Three Levels of Characterization

Good writers do not cast stories entirely with xeroxed copies of themselves, mostly because that would be no fun. If you’re wondering whether I mean no fun to read or no fun to write, the answer is yes. Imagining you aren’t you is fun, and imagining you are you isn’t imagining at all. Writers are generally the kind of people who never stopped playing make-believe, so by the time they start publishing, they are pretty good at feigning the perspective of somebody who is different from them.

However, when those differences cross into the land of privilege and oppression, writers get scared. They get nervous about writing someone of another gender, race, orientation, religion, or with a disability.

On the one hand, it is strange that the same writers who will happily write a medieval knight, a cold-blooded alien or the monster under your bed can react with panic at the idea of writing a regular human being with somewhat darker skin. And yes, I’m laughing a bit at myself when I point that out. Just because I recognize the absurdity, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience it.

At the same time, there is something reasonable about the fear. The monster under my bed isn’t ever going to criticize me for misrepresenting it. It doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of all the misconceptions I’ve just reinforced, or subtle elements of racism I’ve unintentionally introduced into my own story. It doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t care. If I’m wasn’t more worried about writing a black character than a nighttime bogeyman, that would be a sign of very skewed priorities.

Of course, because the monster doesn’t exist, it also doesn’t have any reason to care if I choose not to write about it at all. It doesn’t need to be better represented in the media. Somewhere between the crippling paranoia and blase carelessness is a kind of sensible caution that should motivate writers to write underrepresented characters, and do that writing extra well.

I have a system for thinking about real world characterization traits. First, I imagine three concentric circles. The innermost one is for personal experiences. Everything I have done, every word I could use to describe myself, everything that I am goes into this circle. Then, just outside is vicarious experiences. Into this goes things that I am not, but that I have experienced indirectly through listening carefully to people who have chosen to open up to me. When my Mom tells me a story about her nursing job, when I read somebody’s autobiography, when a Korean-American friend invites me to their home and I pay attention to the differences and similarities between their family and mine, I can put all those things under vicarious experiences. In the third, outermost circle go things I can only research remotely, through dry articles and research papers and without any direct experience to temper them.

The research done in the outermost circle can be useful. Even when it comes to things I’ve experienced personally, some fact checking can expand my understanding. However, if I try to characterize somebody based mostly on traits I can only study remotely, I will end up with a flat, bland, stereotyped character. That kind of information comes in averages and generalities, and it cannot convey the flavor or sense of a culture. The middle circle of vicarious experience is more useful for that, but must be used carefully. I cannot expect to know everything about Korean culture from one family dinner. I might be able to pick out some details, useful for a scene at a Korean character’s house. More useful are the vicarious experiences I have repeated. A lifetime of my Mom’s stories has given me a good sense of what it’s like to work in a hospital, but one conversation with a Muslim about what they believe can’t guarantee I can write a convincing Muslim. Most useful for writing realistically, of course, are the traits in my innermost circle, the things I have personally experienced.

Here’s where the illusions begin.

People are never just one thing. They are hundreds of things piled up on each other and interweaving. They go through stages of being one thing and then another, they find one part of their identity more important than another, and they find other people react more strongly to some sides of who they are than another. The trick of writing convincingly is tearing apart everything in these circles, the parts you’ve experienced, the parts your friends have experienced and the parts you know intellectually, then weaving the parts back together, keeping the things you are familiar with dominant over the ones where your experience is limited. I can’t claim any personal experience of blackness, and my vicarious experience, though I’m working to improve it, is still sparser than I’d like it to be. That’s all right. I can still write about a man who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, works as a vet and identifies most strongly as a cosplaying nerd, and sometimes has the experience of walking down a street at night and seeing a woman shuffle away clutching their purses, quickly but not too quickly because, after all, she doesn’t want to look racist.

Now, the reason to keep the traits you know best in the foreground goes deeper than just accuracy. It’s also about respect. It is fundamentally disrespectful to speak for someone who isn’t you, unless you’ve earned serious trust from them. It’s hard enough to do this with individuals, and essentially impossible to do it with an entire demographic. If I may switch from the perspective of the privileged writer trying to represent other groups, to the marginalized person who other people are trying to represent, I hate it when somebody tells me about this movie about a trans person, and just from reading the IMDB page I can already tell that A. the cisgender writer was trying to tell The Ultimate Story of What It Means to be Trans, and B. they got it wrong. That’s not the story that anybody cis gets to tell. Write about being a delightfully quirky Irish foundling trying to find her mother and make it on her own, while also happening to be trans. I love that movie. Or, you know, about an identity thief who happens to be trans. That works too.

That’s the real point of the three circles. Recognize that your ability to write a human being and speak for a demographic are two totally different things. Recognize that people’s experiences are multidimensional, yours included, and that you can expand your repertoire, but not instantaneously. One of my favorite research resources is the NaNoWriMo reference desk forum. It’s a good way to get obscure questions answered by an expert, but on every page you will get somebody asking, “so I want to write about this deaf person, and their entire reason for living is to find a way to regain their hearing and finally become whole, obviously, so I need to know how that can happen, and also I don’t know anything about being deaf-mute, so could you tell me what that’s like please?” Then you get a couple people saying “here’s what I found out on Wikipedia” before somebody finally says, “sigh… I’m a CODA/interpreter/actual Deaf person, and everything you wrote is already wrong.” Nobody can become an expert in a whole different way to perceive the world overnight.

In conclusion; think about what you know. Recombine that to create new and different people. Work on expanding what you know, and be patient with the process.

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