Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing true

I am a white, heterosexual, male, second generation American of eastern European descent, middle class upbringing and Christian faith. There are those who say this limits my ability to write about -- or from the perspective of -- characters whose gender, ethnicity, culture, faith, or orientation differ from my own. In fact there are those who adamantly maintain that I do not have the right to "co-opt" experiences or identities that are not my own in my writing -- that in doing so I somehow cash in on or cheapen their lives and values.

My mother used to paint in oils. She would begin with a few lines of charcoal sketched on the canvas -- lightly drawn lines and spare geometric shapes that meant nothing to anyone who could not see the image in her head. She would blend paints as she worked. She had what I remember as hundreds of tubes of paint, each different, yet almost no paint went from tube to canvas -- the colors were blended, melded on her pallet into something different. Nor was every color applied uniformly -- delicate brush strokes shared the canvas with thick smears and layered tones to create still lifes, landscapes, portraits and abstracts. The colors chosen and how they were applied were driven by the needs of the painting.

As a writer, I often see a connection between my mother's art and mine. I'm a storyteller and what I write about whom -- and whose voice I use in telling -- is dictated by the story itself.

The main characters in my short story "Commitment" are a lesbian couple facing a crisis of loyalty between military duty and their relationship. I did not set out to write a story about lesbians, but as I wrote it became clear the story itself required the two main characters process their emotions the way women traditionally process their emotions. They needed to talk. Let's face it, men usually either build something or smash something. (After thirty years of marriage Valerie has learned to infer what I'm feeling from what I'm doing -- and I've learned to let her talk without trying to supply a solution to every problem she presents.) In my Chaos Irregulars series -- which follows a band of third-rate mercenaries as they mature into a band of second-rate mercenaries -- two male characters are married to each other. No one makes a big deal about it and the marriage is not important to the action, but the fact of their relationship is an important element to the texture, the culture of the Irregulars.

One of my most well received series characters is Leftenant Alexandra "Lex" Atreus. She is an uncommonly tall and dark complexioned Afro-Terran of exceptional martial ability but very poor people and social skills; very class conscious, she is a kibbutznik -- a working-class farm girl -- whose skills have placed her in a branch of the military dominated by lesser sons and daughters of noble houses Physically, as anyone who knows us knows, Lex is modeled on my wife Valerie in her early twenties, when I first met her. But the kibbutznik? It's no secret I've been an space program groupie since the sixties, and have always been fascinated by extraterrestrial colonization. I think the kibbutz model offers the best structure for a self-reliant colony on a distant world, though mine would a bit more liberal and secular than the Israeli kibbutzim of the 1960s. Her faith is not a central issue to her character, but in a culturally Christian society it adds to Lex's own sense of being apart -- and that self-identification as "other" is central to her choices and actions.

There is a subset of the folks who believe the ethnicity or gender of writers dictates what they can write about whom. A white guy can write about black characters only if he depicts them positively. I don't do that. If the character needs to be bad, the character's bad. My novel To Ride the Chimera wrapped up story arcs that wound through six previous novels. In Pandora's Gambit, an assassin stabbed two major characters, killing one and putting another in a coma. All we knew about the assassin was her physical description and one line of dialog that implied she was motivated by religious extremism. I decided to bring her back (some more major characters needed killing) and created a belief system to explain her actions. To do so I first created a mainstream religion by blending elements of Vodoun and Santeria -- two faith systems that can be found throughout Florida and the islands along America's southern coast -- then created an outlawed, radical fundamentalist sect. I didn't do what Dan Brown did to Catholicism, but I left no doubt about their fundamental (pun intended) evil.

A writer, to be true to his or her craft, must bring everything to bear in the creative process. Telling the story in the most effective and authentic way possible -- not the prejudices of readers or critics -- dictates what goes on the paper.


Charles Gramlich said...

Many characteristics of humanity are universal. There's no reason a man couldn't write of a woman who fights to defend her children, or who experiences lonliness, or many other things that are common to both sexes. In the same way, most human behaviors cross ethnic bounderies willi nilli.

Genella deGrey said...

KeVin - "Those who say" this about you are:
A) Not creative in the slightest
B) Narrow-minded
C) Jealous

Need I go on?

Liane Spicer said...

If you don't have the right/ability to write outside your gender, ethnicity, experience, etc, then maybe vampires and werewolves should write paranormal, space aliens should write SF, dead people should write historicals, etc. I believe anyone can write anything, as long as s/he tells a good, credible story.

KeVin K. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shauna Roberts said...

I do think there's something to the argument you're opposing, though. Think of the way in which many of the midcentury science fiction novels and short stories portrayed women. Some of them are classics, but I generally avoid them because they're offensive and untrue to my experiences as a woman.

If I had a character who for some reason had to be from the Ukraine or some secluded Polynesian island, I'd study up on the culture first before writing about them. But I sometimes get the feeling even in modern times that some authors just drop in characters of backgrounds, ethnic groups, or sexual persuasions they don't share and then develop those characters based on personal prejudices.

KeVin K. said...

Agreed. There is no excuse for sloppy or lazy writing.

I can to a certain extent overlook the ignorance of past writers. Even though some of their assumptions and depictions make me cringe, I can accept the fact that they did not know any better. Sort of like their contemporary physicians using leeches to relieve humors or leaving their surgical instruments encrusted with the dried blood of previous patients to "preserve the blade." They were creatures of their cultural environment.

But I have an active hostility toward modern writers who perpetuate myths and stereotypes -- whether through prejudice, ignorance, or laziness.