Minerva Zimmerman is the author of the novella The Place Between in Cobalt City: Double Feature from Timid Pirate Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions and the upcoming Beast Within 3: Oceans Unleashed.
I feel uncomfortable about being asked to write this article, that somehow by writing characters with experiences unlike my own, I’ve become an expert. I’m not. I don’t have secret knowledge or claim that writing characters with other experiences makes me qualified to talk about what it’s like to live those experiences. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m the wrong place to look. There are plenty of places online where you can find first hand accounts (and even video accounts) of what particular personal experiences are like. It’s simply deeply, and personally important to me that my writing reflects the range of people within my own life and experiences. Important enough that I’m willing to face the fear of failing at it.
Writing people different from myself starts with knowing myself. I have to know how my experiences have shaped me and how I see the world. It’s not always a comfortable experience to put myself under the microscope, nor should it be, but without that personal knowledge I can’t construct the onion petals of experience that make up my characters.
My job as a writer is to make sure I reasonably know as much as I can about what my characters experiences have been. I need to make what they say, do, and think within the story, match those past experiences. I like to think I’m pretty good at it, but I have my hits and misses. I fail. I hurt people with what I write, the same way I hurt my friends and family with the occasional thoughtless comment. I accept this and strive to not repeat my missteps. I also try to keep the fear of failure from preventing me from trying.
For a character to have a story arc, they must be a different person at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. Likewise, if I am the exact same writer at the end of writing a story, why did I bother writing it? I start each story relatively ignorant of the characters and world contained within it. I must use the tools at my disposal to make myself less ignorant to tell their stories. I’d guess that 98% of the research I do never ends up on the page. 100% of it makes me less ignorant and better able to tell the story. It doesn’t matter if I’m researching 18th century surgeons or how to do straw curls, it’s all information I need to understand the experiences of the character I’m trying to write.
There are labels that other people could reasonably use to accurately describe me: Female, Married, Middle-Aged, Educated, Nerd, Writer. None of them are a summation of me. I accept and reject various components of each. I don’t feel comfortable labeling myself as any of them. Why would I purposefully write a character who could be neatly summed up by one or even a string of labels? They can be a good starting point, but you have to dive deeper. What things do they accept about how others describe them? What things do they reject? How do they feel about these labels? What if any labels would they use? If you start with the macro, you have to keep asking questions until you know the micro.
In my characters there’s always some personal detail or quirk that comes from myself. Sometimes I find it easiest to start at the thing I have in common with my character and then discover what’s different and how those differences cascade out to create an experience unlike my own. Maybe I decide the character is the same age, but grew up in a very different place. How much of my identity is wrapped up in experiences based on where I’ve lived? What are those same aspects of my character’s identity and how have they shaped them? How do each of those experiences change other aspects of the character’s experiences?
Any character you write is going to have things beyond your experience. I remember reading an interview (that I’ve sadly been unable to track down so I’m paraphrasing) with Patrick Stewart about his role in the movie Jeffrey and the interviewer asked how Stewart, as a heterosexual man, was able to play a gay interior decorator. Stewart replied he’d never been a starship captain either.
Just because there are no starship captains to tell me I’m wrong, doesn’t mean I can’t screw it up. It may feel weighted differently, but if I’m being true to my characters I should approach writing them the same way.