Excellent question, that.
I believe the answer is no.
But wait! There’s so much more to this post than a simple Q&A! After the note, I’ll tell you how and why you should write about what you don’t know.
Note: This post is a behemoth. I tried to make it as short as possible but it’s still two-thousandish words long. Sorry about that. If reading such a long piece may prove exhausting, I suggest that you grab chocolate or something to keep up your energy. Cheers!
Consider “the greats.” J.R.R. Tolkien told of a hobbit’s struggle to destroy an evil ring. J.K. Rowling wrote about a boy wizard who attended a school of magic. Agatha Christie penned story after story about murderers.
All of these authors – among the most successful in the world – wrote of things they didn’t really know about, not from personal experience. Tolkien was not a hobbit, Rowling is neither a wizard nor a witch, and I certainly hope Dame Agatha never murdered anyone.
And yet, their stories are utterly believable. They understood their characters, plots, and themes so well, and that makes their readers – us – understand those characters, plots, and themes as well. Even though we aren’t magical, murderous hobbits.
And I believe you don’t even need to be “one of the greats” to write about experiences that are not your own. The idea for this post has been rattling around my mind for ages – the kick in the pants I needed to make me write it came from questions in the comments of my post for the May 2014 Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain.
I wrote primarily about diversity, specifically diversity in gender and sexuality. Diverse characters are necessary in all books because, well, the real world is diverse.
(And if you still don’t think diversity is necessary, you’re probably always represented in fiction. You’ve never had to hunt through each and every line of a book for even the tiniest mention of a character like you. Sure, you can relate to those who are different, but it’s nice to know that your kind exist in a fictional world.)
Most of the commenters on my post agreed and yet a common question was, “I’m straight and want to include LGBTQ+ characters in my stories, but I don’t know how to write them. Can you help?”
Engie the magnificent (and slightly dorky) lesbian writing-adviser, at your service. I think two things are necessary when writing about what you don’t know – whether that’s sexuality or gender or race or whatever.
Let yours run wild. More than once, I have received blog comments along the lines of, “Is it weird that my character is LGBTQ+ and also a princess / alien / best friend of a dragon / assassin / whatever?”
NO. No, it is not. Is there any particular reason a dragon’s best friend must be heterosexual? (If there is, I’m really sad.) You have an imagination – so use it! Want to write about a bisexual detective? Go for it. Or perhaps you’re more interested in a transgender princess? I’d read about that. Or a character who is queer and some other minority? That’s cool.
If writers had more imagination, there wouldn’t be nearly as many of the same old stories about contemporary teens coming out. And that would be GLORIOUS, because I really want to read about that bisexual detective.
Imagination is useful for more than just writing one-of-a-kind characters, though. Use it to relate to those who are different from you – I often hear, “I know that including LGBTQ+ characters is important, but I don’t think I could write them well. I just can’t relate to those people.”
Time for a quick survey. Any Lord of the Rings fans here? Raise your hands high! What about Harry Potter? Chronicles of Narnia? The Hunger Games? Doctor Who?
If you love any of those stories: Congratulations. You have related to characters who are vastly different from you. You don’t share all of the same life experiences. Some of these characters aren’t even the same species as you.
I would say that I’m not that different from you, but you know what? That shouldn’t matter. People shouldn’t have to be exactly or even mostly alike for you to relate to them. If you can relate to a hobbit, I am fully confident that you can relate to someone who is queer. For one thing, we’re more likely to be your height. (Except for five-foot-tall me, ha ha.) For another, we actually, you know… exist. If you can relate to hobbits but draw the line at relating to certain types of real people, I think that’s pretty messed up.
I don’t know why that’s so difficult to understand. Maybe some kind of subconscious “no homo” reasoning is at work here: “If I relate to LGBTQ+ people, that might mean I’m LGBTQ+!” Um, no. It just means that you’re capable of sympathy, like a normal human being. I was concerned about Eustace when he became a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but I did not, unfortunately, also turn into a dragon.
One last note on using imagination to relate to people: I do this all the time. I have to. Most of the people I know (and characters I read about, or see on TV shows) are straight. If I can do it, so can you. Keep this in mind.
One of my current writing projects is a high fantasy story. (Actually, many of my current writing projects are high fantasy stories. But I digress.) My favorite part of writing it – aside from RESEARCHING SWORDS AND TREBUCHETS, WHEE – is the cute romance between the main character and her girlfriend. (Co-queen? I don’t know. I’ve only just started writing it and I’m not sure if I want to bother exploring all the politics-in-monarchies stuff.) I initially envisioned them as lesbians but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they should be bisexual. Bi girls need fictional representation more than lesbians do.
I am not bisexual. But guess what? It’s not hard for me to write characters who are, not if I search for information when necessary. (Also, to keep it simple, all my examples from now on will be about writing bisexual girls.) Research is your friend, people. Don’t worry about not having personal experience with your topic – make up for it by acquiring general knowledge.
Here are some items you can use for research.
