On Instagram, earlier in the week I stumbled on this sensitive authoring issue:
It is increasingly a touchy subject – particularly on social media, where anyone with an internet connection makes their opinion known freely, easily, and perhaps viciously. Nor is this issue a new thing. You may recall that in the U.S. there was an uproar of sorts about year ago over a novel endorsed by Oprah Winfrey that had been written by an American white woman in which a Mexican woman was the main character – and that book, at least partly due to Winfrey’s praise – became a huge seller.
These were that Instagrammer’s more detailed suggestions/demands… based she says on what she sees (“via you guys”):
I believe one of the appeals of “fantasy” tales is characters are “easy” for inexperienced and/or even nervous – please don’t hurl things at the screen at me; let me finish – writers to write. Note again that Instagrammer’s extensive “dos and don’ts” list and consider this: none of that really applies to “fantasy” characters. There is no need to justify anything about them because they are figments of the author’s imagination, and so can be ANYTHING, and thus the author does not need to have any EXPERIENCE of them because, after all, THEY DO NOT EXIST.
If you are not going to write “fantasy,” I believe the best way to write is to adhere to the idea of writing what you know about. (Essentially, following the famous Hemingway line.) In writing about people, I came to feel years ago that one of the biggest mistakes any writer – regardless of background – can make is venturing too far beyond their personal knowledge base. What we all know about is a nebulous concept of course, but it is rooted in a personal perspective and experience.
I see my role as an author in not only trying to entertain. It is also to share what I have seen and learned, and in doing so perhaps illuminating in some small ways slivers of this life some readers may not have encountered themselves. For example, if you have never seen a family like this, you get a glimpse, such as at an American-style (Roman Catholic) wake:
That above are fictionalizations of my aunt (“Giuliana”), my mother (“Joanne”), references to my father (“Jim”), and my uncle (“Bill” or “Hemingway,” a name we lightheartedly regularly used for him). My “mother” there also makes a reference to my cousin’s girlfriend (“Alicia”), and my mom and my aunt also have a quick snide aside about “Charlie” and “Nora” (people they did not think much of, the sort of thing that may well be familiar to you in your own family). Approaching finally are fictionalizations of my then boss and another colleague from the university where I had worked: they had turned up to offer their condolences, as their real-life counterparts had done.
That is one example of writing WHAT I KNOW ABOUT.
“Middle Eastern characters aren’t always the bad guys” – declares that Instagrammer in among the six frames of “dos and don’ts.”
Welcome to ninth grade. I have also written a major character who is French-Lebanese. She is in my first three novels because she is based in good part on someone I KNEW:
What I knew about her was based on what she had told me, what I had seen, and what I had heard from others who also knew her: more or less it was how we come to know anyone. I did not attempt, would not have attempted, and indeed I would never attempt, to write an entire tale entirely from “her” perspective. (There were scattered instances in those books that I did, but again they were based mostly on what I was told by her, had seen, or had heard from others.) I would not because I know that as well as I once knew her I did not and I do not believe I could truly know her fundamental life perspective… so I would be “guessing” too much… which would then take me onto shaky literary ground where I do not wish to venture.
There are other characters like “her” – although not nearly as personally important to me – in my first three books in particular. They are written based on the same criteria.
A few days after her initial post, that Instagrammer added this summation:
Do not be concerned, I won’t write such a person as the MAIN character, and particularly not from a “first person” perspective… ever.
I state that not because I care about what one Instagrammer and some social media commenters think. I say it because I would never insult readers by trying to write about anything or anyone I don’t feel I know enough about. Long before I joined Instagram, I well-knew what my life experiences were and what my authoring limitations were.
So what my readers can always be assured of in picking up one of my books or opening a Kindle is that what they are reading is what I do know about – whether through my own personal experiences and/or by historical reading and research (particularly that latter due to the fact I was not around in 1787 in France):
Or I could just write, uh, blue half-Hustanoids from the planet Zong.
They could be anything?
Writing fiction well is difficult enough when you write about what you know about. If you want to venture into mindsets with which you are mostly unfamiliar or even largely ignorant, good luck with that. But – especially early in your writing days – I would not advise it.
Enough “deep thinking” for one post.
Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