Writing Difference

“I think one of the greatest challenges for a male writer is to put himself in a woman’s point of view.”

Not verbatim, mind you, but the gist of a claim made by one student in a workshop I attended way back in undergrad. At the time–and really now–the statement struck me as laughable and I scoffed at it with my friends. What a ridiculous thing to say. Men write in women’s points of view all the time. Not to say they always get it right, but they certainly do it without much compunction.

It is something I think about with relative frequency in my own writing.* Am I writing authentically about this place or time? Is it fair for me to take on the consciousness of someone who lives in another country or is of another age or race or religion or sexual orientation or social class? Should I stick to what I know?

I mean, I really hope not, because that would make for incredibly boring fiction.

The reality is, of course, that I’m always writing some degree of difference, whether I’m conscious of it or not. My characters can and should come from every part of every spectrum. Because the goal isn’t to tell one kind of story–it’s to tell as many kinds as possible.

Which isn’t to say that writing difference can’t be highly problematic. Rather, it usually is. I’ve been in a lot of creative classes and there are always those stories that make you wince and write a lot of “maybe you should do some research” notes in the margins when you really want to write “please never ever write about this again.”

I say this, of course, as a white, young, able-bodied, American, ace woman who has had access to education and comfortable living for her whole life. My perspective on writing difference is primarily a perspective of privilege and majority. That imposes responsibilities on me, but I honestly don’t think they’re that distinct from the responsibilities imposed on every writer. They’re just . . . that much more important.

It means I should write with empathy. I should think about my characters complexly as human beings. I should think about why they want what they want. I should write from points of commonality, of universal humanity, instead of fetishizing, exaggerating, or focusing on difference. I should never write “one story.” I should never, ever stereotype. I should do my research and know what it’s like to live in a given place at a given time for a given community. I should ask questions. I should never presume to be an expert. I am not an expert.

And while I think it’s important to write from as many perspectives as possible and tell a diverse range of stories, I shouldn’t treat diversity as gimmicky or easy. Characters from invisible or marginalized groups shouldn’t be flat, supporting sidekicks present only for token representation. They, like everything else in good fiction, should come organically and they should be the heroes of their own stories.

Writing difference is difficult, as it should be, and it demands attention. But that doesn’t make it not worth doing and doing well.

How do you go about writing characters who are very different from you? 

*It’s a particularly fraught issue in speculative fiction–worth talking about in its own right.

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