The Lower Brain: Writing What You (Don’t) Know

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Dear Sara:

You’re an author, and I want to be an author, so I figure you’re a good person to ask about this. I wrote a novel that I like, but I’m concerned about the book being problematic because of the subject matter. Since I’ve been a white, straight man my whole life, I know I’ve got more privilege than a lot of people. And my character does not.

My main character is a morbidly obese guy who has one Mexican-American parent of color and one white parent of European descent. I’ve built his character to more or less satirize entitled, monstrous, awful men who are so close to getting the point but don’t.

He gets his comeuppance for all his faults and ends up in prison, where he definitely belongs. He’s a dangerous guy. It’s supposed to be satire. But I don’t know if my intent comes across. What if people think I affirm or admire his actions? What if people think I think he’s a hero?

What do you think? I’m worried and maybe I shouldn’t try to get it published.

Sincerely,

A Worried Writer

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Dear AWW:

It honestly depends in large part on how good of a writer you are. I’m not someone who believes that an author or director or content creator must have lived in the same shoes as all his characters – that wouldn’t make sense. But I do think that the most important aspect of writing is authenticity. So you better be able to get inside the head of your main character and live there and create a real experience for your readers.

What that means to me is this: if I’ve never lived life as a 15-year-old Black girl who gets a scholarship to Harvard, maybe I can write about that, but I can’t write about it with as much authority and real, lived experience as I could if she were a white girl.

First of all, I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism. And at some point, my theoretical character probably would. We’re spending at least 50,000 words with this young woman, who was raised in a world in which white supremacy is the norm. At some point, she will most likely at least run into racially-tinged condescension, if not outright hate.

More Lower Brain: The Persistent Myth of the “Nice Guy”

I’m not saying her story has to be shitty or tragic – and that’s one embarrassing and annoying aspect of too many stories about characters of color told by white creators. The Black girl has to experience tragedy to be worth our attention, because often times noble sacrifice is the price a Black character has to pay to merit praise from the white critical establishment. Often, white artists get a ton of praise for creating tales in which characters of color meet tragic ends. It’s tiresome. It’s hacky. It’s been done.

The easy thing is to say, “So now all writers have to have lived exactly what their characters did to get it? George Lucas has never been a rebel warrior in space but he created Luke Skywalker.” Sure, but Lucas has been a dude, and a white dude, and a white dude with some power. He grew up in a world in which most of the heroes in art were white, in which most of the powerful people in real life were white. It’s not a huge leap.

The follow-up would be, “Well he created Lando, what about Lando? Lando’s Black! He’s definitely a Black man!” Lando is great, but in the original Star Wars trilogy he’s a minor (yet pivotal) character. And in the films in which he appears, his race is not so pressing an issue as it would be in our real world here on Earth. Lucas built a different world with different rules.

Let’s return to my example of me, a white woman, attempting to spend 120 pages or more inside the head of a Black girl genius who goes to Harvard. I know what it’s like to be a woman, and I’ve been a teenage girl who did reasonably well in school. I can make certain leaps to figure out certain elements of what this young woman might experience. I can do the research about Harvard first-year students, and about how they might handle the presence of a young teen. But in my judgment, this young woman’s experience is so far outside my own that the risk of fucking up the narrative and the truth of the character is too great for me to take on.

That’s my take on my abilities and my skill set. Somebody else might disagree. That’s fine too.

Even More: The “Surprise” Monsters of the Entertainment Industry

The worst sin in writing is inauthenticity. If I don’t believe you really know your character, and I don’t believe your character is real, I’m not going to take that ride with you.

So the question isn’t about political correctness or offending anyone. You seem to be worried about offending somebody. That shouldn’t be your concern. People are going to think whatever they want to think about you and your book. Your concern should be, “Is my work good enough to make this man real?” And if it isn’t, you’re better off editing and rewriting. If it is, send it out into the world and see what happens. Best wishes to you on it – and if this book isn’t the one you send out into the world, the next one very well may be. Keep writing, and keep reading. Don’t give up.

 

 


If you have a question and need some advice, email Sara at [email protected]