(This post originally ran in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s WriteOn! quarterly magazine.)
Writers are big dreamers. Our imaginations are vast and we contain multitudes–people, lives, worlds that may be far outside our own direct experience, but that speak to and spark our creativity.
Through these imagined lives, many of us hope to reflect and refract the world we live in–to examine through the close lens of story the lives and experiences we see around us. Maybe, in the course of that, we dare to dream we might somehow enhance understanding or connection among people–to hold up a mirror that shows us we are, at the core, more alike than we are different.
We’re living in marvelous yet fraught times—awareness of disparities is increasing, yet so is polarization. Many authors fear a backlash if, despite the best intentions, they make a misstep in creating stories that lie outside their own direct experience, so they shy away from treading into what can often feel like a minefield. Others plunge in, eager to try to represent and maybe even help address problems like a lack of inclusivity and representation, yet may inadvertently cause offense.
Should you write characters and worlds outside your own direct lived experience, or “stay in your lane”? And if you do decide to venture a toe into these churning waters, what do you need to be aware of?
The answer to the first question is personal for each author, but my opinion–and that of nearly every single author and industry pro I’ve ever spoken to about this topic, is to write the stories and characters you want to write.
“I feel that the purpose of a writer is to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and to accurately depict it,” says Camille Di Maio, a bestselling multipublished author of historical fiction. Di Miao regularly writes characters who may not reflect her own experiences, but was recently advised to change the background of a character in a new story whose culture was different from her own. She elected not to. “I think the best writing is written without shackles.”
Barbara Claypole White, bestselling, award-winning author of book-club fiction, agrees: “I believe you write what is tugging at your heartstrings, what you want to write about, and you do the research. For me that means one-on-one interviews with people living the experiences I want to depict.”
But venturing into someone else’s turf can be scary. Sarah Bird, the bestselling, award-winning author of ten novels, struggled for decades with a story she’d unearthed while researching African-American rodeos—the real-life tale of Cathy Williams, the only female Buffalo Soldier and the first woman to enlist in the peacetime U.S. military. She desperately wanted to see Cathy’s story told, but strongly felt it wasn’t her story to tell—finally daring to write it (Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen) more than forty years later when she examined her reasons for waiting so long: “I had to ask myself, at the age of 65, why I wasn’t writing it, and it was because I was afraid of being criticized.”
Yet it’s equally important to know why you are writing these characters. In my most recent novel, A Little Bit of Grace (under my pen name, Phoebe Fox), a main secondary character has a very specific background far outside my own lived experience.
But I didn’t decide on that randomly. A fulcrum of the story is that the protagonist discovers a previously unknown relative who had been completely disavowed by their family. I needed something that could explain a family’s erasure of one of their own, and might shape someone in the ways my character had been shaped. I based her background partly on several people I knew who shared similar experiences. (I’m being a bit vague to avoid spoilers on a major plot point.)
“Some people are going to jump on this bandwagon because it’s popular, because it’s what getting bought—like, ‘#ownvoices is still popular, so I’ll write that,’” says author Tracee Garner, a bestselling, award-winning Black author with muscular dystrophy who writes both within her direct lived experiences and without. She exhorts authors to examine their intentions: “What is driving you—do you have characters—white, Black, or whatever—who you really want to tell their stories?”
Barbara Claypole White discovered what she calls her “great passion for creating characters who battle invisible disabilities” after her son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She wanted to learn about the condition in a fictionalized format because she thought it might be more accessible, not as scary as reading dry research books on the topic, but couldn’t find novels that featured characters like him, “not a single one.”
Bird finally tackled Williams’s story in 2015 because “Cathy Williams was really no better known at that point than she had been when I first learned about her at a Juneteenth rodeo in 1978. She had not been celebrated. All I knew was that I felt I had an obligation to Cathy, or Cathay as she is often called, to tell her story before I died.”
Di Miao felt that changing or deleting her character’s backstory wasn’t being true to the world of her story, the vision she’d had for it, and even her purpose in telling it: “I’m willing to go through extra hoops, but to be told I shouldn’t do it all seems like it’s betraying what writing is for in the first place.”
So what are those hoops–and how can writers know whether they’ve cleared them? The best approach is to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible to be accurate and respectful, and check yourself with input from people who share the experiences or background of the characters you’ve created.
This is more than just research–though that’s a key part of being accurate. Educating yourself as a storyteller means being cognizant of assumptions, stereotypes, generalizations, and narrow approaches that may unconsciously assume the perspective of only a certain group or worldview.
