Writing outside your experience (In-depth guide)
Writing about characters whose lived experience you don’t share can be daunting, and a challenge for even the most confident writers. This article will cover some of the basics of writing outside your own experience and social location. It can feel like a tricky topic; there is no one right answer here, and this is not the be-all and end-all of the conversation. Rather, this article offers some ways to begin to think about writing identities and experiences you don’t share, but there is always more to learn.
What is a social location?
Social location is a concept that comes from sociology. Social location refers to the place an individual occupies in society based on their membership in identified social groups or categories. Our social location is the combination of all of our socially defined identities. Age, race, gender identity, sexuality, immigration status, and disability are all examples of identified social groups that comprise our social location. Some of those identities change across our life span–-for example, we move from being a child to an adult, or can become disabled, or move countries and become an immigrant. Others, like race, usually remain stable across our life course.
Our social location determines our access to power, status, and resources, and forms the frame of what kinds of life experiences we are likely to have. In this way, social location is different from personal identity. For example, you may strongly identify as a Pantser, or as a Marvel fan, and while those can be important ways to understand yourself in the world and who you feel like “your people” are, they do not comprise part of your social location because society does not unequally divide power and opportunities between Pantsers and Plotters, or MCU and DCU fans.
Our various identities and memberships in socially constructed groups can interact in unique ways. This is called intersectionality. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist theorist. Intersectionality is the idea that social categorizations like race, gender, disability, etc, are overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and oppression, and that holding multiple marginalized identities fundamentally changes the way someone experiences any one of those systems. Crenshaw originally coined the term to express how Black women’s experiences differed from and overlapped with those of Black men and white women, but the usage of the term has broadened to discuss the ways that all systems of discrimination interact. For more on intersectionality, Vox has a primer and interview with Kimblerlé Crenshaw.
Writing outside of your social location is not just a matter of adding on some characteristics. Writing a racialized character, for example, is not just a matter of giving them a darker skin tone. Because of the structure of the world we live in, having a darker skin tone comes with certain social meanings, life experiences, and oppressions, all of which are dependent on context and history. The life experiences of a Black American woman, a Nigerian man, and an Indian woman are all going to be vastly different, even if they all have darker skin tones. Their social location informs their experience of the world and who they are as people; intersectionality means that each of these people is going to have a vastly different experience of race and racism and of gender from each other, and from white people. If we were writing about these characters, they would all have different life experiences and histories that are not interchangeable with each other, which would inform their characters and how they act in the story.
When we write characters who occupy a different social location than us, the first step has to be imagining their social location as fully as we can. How are the groups that they are part of treated in the place where they live and grew up? How might that have affected their personal and familial history? Research is a crucial component here. Read books (nonfiction as well as fiction), articles, and Wattpad stories by people with the life experience you’re writing about.
Oppression and agency
Understanding social location is the first step, but it’s not the only step to creating a character who is different from you. While it is important to consider life difficulties you haven’t experienced, it’s also important not to reduce marginalized characters to their experiences of oppression. Marginalized characters should not exist to be a teachable moment or demonstrate the realities of oppression, and we’ll discuss how to prevent that.
In particular, we want to avoid so-called “trauma porn” representations of marginalized people, where the narrative spends a lot of time lingering on the violence marginalized people face. This is not to say you can’t include violence in stories about marginalized people. But it’s important to think about why you’re doing so. What is the purpose of including violence, slurs, depictions of hate crimes, and other types of suffering? What level of detail do you go into? Whose reactions and experiences are centered in the story? Does the character experiencing violence have agency, or are they reduced in the story to the role of object of violence? Depicting violence and bigotry should serve a purpose in your story, and the characters who experience it should also be depicted as having experiences of agency and connection. For further reading, consider this article on depictions of Black trauma.
It’s important to make sure that your marginalized characters are fully formed and well-rounded. In general, your marginalized characters should have a degree of agency appropriate to their role in the story. When a character has agency, that means that their actions and reactions matter to the story. The story is “about” them, and their struggles, feelings, and actions shape the story. GMCS is a core part of constructing a character with an agency whose actions matter to the story.
Main characters should have more agency and stronger GMCS than side characters. However, even side characters should have a few specific personal details about them to make them feel like they have many more dimensions than we see on the page. This will also prevent your marginalized characters from becoming stereotypes.
Secondary vs. main characters
A common approach to including diversity in stories is to make the secondary characters diverse. Even if the main characters are straight, white, and able-bodied, including marginalized characters as side characters is a way to increase the diversity of the world you’re representing.
While this can be a good solution, it comes with its own pitfalls. Namely, the “marginalized best friend” character. Without thoughtful engagement, writing marginalized secondary characters can quickly slide into tokenism. The problem here is that these characters often don’t have a lot of interior life or agency within the text. The story is not about them because they are not the main characters, and so they necessarily have a much more limited role in the text. Often, these “best friend” characters exist mostly to be a sounding board for the white, straight, abled main characters. That is a reasonable role for the best friend character to play, but when the only role available to marginalized characters is that of support to the white, straight, abled characters, it inadvertently replicates the marginalizing and oppressive power dynamics of our society: white, straight, abled people are the important people, and everyone else exists to support them.
There is no right or wrong answer here; these are complex topics that we need to approach with care and curiosity. If you are new to thinking and writing about characters who are different from you, writing secondary characters is a great place to start! Ensuring your side characters are well-developed and interesting goes a long way to escaping the “best friend trap.” While our character worksheet is developed for main characters, you can also use it for side characters. In particular, emphasizing the side characters’ goals and backstories, and giving them their own subplot can help them feel more dimensional and interesting.
Dealing with frustration
You might be feeling some frustration here, which is a normal part of the learning process. It can feel hard to “win”—if you don’t include marginalized characters, you are being oppressive. If you do include them as side characters, you’re still being oppressive. If you write marginalized main characters and get it wrong, you’re being oppressive. It is really understandable to feel frustrated and like all your choices are “wrong.” We all want to get the right answer here, but it’s important to examine those feelings and impulses.
The point here is not to be correct or to “win” an achievement. That thinking is understandable, but it centers the issue on how we individually feel and on our desire to be “good allies” over the responsibility we have to the experiences we’re writing about and the responsibility we have to wield our social power responsibly. You are not going to solve oppression with one story, but your story and characters should still be responsible to the context you are writing in. As much as you can, try to let go of anxiety about being right and instead focus on your specific goals for the representation in the story you’re working on.
When writing outside your social location, it’s important to understand how your experiences and media diet have shaped the people you’re writing about. What conscious or unconscious bias might you be bringing to the work? Here are some questions to ask yourself to help unpack some of your thinking and perspective:
- How are people like you usually represented in media? What kinds of stories are told about people like you? What kinds of roles do characters like you occupy in stories? Where do those depictions come from?
- What aspects of your identity are commonly represented? Are there any aspects of your identity that aren’t represented? What unique experiences do your intersectional identities bring to your life that you don’t see represented?
- What kinds of stories are told about people like the character you want to write about? What kinds of roles do these characters occupy in stories, both positive and negative? Where do those depictions come from?
- What is your motivation for writing about a character with this life experience? What are you trying to say with the inclusion of this character? What do you feel the potential pitfalls are for you as a writer?
Here are some resources we really like for thinking about sensitive social issues and characters who occupy a different social location than you.