Daily Archives: September 30, 2014

What I Learned About Writing Characters Who Aren’t Like Me

By Robin Talley

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Here’s me: A 35-year-old white cisgender openly gay woman who lives in a major U.S. city in 2014.

Here’s the protagonist of my first book: A 17-year-old black cisgender closeted gay (or maybe bisexual or maybe questioning) girl who lives in a small southern town in the U.S. in 1959.

In many ways, identity is everything. Being a 35-year-old white woman is very different from being a 17-year-old black girl.

Context is also everything. It’s very different to be a woman who’s attracted to other women in 2014 than it was to be a girl who was attracted to other girls in 1959.

My book, Lies We Tell Ourselves, is set during the school desegregation movement in Virginia. My protagonist, Sarah, is one of the first black students to integrate a previously all-white high school. In the middle of all the turmoil she endures there, she also forms a cautious friendship with a white girl who’s a staunch segregationist. Slowly, their relationship develops into something more.

To write this book, I had to do a ton of research about the people who served on the front lines of the school integration battles. I took fervent notes as I pored over every memoir I could get my hands on, trying to read between the lines and pick up on what might’ve not been spelled out in the text. I watched video interviews, hanging on every word, every breath, trying to understand what those students must’ve felt as they crossed that line.

But there was another layer of work beyond the research: trying to imagine myself in their positions. Thinking through how I would’ve felt if I were them, going through what they did.

Which, of course, is impossible. I’ve never been them. I never could be them. I’ve never suffered anything close to what they’ve suffered.

Nor was I raised the way they were ― with the post-World War II, mid-twentieth-century values that were instilled in American children growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.

And yet, whether it’s possible or not, it’s necessary. That’s how writing works. You have to envision what it would be like to do what your characters are doing. Whether they’re sneaking through Mordor, or gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, or integrating an all-white school in 1959.

Last week, my wife and I were waiting to meet a friend at the mall. We were leaning against a wall by the entrance, and I had my arm around my wife. Lots of people walked past us on their way in or out of the mall. Half of them ignored us and kept walking. The other half stared at us openly as they passed.

This was in Bethesda, Maryland, a fancy suburb of Washington, D.C., where we live. It was a reminder that even in fancy suburbs in 2014, there are still people who feel totally comfortable staring at people who are different. It was also a reminder that the vast majority of the time, I don’t have to worry about this. I’m not a visible minority. Unless I have my arm around my wife or am wearing my “I <3 Pro-Choice Girls” T-shirt, people usually aren’t going to assume I’m gay at a glance.

Writing a book from the point of view of a character of color ― a character who is relentlessly persecuted due to her race ― meant I had take what I know, what it feels like to get stared at by strangers, and try to imagine what it would feel like if that happened every single day, everywhere I went. I had to imagine what it would be like to know that next time, staring might not be the only thing I had to worry about. Next time, the strangers staring at me might say something. Or shout something. Or throw something. Or worse.

All that and more happens to my character, Sarah, when she enters a previously all-white high school in the first chapter of Lies We Tell Ourselves. Her race has made her a target her entire life, but it’s magnified a thousandfold when she dares to cross the line that her society has declared uncrossable.

The courage it takes for her to take that stand is something I can only imagine, too. But Sarah isn’t willing to cross what was then an even more rigid boundary: she can’t let anyone to find out she’s interested in girls. If that ever happened, she’d be a target on two fronts.

Writing Lies We Tell Ourselves forced me to think about race and sexual orientation in ways I never had before. Just as writing my next book, which centers on a genderqueer character, forced me to think about gender identity in new ways. Similarly, writing about a character who uses crutches and suffers from chronic pain in another story I’m working on made me think about disabilities much more deeply than I had before I began writing from that character’s point of view.

It’s become one of my favorite things about writing. None of us can ever truly experience what it’s like to be someone else, but if you’re writing from a character’s point of view, you have to climb inside their head and try to see the world through their eyes. You have no choice but to think deeply, very deeply, about how your character’s experiences have shaped who they are and how they see the world. I’ve learned so much through writing all of these stories ― both from the research and from the mental work that goes into imagining each character’s inner life.

And through all of it, I’ve also learned that it’s essential to stay humble through the process. To accept the possibility that something you’ve always believed might very well not be the truth. There are some things you can only learn from someone who’s actually had the experience you’re trying to depict, and those are the most fascinating lessons of all.

It’s not that I think anyone’s obligated to teach me anything, of course. It’s that writing is about empathy. Writing a story forces you to think in ways we don’t typically do in everyday life. When you have no choice but to empathize with someone who’s different from you day in and day out, when writing your story requires that kind of thinking, you can’t help but learn along the way.

Writing hasn’t just made me understand books better. It’s made me understand people better. Writing different kinds of characters has made me more compassionate, more interested in exploring the depths of individuals’ experiences, more interested in the wider world around me.

It’s taught me that writing isn’t just about what you produce. It’s about what you learn along the way.

And it’s reminded me that it isn’t polite to stare.


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Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is available 9/30/14. Order it here.