+ Nonfiction sources. These could be books, magazines, newspapers, websites, videos, whatever – the format doesn’t matter. This is where you’ll want to look for cold, hard facts. I use mostly books, because I love them and am trying to read as many as possible this year. Currently, I’d like to get my hands on a copy of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, because A) research is good and B) queer theory is my idea of light reading. But I won’t limit myself to words on a page. GayWrites (a news website) has a YouTube channel and because its producer is bi, she tends to post a lot of content concerning that community.
+ Fiction sources. Again, these can come in any and all formats. When used discerningly, stories can be sources of facts too, but I think they are best used to determine how to tell your story. For example, how many pages should be devoted to discussion of a character’s sexuality? (Answer: However many you want.) Or maybe you want to know how to avoid stereotypes.
My example: I recently read Malinda Lo’s Adaptation and Inheritance, science fiction stories with a bisexual female protagonist. I also beta-read a friend’s novel draft in which the main character’s love interest is bi. Funnily enough, neither activity was intended as research. But hey, they were still helpful. I saw several different methods of introducing a character’s bisexuality.
On a less positive note, some stories might teach you how not to write a certain kind of character. For example, visibility is important: Doctor Who‘s writers say that River Song is bi, but this isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the story. Whoops. It’s not wrong to be a fan of something that maybe doesn’t do the best job with its representation of [insert group here]. Just use it as an opportunity to do better in your own stories.
A good resource for finding diverse fiction sources is Diversity in YA. There you can find book lists with all sorts of themes, from “Ten Diverse Dystopian YA Books” to “Cute Asian Boys 2.0.”
+ Friends. Any people, really. But it would be less weird to ask a friend for help with research than to ask some random person, wouldn’t it? If I were worried that a character’s personality were unrealistic or offensive, I’d ask one of my friends or fellow bloggers who are bi to help.
I’d like to add, though, that while friends can be helpful, it’s probably a good idea to use the other two sources first. Sometimes I get nice, sensible questions about how to write characters like me but sometimes the underlying tone of a question is more like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WILL YOU WRITE THIS PART OF THE STORY FOR ME?”
I’m happy to help. But I’m not going to be there 24/7. I do have a life, you know. I have school and work and in my free time I make witty remarks to friends and cry over fictional characters. I’ll lend a hand but I’m not going to hold your hand while you write the story, if that makes any sense. It gets frustrating to explain the same basic things over and over, so excuse me if I’ve been a little short with you. (…suddenly I know how my parents must feel at times. I’ll try to work on remembering things better.)
I think plenty of other queer people (and those in other minority groups) would agree: If you have a question or two, fine, but ultimately you are writing the story. Don’t be that person, the one who makes me wonder if straight people everywhere collectively forgot how to perform Internet searches. I’m really glad I wrote this post because A) it was fun and B) now when people ask me for pointers on how to write LGBTQ+ characters I can say, “I have a post for that. Read it.”
…which is why I’m giving very general advice. There are a lot of blog posts (and probably entire books) about how to write characters who are different from yourself. However, I was asked to write one and I’m trying to make it different. So I decided to be as general as possible instead of stating, “Do this. Don’t do that.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is written mostly to say, “Yes, you can do it!” and then it goes on to say that “YOU can (and should) do it!”
So, I’m sorry if you were expecting something a little more specific. If you wanted a long list of pointers. This post is long, but it emphasizes research. It’s purposely a bit vague in the hope that it pushes YOU to learn more, to search further.
I might still get complaints on this post, though – “Are you trying to be difficult?!” No. Writing is difficult. And it should be difficult for the writer, not the people who are being bombarded with the writer’s questions.
Here: I’ll make this as easy as I can, while still laying most of the responsibility for research on your shoulders. Following are a bunch of potentially useful links. YOU should be the one to sift through them and take note of the suggestions that keep popping up.
All the links lead to posts on Malinda Lo’s blog because she writes about this subject prolifically. Also, since she’s queer and Chinese most of the posts deal with sexual orientation and race, but there are a few about gender.
- Should white people write about people of color?
- On writing dialogue about race and sexuality
- Heteronormativity, fantasy, and Bitterblue: Part one | Part two
- Write from the gut, not from fear of prejudice
- Writing about lesbians when you’re not a lesbian
- What does “authentic” mean, anyway?
- Writing about race in fantasy novels: Part one | Part two
- Writing about race in speculative fiction
- Taking the homophobia out of fantasy
- Elements of (queer) romance)
- Avoiding LGBTQ+ stereotypes in YA fiction: Part one – major LGBTQ+ stereotypes | Part two – gender | Part three – words to watch out for | Part four – secondary characters and gay jokes | Part five – resources
- YA Pride: Change without blame
- YA Pride: “Am I allowed to write this?” (guest post by Kirstin Cronn-Mills)
- Write the book you want to read (guest post by Audrey Coulthurst)
- On avoiding the exotic in Huntress
- How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?
- On agendas, social issues, and real-life awkwardness
Oh, wow. Now I need some chocolate. This post turned out much longer than I initially imagined it would. Anyway. Go forth, readers, and write diverse stories! Don’t worry about whether you can write stories about characters who are different from you, about things that you have not experienced, because you can! Just do plenty of research first! And imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes!
And don’t forget to feed me chocolate!