This week’s guest poster is the lovely author Nathalie Andrews who discusses that prickly topic of “write what you know.” Please note this is a 2 part article so check back tomorrow for the second half 🙂 Enjoy!
“Write What You Know” (part 1)
By Nathalie Andrews
We’ve all heard the advice. If we’ve experienced something the chances are we will have a clearer understanding of it and, in turn, that means we’ll be better able to write about it. Right?
But what if you want to write about something completely different – a character from another time, another culture, a fantastical world? There are two things to think about: how could you write them well? And should you write them at all?
If I wrote only what I knew, I would write about a fairly well brought up white girl. I’ve never travelled back in time, never taken part in great battles. Heck, I’ve never even been a man. All of which is problematic since I chose to set my novels in Edo Period Japan, looking mainly at the lives of (male) samurai.
A greater issue, and one I’ve wrestled with from the beginning, is that I am writing about a living, breathing culture, albeit one that existed 150 years ago. It is a culture that forms the basis of and is still a very real part of the identity of the modern Japanese. It’s an identity that I have neither the right nor the desire to ‘appropriate,’ for want of a better word.
In this piece, I’m going to set out an argument for how and why you, as a writer, should not shy away from writing characters who are different from you. But I’m also going to explain why it’s not ever simple. And I’m going to do this by examining the kind of advice you will frequently hear as a writer starting down this route.
“Don’t write something you know nothing about.”
There is, of course, some obvious truth to this statement. If you have no knowledge of another culture, or equally, have never met anyone with a specific sexuality that you want to portray, then it will be difficult for you to portray a realistic character.
Difficult is not impossible. You can, after all, learn. You can talk to people. You can read books by other authors – though it is also worth looking to see how well their characters were received. You can read books on culture and history and society.
Everyone starts somewhere. And we can help each other. Writers by asking questions and others by answering them.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in, before people encounter the truth of sexuality, a culture, or ethnicity, they will probably encounter stereotypes.
If they are writers, with a genuine and keen interest in writing a decent character, sometimes we need to educate rather than mock someone for at first writing a stereotype. (We can mock them if they publish).
But hostility and ‘closing ourselves off’ will do nothing to improve understanding and empathy between communities.
Equally, writers, if you are approaching a group who have faced discrimination, understand the risk you are taking and be prepared for hostility.
You don’t know how many times people have faced the same damn stereotype, how much it has impacted on their lives, and just how tired they are of seeing it.
In understanding both sides of the divide, we better comprehend and respond to one another’s reactions and give each other room to learn.
“I’m writing a fantasy world, so I don’t have to worry about minority representations.”
Just because the world you are writing isn’t real, it doesn’t mean that it becomes unproblematic.
If you are creating races in a fantasy world, one thing to check is that they do not match the stereotype of a race in the real world. This is harder than you think.
Are your veil-clad desert clans definitely not playing to Arabic stereotypes? Is your cold yet exotic warrior in any way comparable to an orientalist fantasy? This stuff can creep in, even if you don’t intend it, so awareness is everything.
Not to mention that you probably still have genders to worry about.
“It shouldn’t matter if someone is black or white, male or female. People are people.”
Yes and no. People are people, and in every race, historical period, culture, gender and sexuality, people are simply trying to get along, survive and be happy. Because of that, many dramas that make the stuff of good stories will affect people similarly, regardless of their background.
However, it is naïve to think that these identities don’t (or even worse, shouldn’t) have an impact on people’s lives.
I’m a woman. Let us imagine for a moment that my brain is identical to a man’s (I know, there are lots of theories about this, but let’s imagine that’s the case). Am I therefore entirely interchangeable with a man?
No, because I have been raised as a woman. I have had different pressures put upon me, different expectations given me from different quarters. Even if I were identical in every way, I would still have been pushed and pulled in different directions and would have lived a different life.
As a writer, it helps to view culture and identity, not as a great unknown, but as a set of pressures applied to an individual. These may be pressures to behave in a certain way or to have certain beliefs.
They become ingrained and form your character’s motivations. Even then, a character is at liberty to decide whether they wish to embrace those pressures, or whether they wish to fight against them. In some cases, the pressures may be so deeply ingrained that a character is unaware they exist.
So, you see, you are not writing the unknown. You are simply writing what you know, but facing a different set of pressures and expectations.
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Thanks to Nathalie for her article and remember this is a 2 parter so do pop back tomorrow when the 2nd part will be up. 🙂
If you enjoyed this please drop a comment or a question for Nathalie.
NB: Picture supplied by guest poster