to stay “top secret.”) And then castigated us for designing alien races that didn’t look, behave, or speak like the characters they’d filmed.
In the end, we all bailed, after the first few of writers were fired for this “incompetence.”
Tobias Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer.
As a mixed race, but white looking dude, who grew up in the Caribbean, raised somewhat British and somewhat Caribbean, but now living in the US, I’m usually playing off people who are pretty different than me every time I sit down to write, and that’s always a great experience.
My worst experiences always come from noticing little dominant culture assumptions that seep in anyway. I wrote a story set in Africa once, and it was set out in a dry, dusty, war-torn Africa featuring aid stations and jeeps with guns mounted on top. Places like that exist, but I realized later I reached for the first image a lot of people reach for, thus perpetuating it. I vowed that my next story set in Africa would be set somewhere like Lagos, that has skyscrapers and a financial district.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.