Writing the other–authors writing characters with backgrounds not of their own, whether that “other” is race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion–is a minefield to some authors.
I’ve spoken with authors who stay away from writing the other and choose to “write what they know” instead. Many times, it’s just that they write within a comfort zone–their own field of experience–and they don’t deviate from it. Which is fine, if that’s their preference. But other authors want to write characters of the other but are hesitant to because they think they’ll be berated for it. So they never make the attempt.
As author Jim Chines says in his blog post, people don’t complain when you write a character who happens to be female (or Asian, or gay, or Jewish). But they might complain if you do it badly: make them one-dimensional and/or steeped in stereotypes.
So how do you do it well?
There are several places to read up on how to do it well. (Although I think, like anything, practice is needed.) Nisi Shawl’s article is a good place to start reading. And listening. But I wanted to reach out to people doing it. Since I don’t know James Patterson, Patricia McKillip, or Tabitha King, I decided to interview a few authors I do know who are writing the other.
First up is Jay Requard, author of The Gem of Acitus, a short sword and sorcery story published by Mocha Memoirs Press.
Synopsis: Master thief Manwe, known to the frontier city of Tolivius as “The Panther”, stalks the streets in search of riches to fuel his people’s rebellion out on the savannah. Lifting a fabled stone from the possession of a posh noble, he is soon trapped in a web of lies and deceit. Caught between the cruelty of a merchant and a lie meant to incriminate him, Manwe must ply the darkness if he is to prove his innocence and save the man he loves.
ER: Where did the idea for The Gem of Acitus come from? What influenced you?
JR: I’m a big believer in serendipity, as I think writers should be reacting to the world around them. I had the idea for a long time about writing a “rogue story” that would be part Indiana Jones, part Thief (a classic video game), with notes I had learned from Robert E. Howard early-Conan works and Ari Marmell’s Widdershins Adventures. I love the idea of characters using their wits and intellect over bruising their way across a battlefield, though that is my bread-and-butter as well.
Serendipity was cruel for Manwe the Panther, however, as the idea for the main conflict came from an NPR story where an African-American man was released after spending 40 years in jail for a rape conviction that was never properly adjudicated according to the actual evidence because of his race, speaking to how people of color do not often get a fair shake within our society. I believe firmly in social justice and an egalitarian sense of equality, which I believe expands to fair legal treatment. Anyone with a sense of reality or critical thinking ability knows that more often than not, people of color are not afforded that. I had something to say with Manwe, so I said it.
ER: Tell us the storyline in two sentences.
JR: Set against by the dark city where he wins his coin through his wits alone, Manwe the Panther must steal the truth from the mouths of liars if he is save his lover. Facing greedy lords, weird shamans, and time itself, this master thief leaps into action, hoping that he won’t be too late.
ER: When you come up with the concept of a story, do you consider where it’s going to be published before or during writing?
JR: Great question! Yes and no. When it comes to novels (I’ve written three and am working on a fourth), I know what level of publishing I want to throw a manuscript at first. Short stories, however, are like art pieces—I finish them, and then worry about selling them. Since I write in a very specified set of genre (Epic /Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery), I know the markets available to me. Thankfully, I’ve been able to at least prove myself on the short fiction scene, so it’s easier to get work placed now than it used to be.
ER: Has the story changed from its original concept? How many revisions did you go through?
JR: Another good question! The Gem of Acitus went through two revisions, though the original concept never changed. The biggest challenge was framing the ending. Originally I had it sequenced one way, but I ended up switching it. Both versions worked, but with the help of readers, my fellow writers, my fiancé, and just my intuition, I chose to leave it the way it ended up being published by Mocha Memoirs Press.
ER: Sword and sorcery is not typically a genre full of diversity. What made you create Manwe the Panther as he is: a homosexual man of color?
JR: The only way we bring people into genre is by having positive characters that they themselves can relate to. That is not to say that people of different ethnicities and origins do not love white characters or white authors (they obviously do). That being said, I have to defend my beloved genre: there have always been diverse voices in Sword & Sorcery, be it Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, CL Moore (a FANTASTIC female voice for the genre), and many more who came from very diverse backgrounds, both socially and in terms of who they are. The problem has always been that for the longest time the arbiters of genre have paid more attention to something else, so many of these great voices were left out or paid little attention to. Thanks to the ability Amazon gives authors to publish their backlists, I hope this changes in time.
ER: Were you concerned about the reception The Gem of Acitus would receive? Why or why not?
JR: A little bit. I don’t want this story to come off as disrespectful. I think Manwe is the story of a positive character that represents a lot of different people, including friends of mine in the LGBT community. He’s a character who tries very hard to do the right thing, even though the right thing often goes in the opposite direction of society at large. I think those kind of characters are really important to talk about, and using a world that is a mix of Ancient Greek and African cultures, I wanted to create a multicultural setting where the world is meeting itself for an inevitable clash, kind of like what we are going through right now with race, gender, and orientation here in America. There are a lot of things to talk about, but what I hope is that I am adding to the discussion on a positive note.
ER: How did you do your research for this work? What sources, if any, did you consult?
JR: I started outlining this storyline near the end of 2013. At the time, I was reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred and listening to a lot of hip-hop, metal, and blues music centered on the ideas of revolution, spirituality, and liberation. I was also writing more and more stories that were firmly outside of the traditional “western European fantasy” box, taking them to different eras like the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, or settings that there were nuanced versions of India and China. In terms of the setting for The Gem of Acitus, I grew up reading David Gemmell, who wrote a wonderful series about Troy. I started reading more books on ancient Afro-Greek art and architecture of the Mediterranean. Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity helped me visualize Tolivius, an Archaic city where Manwe’ story takes place. I also read a large body of African folklore for stories examining the passage between worlds, life and afterlife, and the topic of gender as it relates to spirituality. In doing so I found a really interesting West African myth about this hole in the ground where shamans would sneak into the earth for months on end, only to emerge with greater power than what they had had before. I really enjoyed incorporating these elements into the traditional structures of Sword & Sorcery in the dark vein of Karl Edward Wagner, and Manwe was the result.
ER: Many writers are hesitant to write characters unlike themselves. If authors want to write characters from outside of their own experience, whether it be a different race, gender, or sexual orientation, what advice would you give to them?
JR: That is a question that could honestly go on forever. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
Go in there with honest intentions. The story comes first. You can have the glitteriest writing, the sharpest dialogue, or the wittiest subtext, but none of that matters if you don’t have a good story to begin with. Though I admit this is purely subjective, I wrote a great story first and finished the world-building second when it came to Manwe, including the external and internal issues he deals with.
More importantly, remember that your characters ARE NOT you. Treat them like they are their own individuals. Find the real core of the characters, what lies beneath. My Manwe wants to save his lover. Tolkien’s Bilbo wants to prove himself worthy of being in Thorin’s company. Nix’s Sabriel wants to know who she is in relation to who she came from. Find out what the characters truly want and write around that.
Finally, put in the work to understand perspectives other than your own. Some of us live with far less and some of us live with far more, but we all live with the reality that the world around us is precious and finite, though some of us live like it isn’t, which often leads to bad things. Stories are constructed by where you and your characters are, by who you and your characters are, but it is interpreted through them as first. Reflect what is going on outside within them and what they do in response.
Jay Requard is a Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery author from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he is not fighting the good fight, he spends his time lifting kettlebells and maces, sipping scotch, painting, and reading voraciously. He has a fluffy cat named Mona.