SWF Writing GWM – Is it okay to write something you’re not?

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As I’m finishing up my round one edits on Heavyweight  I’m rather plagued with worry about whether my main character, a closeted gay teen athlete, will come off as realistic enough to my readers. While no one complains about adults writing for young adults (after all, we all had to go through that awkward age to get where we are today) I do wonder if there are people out there who are going to say “HEY! You’re not male nor gay! How dare you try to assume you know enough to write one without living the life?”

It’s true. I’m neither male (last I checked) nor gay (girls are pretty but just don’t rev my engine) but I have been surrounded by both for much of my life. Obviously, it’s hard not to be surrounded by males (unless one is born in a convent and never leaves perhaps) and between having a brother and boyfriends and a lot of male friends, I think I’ve got that aspect covered well enough.  I have gay relatives and over the years several of those male friends have come out and while I obviously couldn’t be inside their heads when that happened, there have been discussions and I like to think I have somewhat of an idea. I hope it’s enough of one that people aren’t going to come back and tell me my ideas are all wrong and that my characters come off as fake or unrealistic.

When writing anything you’re unfamiliar with, research must be done. I don’t think writing characters of different gender, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. is any different.  There are many great books out there with real life coming out stories and a good amount of fiction with gay main characters (although there could certainly be more). There are also movies and TV shows that can be used for reference. Plenty of actors  will play characters of the opposite orientation and do a fantastically convincing job of it. Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family and Matt Smith (yes the 11th Doctor) in Christopher and His Kind to name a few.

I don’t think it’s something you should go into just assuming you know enough.  You might be right, but you might also end up offending  with your take on a certain type of person. I did try to stay away from stereotyping my characters, although I don’t know if that’s 100% possible, but I kept it minimal (at least I think I did!).

Finding beta readers who will be able to relate to your character can be very helpful in making sure you’ve done a good job in portraying a gay male teen or an Asian Buddhist, etc. That being said, I could certainly use more beta readers (just for content, not editing purposes) that will “get” Ian. You don’t need to be an athlete (although that’d be handy) nor a teen anymore, but if you’re gay (male or not) and interested in being a beta reader for me, drop your name and email into the comments!

They say you should write what you know, but if that were truly the case, how would we get fantastical Sci-Fi stories and epic fantasy tales?  Writers create and build their own worlds (even contemporary authors) and it may take research and advice, but I think convincing, enjoyable books can be produced.  An author can write any type of character as all characters are going to be relatable in someway (Even the aliens and robots folks. They will be relatable because they will be lacking those human qualities and emotions. Does that make sense? It does to me anyhow…) whether it’s experiences or emotions. They will all love and hate and triumph and fall down. It doesn’t matter if they’re black, white, gay, straight, Catholic or Jewish.

It remains to be seen on whether I’ve done a convincing job crafting my characters, but I’m holding on to hope that I have. So far no Juggalos have come to yell at me for my portrayal of one of their own in Tears of a Clown (even though I do poke a bit of fun at them) and hopefully I won’t offend anyone of the GLBT persuasion either. It’s certainly not my intention to do so.

What is your take on authors creating characters that are different from the type of person they are?

 

Here are some other good articles on the topic:

http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/05/24/can-straight-authors-write-queer-too/

http://speakitsname.com/2011/12/03/can-a-straight-woman-write-gay-characters-and-so-on-and-so-forth/

http://rosalie-warren.blogspot.com/2012/04/can-you-write-gay-fiction-if-you-are.html

http://asknicola.blogspot.com/2010/11/can-queer-authors-write-straight.html

http://lynleystace.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/can-women-write-authentic-male-characters/

http://journalism.howlround.com/why-am-i-afraid-to-write-african-american-characters-by-marshall-botvinick/

http://sarahockler.com/2012/04/30/race-in-ya-lit-wake-up-smell-the-coffee-colored-skin-white-authors/

http://www.racialicious.com/2007/05/25/white-authors-ethnic-characters/

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6 responses »

  1. Hi MB, thanks for linking to my blog.

    Coincidentally, I’ve been reconsidering this whole issue lately because I’m almost finished Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. This is the first of his I’ve read, notable because of the intersex narrator. As I was ploughing through the first half of the book (which draaaaged for me) I propelled myself forward by watching some interviews with the author, including the Q&A video on Oprah Winfrey’s website. At one point a member of the audience stood up and said, “I’m both intersex AND Greek, so obviously I relate to this book…” and she/he Inot sure how she identifies) went on to ask him about the whole inbreeding plot. Eugenides used inbreeding as a plot device to explain the gene mutation in his protagonist. This Greek/intersex reader wanted to know what he was saying about intersex people and inbreeding. Eugenides made it clear that he wasn’t trying to say anything about intersex people and inbreeding — he was only trying to craft a plot which made some sense to the reader.