For instance, what is “flesh-toned” in a world where skin color is actually a broad spectrum of shades? What is a “universal” character experience or background when individual realities can be so drastically different? When you describe something as “normal” or “traditional,” whose norms and traditions are you referring to?
What unconscious assumptions might you be making, or stereotypes might be you be inadvertently perpetuating? I used to use Me Before You in craft presentations to authors as a great example of creating high stakes and a crucible–until the mother of a child with disabilities shared with me that the central plot device of that story, about a woman who falls in love with a man with quadriplegia who has determined to kill himself, suggests to some people that it’s better to be dead than to live with disabilities.
Learn “hot-button” phrases and terms that categorize, fetishize, or diminish human diversity: for instance, many find it offensive to read descriptions of people of varying cultural or ethnic backgrounds with food terms (like skin color or eye shape).
Watch for labeling people according to their situation: a diabetic (rather than “a person with diabetes”), an addict, the disabled, etc. Be cognizant of gender-biased language: “the best man for the job” or “chairman of the board.”
Be mindful of incendiary or insensitive terms or slurs, like “crippled” or “insane”; or outdated ones like “Oriental” or “Eskimo” or “Gypsy.” Research more accurate and less pejorative ways of referring to the people you’re referencing.
Steer clear of generalizations as much as possible—how much more interesting, in any case, to present complex and nuanced characters in fascinating shades of gray rather than flat, unidimensional, black-and-white representations like “liberal snowflake” or “Bible thumper” or “radical feminist,” etc.
Dialogue is a place to be especially mindful and respectful, as books that handle it poorly—such as the cringeworthy dialects of Gone with the Wind—make abundantly clear. It’s easy for dialect to descend into parody or mockery–even inadvertently.
When author Laila Ibrahim was researching her smash bestseller Yellow Crocus and her series of follow-up books that follow a white family and a Black family whose lives intertwine across generations, she did extensive dialogue research to accurately and respectfully capture the rhythms and phrasings of people in the times and situations she was writing about.
“Dialect is not random—it’s a language with rules,” says Ibrahim. She read firsthand slave narratives, researched dialects used by both owning classes and enslaved people of the times, and even accessed a WPA database of recorded interviews with people who had been enslaved.
You probably won’t catch every single element of your stories that could potentially be problematic—so many of these ways of thinking are deeply ingrained in many of us and take time to root out and unlearn, and our society and vernacular are evolving fast. But as an author your responsibility is to educate yourself as well as you can—and then seek outside input when you reach the limits of your knowledge.
Industry-wide efforts to increase inclusivity have resulted in publishing houses frequently hiring people who have direct experience with various elements that may appear in authors’ stories who can assess their verisimilitude and whether these elements are handled authentically and with sensitivity—hence the name “sensitivity readers”—and point out any potential stereotypes or offensive language or characterizations.
While there are many professionals you can hire for this service, it can also be helpful to solicit input from people you know who may share a background or direct experience with your characters.
Camille Di Maio, for instance, asked a longtime friend with the same cultural background as the character she’d written about to read her manuscript and point out any areas where she might have fallen short or misspoken. When Laila Ibrahim wrote about evangelical Christians in her book Living Right, she asked people she knew who shared that faith to read and weigh in. In my book A Little Bit of Grace, one of the people I’d interviewed extensively to create my character with that specific background was kind enough to also read it and point out anything I’d gotten wrong or missed—and my publisher also asked another in-house editor with a similar experience to read it.
“There has been an imbalance, and a necessary correction is now taking place,” says Sarah Bird, acknowledging that writing inclusively can still be scary terrain for authors to tread, or even to discuss. When her Cathy Williams book was released, she was “extremely nervous” about how it might be received by reviewers and readers. “It’s almost hard to talk about this without sounding like Strom Thurmond.”
But Barbara Claypole White advises authors not to focus on those fears. “You can’t worry about [how the story will be received]. You can’t, or else you’d be too afraid to write anything. Do the work, be as authentic as possible, and follow the characters.”
“You have to write whatever you want,” Tracee Garner agrees. “You have to.”
Stories—like imagination, like creativity itself—can’t thrive under limitations and boundaries. They’re bigger than the confines of even their own authors.
“Writers are not always the most interesting people,” Camille Di Maio reflects wryly. “If we limit writers to only writing their own experience, we’re going to have a lot of boring books.”