Mary Catharine Martin | On Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You

Mary Catharine MartinFor the last few years, I’ve been conflicted about something integral to fiction: writing characters with different backgrounds and experiences from me.

I am white, and though I now live in Alaska, my family has deep roots in the south. I have benefited in pretty major and obvious ways from white privilege. I don’t want to take words out of anyone else’s mouth, to appropriate anyone’s story. I don’t want to do anyone an injustice. I don’t want any action of mine to contribute to a power imbalance in our country. And I’ve heard and read writers I respect say that a white American writer writing a character of color takes a voice away from a writer of color. That it continues a power imbalance. That is not something I want to be a part of.

But I struggled, because fiction is about imagining yourself into a person who is not you. And the world is a beautiful, horrible place full of many different people and many different backgrounds, many of whom do not look like me, many of whom I love. My fictional worlds would be immeasurably poorer if they did not reflect the richness and diversity of the world as it exists—if I constrained myself to the cultural and racial reality of my own upbringing. It wouldn’t even reflect my current world.

A few years ago, I went to a panel discussion at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing programs that featured, among other people, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Skip Horack. Horack read an excerpt from The Eden Hunters, a book he wrote from the point of view of an escaped slave. Coates, most recently the author of Between the World and Me, read an excerpt from a novel in progress that was from the point of view of a 19th century white woman. Both characters were different, culturally and racially, from the authors who wrote them. They encouraged us to write characters of different races, of different cultural backgrounds, of different views.

A few years later I went to another panel, this time of indigenous American writers. One poet said people who aren’t indigenous shouldn’t write indigenous characters. A fiction writer said of course you should write outside yourself; it’s an integral aspect of fiction.

Bad writing—and understanding—perpetuates stereotypes, or uses people as props and simplified plot devices, or misrepresents, or exoticizes. I have written down each book I have read this year—eighty so far—and one of the things it has underscored for me is how easy it would be, reading in America, to populate one’s reading with white writers, as compared to black writers, or Vietnamese writers, or indigenous writers. One of the most compelling aspects of one of those eighty books —The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead—was its skillful dismantling of stories dominant culture has told itself about its exploitation of the subjugated—that some slave owners weren’t so bad because they cared about their slaves, for example. Even today, these stories are pervasive and frustrating.

I’ve thought about movies and books in which white people were the saviors of people of color. I’ve read a book by a white person in which Native people seemed to appear just to tell Raven stories and make the white protagonist feel special. I’ve also read stories by white writers, by black writers, by Asian writers, by indigenous writers, in which characters who were not the same color or cultural background as the writer were fully rounded, unique, and compelling.

Because of all this, I’ve been following the discussion surrounding Lionel Shriver’s keynote address at a Brisbane Writers Festival. I read the transcript of her speech, in which she said “the ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction… All that’s left is memoir” (emphasis hers). I read an essay by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of that speech, calling it “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction” (emphasis hers). I read Shriver’s response to that. And I read, most recently, a New York Times opinion piece by the writer Kaitlyn Greenidge, (author of We Love you, Charlie Freeman) which really resonated with me.

Greenidge wrote “Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing—how much further fiction could go as an art.”

Ultimately, exploring humanity is what fiction and living are all about. Fiction and reading are empathy in the truest sense of the word: “to understand and share the feelings of another.”

We have a responsibility to the characters we write to portray them as fully, as humanly, as we can. As Greenidge, who is black, wrote of writing a racist white woman: “I would have to love this monster into existence.” I had a similar moment when drafting my book, The One that Ran Away, and writing the character of a male rapist. It was easy to portray him as villainous, as predatory, and that is what one of my earlier drafts did. One of my creative writing professors, Doug Unger, suggested I explore his character more fully. Was he truly a pure villain? What were his own feelings about his actions? Was he conflicted at all?

Our ongoing national discussion has made me think about how as a white writer, I can address imbalances of power in multiple ways: by reading diverse writers, by listening to and truly considering opinions that may make me uncomfortable, by, as Greenidge says, thinking about power, and by championing causes I believe in. Among those causes is the importance of empathy and openness in fiction and in life. I can also, in writing, always fully explore the humanity of all my characters, no matter their color, no matter their deeds.

Kaitlyn Greenidge has it right.  If we’re writing well, we’re loving our characters into existence. That’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t place constraints on our own writing, or that of others. It’s one of the reasons we have a responsibility to write people who don’t share our skin color and/or cultural background—and who do—fully, and well.

It’s one of the reasons well-written, diverse fiction makes the world a better place. ~

If you’d like to read some of these pieces, here they are, in the order I mentioned them:

Lionel Shriver’s keynote address, “Fiction and Identity Politics”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response, “As Lionel Shriver Made Light of Identity I had no Choice but to Walk Out on Her”

Lionel Shriver’s response, “Will the Left Survive Millenials”

Kaitlyn Greenidge, “Who Gets to Write What”

Mary Catharine Martin is a Juneau writer currently sending out her book, The One that Ran Away. It interweaves the stories of three generations of runaways and spans rural Louisiana in the 1930s to modern-day Las Vegas and Southeast Alaska.


3 thoughts on “Mary Catharine Martin | On Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You”

  1. Thank you, Mary. I am struggling with this concept in my own writing, and your post helped me think about it more deeply.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Mary Catherine Martin, thank you for that measured and thoughtful contribution to a national conversation. I started to write an excessively long response here, and realized I am writing a blogpost, not a comment. So let me save all that for another day and simply thank you for being reasonable, for caring about the power of written word, for taking time to speak out as a writer and as a reader, for showing us that one can in fact have this conversation. Well done.

  3. Mary Catharine Martin

    Thanks very much, Lynn and Andromeda. Incidentally, Andromeda, “Behave” is one of those 80 books — I really enjoyed it. 🙂

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