Characters: Stepping outside of your skin

As a writer, it is an obvious thing that I often have to write characters that are not fully represented by my life experience.  After all, I am a white mid-30s college-introduced man born and raised in the United States.  Obviously, my life experiences can never hope to capture many of the roles I am required to write for a good story, let alone those things that are pure fiction.  I know most people find nothing wrong with that at all.

The funny thing, though, is what kind of reaction can happen when you ‘step out of your skin’, especially for major characters, and into something that is quite real.  A white person writing about a person of color … a man writing a woman … a woman writing a man … a rich man writing about a poor man …. you get the picture.  It’s one thing to write about an alien from Alpha Centauri.  That carries no preconceptions or societal baggage.  Again, most people just go with it.  They don’t make social judgements if you don’t lay them down; they just read it and like it or hate it as it comes.

Some people, though, can take offense at the very idea of the writer taking on a very different type of character from their experience, even if there is no social commentary intended.  Everyone has a right to an opinion and they certainly have a duty to stand up to anything that could promote social injustice, but what about those people that have an instant knee-jerk reaction?

I suppose what I’m ultimately mumbling to myself about is this:  Do you, if you’re a writer, worry about writing characters outside of your life experience that are also quite real?  Do you, as a reader, give a flip when a writer does so, assuming they do so in a tactful fashion?



  1. A lot of my stories are about characters not like me because I’m boring and come from a boring place. Though I have to say living in Singapore has made me see that I do have a culture back home and who knows maybe I could come up with an interesting story based there….

    I definitely do worry about it and then just get super obsessed with research to make sure it’s as accurate and fair as possible. I try to get someone from that general geographic or cultural region to read it as well to make sure it’s authentic

    1. I admit to the same thing: research is very important. Even better is getting to know people from that world view and actually listening to them. Thanks for your input!

  2. To me, “write what you know” means having the integrity to do the research and not perpetrate prejudice or sling stereotypes around. Anybody who “takes offense” in the way you describe, is just a troll, trying to pick a fight.

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