Jun 22 2016 3:00pm

Writing Where Your Protagonist Is a Different Race or Culture

Read this exclusive guest post from John Keyse-Walker, author of Sun, Sand, Muder, about writing protagonists outside of your race and culture, and then, make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the book!

Write what you know. Every writer has heard this bit of wisdom attributed to Mark Twain. We all try to do this, but nothing flies more in the face of this adage than writing from a perspective the writer cannot fully know—that of a different race or culture. A writer can visit a location, go for a ride-along with the cops, or learn pathology and forensics to lend authenticity and credibility to their principal character’s environment and methods, but they can never completely get inside that character’s skin if they're of a different race.

That irrefutable fact has not stopped a number of crime writers from making a creditable and convincing effort. Richard Price, in Clockers, gave a portrayal of a black, small-time dope dealer and his poor, drug-ravaged housing project sufficiently realistic to inspire the Spike Lee film of the same name. George Pelecanos has been uniformly praised for his portrayal of black protagonists Derek Strange and Marcus Clay, both paired with white partners in Pelecanos's native Washington, D.C.

And, Kelly Nichols and Kris Montee—two sisters who write as P. J. Parrish—may hold the title for working the farthest afield from their natural comfort zone. Not only is the protagonist of their long-running Louis Kincaid series bi-racial and a man, but the duo collaborate on their writing while living in Michigan and Florida, respectively. The sisters are so successful in placing themselves in Kincaid’s shoes that the editor who bought their first book, Dark of the Moon, believed it had been written by a black man.

What do these authors and others who successfully write outside their own race and culture have in common? It seems they are able to affirmatively answer two questions.

The first is philosophical: should you do it?
The second is a matter of skill and craft: can you do it?

The philosophical issue first—should a white author write a black protagonist, or an Asian writer a white one? There is the matter of cultural ownership to consider; literally, should one ever be allowed to write outside one’s race or culture? I think the correct answer is a qualified “yes.”

It must be done for the right reasons. If it is a dalliance or experiment by the writer, then definitely not. No author should decide to write black, Asian, or white simply on a lark or to provide racial balance to a story. My guess is that an author whose thought process runs along those lines would probably not write a realistic character in any event; a token character presented solely to inject their race into a story will most likely be wooden and lifeless because the story does not need the character.

On the other hand, if the character’s presence is natural and appropriate to the story by virtue of location, era, or culture, then it is not only right, but required that the author write outside their race to include the character. To do otherwise is a disservice to the story. To restrict the writer by saying it should not be done solely because of cultural ownership is to restrict the writer’s art.

The second question remains—if the writer has justification for writing outside of their race or culture due to the storyline, can they carry it off? This strikes me as the essence of writing: the ability to place the reader in a realistic situation, even though the writer has never been there.

Unless all writing is autobiographical (which it is not), every writer is called upon to write outside their personal experience to some degree. One doesn’t need to be a serial killer to write, realistically and well, about the inner workings of a serial killer’s mind. One doesn’t need to be a cop to describe the gripping tension of a car chase. And, one needn’t be stabbed to write convincingly of the pain. True, in all those instances, some experience does help—talking to a patient in a mental hospital, driving a car fast, experiencing pain on some level.

But, what about the experience an author cannot begin to have, cannot sample as he can pain, speed, or firing a gun? How does the writer with justification for a foray into another culture make it real—or, at least, realistic? The same way they make other writing believable: by observing and immersing. The writer must visit the places, scenes, or situations that the characters they write about experience. And, they must do it over an extended period of time, if possible—a deep plunge rather than a dip of the toe into the water.

In short, live the life, as much as they can, of those about whom they write. And, they must remember that, while we are not all the same, we all have the human experience in common—and that, more than race, culture, ethnicity, the color of our hair, or how tall we are, is what writers actually write about.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Sun, Sand, Murder by John Keyse-Walker!

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Sun, Sand, Murder Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) June 22, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 3:59 p.m. ET July 1, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder is his first novel and the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

