Book characters are amazing things. They drive the story and they invite the reader to journey with them. As readers they can become friends. As writers, they can be anything we want to be, however they are often, in part at least, a reflection of ourselves. But what if you want to write a character who differs from you in a significant way? What if the character you’re writing doesn’t share your gender, race, religion, sexual preference and/or nationality? In this case, I believe there’s some extra considerations you should make.
The image above shows the hierarchy of characters. Because the protagonist is the most significant character and the one you need to know the most about when writing you’re characters, that’s the character I’ll be focussing on here.
When we say something’s authentic we mean it’s the real thing or as close to it as you can get without it being the real thing (my husband once told me that the lamb curry I made was too authentic – is that a compliment?). As writers, we strive to create authentic characters living authentic lives and to do that we need to understand our protagonist and his/her life as well as we understand our own.
This can be trickier when our protagonist is significantly different to us. I’m a white, heterosexual, woman (I know, I know. I’ve got it made.). Understandably, it’s going to be more difficult for me to write an authentic black, homosexual, male character than a white, heterosexual, female character. While there are experiences all people share (love, loss, fear for example) our race, culture and sexuality alters our perceptions of them and how we express those perceptions. That’s not to say you can’t write an authentic character who differs to you, my protagonist for All My Father’s Secrets is a boy, but you may need to do more work to ensure they ring true for your reader.
I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s. For a while in the 90’s there was an influx of sitcoms that featured sassy, black, women. They were there to tell the main character “how-it-was” and they said “mmm-hmm” a lot. These women were always strong, no-nonsense and independent – on the face of it, a positive image. Also a stereotypical and two-dimensional image.
Don’t be lead astray by stereotypes or media-images of a group of people. If you don’t know enough about the life and culture of the protagonist you want to write, think twice about writing them. And if you’re writing your protagonist as being a member of a certain race/culture/sexuality etc. so that you can shine a light on the failings of those people, take heed, you are asking to get decked.
Just because you can write a story, doesn’t mean you should. Some stories are not yours to tell. No writer has the right to appropriate the stories and experiences of another group of people. I would tread very carefully with anything that is culturally or historically sensitive. I, personally and as an Anglo-Australian, wouldn’t write a protagonist who is Aboriginal and experiencing displacement due to the colonisation of their country. Not only would it be insensitive to the reality of Australian and Indigenous history, it’s not my story to tell. There are Indigenous-Australian authors who are far more qualified and capable of telling that story, the story of their people and their ancestors. That’s not to say I couldn’t write the story from the perspective of a white settler in Australia, even one who is sympathetic to the Indigenous people, but I would be appropriating someone else’s story if I did it from another perspective.
There is no rule that says you should limit yourself to protagonists that share your gender, colour and culture. But you should be careful that you can do the character, your story and the real people who may see themselves in that character, justice.