How well do you know your characters?

An author of fiction must inhabit the world of their characters convincingly. But how far may they travel from their own experience to do so?

Clearly, authors of fantasy and science fiction have the most leeway. Nobody can know what it’s really like to be an imaginary creature, an alien or someone/something from the future. Authors of historical novels must make an imaginative leap fuelled by as much accurate research as possible. But how about those of us writing contemporary fiction? Can men write as women, gay people as heterosexuals, white people as Asians or Africans, the British as Poles or able bodied writers as those with a disability? Can Ian McKewan write as an unborn child? (Of course that is an experience we’ve all had, and it seems from the reviews  that he can.)

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A fellow author recently posted in an online forum that she had been taken to task in an Amazon review thus: “You are unbelievable as an adolescent black girl from the South“. It’s one of only 2 poor reviews out of 66 excellent ones for a prize winning book that involved many years of research, but it concerned her. It’s clear from her Amazon page and other reviews that she had thought deeply about her right to tell the story, but the reviewer’s complaint worried me too, as I’m currently writing my second novel set in East London (UK). It would hardly reflect the location if I didn’t include many different ethnicities, so I have to speak in their voices. Previously, in The Infinity Pool, I didn’t find the voice of a young girl from a rural Mediterranean community a problem and no one (yet) has suggested I’ve got it wrong. But are a Punjabi grandmother who grew up in India, a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Somali single mother who came to the UK as a toddler steps too far for this middle class, solvent white woman? Having taught in multicultural schools for 33 years, I thought I knew their user groups well, but now I’m stepping inside their homes and their heads, and there is a scary amount of scope for accidentally giving offence, misrepresenting or simply promulgating stereotypes. At times I think I’ll give up, but I have my story, and my teaching experience, and I don’t want to waste either of them.

In one area I looked at, I found at least two YA authors who’d overcome my reservations. Here’s a 51ch1bjotslmale author in the voice of a Somali girl who is about to be cut, and a white female author in the voice of one who manages to avoid it. Do they sound authentic? It would take a Somali woman to tell you, but the stories were vivid, compelling and exciting. Cutting is not a major theme in my novel, but in the course of checking assumptions about my own Somali character, I did background research and found UNICEF reports showing the almost universal prevalence of FGM in Somalia has only dropped by 2% in recent years despite all the efforts to oppose it. (In other countries campaigns have been more successful, as they have among Somali families in the UK.) I asked one such campaigner whether white western authors should attempt to speak in the voice of somebody whose experience is so far removed from their own. Her reply was that given the lack of success on the ground her colleagues now look to writing and journalism to change hearts and minds. Fiction may put the case where other means have failed. But of course, the fiction must be well written, well researched (and available, but that’s another story).51mrzlcrrml-_sy346_

So why have doubts? Let’s consider these scenarios: men writing as women and vice versa; parents writing as childless adults and the other way round; adults writing as or for children; social drinkers writing as alcoholics, healthy people as invalids; vegetarians writing as meat eaters; humans (well obviously) writing as animals? Some of these sound ridiculous: of course writers should tackle such challenges. If we only write about ourselves, there would be even more navel gazing white dinner party novels than the indigestible number there already are. But may I, a solvent, educated white middle class woman write in the voice of a refugee on an overloaded boat somewhere off the coast of Greece? May I write in the voice of a prisoner despite a parking ticket being my biggest ever brush with authority, or in the voice of a doctor even though I failed chemistry O level? I think I’ve decided yes, if I write convincingly, do my research, avoid stereotypes and above all if those people are necessary to my story. (Although they could also be bystanders, mentioned just to acknowledge they exist, so the default model for fictional characters isn’t white, middle class, able bodied, hetero…) There, problem solved. I’ll get on with it.

But then I read The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME writers in the UK, recently featured on BBC Radio 4. This is timely, entertaining, angry and should be compulsory reading for…everyone. Do you get stopped at airports? Searched when waiting at a bus stop? Have you had a headscarf ripped from your head as you go to buy a sandwich? Won all the school prizes, graduated with first class honours, and still not been shortlisted for a job unless you change your name? Do you never see yourself reflected on a screen or in a book, or if you are, only as a stereotype (minicab driver, terrorist, arranged bride)? You probably know actors no longer “black up” to play Othello nowadays, but did you know “yellowface” is still in common use? These writers are angry with reason. They want to be portrayed in all kinds of media, but they don’t want to be portrayed as stereotypes (I must take very good care) or with tokenism (I mustn’t use “namaste” as a shortcut to showing how well I understand people of Indian ethnic origin). Above all they want to be portrayed as everyday characters whose ethnicity is incidental and who do not have to win Olympic gold medals or have their skins lit like Beyoncé’s to be an acceptable part of UK society.