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Todd Henson
1. thedelfrog
Would love the opportunity to try this book. Thanks for the post and giveaway!
Deb Philippon
2. DebP
I really enjoyed reading this article on the topic. It seems to be a subject that is prone to kneejerk reactions, and it's good to read a reasoned argument. Thanks so much.
Laura Shangraw
3. fritterbit
This is very much food for thought. Would like to win it.
Amy Hageman
4. AmyH
This is an interesting topic. It made me think of the role of the reader in determining authenticity. Seems like there could be an erroneous feedback loop - author thinks they've written an authentic character, and the reader is convinced when in reality there are glaring problems that can only be recognized by a person of the right background or experience. Congratulations on the book, and thank you for the contest!
Peter W. Horton Jr.
5. mosaix
Writing is not easy and this book shows the difficulties! Yes1
Peter W. Horton Jr.
6. mosaix
Writing is not easy and this book shows the difficulties! Yes!
Yes, "the human experience" is what is written about......
William Hamilton
11. billham68
Interesting article. Lots of novels illustrate the skill an author has in creating characters at opposite ends of their race, gender, experience, etc. I admire authors who go beyond their personal backgrounds to create heroes/heroines quite different from themselves.
12. Alyssa Weinzapfel
This sounds like an awesome read!
Richard Derus
13. expendablemudge
Excellent advice. Wish more writers followed it.
Sue Farrell
14. Suekey12
I can't imagine writing a book---yet alone one with a lead character that was diffferent from me.
Jeffrey Tretin
15. jtretin
Wow - can't wait to read this book!
16. Carol Goldstone
I cannot wait to read this book. It sounds fascinating from every angle. It has to take a very gifted writer with a penchant for numerous details to even begin to write this kind of story. I am waiting with baited breath,
thanks for the contest. I am a first time user of this site...very excited to be a part of the site and the blogs.
bill norris
17. bnchile
i'd like to read how well it was pulled off, im not sure i could do it.
John Clark
19. sennebec
It's also a great way to understand different races/genders/cultures because to do it well, you have to put a lot of thought and energy into it.
Gordon Bingham
20. gordonbingham
This is a difficult thing to get correct. Too often it results in stereotypes or parody. Look forward to seeing how well this is done in this book.
Margot Core
21. AnnaZed
I don't think that is such a hard and fast rule. People made a big deal out of Donna Tartt (whom I love) having a male protagonist in 'The Goldfinch'. Some esteemed critic said that he had never seen that, which is ridiculous because Iris Murdoch did it all of the time.
22. Barbbolam
If you can step into the other person's skin, you may not know what they are thinking but an author can guess.
Russ Cross
23. Inertia-Lad
I enjoyed the article and I would love to read the book. Thanks for all the giveaways.
MARY Mclain
I am glad that there are talented authors who seem to make words come alive.
Lara Maynard
25. baylou
Write what you know. But read diversely. So many rules. Who makes them. Read, write, be human.
Susan Pertierra
26. orchidlady01
I'm curious to read this book to see if the author got "island life" correct. Having lived in the Bahamas, living on an island is very different than what people imagine.
Louis Burklow
27. Nash62
One of my favorite mystery series is the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, so I believe as long as you care about the characters you create and treat them seriously there's no problem with writing outside your one experience. I'd like to see how you do with this.
Mary Hopper
29. CarvingGal
Very interesting, I've always heard that you should write what you know but wondered how fantasy writers can manage to write what they know. Thanks for the chance to win.
Chi Shannon
30. anastasiafall
Something I've always wondered about! How to do it well, without looking like a total jerk :)
31. browsermix
Iteresting article. I must now read Dark of the Moon and would love to win Sun Sand Murder
Patrick Murphy
32. Ditch
The idea of writing fiction is to imagine being somebody else, so I think this should not be discouraged.
Joyce Lokitus
34. Joyce710113
Research is key to writing as it is to acting. Immersing oneself into a location or cultural group of people to learn their reactions, pet phrases and opinions is important. I believe writing a book that is not all one color or race makes for a more interesting and diverse book like the real world.
35. jpl123456
Great advise that I will take to heart.
36. Peg Nitskoff
Looks like you hit the nail on the head. Internally we are all the same-but research is always prime!
Saundra K. Warren
37. shortiew
If you are capable you should go for it!!
Clydia DeFreese
38. clydia
I'm amazed that anyone can write outside of her/his own culture; I couldn't. But good writers have such imagination, it's possible. What a talent!
Kyle Johnson
39. kylecar94
Really important to be inclusive, diverse, and authentic in writing. Bravo!
Karen Hester
40. rosalba
Many writers have pulled this off - it just takes talent
Cairine Stade
41. FaerySong
It seems to me that it would be harder to write from the perspective of another culture. Always take the chance you could be wrong or insulting someone without meaning to.
Chris Noe
42. ezmerelda
Interesting topic. I have wondered about this.
Robin Cresci
44. jrcresci
I can only imagine how your mind works when writing a novel. I look forward to reading your work! Thank you for this chance to win a ARC~!
dan breslin
45. knight99
often in todays climate we need more authors like this to explore different cultures
46. elsie321
Very informative. I have often considered what it takes an author to set out on this type of journey.
vicki wurgler
47. bison61
interesting subject thanks for giveaway
Jaime Cummings
48. remembering.lucy
Another one, James Patterson, doesn't write his character Alex Cross very well IMO. He's really popular though so lots of people like it..
Jerry Marquardt
49. versatileer
I would love to thank you so much for featuring this fine giveaway. I look forward to following you in the future.
51. antonio torres
i would read this.
54. Buddy Garrettza
I want to read it. It sounds great.
62. buttmuffin
very interesting! thanks for the chance
Carl White
64. CarlWhiteEntry
Sun, Sand, Murder, cool, also my plans for the summer.

As for writing a protagonist that is a different race or culture it really is no biggie. As a white man I write about black female Martians all the time and no one questions their authenticity.
Sandy Klocinski
66. attea2d
Would love to read this book. Thanks so much!
Wilifred Alire
69. walire
I would like to read this book so I can see how well the author observes and immerses himself.
susan beamon
70. susanbeamon
If the writer can make me feel the characters, than the writer has done the job. Nothing else matters.
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