Don’t Be Scared, Just Be Careful: A Guide for Writing in an Identity PoV That Isn’t Yours

Imaged of a scared personMarginalized characters are the cool thing now, amirite? Everybody wants to read them, everybody wants to write them. And while it’s nice to see so many privileged writers embracing characters unlike themselves and trying to incorporate them into their work, there have also been numerous novels published on marginalized identities that have been, ah…less than good. I know because I’ve read them. And have since sworn off certain pairings of author/character identity because the rate of disappointment-to-fury was so high.

That’s bad. This should never have to be a thing. Not only for the damage it causes to a given marginalized community, but also just because weak novels make Jesus cry.

How to approach a marginalized character seems a mystery for even the most well-intentioned of privileged folks. I’ve seen too many of these writers hurt and confused when they received pushback, and too many who abandoned their projects halfway through because their foundations were so shaky. And others still who are too afraid and unsure to try at all.

So if you’re feeling a pull to write about a marginalized identity that’s not your own, here are some things to keep in mind to help avoid the pitfalls. (Note: I’ll be using the term “privileged” as an umbrella term for anybody who isn’t the marginalized identity they’re writing about. The following information is still relevant to, say, one marginalized identity trying to write about another. Don’t get cocky, fam.)

Know Why You Want to Write This Character/Plot/Novel

This is a crucial first step. Much like any other novel, if you don’t know why you want to write it, you’re going to have a mess on your hands sooner or later. You need focus and direction to avoid foundational pitfalls.

When it comes to marginalization, there are popular good reasons just as much as popular bad ones:

“Because I want to learn more about X.” Cool. You do that. Just make sure to do the proper research.

“Because it’s horrible X is happening and I want to help spread the word about it.” This can also be a good reason as long as your intention isn’t to just capitalize on pain. Again, just do your research.

“Because I feel including X is just an accurate and natural way of going about my plot.” Ooh. I like that. Yes, do the thing. Just be sure to crosscheck your sense of organic plot with actual fact.

“Because I find X fascinating.” We’re hitting borderline here. Be aware of your intentions, make sure you do proper research, and don’t fall into fetishizing, romanticizing, or otherwise portraying the identity in a way that prioritizes how you want things to be (as opposed to what’s true). We’re not zoo animals.

“Because X looks like a hot topic right now and I want my book to sell.” No. Bad writer. Go in the corner.

“Because X is super depressing and I want to win a Pulitzer.” Our stories aren’t your trauma porn. Go in the corner with the other writer. No talking.

“Because I can write about whatever I want. This is America. Don’t censor me.” That’s…a terrible mindset. You’ll be unsuccessful in tackling a story that’s not about you if your everyday focus is so heavily on yourself and your wants.

“Because I am X.” My bad. You may proceed.

Do Your Due Diligence

You may have noticed a pattern above. Research, research, research.

Read books, both fiction and non-fiction, about your character’s identity and written by your character’s identity. Reading marginalized topics still from the perspective of the privileged is basically masturbation. Don’t do that.

Get a notion of your character’s identity history. Know the general path of their ancestry to better understand why your character is where they are at the start of your story.

Stay informed on current news about your character’s identity. (Even if they’re not part of the present day or even of this world. You need to have a basic understanding of how today’s readers of that identity are going to interpret your book based on what they themselves are dealing with.)

When a person of your character’s identity has something to say about your work, listen and then take that information to heart. Remember, that person is ahead of you by years of real-life knowledge. Don’t assume you know better. Or, even worse, hear them but ignore it because you don’t want to alter or kill some of your dead darlings. (It hurts, I know.)

Even if your plot doesn’t delve into the deeper and/or political stuff, your intentions and knowledge will bleed through the pages. Your education will show, for better or worse.

The More Main Your Character, the More Careful You Need to Be

The more main your marginalized character, the more focus there will be on them, and the more dependent upon them the plot points and secondary characters will be. Be conscientious and mindful of every move you make. The very bones of your book will hang in the balance of how well you portray this character, their trials, and their decisions.

First Person is Riskier Than Third

If you approach the given character in first person, tread lightly. Writing a protagonist in first person when they’re not an identity of your own is about as risky as you can get because it’s also as close as you can get. You’re trying to be in their head, see everything from their eyes, and spill their thoughts out on the page. Not only is this technically an impossible feat (and arguably, therefore, a masquerade of sorts), you also come off implying that you have a right and knowledge to do so. (Close third also carries many of these risks, but tends to come off less presumptuous.)

Even if this isn’t your intention, it’s easy to be misinterpreted as such. This character—this identity—is your puppet. This relationship is true for all characters and their authors, but when it’s a privileged author over a marginalized character, that’s perpetuating an age-old power dynamic that could go sour fast. And depending on what you do with your character, it might not go over too well with the community in question.

It’s Easier to Go Privileged Than Marginalized

And when I say “easier,” I mean the difference between running a 10k and sitting on the couch watching television.

Doesn’t sound very fair, does it? But hold up. This is because you’re likely starting from a place where you don’t have a firm grasp on how we think or operate. You need to train.

We, on the other hand, already know how you think and operate. We know because we’ve been saturated in it since we were born through movies, news, books, television shows, commercials, music, video games, Disney villains, classroom assignments, college itineraries, calls to the principal’s office, Halloween costumes, opinion pieces, “preferences,” devil’s advocates, housing, relationships, dating, sex, sex education, PDA, clubs, restaurants, parks, banks, hospitals, healthcare, procreation, adoption, marriage, wedding cakes, taxes, prisons, laws, regulations, court sentences, police brutality, catcalling, street harassment, slurs, graffiti, notes on windshields, “just jokes”…

You get the idea. All this stuff, everything our country’s culture was built from, was largely made with you in mind. And so their implications haven’t affected you in a way you’d have noticed without provocation. But now that you’ve been provoked, it’s time to start your education. We may be a lifetime of real-life experience ahead of you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn enough of the basics on your own to eventually write an accurate and empathetic novel.

