I long ago discarded that old tried and true truism of writing – “write what you know.” While I get the sentiment behind it – you can best convey ideas, characters, and places with which you are already conversant – I also find it also intensely limiting, especially as a writer of sci fi and fantasy fiction.
One of the ways I set out to break this idea down is by writing characters who are not at all like me.
In “The Shoreless Sea,” my trilogy ender coming out in October, that has put me far out on three different limbs at once.
Firsy I have a deaf character, so I have had to take great care to a) portray them responsibly, b) realize when I am violating the character by writing about things they couldn’t perceive, such as certain sounds (or conversely, when I forget that a heavy sound might easily be “felt,” if not heard. And c) I have to make it clear to my readers when the character is communicating by voice, by sign language, by paper, and mind to mind (this is sci fi, after all).
I also have a non-binary character in this story. My brain has been wired by society from birth to think of gender as binary – male/female. So although Destiny is enby, my brain continues to substitute female pronouns for Destiny’s chosen se and ser. I’ve also had to try to get into ser head, and to see the world as se would see it, all the time not making a big deal about ser enby status. It’s a lot to keep track of for my old writer brain.
As if that weren’t enough of a challenge on my cis white gay male writer’s plate, I also have two black characters in the story. I am trying to be clear about their race identity upfront, using color adjectives one of my African American friends recommended. But even here, it’s easy to go overboard, calling out skin color in the name of diversity for black characters, but neglecting to do so when the characters are white.
So yeah, it can be difficult.
I had beta readers for my deaf and enby characters, though I have not had one specifically for the black characters in the story. In both cases, my betas helped me avoid doing injustices to the character and their community.
When we go beyond our comfort zone to write characters who are very different from ourselves, we’re gonna make some mistakes. I don’t think I’ve made any egregious ones, but I have been caught in a few. My editor flagged some in this story, in fact.
It’s okay to make mistakes. We all do it.
But when someone calls me on it, I’ve found the best way to respond is to accept what they have to tell me, and to act accordingly. Things that may seem perfectly fine to me for my enby character may be upsetting or triggering for someone who is actually non-binary.
I look at it this way. I’m a gay man. When I tell you something is offensive to me, I hope you will believe me. And don’t I owe you the same courtesy?
To my writer friends – do you challenge yourself to write folks who are radically different from you? And if so, how do you get it “right”?