May I introduce today’s guest, Wendy Lu, who’s here to discuss an important issue in fiction: the intricacies of creating realistic and respectful characters from marginalized populations. Over to you, Wendy!
As writers, we have the ability to create any character we want in our stories. Whether it’s a lumberjack with one eye or a traveling physician with a fear of airplanes, we have the creative power to choose what personality quirks and details about their backstory make them who they are. Don’t like the one eye for your lumberjack? You can toss the idea and give him a scar instead. That is creative power.
As enjoyable as it is to play “paper dolls” with our characters, it’s important to remember that one of our jobs is to move readers by presenting them with characters they can identify with. We compel our characters to emulate people we know in real life, or at least have heard of.
So what’s the problem? The challenge comes when we develop characters that are a part of marginalized populations—that is, they are representative of a group of individuals who have traditionally been excluded from participating in mainstream society, either politically, socially, culturally, economically or in some other way. Examples include people of ethnic minorities, the homeless and Jews in Germany during World War II.
I use the term marginalized population broadly, and don’t believe it’s limited to just race, ethnicity, class and religion. Women and people with disabilities are often marginalized in society as well, albeit in very different ways.
Of course, not every story about a character from a marginalized population has to be about their marginalization. But to ignore their circumstances or fail to address potential struggles and experiences they would have as a result of their marginalization would not only do great injustice to your character, but also to the people who actually live in those situations.
There are ways to remain creative with your work but also realistic.
If you want to write about characters in marginalized populations, there are ways to be tactful. There are ways to remain creative with your work but also realistic. When you’re writing (and even before you write), check off these must-dos to ensure you’re approaching your characters and story in the right way.
Do your research
When I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, I had this great story idea involving the friendship between an African-American girl born into slavery and her master’s daughter during the 1800s. The writing commenced one afternoon, but I didn’t even get past the second page. I hadn’t done any research beforehand, so I was looking facts up every couple of sentences. What did the day-to-day life of a typical girl in slavery look like back then? What sort of rules did slave masters implement for their slaves and households? What was the furniture like? I realized before the end of chapter one that I didn’t know nearly enough as I should about slavery and interracial friendships during the 1800s.
Though you should be doing research throughout the entire drafting process, most of the research should come before you even sit down to write. You need to ask yourself three questions, and be honest:
- What do I already know about the marginalized population?
- What do I need to learn more about in order to write this story?
- Why do I want to write about these characters—specifically, what intrigues me about them and the marginalized situation I’m about to put them in?
Depending on the type of story you’re writing, you should also keep in mind that certain populations have been marginalized in different ways depending on the time period and historical context.
Interview people who have had firsthand experiences of being marginalized in society
Prior to writing The Fault in Our Stars, author John Green spent five months working in a children’s hospital—in fact, his experiences working with patients who had fatal illnesses inspired his award-winning novel. If John Green had never spoken to a child with cancer in his life before The Fault in Our Stars, I would have seriously doubted the realism of his novel’s protagonists, Hazel and Gus.
It’s also helpful to look inward at your own privileges and experiences of marginalization.
Without exposure to people who have been disadvantaged the same way as the character in your story, it would be difficult to write from your character’s perspective. It’s also helpful to look inward at your own privileges and experiences of marginalization—for instance, you may not know what it’s like to have cancer, but maybe you have a chronic illness that helps you better understand what someone with cancer might think about the healthcare system.
Jodi Picoult is another example of an author who does thorough research. The author of several fiction novels including My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi frequently speaks with doctors, psychiatrists, detectives and other industry experts who can provide their insight and knowledge for her books, according to her most recent FAQ. But she doesn’t just ask people questions—she puts herself in their shoes, literally. For her novel Plain Truth, Jodi lived with an Amish family for a while, milking cows and attending Bible study and discovering that the myths people believe about the Amish lifestyle have little truth to them.
Avoid perpetuating stereotypes
Stereotypes are a type of psychological heuristic, or mental shortcuts that we create (often subconsciously) in order to comprehend the world around us. We put our personal experiences and the people in our lives into boxes, giving them labels such as “dangerous” or “short” that will make it easier to pinpoint another situation or individual as a member of that box.
It’s easy to apply labels and put people into categories, but life is rarely so rigid (if ever). If your character is Asian, don’t just give her traits or habits that are “typical” of Asian people, such as being a math whiz. Explore your character more deeply. Realize that a character who is a female minority with a mental disability will experience multiple social, emotional and economic struggles that are all interrelated with her different experiences of being disabled, being a female and being a minority. These identities are not mutually exclusive.
It may seem counterintuitive, but you want to provide an accurate depiction of the lives of people in marginalized communities without enforcing stereotypes that are actually not true and may even harmful. That’s why interviews and research are so important.