On Writing Different Characters

Most of my fiction is deficient in diverse voices. To be fair, most fiction by white males is equally deficient. But there is no excuse for me not to, knowing how important diversity is to readers, knowing how important it is to have a diverse readership. I’ve tried to write diverse characters. And, in fact, I think I’ve made some interesting ones. But I haven’t yet been able to successfully write from any perspective terribly different from my own.

My POV protagonists are usually built upon the Nick Carraway archetype—cool dudes who observe the world kinda amazed by everything. (I say dudes but really many of them are intentionally androgynous. Only in stories where M/M romance [“where the labyrinth is lightless” and “young hearts be free tonight”] or M/F romance [It Helps with the Blues] are central subject matters do I really make the push to express their gender identity.) I like this character. I identify with them on a spiritual level—they are individuals who are essentially enraptured with the complex experiences happening all around them, who find observing and interpreting these experiences as an almost religious practice. They do their best to be calm and collected, be good friends to people who may not even deserve it, because they simply do not know enough yet of a situation to be anything other than calm, collected, and a good friend. In some of my short stories you see their flaws—their indifference, lack of empathy, aloofness—and honestly at times they can be assholes, situation depending. But in general they mean well. They just get jaded on occasion and the reader becomes privy to their worst moments. I get this character because in many ways I am that character.

Anyway. I am very comfortable with this character. But lately I’ve been thinking about the women and people of color in my novella It Helps with the Blues and have been wondering if I did right by them.

I believe the most successful character who fell outside my comfort zone and who I still gave an adequately dynamic background to was Gabriel, the queer punk boy whose plight takes up two chapters of the novella. Gabriel worked for me because he is one part of me that got expanded upon for dramatic effect. Rage, depression, sexuality incarnate. He was vaguely written as having a latinx racial background, though this is never mentioned in the novel. Regardless I wrote him as both queer and a racial minority because I wanted to imply that his righteous anger stemmed from multiple sources of oppression—wanted him to feel like the world was against him no matter what. While his personality “passes” as heterosexually masculine, in a sort of Billy Idol Thatcher-era English punk way, but regardless of that masculinity he faces prejudice for his race as well.

Now, I don’t really get into race in my novella. I believe it’s there, or at least I hope it is, but in any event I was able to communicate an experience somewhat different from my own by channeling what I was most familiar with (that being queerness) and extrapolating upon it. For example, I get angry like anybody else. But the difference between me and Gabriel is that when I get angry, I try to suppress those violent impulses. Gabriel has no such privilege. He has too much to be angry about. So when Gabriel gets angry, he smashes in a stranger’s car window. Thus Gabriel is able to be a bit different from my standard POV character because I put the spotlight on pieces of myself that I might try to subdue (ie anger) and expand upon it, finding experiences similar to those I go through but not quite the same (homophobia and racism, as opposed to only the former).

The women in my fiction usually fall under the “cool but aloof” category. The thing is, this is mostly because I was never comfortable attempting to express the inner thoughts of women. Most women in my stories are as a result sort of in the background, appreciated not as objects of beauty but as interesting people who naturally keep the protagonists at a distance, and thus the reader by extension. By this I essentially aimed to avoid writing these women as two-dimensional, to avoid speaking out of turn about experiences that I didn’t totally understand, while still holding them at arm’s length.

While Jules, the central woman protagonist in Blues, does eventually get her say in the final chapter (one of my favorite bits of writing I’ve ever done, by the way), I still wonder sometimes how I might have better handled the only other woman character in that novella: Estelle.

Estelle, also the only black character I’ve written to date, I think is extremely cool and interesting. The problem is, she is only ever seen through the male gaze. One can correctly see that Estelle appears in the novel, engages in a couple acts of sex, then leaves just as quickly as she arrived. I think I could have done much better in her characterization, make it clear that I wasn’t making her a sex object. She is supposed to be a woman who can and will have sex if she wants to, but neither wants nor expects the affection of the guys she sleeps with. And it is every guy’s fault for assuming that they are somehow romantically linked after they’ve been to bed with her.

Basically, Estelle is supposed to be unapologetically sexual. She isn’t your manic pixie dream girl and can’t be bothered to take the time to explain that to you. I think it’s an incredibly interesting dynamic for a young woman to have, but I never really delved into it from her perspective. Thus, in being too apprehensive to explore her character, I failed to adequately bring that point across.

Here’s the thing about writing characters who might not fit your exact identity—I’ve learned that it’s not that hard. At least, it requires effort that you should be putting forth anyway. It requires some work on the author’s part to do them justice. I’m much more comfortable writing black women now than I was when I wrote Blues because I’ve had more experiences both socially and artistically with black women. And really that is all you need—more diversity in both your creative consumption and your social engagements.

It’s something you should be doing anyway. Took me quite a while to realize that. But once you do, you find the commonalities that tie you to people who aren’t immediately like you, making them significantly easier to write.

I’ve always found it easier to write people like myself, but I want to broaden beyond my go-to characterizations. Thinking about and engaging with diversity helps to accomplish this. I certainly will always be more comfortable writing from my Nick Carraway perch, and those types of characters will probably always manifest themselves in my fiction, but I think that in order to grow as a writer I have to make the attempt to expand beyond them.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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