Blog Chain: Who is your Character?

Welcome back to the Blog Chain everyone! Let’s get right into this topic. Sandra is hosting this session round. She has asked two questions this time with our choice on answering either or both...

Have you ever created a character different from yourself in some significant way, such as (but not limited to) different gender, race, ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation? If so, what, if any, research did you do to portray these differences? Was this character a main character, secondary character, or walk-on? Did these differences have an impact on the story?

And/Or

Have you ever written writing exercises? If so, did you find the experience useful? What type of writing exercises were they, and did you do them on your own or as part of a writing class or workshop?

I will answer both questions, but the second one first. I have engaged in numerous writing exercises. My second blog is an ongoing exercise where I work on dialogue, plot flow, and character developments. I haven’t been involved in any writing classes or workshops, so all these endeavors have been mine alone. I love doing them and feel my growth as a writer expanding into areas that I’ve never considered before.

The exercise I like the most is what I call an “idea page.” Basically, before writing the story, I let my main character take control into telling me about his/her life almost like a therapy session or a journal page. In this way, I can feel their emotions, their motivations, their problems and the development of secondary characters. I have previously posted an idea page if you care to read more about it.

Onto the first question now, which I’m sure has a few people eager to hear my answer. Yes, I’ve written stories featuring the entire color spectrum. African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, whatever. I’m an equal opportunity writer. My research mainly involves just going out and listening/watching people interact - and watching TONS of reality television! :-)

*Michelle waits for the chuckles to die down before clearing her throat uncomfortably*

Okay, there is something else that I want to touch upon concerning this question - something fascinating to me. Sandra asked if these differences ever have an impact on the story. For my stories, I would like to say no. For myself, and for my readers, I have to say yes and not entirely in a good way. Let me explain.

I have one finished novel I'm going to focus on for this question. (For reference, I mentioned this story in the last Blog Chain. It’s the one that has gotten the most agent attention and that I loathe revising on at the moment.)

The incident involved the people who I asked to critique the story before submission. Their opinions were very encouraging - of which I am eternally grateful - and I made the necessary revisions. As the query phase started, one person also said something that made me pause in my tracks. To paraphrase, this person said since I had written a strong female black character I should use this to my advantage when catering toward the African American genre.

But . . . the main character wasn’t black.

This person (and the other readers when reviewing their comments) assumed the main character was black because I am a black writer. Yet I had made no distinction of this in the story. One of the things I had learned during the writing process was to use as little physical descriptions as possible with the main character so that readers can relate more to the story no matter their ethnic background. I did this. I didn’t mention any skin color, nor did I put in any specific mannerisms or language that would indicate the main character’s race.

In truth, from my own personal viewpoint, my main character is white.

The incident involving my story is disturbing. Does this mean that, whatever I write about, people will automatically assume the characters are black if I don't describe their features because the writer is black? And what about my other novel that is ready for submission?

I haven't allowed anyone to read through it because I wrote the characters as rural/hick in the same distinction as my life growing up as a farm girl. But will people automatically think the characters are white because I wrote them as country people while not taking into account my own background since a black farm girl is not something people hear about often in our society? Will they think I'm stereotyping a certain race as being country rednecks?

Makes a person wonder . . .

All right, I’ve strayed enough with this topic. Do please visit Eric’s post from yesterday and stay tuned for Kat’s post coming up tomorrow.

16 comments:

  1. This is a great post, Michelle. I love your idea page exercise (and if you don't mind I may borrow it).

    As for the second question, I'm surprised at the people who reviewed your story. I've read all the things you've posted on your other blog, and I have never assumed the MC was a certain race (unless you alluded to it). I also wouldn't worry about your current WiP. If race is not an important part of your story and you leave it out, then all that's left is story.

    I can see how people might assume the MC is white since there aren't enough stories out there of black farmers (and there should be), but as long as they enjoy the story, I wouldn't let it bother you. The goal here is to provide a story that everyone enjoys, right? To tell your story to the world. Whether they "see" the story through your eyes or color it with their own is only important if that facet of your MC is important to the story. If it still bothers you, then you can choose to put in description that clears up the race of the MC. Beyond that, there's not alot you can do.

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  2. Great post, Michelle. The point you bring up about the readers assuming the character is black is interesting. We've been discussing that in my Nobel Literature class. I just read an article "Ernest Hemingway: Th Life as fiction and Fiction as life about this very subject and wrote an essay on it.

