When you’re reading a novel, do you ever question the authenticity of the characters because they’re different from the author? Can male authors create realistic female characters? Can female authors create convincing men? What about white authors writing black characters and vice versa? These questions have been around since the beginning of literature. When the male/female issue is raised, critics like to cite the rich characterization of Madame Bovary, a testament to Gustave Flaubert’s understanding of a particular woman. And yet even great novelists can stumble. I’ve always contended that the male characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula are not nearly as complex as the female characters and that the novel (excellent as it is) suffers for that.
When The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron was published in 1967, black critics banded together to denounce Styron and the novel. Black writers called Styron a racist, a liar, and an apologist for slavery. Although the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, critics and readers proclaimed Styron had no right to think he could tell Nat Turner’s personal story.
More recently, similar outcries resounded in response to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. In an article published in The Feminist Wire in 2011, professor, lawyer, and author Duchess Harris wrote, “But when [The Help] attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous. Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through.”
If ignorance of the real lives of people of other races and genders can “bleed through,” creating characters with different sexual orientations or economic situations must be difficult, too. Can a straight middle-class author write about poor Colombian immigrants or a gay man who loses his job? Can authors realistically create any characters that are fundamentally different from themselves?
I think the answer is yes.
I think a good writer can create characters from different races, genders, classes, or any life situation with authenticity, although certainly some characters require more research and vetting than others. In my novel Surface and Shadow, one of the characters is mentally retarded. Early in my revising, I asked a veteran teacher of special needs children and adults to read the novel and tell me if that character rang true. The teacher’s remarks were invaluable in revising and shaping the character.
The most important key to creating genuine characters, whether they are like the author or not, is thinking of the character as a person, not a type of person.
Harrison Demchick, author of The Listeners, wrote on Romance University last month: “If you set out to write a woman or a man, that’s exactly what you’ll do: write your idea of a generic woman or your idea of a generic man rather than the individual character you should always be trying to craft.” People are people, regardless of their circumstances. If authors shed any stereotypical ideas they have of how particular people think or behave, they may be able to gain some understanding of others and use that to create believable characters.
They may also become better people, themselves. And that is what I think readers can bring to the author/character dilemma. Readers who question the authenticity of a character should ask themselves why the character doesn’t seem real. Maybe the character is a stereotype. Worse yet, maybe the character is a caricature. But when a character is fully drawn as a complete human being, gender and race and other qualities aren’t as significant.
So while none of us can presume to know exactly how people from other life circumstances think or feel, and writers and readers may be called biased or ignorant for writing or talking about it, we need to try. As Kathryn Stockett writes, in an afterword to The Help, “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in 1960s. . . . But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.”
What do you think? Can authors create authentic characters who differ from the author in gender, race, sexual orientation, class, or other basic attributes? What responsibilities do readers have in approaching such characters?