    I found this really interesting because Eugenides is not intersex himself (even though he’s Greek) but this didn’t stop him from imagining what it would be like. I haven’t read his first novel *The Virgin Suicides*, but I have heard some female readers feel a bit creeped out when he talks in such great detail about tampons. I’m conflicted about this, because on the one hand, aren’t there enough women about to write authentically about tampons? On the other hand, why *should* we be creeped out by that? On the other hand (imagine I have three hands), I can’t think of any female writers who have written about male ejaculation. (Maybe I just lead a sheltered life, or maybe those women are writing under male pseudonyms.)

    When I suffer these regular self-doubts about whether I’m qualified to write as The Other (whatever that is at the time) I try to remind myself that the writer has to be genderless. I figure that as long as our characters are people first and gay/intersex/disabled etc. SECOND, then it’s a pretty sure bet we’re not writing offensively.

    • Your article was fascinating so I had to include it with my post! You brought up a lot of good points and articles to back things up. There is something to be said for writing male characters to appeal to women readers, especially in YA where (sadly) the majority of the readers are female. The Japanese have a whole genre of male/male manga and stories called Yaoi (boy love) which are male gay love stories written for women. Seems an odd concept but having read some and knowing others who also enjoy it, I can see why it does well. They are penned by both women and men though so I’m not sure they *really* apply to this conversation. Maybe just the ones done by women.

      I agree too that characters need to be people first. It’s not like we feel emotions differently that someone who is gay or Catholic or Asian. Love is love, right? As is anger, envy, lust, etc.

      Thanks for the comment and for writing a great post of your own!

      • It’s so interesting that you bring up Yaoi. I lived in Japan a couple of years and found Japanese erotica very foreign.

        I’ve since developed my own theory about the popularity of gay erotica among teenaged and young women (just a hypothesis in progress, actually!). I think yaoi is the equivalent of the popularity Justin Bieber et al, who because of his age is currently quite feminised and baby-faced and therefore ‘safe’ for girls who have not yet learnt to find grown, hairy men attractive. So enjoying boy-on-boy action from the very safe distance of a comic is super safe for young Japanese women undergoing the same transition.

        I’ve also asked myself why girls seem to need this ‘transitional man’ whereas heterosexual boys don’t seem to need a ‘transitional woman’, jumping straight to curves. I’ve contemplated two answers to that: first, women are objectified all over the place in the West, so we’re *all* well used to seeing and appreciating naked women from early childhood. But second, most women go to a lot of trouble to make ourselves appear youthful even when we’re not, especially in the removal of body hair. The unfortunate difference (for women) is that many men don’t *ever* get to the point where they’d be happy with a *natural adult woman*, with all of her body hair intact. Porn culture often gets the blame for this, I’ve noticed, but it’s everywhere, from advertising to literature.

        Back to yaoi, until the Western gay movement, I’m pretty sure Japanese culture treated homosexual sex as just another fetish rather than a lifestyle. I couldn’t work out why gay couples were pretty much invisible in Japan. It’s been over a decade since I went to Japan though, and I’d be interested to know whether things have changed in that regard.

      • That’s an interesting theory and yes the Japanese are very into their androgynous males..maybe to appeal to both males and females? I’m not sure.

        And you’re right, the female shape is everywhere for guys (and girls) to see from childhood whether it’s in TV, ads, subliminal stuff, etc. I could see that guys are attracted to that ideal from a young age, not needing that transitional phase. If she’s got the curves, they’re interested, regardless of age many times.

  2. I’m no expert, but I would think if you only stick to writing what you “know” then you cannot possibly grow as a writer, as you are instead dooming yourself to stagnation. Writing ANY character requires only the empathy to crawl inside his/her/its brain as well as the courage to go where you’ve never gone but feel led to explore. Kudos to anyone who accepts this challenge and pursues it, whether successfully or otherwise. If you’re writing for the sake of writing (for the art itself), then it’s definitely the intent that counts, as you should be able to say at the end of the trial that you grew from the experience.

    But do take my opinion with a grain of salt, as I’m only like 10K words into my first WIP and have zero authority to back up my stance on the subject! 🙂

    • Agreed. My life is pretty dull so that sure as hell would make for boring books! Hah 🙂

      I think where the problem comes in is in readership. Do you know why many authors go by their initials rather than a first name? Because it’s genderless. Some men shy away from books written by women because they expect it to be only romance. Some women shy away from books written by men expecting only action/horror/whatever. Kathryn Stockett, a pretty blonde woman, wrote The Help and has had people say things because she’s obviously not an African-American domestic.

      In my opinion if they story is good, it’s good, regardless of who wrote it. That means believable characters, compelling tale, something new, etc. Just not the same for all people I suppose.

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