This may or may not be the first post in a series of posts, in this case thought it is also an old post from 2020 redone as the question that inspired that original post came back around once more. The question a writer friend asked me the first time around being ‘Can I as a sis white male write a novel where the main character is a woman of colour?”
It’s also an excuse to just remind everyone what a wonderful writer N.K Jemisin is.
N.K. Jemisin is one of my favourite modern fantasy writers, and I love that particular quote.
I say this, but I could have said she is one of my favourite female African American writer. People often believe its important when talking about her work to mention she is both female and black. However, the reason N.K. Jemisin is one of my favourite modern fantasy writers is not because she is a woman, or because she is a member of an ethnic minority in her home country. Its because she is a bloody fabulous writer.
To me, this is much the same way as my love of Anne Mccaffrey’s ‘Shell Ship’ novels has nothing to do with the writer being an Irish American, having red hair and being a woman, or my love of David Gemmell’s heroic fiction has never been informed by his beard and the way he stands when he urinates. What informs my opinion of a novel and of novelists is, and always has been, the quality of the writing, the telling of the tale, the envisioned worlds and the characters who inhabit those worlds… Those ultimately are the only important aspects by which you can just a novel.
That my friend asked the question, ‘Is it okay for me as a straight white male to write a novel in which the main character was a black woman and would his doing so risk offending someone?’ says nothing but good things about him as a writer and a human being. Its a very good question to ask yourself before you put pen to paper.
But it is also one that leans heavily on political correctness. So to quote N K again…
There is nothing wrong with a writer considering the question of what is or isn’t politically correct. But in my opinion if you’re being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct then your missing the point entirely. You should consider other peoples opinions, you should consider their feelings, and you should do so because, quite simply, that’s the fucking human things to do!
I have the same argument with people who complain about other being ‘woke’ and ‘wokeness’ in general. Which is little more than the latest buzzwords for political correctness. There is nothing wrong with being ‘woke’. Being ‘woke’ to me means little more to me that taking a moments out of your day to consider other people’s feelings and try and avoid upsetting people by railroading through your own opinions…
However, to railroad though my own opinions, if someones opinion is that a privileged white male can not and should not write a story about someone other than a privileged white male, then their opinion is utterly worthless. Write a damn fine story, with a lead character complete with flaws and strengths, well rounded, interesting, and perhaps even a little inspiring. Then I don’t care if you are the same gender, race or sexuality as the character you have written about. Why should I?
And yes, I say this as a privileged sis white male… Do you have a point you wish to make?
The friend who asked that question is a fine writer. I am damn sure that people of every gender, every race, creed and colour will enjoy whatever tale he crafts. Maybe some of them will be damn pleased that the heroine is not an upper middle class white woman, because they aren’t an upper middle class white woman. Or maybe they are, and still are damn pleased.
As I say, I love N K Jemisin’s novels because they are bloody good books, with great characters, set in strange intriguingly different settings and worlds compared to the normal fantasy fare. But I dare say if she chose to write a novel who’s hero was a sis white male in a box standard foe-middle-ages European setting I would also read it, and not for one moment find myself wondering if it was okay for her to write such a novel because she is a black woman…
This is a bit of a rant I know. This is also just my opinion, yours might differ… But if you think any writer should only write that which they personally experience due to their gender, sexuality and skin colour, then yours is an opinion I don’t give a damn about, because I believe you are fundamentally wrong.
That said, every writer should ask themselves if what they are writing might offend someone…
Then they should write it anyway, because someone will always be offended, but just because someone is offended it doesn’t mean they are right. It just means they are offended. The job of the writer is to write the best story they can, to write good believable ‘real’ characters, that people what to read. If the writer does that and someone is offended that the writers main character isn’t the same skin colour, sexual ordination, or gender as the writer, then I do not despair of the writer, but of the one who has taken offence.
In short ‘Rules of writing #1’ write the great characters you want to write, not the characters people think you should write.
Of course, I said all this in the original post when I was writing ‘Maybe’ a book with a lead character who is both female and half Polynesian. Neither of which I am. Which is partly why I was reminded of it earlier as current WIP which has a main character who is in theory, at least in the start of the novel, a sis white male and remains that way most of the time. When Lucifer Mandrake isn’t being Lucy at any rate.
I am not half Polynesian, nor am I female, yet maybe remains a popular novel because I wrote Eliza Tu-Pa-Ka well. I am not a Trans magician in Victorian England who presents as male with the aid of carefully constructed glamours either, but I hope I write Lucifer Mandrake just as well as I did Eliza..
I asked myself a great many questions before I set out to write ‘The Hanoverian Conspiracy’ Whether I was going to offend anyone by not writing about a sis white, slightly over weight, grumpy Yorkshireman in his early fifties, wasn’t one of them.
Write the characters you want to write.
Oh and go read N.K. Jemisin you’ll not regret it
Where speculative fiction is concerned, I’m a hard yes for everyone writing about everyone. When it’s literary or otherwise set in the ‘real’ world it gets trickier. There are risks around repeating stereotypes – which is lazy writing, and can also be harmful. There are also issues about whether you’re telling something you understand well enough to tell. So I’m pretty relaxed about the diverse cast in Hopeless, Maine, because it doesn’t even slightly claim to represent anyone’s lived experience. But I would never try to tell the kinds of stories Toni Morrison tells, for example, I would not try to write my own version of The Colour Purple because those aren’t my stories to tell and I don’t have enough to draw on to do a credible job of it.
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