Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

by Matt Sinclair

Can a man accurately write a story from a woman’s perspective? Can a woman write in a man’s voice? Can a 20-something Asian American who’s lived in the Northeast all his life write about being a black blues musician from the south? Can a Christian academic write about the tenets of Islam? Can a Muslim write about the politics of Jesus?

In my opinion, the answer to all these questions is yes. Of course, those answers come with at least a couple caveats: Such writers must do their research thoroughly, and they not only need to be excellent writers but also confident that they’ve approached their goal with respect.

Writing about people we are not is one of the joys of writing fiction. In its purest form, it is imagination; to be publishable, it must be informed imagination.

I recall starting a novel too soon. I had a vision of the characters, but before I’d finished my first page, I could see that my understanding was superficial. What did I know about being in my 70s or 80s and looking back on life? About as much as I knew about living and working in Antarctica, which was where part of my story would take place. It was years of research before I felt confident to start telling the tale of those characters, and I still need to do more research.

Of course, most of that research won’t make it directly on the page. Instead it comes through between the lines—in the words chosen and the attitudes conveyed.

In my opinion, it’s not merely about showing respect to the subject matter, which is critical, but it’s also about respecting the readers. We need to always remember that readers are perceptive. Tell an entertaining tale and readers might say nice things about your book, but if you expect them to suspend disbelief, to leave their real world behind for your imagined one, you need to do your homework. Of course, this might explain why so many writers’ early novels seem to be autobiographical.

But you’re writing something original, right? How would your main character react if someone cut him off on the road, or tripped her at a restaurant? These things don’t happen in your manuscript? Doesn’t matter. What I’m getting at is how well do you know your characters and how they’d react to adversity. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a lapsed Catholic writing about a Sephardic Jewish family or a guy from suburban New Jersey writing about a girl living in rural Iowa. But the identity of the writer and the identity of the characters do matter to readers.

From the first time your manuscript crosses an agent’s desktop, it needs convey an answer to the question that will be on every reader’s mind: Who is this writer and why should I believe what is in front of me?

Who do you think you are? I hope you’re not only an author, you’re also a believable and authentic authority.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which recently published Summer's Edge and Summer's Double Edge, which are available through Smashwords (SE) (SDE) and Amazon (SE) (SDE), and include stories from several FTWA writers. In 2012, EBP published its initial anthologies: The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, (available viaAmazon and Smashwords) and Spring Fevers (also available through Smashwords, andAmazon). Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


Richard Pieters said...

If the writer has done his/her work, I'm not so sure it matters to the reader who the writer is. What matters is the authenticity, as you say, of what is on the page. I knew little about Arthur Golden, but the depth of his research, knowledge, and empathy for his female main character in Memoirs of a Geisha was amazing. Clearly a believable and authentic authority.

Kinda hard to research fantasy worlds, or paranormal phenomena, but even then, when inventing things unknowable, they need to be anchored in well-thought-out research and authentic characters.

Maybe, instead of "write what you know," it should be "know what you write."

Crystal Collier said...

Awesome. I have one story waiting in the wings that's from a different cultural perspective. I'm not completely blind to it, having lived closely with the culture for a time, but I'm not quite confident enough to jump in yet. I think building new characters and really getting inside their heads is a process that goes best with research, and especially TIME. The longer you have them floating through your brain, the better acquainted you'll be with their unique voice. Sometimes I find myself asking, "What would SUCH AND SUCH character think of this situation? How would they react?"

Matt Sinclair said...

Rick, I almost wrote the same thing. Thanks for your comment!

Matt Sinclair said...

Crystal, sounds like you're doing the right thing. I bet it'll be a great manuscript! Thanks for your comment.

JeffO said...

Nice post. In regards to the age thing, I think it's easier for me to write about someone in their twenties than seventies or eighties, because I can look back and remember the sort of things I wanted, was doing, was afraid of, etc. Those experiences can help me develop a character better, whereas I don't truly comprehend what it's like to be eighty, let's say.

On the other hand, I do think writers (good ones) are blessed with a higher degree of empathy than many, and it's probably easier, therefore, to create something that feels real based on things we haven't experienced.

Matt Sinclair said...

I don't disagree, Jeff. And it's not as though I haven't written characters who are older than I am. In the case of the character I mentioned above, he and his wife were driving home along a windy road, reminiscing about their lives together. The wife was in the latter stages of a fatal disease and was going home to die. That type of scene was difficult for me to envision, though I thought I had it in me when I started it.

Michelle 4 Laughs said...

I think that's why my first chapters always feel a little stiff. I don't know the characters as well yet. They haven't formed a writing flow pattern in my brain.

Matt Sinclair said...

That's a good point, Michelle. In fact, I think a lot of writers experience that, and it's one reason those first few chapters tend to need a lot of rewriting.