Get Ready for White Tears, Straight Guilt, and Cis Confusion

Maaaaan. Your ancestors sucked, right? And it turns out you benefitted from their crimes against humanity and common decency and such. You wouldn’t be where you are today if it wasn’t for generations of hate and oppression in your favor, even if you don’t have much to your name these days. (Imagine if you didn’t have even that.)

Nobody likes finding this stuff out, especially if you’ve been trying so hard to be a good ally and struggling to succeed in life in general. But the best thing you can do in light of that is to recognize it, come to terms with it, and vocalize why it was so wrong. You can even include why oppression against a different identity ended up disadvantaging you because, hey, it’s true.

Work with what you can handle. Just don’t misconstrue, lie about, or push away what you don’t want to hear. If you do that, please go write about something you’re clearly more comfortable with. You can’t write a book you’re scared of.

Get Sensitivity Readers

And pay them a reasonable rate. I can’t tell you how many times I’d read manuscripts for free before I realized my worth. That stuff is work.

But why bother with them? We all know that you’ll have at least an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a publisher’s editor all look at your book before it gets published by a house. The answer is that, as great as agents and editors are, they’re ultimately still doing business. It’s a fair bet they’ll sometimes steer you toward whatever sells easiest and fastest, even if they don’t realize it themselves. And we’re just not to a place in society yet where books about marginalized characters can only be entertainment. Due to a severe lack of societal knowledge and ongoing oppression, these books have to also be statements. It’s safest to have additional eyes on those extra layers.

When you get feedback from a sensitivity reader, listen and then take that information to heart. It’s a waste of time and money if you push away what they say just because it doesn’t magically line up with your vision. Hear them out. Give it a shot. Try really, really hard to see where they’re coming from. Because that’s kind of the point of your book, right?

Be Prepared for Pushback, Callouts, and No Cookies

It doesn’t matter how thorough your research, helpful your sensitivity readers, or empathetic your writing. You will—I repeat, will—get called out by people about your book. It could be a single one-star review on Amazon that goes unnoticed or it could be a Twitter avalanche that crushes your writing career. Usually the response stays in step with the epicness of your fail and how gracefully you handle the callout, but sometimes it’s a bit of a crapshoot.

Sucks, right? But this is because every identity is beautifully complex, even the privileged ones, and no one character or book is able to encompass it all. And since marginalized characters are still underrepresented by a significant degree, that means the presentation of variety is still lacking, and so your poor character is shouldering more weight than is fair. This is tough enough on marginalized authors, but for privileged ones? The risk is even higher. We don’t necessarily know who you are or what you’re up to. And your ancestral track record is against you. We instinctively go into these books with our ears up.

Basically, you’re imperfect. We all are. So there’s always going to be at least one thing in your book—in any of our books—that’s not quite right. And in this situation, it involves real-life struggle and identity that’s already systematically abused by the mainstream, so responses will be far more heated than a missing semicolon or weak plot point. That’s the risk of a marginalized book.

But What If You’re Too Scared to Try?

If you’re scared or hesitant, I consider that a good sign. It means you’re entering into this project with awareness, which can only work to serve you as you see things through someone else’s eyes.

The fact of the matter is we need more representation in novels. More of it would help everybody out when done properly. (And while I prefer to see marginalized characters written by marginalized people, I also believe that outsiders who do a good job on marginalized characters will help lift some of the aforementioned burden off of marginalized writers.) We thank you for your interest in helping make this happen. But we also just want to make sure you understand the level of responsibility and work you’re taking on.

In the end, don’t be too scared to try if you really want to write your novel for all the right reasons. You’ll be missing out on a great opportunity for empathy, even if your book never makes it to the finish line. You’ll get to learn about marginalized people, you’ll get to know them in person, and you’ll work toward understanding someone unlike yourself to the best of your ability. You’ll be a better person for that.

They say a good writer writes what they know. But I say a great writer will be forever learning.

Go be that person.

2 comments

  1. Anna

    Excellent advice, Milo. I am privileged and grew up in the bosom of a marginalized group. I know the people in it better than most, but I would never dare to write about them with any authority (and it drives me up the wall to see/hear/read about the romanticization of that group by the (perhaps envious?) privileged.

    A few years ago, a book by a best-selling author whose works I usually enjoy was set among people of a lesser-known group, which I am fairly well acquainted with, and the depiction of them was unbelievably inauthentic. Needless to say, all the parts that rang false were in service to the plot, which apparently required them. Buried in the ecstatic 5-star reviews, far down the list, I found a long 1-star review by a knowledgable reader who pointed out all the wrong-footed aspects that had offended me. The lesson, I guess, is that if you write best-sellers you can get away with anything. But do we really want to make such compromises?

    Thanks again for this fine and vivid essay.

  2. Deborah H Good

    Great piece, Milo, especially your point about the heightened risk of 1st person POV with a marginalized or usually reviled character. Telling their story in that way requires extra humility and vigilance, from first draft to final.

    I would add that there are also politically sensitive stories e.g. a character confronted with an unwanted pregnancy that also end up being “statements.” There is no way what that woman decides to do and why that can be presented as politically “neutral.” (I’ve heard this claim.)Women who have had raised children born out-of-wedlock, given them up for adoption or had an abortion are among those who feel marginalized by society or some sector of it. In those stories, the writer must accept that their viewpoint about abortion and the right to choose will be sniffed out by the reader.

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