Should an author write a character outside of their identity is a complicated question to answer. There is an infinite variety of human experiences, there are few hard and fast rules. But there is often (rightly) a great deal of concern from writers about whether a story is theirs to tell.
This is why I begin with a warning: I don’t have a single answer, because there isn’t one. It’s ultimately up to the writer to decide whether their circumstances and understanding of the issue make them the right person to tell a story.
What I do have is a system I use when I'm deciding to write outside of my own lived experiences. This isn’t intended to be prescriptive, but instead, open-ended questions to help me sort out my own feelings before I move forward with a project or not.
Can I Write This Authentically?
What connection, if any, do I have to this subject? Have I lived it? If so, in what way?
Did my ancestors directly experience this? Has it impacted me in the form of generational trauma? If not, am I in proximity to this subject?
Am I affected by it or something like it? Do I share a marginalized identity or experiences that touch on this issue?
My best friend is a Black woman who’s an expert in British naval history. (She consented to be mentioned in this.) We have lived together, off and on, for over a decade. We frequently have conversations about her lived experiences. I call her aunts and uncles my aunts and uncles. I am her daughter’s godmother.
But I cannot understand her experiences in a meaningful way when it comes to being Black in America, because I am not Black. We know one another profoundly, love each other and share many parts of our lives, but she experiences things in a fundamentally different way than I do because I am white.
When it comes to foundational identities, like race and gender, it is often impossible for an outsider to speak about the experiences that come with that identity with any amount of authenticity. Some experiences are not universal. They can only be understood by the people whose lives are shaped by having these specific experiences.
There is a certain amount of shared experiences when it comes to things to which we are in proximity. A queer person would be more qualified to comment on issues that relate to other queer people than a straight cishet person, for example. But that doesn’t mean every queer person can comment on every queer experience with authority or should try. For example, as a queer cis woman, I cannot speak to the experiences of trans people.
A writer considering a story about a lived experience they don’t share could ask themselves what elements of the experience draws their interest. What about their own identity and experiences makes them the right person to tell this story authentically? Is there a way to tell this story that might be more authentic to the writer’s own experiences? Why or why not?
Can I Write This Sensitively?
Am I clear on the nuances of this subject?
Am I educated on the potential harm I could cause by writing about this poorly?
Some issues are so complex that writing about them in a nuanced way without personal experience is nearly impossible. Especially issues that reflect concerns about the nature of a given identity, or that relate to the generational trauma experienced by marginalized groups.
Some identities are informed, in part, by the experience of trauma that often accompanies that identity. I have bonded with other hijabis over the experience of being forced to remove my scarf so a stranger could run their fingers through my hair in the airport. A person who isn’t Muslim may not grasp the subtleties of what it feels like, even if they’ve had proximate experiences, because of the specific combination of being forced to expose my hair and the hostility many Muslims face in airports.
It’s important, as writers, that we remember the real people who can be harmed by what we write. Readers often relate to writers as authority figures. By speaking about something without having the lived experience of it, we risk perpetuating stereotypes or even dehumanizing marginalized people.
Writing about marginalized people takes a willingness to educate oneself about the issues that affect that group, and the humility to acknowledge that, as an outsider, our ability to understand those issues is limited.
If you wanted to address a subject in your writing, you could start by interrogating what you know about it, why you want to write about it, and what approach you want to take.
Additional questions to consider: Did marginalized voices inform your understanding? What can you bring to the subject to help amplify marginalized voices? Why is your voice needed here?
Can I Write With Nuance?
Am I reducing this character to their marginalization?
Am I treating them as a complete person or as a prop?
Am I giving them appropriate levels of agency and respecting their personhood?
Wonder Woman once had a sidekick. Her name was...Etta Candy. She loved to eat sweets. She sometimes shouted ‘Woo! Woo!’ As a catchphrase. Have you guessed by now that the character was fat? (It’s fair to point out that the initial iteration of Etta was also brave, smart, and self-loving. So there’s that.)
It is easy to default to stereotypes when writing a character with experiences outside the writer’s ken. Without consciously doing it, writers reduce characters to a kind of shorthand. For example, the autistic character is brilliant but unable to grasp basic manners. Another character is deaf, so their purpose is to illuminate something about the main character instead of writing the deaf character as a person with their own character arc.
More than with other characters, marginalized characters are written as props. Their identity revolves around their marginalized identity and who have nothing driving them. They are a convenient plot device for the main character. There's no depth or complexity—the marginalized character isn’t someone named Avery, who loves dogs, eats pizza, and who’s training to be a dentist.
Alternatively, are they the quirky comic relief? How do you subvert this trope? Do they talk to others and get taken seriously? Or do they exist to play their marginalized status for laughs and disappear when the characters with depth are talking?
I would encourage writers considering writing a marginalized character to consider the Ava Duvernay test. (While the Ava Duvernay test specifically deals with characters who are POC, the same principles can be extrapolated to other marginalizations, also.)
Does this character talk about things that aren’t related to their marginalization? What are they like among people who share their marginalization? What do they want that doesn’t center the main character?
If you aren’t entirely sure you’re able to write authentically, carefully, and with nuance? It might prove helpful to consult a sensitivity reader to help unpack your concerns and possibly provide insight into potential pitfalls that may come with choosing to proceed with the project.
Ultimately, only the author can decide if they feel comfortable writing outside their own lived experiences. Complicated subjects require a sensitive and thoughtful approach. While sitting with these questions and doing some introspection can be helpful, there is no easy “one size fits all” answer.