Exploring a Different Point of View: When My Character Isn’t Like Me

I’ve written before about feeling limited in my writing because I’m an only child.

Later it struck me that any writer is limited. We’re bound by our own bodies, these combinations of organs and colors that shape so much of our lives. I have experienced, am experiencing, and will experience life as a white female. But I don’t want to write only about white females. Through my writing, I try to step into someone else’s place and experience his fictional life. I’m trying to do this now.

One of my point of view characters is a late twenty-something African-American man. Obviously, though we share a few similarities in our backgrounds, our different skin colors and our different genitalia have resulted in different life experiences. Even things as simple as “going to a private Christian school” and “being a good student” are experienced differently.

I’ve tried to observe behaviors and reactions at my daughters’ private school, note all those little things that might help develop this character. I’ve cast my mind back to high school (earlier, I didn’t have any African-American students in my school) and tried to replay what I saw without realizing the significance of it.

(For example, after O.J. Simpson was acquitted, the only black boy in my senior class almost came to blows with another boy in art class. I don’t know what the white kid said—probably something racist or immature—but it upset the young black man. Another boy intervened, told the white kid to lay off or something, and the fight didn’t happen. I shrugged it off. Now I wonder how hard it must’ve been to be the only black male in our class, dealing with a structure that reinforced white privilege in ways both known and unknown to us.)

But I stumble when I try to write from this character’s point of view. Two issues:

One. I want his voice to be distinct from the others in the novel, but I don’t want it to be a stereotype of “generic young black man” (as if there is such a thing!) or clichéd. That’s a craft issue; every writer fights her impulse to reach for what is easy and obvious. It’s not easily solved but hard work and deep characterization helps.

Two. This time, it’s not an outer craft issue but an inner one.

In writing from a perspective of a person of a different race, am I appropriating his voice, molding it into a shape that suits my view of race? Am I trying to speak “for” black males, as if they cannot speak for themselves?

It wouldn’t be my intention. But I don’t always know all of my own intentions.

After weighing the options, I’ve decided to write from his view anyway. It scares me a little, but my better writing tends to scare me as it is, so there’s nothing to be gained and a lot to lose by avoiding it.

Still, I had difficulties transitioning from one view to another. I remembered a writer saying that he had always admired John Gardner’s writing, so he began copying one of Gardner’s novels by hand until he understood his voice and rhythm and reasoning.

Hmm, I thought. I went to my bookcase and hauled out everything written by an African-American, picked Earnest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (his narrator’s education level and family dynamics seem most similar to my character’s), and started copying his opening page in longhand.

I hadn’t remembered just how powerful this novel is. I don’t think I had properly appreciated what Gaines accomplishes in the first chapter—the first page—the first paragraph—heck, the first sentence.

Maybe it’s being a writer and knowing the difficulty of writing a gripping opening for a novel. Maybe it’s age, maturity, and a growing awareness of the world. Maybe it’s the process of slowing down, writing each and every word and punctuation mark that Gaines wrote first, and taking the time to see what he didn’t write.

Whatever it was, by the end of the first paragraph, my hand ached, my heart ached more, and I sensed, in Gaines’ blunt words, the ache of being helpless against an unjust system. I was ready to write in my character’s voice.

Skipped a few lines.

Started writing.

Started understanding how he views the world and what conflicts he is dealing with. Dealing with as a specific individual, that is, not as a stereotyped version of a person. I came up with several possible  subplots, too.

I still have a long way to go. I don’t delude myself and think that this writing is a substitute for experience. I’m trying to let the character drive the plot, not my views on race and racism forcing the character into a mold. (My characters never behave for me, anyway.)

But it’s a start.

And like any start, it’s scary.

But if I learn anything from this process, then all the fear is worth it.

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9 thoughts on “Exploring a Different Point of View: When My Character Isn’t Like Me

  1. You are taking on a challenge, and it’s a gutsy move for a writer. If you ever feel like there’s a passage from your work you’re willing to share, even if it’s one that is still subject to revision later, I know I’d love to read it. I bet your other readers would too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I consider all of my work subject to revision (unless it’s already been published!) so I’ll probably share some of it, at some point. Just not during the first draft! Thanks for reading, Tim. I always appreciate your encouragement.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recall that the reason I gave up on a famous author was because I found his characters too stereotyped. We’re all a complex mix of our experiences and expectations. I am intrigued by what you say about your writing process and no doubt this will be reflected in the quality of writing that results.

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    1. Oooo, I’d be interested in knowing what author that was! (Curiosity killed the cat, though, so maybe I shouldn’t be so curious. :)) Anyway, I hope that my writing quality reflects my efforts and that I don’t become sidetracked every time I read parts of Gaines’ novel (or others). I started reading the ending today and got caught up in the drama and almost started crying.

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  3. Handwriting an excerpt from an author we admire is such a an interesting idea: I’ve never done it, but I can see how it might be a helpful approach.

    That issue of whether someone of a privileged race should write from the POV of a person of a less-privileged race is a fraught one, isn’t it? I remember when our book club discussed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: some people in the group felt Stockett was justifying her own role in a racist system by writing the book in the first place, and they were troubled by the idea that the black women characters needed a white woman to give them a voice. Yet the leader seemed offended by that interpretation and wanted to focus only on what the women had in common. Like you suggest, we may not be totally aware of all our own motives, but trying to let our characters speak rather than forcing our agenda on them is a good starting point.

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    1. I remember having a similar discussion in African-American literature class; it was regarding someone–I think a white male poet–writing from various viewpoints, including a woman’s, etc. I can understand the concern, especially as this male poet (I can’t remember who he is, unfortunately) appeared to think that he could speak for ALL women, ALL blacks, as if we could be lumped into one category: “Here is THE women’s view on a subject!” (As if all women or African-Americans or Christians agree completely on anything.)

      I haven’t read The Help, so I don’t know about justification of her role in a racist system. (Thoughts?) But if my characters exist only in my mind (as Stockett’s characters did in hers), then no one besides me can put them on a page and give them a voice. I’m just going to do my best to get out of their way and let my characters shape the story and plot.

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      1. I shouldn’t have assumed you’d read The Help – sorry! When Stockett was young her family had a black maid who was very influential in Stockett’s life, and she wanted to honour this woman. So it seemed very lovingly done yet some readers thought the book (and the movie) was a way to ease white guilt.

        I know exactly what you mean by the “speak for everyone” approach. I get uncomfortable when I read a blog post title like “A Christian Response to 50 Shades of Grey”; I realize that’s better than “THE Christian Response,” but it still makes me think the writer is trying to speak on behalf of all Christians.

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      2. I’ve got The Help on my bookcase; for a while, even my friends who didn’t read fiction were talking about it. (That turned me off from reading it, somehow!) I’ve known women who were basically raised by a black “mammy” (their term, not mine) and seem to feel absolutely no qualms about having played a role in the racial caste system of the segregated Deep South. I find that so odd, and I can see why your book club friends and others thought the book was a way to ease white guilt. (There’s plenty of white guilt to go around here in Alabama, even for those of us who are too young to remember segregation and Jim Crow laws, or who really hate how segregated things such as the education system still are here. I mean, I live in a subdivision built on old cotton fields that probably used to be slave plantations or sharecroppers’ lands. The racial issue is always there, even when white people pretend it isn’t.)

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