Writing the Other with Fear and Trembling, Try and Caring

Please welcome our second July guest, Ken Scholes! A prolific author of both short fiction and novels, Ken is currently hard at work writing Requiem, the fourth book in his fantastic Psalms of Isaak series. For a full biography, visit kenscholes.com or check him out on facebook.
I was very flattered when Kim asked me to write a guest post here but if I’m completely honest, I was more than a little nervous…and I still am.  Because in talking about possible topics, one that she suggested – the one I’ve ultimately chosen to tackle – centered around how I write such great, strong female characters.
The truth is, I’m not convinced that I do.  I’ve had some feedback that says I am getting a lot of it right but I’ve also had feedback that suggests I’m getting it wrong.  And I suspect that as with many things in life-- maybe even most things--  it’s not an “either/or” equation, but a “both/and.”  I’m getting it both wrong and right at the same time.
Add to that truth that this is a topic that quickly reduces down to online “fail” wars that I’ve seen brutalize well-intentioned friends who are trying to navigate this important aspect of writing.  As writers we’re frequently told to “write what we know” and this is largely sound advice…except that we really can’t just stay in that end of the pool if we want to write engaging fiction.  I surely tried to.
So today’s post is going to be light on advice when it comes to the nuts and bolts…and heavier on issues of intent and awareness in my own personal journey into the territory of this topic.
But first, a bit about me because I think our own context is important when it comes to writing characters – and their own contexts -- that are different from us.  I am a forty-four year old American male.  My heritage is Scotch, Irish, English and Dutch.  I am tall and plus-sized.  I largely grew up in a rural environment – a small logging town at the foot of Mount Rainier.  I think there were maybe four people of color, total, in my entire middle and high school experience.  I was unaware of anyone in my school who was gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.  The only religious practices largely observed in my community were varieties of Christianity with a lot of Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical representation (a lot by Pacific Northwest standards).  I was only aware of one agnostic in my youth.  I grew up poor in a family riddled with abuse and neglect between a Borderline mother and an alcoholic stepfather.  There is so much more that I could include here, but the point I’m trying to make is that with a context like that the cards were largely stacked against me becoming who I am today.  And within that context, there was inherent privilege by nature of where I was born and the people who I was born to, biases instilled into me, lenses colored by upbringing, culture and experience that I wouldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of until later in my life.

It took a long time for me to recognize just how much things like privilege and bias impacted me.  And even longer when it came to understanding that as a writer, I had the opportunity not just to entertain but also to gently influence my culture in the direction of evolving.  Until I reached that place, I played it as safe as I could.  In all of the short stories I wrote between 1997 and 2006, I attempted to write one African American protagonist and three female protagonists.  I say attempted because I honestly think that for me, given my background, I can’t afford to believe I’m getting it right.  Instead, I wrote mostly white male characters working through their redemption from apocalypse, fundamentalism, catastrophe and small-mindedness.  I wrote what I knew.

And then the dare showed up.  Jay Lake and my wife Jen dared me to write my first novel – an expansion of two short stories I’d set in what I was calling my Androfrancine Cycle.  And so I set out to do so.  And halfway into the book, my wife gently pointed out to me that the only female character with any kind of intent or agency was Jin Li Tam.  I had slipped into writing what I knew again – reproducing the same issues that existed in much of the fiction I cut my teeth on as a kid.  So with her loving encouragement – not her criticism -- I added a few more female characters to the book.  Thirteen months after the dare, Lamentationwas picked up by Tor – along with the four unwritten volumes in the Psalms of Isaak, and by then, I was halfway into drafting Canticle and adding more diversity here and there with a great deal of fear and trembling.  Then, in Antiphon, I realized instinctively that one of my favorite supporting characters from Canticlewas gay and in a relationship with another supporting character.  It spontaneously flowed out of me in a scene where, after being separated for a long while and in great danger, they rush into each other’s arms to kiss.  Those characters will continue to grow as I finish the series (just like the author will continue to grow).  And I intend to flesh that out further in other stories coming down the road with these two, including telling the story of how they met and fell in love in the Churning Waste.  Who knows what I’ll tackle in my next projects….
I know this is a lot of context.  But I think when it comes to writing the other, we have to understand our own context…and be honest about it and the limitations it can present.  My context reminds me to pay attention.  I was raised with some pretty backward and terrible beliefs about a lot of others in our world.  I can’t afford to not keep that in mind as I try to write the other.  It is also good, at least for me, to keep in mind that this is a journey as I learn to turn over the rocks within myself to put light on the creepy, crawly things I find hidden there.  Ideally, it’s an upward spiral as my mind opens up to see as far beyond my prejudices and privileges as they can see.
For me, it is also important to use as much empathy as possible in considering the other that I write.  To really try considering life in their shoes.  It’s hard to achieve anything close to empathy without actually investing myself into the other I want to write.  So I think a lot and I ask a lot of questions.  I actively work at meeting and befriending a wide, diverse group of friends and acquaintances.  Writing the other is a lot more likely to come off poorly if the writer doesn’t actually know any others.   
When it comes to feedback, I try not to assume and I try to stay open-minded when someone points out to me the places where I am or am not getting it right.  I look (and listen) for good examples and I pay attention to the bad examples, too. 
At the end of the day, I hope it is the fear and trembling, try and caring that will redeem my effort.  Because I think all of these ingredients are what will keep me honest.  I hope they will.  A certain amount of fear and trembling – feeling the weight of why it is so important to aim higher.  And a lot of caring enough to try – really try – to get it as close to real as possible so that my readers are invited to meet others familiar and unfamiliar to their own journeys.
I’ve said for a long time that fiction provides us a sandbox in which we can play with ideas that folks might not be comfortable exploring any other way.  And though the first and foremost goal Is to tell stories that sweep our readers up and carry them away, we are also influencing our culture, easing it in a forward direction and putting light on our backwardness as a species in the way that we portray the people in our fiction and in the way that we portray their struggles. 
We have to try.  We have to care.  And at least in my case, I have to write my others with a bit fear and trembling with my fingers crossed that I’ll get it more right than wrong as I do so.[image error]
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Published on July 30, 2012 22:43
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