You are going to get it wrong. It is as fundamental to the craft as rejection, procrastination and gravity. A pursuit that requires you to put yourself into the heart and brain of another human being will lead you to create an endless parade of wrong-headed characters. Sometimes the errors will be minor and sometimes not—and here’s the kicker: you will even fail at making that determination.
I once had the chance to show my work to a Famous Western Writer (FWW) whom I admired. I grew up on a farm on the Great Plains, near an old frontier town of about a thousand people. I can, after a few tries, rope a calf, barrel race and drive a combine. In other words, I believe myself supremely qualified to write a western novel. But FWW had a problem: I had, in a description of the town, lumped the post office in with other businesses. FWW spent fifteen of our thirty minutes going on about how it wasn’t right that the character saw the post office this way. He was kind and complimentary about the rest of the piece, even offering to introduce me to his agent. Still, I was wounded. Who was he to tell me about my character? A post office was trifling in the context of my masterpiece.
It took me a while to come around. The western post office represents a connection to a broader world, it linked my character’s ancestors to their homelands and stories. My character would never think of it as just another business. I knew that, of course I did, or I would have if I’d spent more than five seconds thinking about it. What I had on the page was very much wrong.
Some writers will regale with tales of their gaffes. They inadvertently put familiar one-way streets in the wrong direction or place scenes in a famous restaurant that hasn’t yet opened. Writers love to recount with a sigh the letters from niggling readers who’ve nothing to do but point out these small mistakes. Seldom, however, do writers talk about the big misses—the slips into stereotype. Many are too defensive, too proud or simply too misguided to fess up. Yet we know they’ve done it as our literature remains littered with poorly drawn characters.
Don’t pretend not to know where these pitfalls lie. If you really can’t tell which characters in your novel might offend a group of people, then perhaps writing isn’t the best endeavor for you. I didn’t have any idea! is the knee-jerk response of the privileged. If you are capable of dreaming up a character substantially different from the person you see every day in the mirror, you are capable of identifying the potential hot spots for causing offense in your work.
Loud is the chorus of resistance to such acknowledgement. How boring! How restrictive that I can only write about people like me! Again, you miss the point. Write it, yes write it, just admit that you’re probably going to get it wrong.
Why are writers loathe to admit we could be wrong? Perhaps we are saturated with the glorious reviews of our idols’ works, works so riddled with lazy stereotypes that we expect to claim such praise for ourselves. The critics gave them a free pass; we should get one too. When did everybody get so sensitive? Nobody just “got” sensitive. The critics and professors and all the rest handing out free passes to those literary lions were wrong. They have given us the preposterous expectation that we should be free from criticism, that whatever mistakes flow from our pens should be dismissed in order to better admire the rest of our masterpieces.
So, if you haven’t already done it, you will one day go to the mat to defend your misbegotten characters. Why? Because imagining character is where we like to think the magic of writing lies. No one wants to admit that a character appeared in a book out of simple necessity. Hmm. Main character needs someone to witness her pain, I’ll throw in a nurse. And because I’d really like to make use of my high school Spanish, I’ll make her a wise-cracking Latina. Five seconds of thought, if that. It happens. Books are big, complex beasts with all sorts of character additions and subtractions over time. We are well beyond the days when readers had the patience to read pages of background on a secondary character and so in a quick sketch, we must give the broad outlines of an entire human being. Circumstances are ideal for your bias to creep onto the page. You, however, won’t be able to see it as you’ll be crouched in your defensive corner, reciting your magical writing bona-fides.
Go in another direction. If you start with the premise that you will get it wrong, then you can open yourself up to the wisdom of the broader writing community. Call them what you will, friends, fellow work-shoppers or sensitivity readers. If you’ve got a hot spot in your novel, you need to find readers who are substantially different from you to read it. Beg them to read; pay them to read. Go in with an open mind and thick skin. You might get beat up but come back for another round. And if you’re lucky, your critics might get you thinking about wrongs you’ve yet to commit.
Censorship! Again, no. How can deepening a character be bad for your book? How can going beyond the African American happy-go-lucky sidekick or Asian math nerd or sassy gay friend spell the death of literature? Even I, from my perch of white privilege with the vast array of excellent white characters to choose from in our literary “canon” can’t stand to read one more story with the naïve/hayseed/farmboy/soldier character. What is it like for people of color who’ve long had to confront highly-praised works with so many ridiculous stereotypes?
Being wrong about a post office shook me for months. I knew it was stupid, I knew it was my ego. I wanted that perfect review from FWW. I had already imagined myself at the cocktail party with my workshop buddies, subtly bragging about his glowing review. That’s what writers get, right? But deeper, however, was a terrifying monster: if I could get something so obvious wrong, how could I ever write the range of characters who lurked in my subconscious? If we can’t even get the direction of a street right, why do we think that we can write about a character’s race or sexuality or gender correctly? We can’t. Accept it. Embrace it. And then workshop the hell out of it. You owe it to fellow writers, you owe it to readers. And you owe it to your characters.