So, I’m kind of getting tired of folks asking me vague questions about writing People of Color (PoC) but at the same time I’m glad that folks are so focused on writing something other than John Green paper dolls (yay!).
So here, for you, dear reader, is my guide to Writing Past Your Shit, an easy starting point for thinking about how to craft characters that are NOT like you.
1. Who is your character? Make a list.
This is a pretty easy exercise that we usually do in our heads whenever we start a story. We think about our character, what she wants, who she is, and who the people around her are. She may be a little flat in our first draft, but by our second draft she (hopefully) has a voice and a unique personality. Meaning, by the second draft you should know your character. You should probably know her in your first draft, but if you’re an exploratory writer like me (fancy words for pantser) it might take you a couple of false starts before you get her down pat.
For this exercise I’m going to use a character from a book I’m working on. Ophie is an eleven-year-old black girl from 1930s Mississippi who can throw fire. At the beginning of the story her mother sells her to a circus sideshow. So Ophie’s list would look like this:
Sold by her mother
1930s (black and poor)
Your list can be longer, but I think it’s best to start with a relatively short one and grow from there.
2. Compare yourself to the character you’re writing.
At this point we’re going to identify our shit. Your shit is any of the traits on that list that you do not share with your character. Ideally, that list should be pretty long (DO NOT WRITE WISH FULFILLMENT CHARACTERS THOSE ARE ICKY). Write your shit next to that of your main character’s:
Young – Not young
Throws Fire – Doesn’t throw fire L
Sold by her mother – Mom Hasn’t Sold Me Yet
Circus – No circus
1930s – 2015!
3. Identify Your Shit. Now Get Over It.
For every trait where you identified a huge difference between you and your character, these are potential hurdles to nailing your character’s perspective. To get over your shit you need to realize how it colors your worldview. For example, even though I’m black, being black in the 1930s was way different. So this is a place where my expectations of how the world works could really get me all twisted up.
So how do I get past that? RESEARCH! For each of those categories I identified I need to get my happy ass out there and research. I need to read as close to authentic, primary source documents as possible. That means I need to see if I can find pieces written by circus performers from the 1930s, and if not, then circus performers from the early 20th century.
THE GOAL SHOULD BE TO GET AS CLOSE TO YOUR CHARACTER’S TRAIT AS HUMALY POSSIBLE.
I need to read pieces written about neglectful mothers, and I need to either hang out with younger kids (in a non-creepy way) or try to remember what being eleven was like, since I once actually experienced that.
Does it sound like a lot of work? Fuck yeah, it does. Writing is easy. Writing well isn’t. Enjoy the suck.
The only things I don’t have to avidly research are things that aren’t real. So, luckily, I don’t have to research throwing fire. Because no one is going to tell me my fire throwing was totally wrong. And if they do? They can go pound sand.
And sometimes recognizing your own shit can be awesome! Because if you live solidly lower class and your character lives a life of luxury, you don’t have to think about how she’d react to never having money. But you do have to think about how being rich changes her perspective from yours.
IT IS ALL ABOUT SLIPPING INTO ANOTHER PERSON’S PERSPECTIVE. Which is incredibly difficult when you’re all tangled up in your shit.
4. Revise, revise, revise.
Once you’ve identified your shit you have to revise with an eye toward spotting your shit. Does my 1930s girl use modern slang? Is she too outspoken in the presence of white people she doesn’t know? Does she have warm memories of her mother? Should she? These are questions you have to answer within the pages while revising.
REVISION IS YOUR SWEET, SWEET SNUGGLE PUPPY OF A FRIEND. Embrace it.
5. Ask a friend to beta read and check for your shit.
Beat readers are the best! They spot your issues! They’ll tell you what rings false! Even an inexperienced beta reader is better than nothing.
For your beta you should have someone unfamiliar with your story but quasi-familiar with your shit. Or maybe you tell them “Hey, this is my shit. Can you make sure it isn’t too obvious when you read?” A good beta reader will catch about 75% of your shit.
But, what about the other 25%?
Welp, no story is ever perfect, friend. So you just hope that enough people read it that you get as close to 100% as possible. WELCOME TO THE QUESTIONABLY SATISFYING WORLD OF WRITING BOOKS!
And that’s it! A beginner’s guide to Getting Out of Your Own Way and Writing People NOT Like You!
Now get off my lawn.