Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writing the Other

Last weekend I was on a panel at an afternoon of all things mystery at Kepler’s Bookstore in Palo Alto. My panel was entitled “It Ain’t Me Babe,” about writing a character who is not you. I write a series about a 60-something man in a small Texas town, an ex-chief of police who takes up the job again. He married a wealthy woman who collected art and grew to love modern art. Under the influence of his next-door neighbor he comes to enjoy a good glass of red wine. He also raises cattle.

It ain’t me, babe! I do like modern art and red wine and I spent wonderful hours in a small town in Texas where my grandparents lived when I was young—but that’s it. I’m noticeably not a man, not a cattle rancher and certainly not a chief of police, ex or otherwise. Sot the panel was just right for me.

But the first question threw me. The moderator talked about a woman who became head of the NAACP for a number of years, pretending to be an African American and asked if we writers were in the position of pretending as this woman was. I’ve been thinking about the question since then. At the heart of the question is the assumption that in order to write someone who is not like you, as a writer you have to pretend to be that person.

I don’t think that’s the case. You don’t “pretend” to become that person. In some ways, mentally, you actually become that person. When I am writing about Samuel, I feel as if I’m a camera, walking through his life, seeing through his eyes, recording events, reacting to them, having opinions about them. In some ways I think that’s what drives us to be writers, the fact that we have other voices in our heads that we channel. Not to be all woo-woo about it, it’s a bit of magic.

Is this what we mean when we talk about being “authentic” as a writer? Sometimes I have trouble getting into a character’s head and the character falls flat. It feels like an inauthentic rendering of his or her part in the novel. In order to come closer to the truth, I find that I have to slip into the skin of the character and mentally move through that world. I don’t know if that’s what other writers do. It’s something I’ve never heard anyone talk about. I’ve heard of writers producing biographies of their characters, but not mentally becoming the character.

I was recently asked if I thought I could write from the viewpoint of a 25-year-old man. Who knows? It feels like more of a stretch than writing an older man and I don't know if I have enough ability to "become" someone so young and with a different world and personal view. I'd like to find out

So I come back to the question. Is it “pretending” or “becoming” someone else? I’m curious to know what others think, and how other writers come to an understanding of the characters they are writing about.


Kris Calvin said...

Very interesting post. Thank you. For my part, I don't feel like I'm inside characters when I write, but it makes sense to me that you do. For me, it's more like I'm watching them in a film, and recording what they choose to do. It's very visual. And based on what you've said, although I never thought about it before either, the film-like "one step removed" quality might have something to do with them being "other" than I am. Because the one character I don't experience in that way is the protagonist (a lobbyist amateur sleuth), who I likely have the most in common with. I can't even picture her face, whereas with the others there's a complete rendering, as though they were be on screen. And the one character that i am least happy with feels two-dimensional, like he needs direction from me , rather than the feeling I get with most that I can sit back and enjoy the show.

Jane Gorman said...

Great post, thanks. It's a good question to think about. I believe I do put myself in the head of my characters. Seeing the world through their eyes. In their skin, as you describe it. It's both fun and creepy when writing from the point of view of the killer!

Kaye George said...

I think it's a matter of crawling inside the person you're creating, while you're writing that person. You don't "become" those characters and you don't pretend you're them, but you think like they do. We can pop in and out of many characters, especially if we're writing a book where the POV switches.

(Rachel Dolezal wasn't head of the whole NAACP, but just of the Spokane chapter. Now THERE'S a complicated character.)

Leslie Budewitz said...

Interesting questions, Terry. Like Kaye, I think it's not a matter of becoming or pretending to be someone else, but looking at the world through their eyes for a little while. Seeing as they do. The challenge, when we write about someone with a different background and experience, is to understand those differences and their influence as much as we can. My 32 y.o. single woman shop owner obviously isn't me, though I've given her some of my experiences -- but they differ, because of our age difference. The characters of different race, age, gender, ethnicity -- they're great fun to write, because I get to see the world through a different lens, but it's a challenge, too. If it weren't, why bother? I write to learn and explore the world and its people as much as to share the stories they tell. Thanks for raising the subject.

Terry said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful replies. Almost sounds like one could do a book, or at least a long article in the subject.

Picks By Pat said...

You're dead on, Terry. (No pun intended). You do have to try to become the character. When I am brainstorming, I run the dialogue through my head and try to imagine what the character is feeling. It sometimes plays like a movie while I watch, other times I try to be the character. This is hard when I'm writing a woman, but I had three sisters growing up, so I have some ammo to draw upon.

Cosmo DK said...

I think that as you write in the first person, it's easy to believe you are wandering around, pretending to be Samuel Craddock.

But I see a vast difference in a ficitional character versus someone making a living, trying to inhabit a role that is not genuinely their part of the world.