61twx2rf9vlI saw what they meant about stereotypes and authenticity when I looked at the time scale for my novel. A digression will illustrate the point. I do not follow any religion (an idea the children I taught almost unanimously found appalling). But my family celebrate Christmas, in that we eat special food and drink a lot, buy presents, spend £35+ on a pot plant that we throw away two weeks later, and give more money to charity than at other times of year. Now imagine a novel with my family in it, set in December, that didn’t mention Christmas. Or imagine one that does, but gets fundamentals slightly wrong: Midnight Mass on Boxing Day, for example, or Father Christmas driving a sleigh pulled by ponies. These are the pitfalls I face if I write about “other” cultures – which I have been conditioned to think of as “other” even when I mean third, fourth generation “immigrants” who speak English better than I do. Mistakes that wouldn’t be noticed by some readers could well be offensive to others, and add to the pile of examples of “host country” ignorance. For that reason I’ve moved my six week long story to a year when it doesn’t fall during either the important Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha or the important Hindu festival of Diwali (and yes, I do know Eid moves around the year). That way it makes sense that I barely mention them AND I avoid the pitfalls of getting details wrong. Of course, much other daily background detail remains and must be researched and referred to, both in the sense that it’s the same as for the majority community and for where it differs. But what do I mean, majority community? The parents of over 90% of children I taught in East London ticked a box other than White UK on their entry forms, and among that 90% around 25 different languages were spoken. There was no clear majority.

What if I get something as fundamental as names wrong? Somali women do not take their husband’s surnames (although now, in the UK, some do). Bhangra is not the only music Sikhs enjoy (and maybe some Sikhs don’t). Hong Kong has rural areas as well as the twinkling skyscrapers we all associate with it. Is Gulab Jamun a Bengali sweet or a Gujarati one? (Perhaps it’s both.) And the grandmother – what will her grandchildren call her?

Will every moment of every day be informed for my characters by their ethnicity? Here’s Bim Adewunmi In The Good Immigrant: “Here’s what black people do: we breathe air, we drink water and we fart noxious gasses, just like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things – and that includes all the frivolous things too.” On the other hand will it not be? Himesh Patel writes: “In discovering so much about how my family arrived here in the UK, I discovered how rich their story is with the culture and traditions of their homeland, but at its core it’s a universal story about love and life.” In the shoes of my characters, would I be in fear of racism, or hate and despise it, or fight back against it, or not actually experience it much? globe-1There is one way I can respond. It’s true I’ve never experienced racism, but, having lived and travelled abroad, I have come across xenophobia – not so serious, but it may give an inkling. And there’s a better parallel. I am female, so I do know what it’s like to walk into a public social place and not see anyone else like me there (less so nowadays but that used to be true of all pubs and bars, and it was very intimidating). I do know how it feels to walk down a dark street and hear footsteps behind and think they may be those of an attacker. I have been on the receiving end of hatred and aggression, derision and disgust, purely because of the body I was born with.

And so I’m going to take the plunge, and write my Somali single mum, my Punjabi grandmother and my father born in Hong Kong. They will, after all, only be characters in fiction. They will not represent the entirety of their culture, any more than I represent the entirety of mine. The story is about family relationships and relationships with the school the children go to, before it’s about ethnicity. It’s just that – hooray! – I can’t write a London based story nowadays, with an all white cast, or even with a white majority. (I wonder what Dickens would have made of it?) I’ll give Himesh Patel the last word: “My heritage, while inherently linked to my ethnicity, only makes up part of the role I play in society – day to day I’m just another face in the multicultural population of twenty-first century Britain.”

©Jessica Norrie 2016

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21 thoughts on “How well do you know your characters?

