As a writer, I explore the human condition and human behavior. People fascinate me. As I create a character, I ask myself a lot of questions — in fact, I have a list of questions that I go through several times until I feel in my bones that I’ve gotten a character right. Each character tells me who he or she is, history, desires, goals, friends and family. I listen and write. There are times when I feel as if I’m channeling a character. I believe this is how it should be when writing fiction.
Last week at nytimes.com, I read interesting commentary in their “Bookends” feature from Anna Holmes and James Parker entitled “Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories?” When a writer creates a character outside the writer’s own race, gender, sexual orientation, income, and heritage, is the writer operating with empathy or exploitation? Anna Holmes writes: “…identity is part of experience, and that experience (or the absence of such) should not preclude anyone from telling other people’s stories.” James Parker writes: “To the degree that you are using a person, a character, simply to propel your plot or give shape to your ideas, to that same degree you are denying this character his or her full reality — and your story will suffer accordingly. Where empathy stops, in other words, exploitation starts.” Holmes and Parker agree that writing about The Other must be done with care and profound respect.
Writers cannot limit themselves in any way. They must write about whoever shows up to tell his or her story. But I do understand that some writers follow formulas, whether that is for the romance, mystery, or thriller genres, and write plot-driven stories rather than character-driven ones. I think that plot-driven stories can fall prey to the exploitation of The Other rather than empathizing through The Others’ voices and experiences. Character development can be minimal in plot-driven stories.
I believe that it’s also important for each writer to know himself enough to know and understand his prejudices and guard against them or purge them. A writer’s prejudices can leak into a story in subtle ways, stealthy and damaging to the writing. Just this morning, I saw an ad on TV for a new Independence Day movie, a sequel to the first which came out on July 4, 1996. I recall seeing that first movie and while I enjoyed the action, what bothered me the most was that it was so American-centric. Do Americans really believe that if earth, i.e. the entire planet, is invaded by aliens that they’d focus their attack primarily on America and only Americans would be able to save the entire planet? I noticed that same prejudice in the ad for the sequel. (How movies and the arts reflect the prevailing societal beliefs and emotions is a subject for another post sometime.) As an American writer, do I also suffer from this prejudice? Every American writer, especially those writing science fiction, need to be aware of it and open themselves to other possibilities.
When Evan Quinn arrived, before he’d revealed his name to me, I saw him conducting the empty Grosser Saal stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. At the time, I knew little about conductors and I didn’t want him to be a conductor. When I decided that he’d be an auto mechanic, Evan invaded my night dreams, dressed in his white tie and tails, his expression angry, and he scared me. After four nights of him scaring me awake, I relented. Evan was an orchestra conductor and that was it. I would just have to knuckle under and do the research such a main character required in order to make him authentic. When writing a character that is The Other, it’s important to be open to that person’s experience and life, to do the research needed to insure authenticity, to put yourself as the writer in that character’s shoes. No matter how long it takes or how difficult. I think this is true for any writer of fiction no matter that writer’s race, gender, sexual orientation, income, or heritage.
I want to conclude with a lovely quote from Damyanti Biswas at Daily (W)rite:
“A live story is to be as true to the character as possible, as true to the emotion, the circumstance as I can, and to always, always suspend judgement. More than anything else, it is about being true to my body, the urge inside of it to bend towards writing. Indeed, it is to use all of my body to write, and to obliterate from the story its teller, to leave as few signs of the artist and the craft as possible, so that the story takes on a life of its own, independent of me.”