by Gayle Towell
If you are writing a character of another race, culture, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class than your own, or perhaps they have a mental illness, disease, or disability—the biggest mistake you can make is writing the character based solely on a list of traits associated with that particular person-type.
Suppose you are writing a character who is confined to a wheelchair, for example, and you are yourself not in such a condition. Most of the population is unfamiliar with what that is like, while a small portion of the population is super familiar with it. This can feel daunting and you might be wondering how you will even pull this off. For one, you don’t want to give an inaccurate portrayal of what it’s like to live like that, while at the same time you want every reader, regardless of their background, to relate.
You begin by researching everything you can, and you come up with a list that reduces your character to the perfectest stereotype of a wheelchair-bound individual that there ever was. Congratulations: You have made a character that no one could possibly find interesting. Why? Because we all already KNOW the stereotypes. There is nothing new there—you’re working with the most general set of features you can use to describe someone.
People care about people, not cardboard caricatures in wheelchairs. While it is certainly true that externals shape a person, it is not true that the externals define the person. Pretty much every person ever to exist was a human creature who had the basic needs of food, water, and shelter, a desire to be loved and accepted—in whatever form that may take. The human struggle is universal. The externals sit on top of this. The humanness is what the readers will connect with. And although the character’s struggles may differ from theirs, everyone can relate to what it is like to struggle. So if you want readers to relate to your character, they need to see the person inside. The good news is, you’re probably already an expert on being human. Use that. Make that connection, and THEN the reader is in a position to gain a much better understanding of the character’s unique experience. (I call this “writing from the inside out.”)
That said, you still need to make sure you get your facts straight. Google is a good first step, but, social anxiety aside, it’s usually not that hard to just interview someone to make sure you’re not doing anything particularly asinine like confusing schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder or whatnot.
Another thing to consider: You’ve likely heard the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. You can get away with things in an autobiographical piece that people would call bullshit on in fiction. Why? Because in an autobiography, there is an absolute assumption of authority. But the more real and human you make your fictional characters, the more you imbue them with a similar assumption of authority. Nail that, and the believability of your character shoots way up. Readers will suspend disbelief because of the character’s HUMAN authority.