Stepping into someone else’s shoes

Authors should be encouraged to write characters of backgrounds other than their own

By Erin Loh

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” The phrase generally makes sense — one’s own experiences are naturally what they will be able to portray most accurately and complexly through writing. 

However, when it comes to writing characters of different backgrounds than those of the author, such as gender, race or ability, sticking to “write what you know” is a weakness. Authors can, and should, write characters of different backgrounds as long as they approach such topics with empathy and care.Writing characters of different backgrounds allows authors to better represent the world that we live in. 

According to  The New York Times in 2020, 95% of books published by major publishing houses were written by white authors. If white authors are discouraged from writing minority voices, the way America is portrayed through literature will be even more lacking when it comes to diversity. When Americans do not see themselves represented in the books that they read, they may feel invisible and unable to find characters they can relate to. 

Writing from experience: John Green’s friendship with terminal cancer patient Esther Earl (middle) helped him portray Hazel Grace in “The Fault in Our Stars” truthfully and compassionately. (Photo courtesy of History Vs. Hollywood)

In addition to representing the world as diversely as it is, writing from different backgrounds can allow authors to tell the stories of marginalized groups, breaking down negative stereotypes. For example, in John Green’s novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” Green writes from the perspective of terminal cancer patient Hazel Grace. To accurately portray the experience of Hazel, Green drew upon his real life experiences with his friend Esther Earl, who was terminal with thyroid cancer. According to USA Today, Green said that from spending time with Earl, he learned that kids with stage four cancer can be just as funny, and as normal and as afraid as any other kid, which allowed him to portray Hazel genuinely in his novel.

Authors writing about backgrounds other than their own, however, have to be aware of not fueling stereotypes, and not culturally appropriating aspects of minority groups. In addition to doing research and spending time with those with similar backgrounds of characters in their novel, authors should get sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers read manuscripts for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias and lack of understanding, according to the University of Alberta. By getting sensitivity readers, authors can catch mistakes that they make before running the risk of offending a wider audience. 

Ultimately, authors must accept the fact that not all readers will choose to read their work if they know the author does not share the same background as one or more of the characters, no matter how hard the author tries to genuinely portray characters. 

The job of an author is to step in the lives of characters and write them in a way that allows them to draw readers in and take them on an emotional journey. Every main character of a novel should have their own personalities, strengths and flaws, successes and failures. The only way an author can fail to write a character of a different background is by letting an aspect of that character’s background get in the way of their humanity.