Almost all writers have heard the phrase “write what you know.” It’s the kind of common sense advice that is too soon disregarded; not that we are to be limited by our experience, but that we should let that experience inform and guide our writing. And if a certain topic lies outside our realm of experience, it is usually possible to expand our realm of knowledge – after all, what else is the internet good for? (Actually, don’t answer that.)
The point is, it can be difficult for writers to force a perspective to which they cannot relate, and stories ought to be at least as varied and diverse as the authors who wrote them.
Unfortunately, that is often not the case.
As often as writers are told to “write what they know,” they can be told that what they write needs to appeal to a wide audience – and often by the very same people. This doesn’t sound like terrible advice, especially not to a writer looking to get published; the problem, however, arises when the two pieces of advice come into conflict.
Too often, this imagined audience consists of the white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper middle-class public, which, apparently, is incapable of enjoying any work not centered around it. As a result, writers who step outside this boundary are forced to justify their characters’ very identities – why is she black; he doesn’t need to be gay; no one wants to read about a trans* protagonist; her MS adds nothing to the story! There’s a sense that if the story isn’t about the character’s identity, then there’s no need for it to be mentioned. After all, why bother having a diverse cast of characters when we can just let the readers assume that they’re normal, and make sure no one is put off.
Except that these identities are part of our characters, just as they can be part of us. I don’t need a reason to be gay, or trans, or asexual – I just am. And some of my characters are too. After all, it’s what I know – and there’s nothing wrong or abnormal about it.
More than that – and this all goes for all forms of media, not just fiction books – it can be disheartening for members of so-called minority groups to never see strong characters with whom they can identify. It’s easy to feel alone, or unimportant, when there are no icons who look like you, and who know what you’re feeling and what you’ve been through. On the other hand, when you do find that character, the one who has the same colour skin as you, or binds his chest just like you do, or has no interest in romance and sex – the rush is incredible. It’s the feeling of finally being acknowledged, of knowing that not only are you not alone, but that you too can be the protagonist of your own story.
So if you’re a writer, or a film maker, or an artist or of any kind: don’t let anyone tell you who is and is not important, or beautiful, or worthy of having their story told. Equality in media is a huge step toward equality in culture; so even if you’re part of the privileged majority, dare to have a diverse set of subjects, and treat each character’s identity with the respect it deserves. Write what you know – but expand upon your knowledge when you can. It’ll be good for your art, good for your audience, and good for our culture.
And if you do this in your work, let me know – I’d like to give it a look myself.