  1. Quite a tricky one, I’ve thought the same thing when trying to write music from the perspective of characters from another culture, I generally think it’s been well-received, but then again, I do play in folk clubs where the majority of the audience are from the same background as me and you. This is something that is being talked about a lot in pop culture at the moment. I know there is a film due to come out called “Ghost in a shell” that is originally a Japanese manga, but they’ve just cast Scarlett Johansson to play the lead, and they’re using make-up to try and make her look Japanese, despite the fact there are thousands of Japanese Actresses to choose from. I think something like that is much more likely to cause offence as it is one person who’s role is specifically to portray one character, as opposed to a writer trying to portray a diverse range of characters, and I think you make a valid point that there are too many dull dinner party books about posh white people around. I think the most important thing is that it is well researched. There is a similar issue being discussed in the music at the moment with a lot of Hip-hop artists from middle-class backgrounds putting on fake accents and glorifying the stereotypes of gang violence of which they’ve never actually been involved, and use it as a tool to make money. I think it’s really good that you’re actually talking about it as a lot of writers don’t. (also I just wanna be a bit smug and say I passed my GCSE Chemistry :P)

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  2. I’ve never written a book in my life. And I never will now ! But I don’t know anybody more qualified to do so and more thoughtful about the issues that may be raised for the author than yourself. So I agree with the first poster above, and would also say to you that if you do get the odd comment about inauthenticity or whatever you can point to this article and say you did the best anybody could have to think the issue through before putting pen to paper.

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  3. Jessica, with all the thought you’ve given to this topic, you are the ideal person to write such a story. And still, someone may take you to task in a review. But isn’t that a risk all authors take? If, as you say, you write convincingly, do your research, and avoid stereotypes, you will be giving a voice to those who otherwise might not have one. And that is to be commended …

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  4. This is a great post. No doubt, an issue that all writers struggle with. I write poetry, and sometimes I place myself in the minds of characters outside of myself. I treat each character as an individual, but I always worry about getting it right. It’s worked out fairly well so far, but I continue to cross my fingers each and every time.

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      1. You may be right there, I’ve never tried placing my characters in a story, so I have no basis for comparison. Either way, you’ve given me something to think about. 🙂

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  5. What a thoughtful essay about writing. When we write as someone we are not, and do it well, it can move mountains. Think of Harriette Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I did not realize how much research we need to do as authors until I wrote a non-fiction book about the small town where I live in Central California. Until I started researching I did not know what I didn’t know. The more I wrote, the more questions I had.The same is true of fiction. You brought up some salient points about accidentally insulting a culture we think we know.

    I taught a bilingual class for several years. I loved my kids, got close to them, and thought I knew them. I worked for Migrant Education for five years with primarily Hispanic children and parents. Years later, I traveled with a close friend and Hispanic colleague of several years. She had invited me to a Museum of Tolerence workshop with other bilingual education leaders. She told me my views represented middle, midwestern American. Period. I was so insulted. I was who she said, a white girl from Indiana, smack dab in the middle of the US. Midwest. I thought I blended into the Hispanic culture well because I liked them.

    She said I had no idea what it was like to be prejudiced against.

    Your words echoed my thoughts that day. “Yes, I do. I’ve had hard times. I’ve had people not like me because of how I look.” I saw myself as a chameleon, I guess. That is soooooo white. But, she was right, and I was wrong, and I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

    Thanks for sharing your views. Good luck writing from different perspectives. It is HARD work! 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your long, thoughtful reply and that anecdote which shows great humility! And it is so true that you don’t know what you don’t know. However I suppose the alternative is not to write at all or take refuge in the safety of fantasy, and that’s just not me somehow. So it’s back to the research…

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  6. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    This week Jessica Norrie poses a number of questions revolving around our abilities to write authentically about our characters who might be from a different culture, religion, gender etc. As Jessica points out fantasy writers have the freedom to create a character from the ground up, but in contemporary and historical fiction it can require more than stringent research. We all draw on our own experiences with others.. and our perceptions but what else can we do to achieve that authenticity. The one thing I do know is that whatever our colour,gender, belief system we are fundamentally all human and that commonality brings with it the recognition of love, fear, hatred, pain and sorrow..So whilst we may not have experienced all the challenges that someone from a different culture might have done we as writers are creative enough to step into their shoes and imagine and empathise. Head over and read Jessica’s post for yourself and please leave your opinions in the comments over there so Jessica can respond.. thanks Sally

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