As a writer, it’s important to stretch yourself—to write about things (and people) who are unfamiliar to you.
It’s one thing to create a race of aliens that has nothing to do with the human race—then you can pretty much go hog wild with however you want to portray them (unless you unwittingly tap into some negative human stereotypes Jar Jar Binks, I’m looking at you).
But what about when you’re writing about an existing human culture?
I’m a gay man. I can write gay characters pretty much with impunity, because they’re not just what I know, but what I am.
I’m also a white cisgender American, and feel pretty comfortable writing those kinds of characters.
But how about writing a woman? I’ve lived my entire life around them – mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins, friends, TV and film characters… while I am not a woman, I think I’m on fairly stable ground with female characters.
But what if I write about a lesbian? Sure, we have the same sex orientation thing in common, but there are a lot of differences, including how we experience the world.
Moving farther away from my own experience, what about someone who is bisexual? Who is Black? A Korean character, or someone who is transgender or gender fluid or non-binary?
As writers, we can imagine all of these things, and we’re free to commit those imaginings to paper. It’s kind of what we do.
But we also have to realize that these imaginings are ultimately based on real people and real cultures, and that when we write about them blindly, we do so at our peril.
This is where sensitivity readers come in. A sensitivity reader is typically someone who shares important characteristics with a character (or characters) in your story that you may not feel fully comfortable (or qualified) writing. In a nutshell, their task is to vet your story for any pitfalls that you can’t see yourself.
I’ve used sensitivity readers a number of times, for trans characters, a deaf character, someone who was non-binary, and even a character with OCD. Each time they have helped me identify issues with my writing which would have been offensive to the community I was portraying, saving me heartache and grief and allowing my readers to enjoy the stories without having to deal with my ignorance.
But the hardest one was for a novella that was explicitly about race.
It was set on another planet, in another culture, so I thought I was home free in my portrayal of the Black characters in the story. But just to be safe, I asked a friend who is also an editor and a sensitivity reader to look it over it for me.
When she said we needed to talk, my heart just about stopped.
We had a long, face-to-face discussion about the story, going from point to point. I won’t bore you with the details. Essentially, my characters were acting in ways that just felt wrong to her, based on her own lived experience as a Black woman.
I tried the “but it’s another world” defense, but she had a simple reply that made a lot of sense in retrospect. Yes, my story may be set on another world, but it’s being read by people—including Black people—on our own world, shaded by all of their own experiences.
I sat back, took a deep breath, and got to work on what she’d said, and in the end, it’s a much better (and much stronger) story for it.
Sensitivity readers are not about strangling your work. They’re not about telling you what you can’t do. They’re more like lamp posts, illuminating a world we’d only seen dimly, and providing a clear path through for our stories.
If you were writing a story about race cars, you’d go to a race car expert to find out what you needed to know, right?
This is no different.
So write what you want. Really! Go out and explore the world and its cultures through your work.
But don’t be afraid to ask for a few lanterns along the way.