What “everyone knows”

(Pardon the late post, had condo stuff to do today that took hours longer than it was supposed to, and I thought “Oh, I’ll finish this when I get home”. *headdesk*)

This started as a comment on a friend’s blog, but when I started writing paragraphs, I realized I might as well make a full post about this. The initial question is how do you write about people of a different race, culture, religion, etc, without offending or having them be yet another stereotype. We all want more diversity represented, but there’s a fear that you won’t do it right, and get lambasted for it. You don’t want to offend, so it’s “safer” to keep your characters the same race/orientation/culture as you are. Write what you know, isn’t that what they always say?

But what if you want to do more than that? What if you want to write people outside of your own identity?

The short answer is, it’s not easy.

The long answer:
1. Figure out what your biases are, and discard what “Everyone knows”- If you can’t do this, you won’t even know you’re writing a stereotype to start with. Like, if you think all people in NYC, or worse, New York state, live like Sex in the City, then your characters are going to only imitate those characters, and anyone who’s lived in NY will see right through it. Same if you have a character who is gay, or trans, or disabled, or insert label here.

“Everyone knows” that group A does X… but people aren’t generalizations, and unless it’s a group that has 100% uniformity in all aspects, then it probably doesn’t apply to everyone. Everyone knows Jewish people don’t eat pig… Except there are so many schools of Jewish thought that you will find people who identify as Jewish while munching on a BLT (E and her parents, for example). People are more complex than the labels and common perception would have it. Conversely, if you’re going to have a character act in a way that is inconsistent with their background, give them a reason for it. Don’t just have that Jew bite into a BLT sandwich. Maybe the grandmother was Southern Baptist on her father’s side, and it’s the one pig-meat her father never could give up, and so she grew up thinking that bacon was an exception to the pig rule. But your character has to be careful when her Conservative uncle comes to visit, because he would freak out.

2. Research, from primary sources if you can- For modern times, this means talking to people who live that life. If you want to write a story about a disabled lesbian in NYC, then talk to one, or even better, several of them. Figure out how they view the world, and what sorts of experiences have led them to that. The best way to approach this is to say, “I have a character who is also a (subject). Mind if I ask some personal questions?”. I’m fortunate to have a crazily diverse group of friends who are used to my random questions, and I always preface it once they agree to the personal questions that I apologize in advance if I phrase anything offensively, and for them to correct me if I do. By openly admitting it’s for writing, and that I know I don’t know, I’ve found my friends are more willing to answer things nicely and as completely as they can. No one likes a blowhard know it all, but most people are willing to help people who go in with an open mind.

If you don’t know anyone who would be a good source, internet forums are amazing for this too. There are places like Ask Me Anything on both Redit and Livejournal, probably elsewhere as well, where you can find people if you don’t already know them. If it’s historical, though, the best thing is if you can find diaries or letters written by someone in that time period who fits your needs. You will have to extrapolate more, but that’s okay. Research everything you can, and if in doubt, check it in multiple places.

3. Be respectful and try your best- You will mess up. Short of becoming Scott Bakula and jumping into people’s lives, you don’t know, not really, how they view the world. If you can, talk the friends who do live that life into reading your novel, and making suggestions if needed to improve the depiction. Just keep an open mind, and try to write the character as a person, not a puppet or a stereotype.

Have you tried to write a character from a very different background than you? Any other tips?

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