There are so many decisions that go into characterizing the protagonist in your novel. In addition to profession, personality, and life history, there’s this immensity called “background.” What’s the character’s race or ethnicity? Gender? Sexual orientation? Socioeconomic status? Religious affiliation (and position on the faith-doubt spectrum)? Physical abilities and limitations? Neurological tendencies and diagnoses? Family structure?
Let’s say you’ve found that perfect main character. Chances are you didn’t review the above list to construct said character. Certain things came to mind and certain things didn’t. That’s normal. We can only focus on so much at once as writers. Readers need some details in the foreground and others in the background as well.
Now let’s say that the main character isn’t exactly like you in one or more of the above ways. To inform your writing and do your best, you read and research. When it’s time to beta, you bring in some sensitivity readers to alert you to any red flags.
From this point, the book could go on to publish. It could get rave reviews, like Joe Hill’s The Fireman, which I love, even though Joe Hill has never been a pregnant woman a day in his life. Still, some people might be angry that Joe (and you) wrote beyond his (and your) experiences.
Maybe you accept that criticism is the necessary risk of fiction. Maybe you agree with A.J. Hartley and “feel compelled to try in a small way to redress the historical bias which has taken white (and frequently male, and almost always straight) as the default position.”
But maybe you’re worried that by writing someone else’s story you’re commercializing and capitalizing on said story. Or that someone with the personal experience that qualifies them to write that story is losing the job to you. Or that by telling that story you’re implying that you have more voice and authority to do so, thus perpetuating the White Savior Complex.
Writers with privilege writing outside of their demographic perspectives must decide for themselves, either as a general rule or on a project-by-project basis, if and when they feel it’s appropriate to tell the stories of others. If you’re in the former group, this is where we part ways, because there are already several great articles on the topic, such as these:
- How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if You Are White
- Can White Authors Write Characters of Color?
- 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make
- How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White
And I have totally done that, written from the perspective of persons of color. Then I read Justine Larbalestier’s post and realized that I had my own stories to tell–stories that I was actually qualified to tell.
What is Your Story to Tell?
“Anything you want,” while true, also has a big whiff of imperialism coming off of it. To find the main characters whose stories you are qualified to tell, try this:
- List any area in which you have not been traditionally privileged. For me, I can’t tell the story of racial or transgender barriers firsthand, but I can tell stories of women, anxiety, and lower-middle class living. I chose to feature all but anxiety in my current manuscript.
- List the hard stories of which you have deep firsthand knowledge. By deep, I mean you lived with it for an extended period of time. I have not been a single mother, but I lived with my own (see how this is an iteration on a female story–which I am qualified to write?). I am college-educated (probably over-educated), but I grew up code-switching between my hometown tongue and my academic tongue. When I’m in a room full of teachers (like me), I feel most comfortable carrying on a conversation with the custodial staff. I haven’t held a wage job since college, but because I straddled both worlds for so long, I have enough nearby experience to approach these stories without trying to save or patronize the people they represent. I love these people because I lived with them, and so I attempt to capture their stories with respect and humility.
Why Should You Tell Your Story?
Because you have enough to tell. You really do. It hasn’t “all been done.” Stick to your work. Let someone else do theirs. But what if you’re a white, cisgender, straight, rich, college-educated male? You need to focus completely on the answer to the next question.
How Should You Tell Your Story?
Let your main character wrestle with his whiteness. His maleness. His straightness. His richness. And I don’t mean, “Oh, it’s so hard being white nowadays. Everyone thinks I’m racist!” Though he could wrestle with his white fragility. I mean let the character be painfully aware when privilege is operating in his favor. Let him interrupt racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Let him listen to characters who are not like him instead of taking charge. Mention his skin color as often as you mention the skin color of people who are not white. Don’t let him accept his legacy quietly. And remember:
‘Whiteness,’ like ‘colour’ and ‘Blackness,’ are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, pp. 46-67).
This is hard work for us writers with privilege, who are already doing the hard work of writing. Making reparations is always hard and always costly. That’s what makes it worth doing.
**For more on my interpretation of invoking and revoking privilege, check out this post.**