    Some people have a tendency to think they know the author through their writings and assume the author is writing about themselves and their experiences. They confuse fiction with fact and forget the author is a bard, telling stories. There's a book I want to read now called "Rhetoric of Fiction" by Wayne Booth that I discovered while writing the essay. He talks all about how readers create an "implied author" from their works.

    This is something that comes up time and again and people have to be reminded and educated. It happened with Ernest Hemingway and I'm sure it's happened with a number of other people. Even my folks thought my characters in my first wip were in some way fashioned after me. It was an educational moment for them as well as me. It's a good thing you are mentioning it because readers need to be reminded from time to time, our works are fiction and from our imagination. Unfortunately there will always be people who see the stereotypes, but they are few and far between. Don't let it stop you.

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  3. Interesting point I'd like to throw out. I was talking with someone else about this. He said that, from reading my other writings, I have a very "race-neutral" voice and style. Unless I actively make a point of distinguishing the character in some way, there's no way of knowing the character's race, as Eric also implied in his comment above. Hm?

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  4. Thanks for sharing that incident with us, Michelle. Was this in a face-to-face group? I wonder how a reader who doesn't know you or what your race is would "read" the character.

    If you feel the "race-neutral" style works best for your stories, you should stick with it. While you can control the words on the page, you can't always control how the reader will interpret them.

    Anyway, good luck with the query process!

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  5. Sandra: No, I had online readers, but they knew me through my blogs and seen my avatar beforehand.

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  6. I don't have a good answer for you on this, except to agree with Sandra above. You can't control how the reader interprets your story. They will always bring their own way of seeing the world to it.

    Maybe it's a leftover. At the risk of hinting at my age, when I was young it was considered "wrong" to write in the viewpoint of anything you weren't.

    It wasn't just that old writer cliche about writing what you know. People would actually get hostile if your protaganist looked different than the face that appeared in your mirror. You might actually be attacked for instance for having a gay man as major character if you weren't one. Because how could you know what it was like to be a gay man?

    Smart writers of course argued against this prejudiced thinking. And we seemed to have left some of it behind. I mean, look at "Memoirs of a Geisha." Arthur Golden was never a woman, a geisha, or a Japanese. And he wasn't censured.

    I say, follow the Muse. S/he always knowns best.

    On another matter of business, I've given you a blog award over at my blog. Don't worry about doing the whole award thingy. You've got your hands full with your tooth and everything else. I just think you deserve notice for your work.

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  7. What an interesting thing to happen. Sounds like what we write falls under assumption and what the reader perceives. Amazing how different it can look from the author's eyes to the reader's.

    Thanks for sharing! What a thought-provoking post. *looks out window to ponder*

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  8. Sounds like the race issue is with your readers. I imagine an editor would ask you the race of your main character, in case they want to put an image of her on the cover. (And not screw it up.)

    Your point about writing country folk who are white is interesting. I don't think anyone would be offended if they knew your background. Some folks are defensive, but if the story and characters feel true, it shouldn't matter who wrote it.

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  9. Such an interesting take Michelle! and I agree with nomadshan...authenticity trumps all of it I think.

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  10. Wow, thanks for sharing! Isn't it interesting the preconceived notions that we bring with us as readers and writers? There is a lot to think about here - great post!

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  11. I completely agree with Shannon and Christine. The issue is definitely with your readers and not your writing. Keep going with where your mind leads you. You can't go wrong :)

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  12. I completely agree with Shannon and Christine. The issue is definitely with your readers and not your writing. Keep going with where your mind leads you. You can't go wrong :)

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  13. Wow, that is really fascinating! I've never really thought about any of this stuff when writing. I'll go into it more in my post. Great answer to these questions!!!

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  14. Great post! I wish I could use writing exercises to my advantage, but I find they do nothing but stress me out! ;)

    As for your response to question #1I can see how being pigeon-holed could be disconcerting. No one wants to be seen as a stereotype. I think that, while your critters identified your MC as black, given similiar circumstances with betas who had no idea what you looked like, you'd have a different reaction. I remember a beta reader and friend complaining about a sex scene she'd read in one of my books because she kept picturing me as the MC and it creeped her out! ;) People who know you have a more personal take on the MC/author connection.

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  15. I'm absolutely blown away by this post! I think it's strange when people connect the character to the writer in this manner.

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  16. Very interesting post! My crit partner is black and, up to this point, has stuck with non-black MCs. Those are how the characters came to her. She relayed a story to me where she went to a conference and another black writer approached her and inferred that she wrote about black characters. Needless to say, my partner was taken aback by the assumption. It's a challenge I can't begin to understand. I say, if race neutral characters are the ones you write, keep writing them.

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All comments are welcome. Thanks for stopping by!