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.
 

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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.

Comments

  1. Todd Henson

    Would love the opportunity to try this book. Thanks for the post and giveaway!

  2. Deb Philippon

    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.

  3. Laura Shangraw

    This is very much food for thought. Would like to win it.

  4. Amy Hageman

    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!

  5. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Writing is not easy and this book shows the difficulties! Yes1

  6. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Writing is not easy and this book shows the difficulties! Yes!

  7. lasvegasnv

    it sounds hard

  8. Barbara

    Yes, “the human experience” is what is written about……

  9. Vernon Luckert

    Good article!

  10. William Hamilton

    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.

  11. Alyssa Weinzapfel

    This sounds like an awesome read!

  12. Richard Derus

    Excellent advice. Wish more writers followed it.

  13. Sue Farrell

    I can’t imagine writing a book—yet alone one with a lead character that was diffferent from me.
    [email protected]

  14. Jeffrey Tretin

    Wow – can’t wait to read this book!

  15. 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.

  16. bill norris

    i’d like to read how well it was pulled off, im not sure i could do it.

  17. Laurent Latulippe

    I’m excited to read this.

  18. John Clark

    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.

  19. Gordon Bingham

    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.

  20. Margot Core

    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.

  21. Barbbolam

    If you can step into the other person’s skin, you may not know what they are thinking but an author can guess.

  22. Russ Cross

    I enjoyed the article and I would love to read the book. Thanks for all the giveaways.

  23. MARY Mclain

    I am glad that there are talented authors who seem to make words come alive.

  24. Lara Maynard

    Write what you know. But read diversely. So many rules. Who makes them. Read, write, be human.

  25. Susan Pertierra

    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.

  26. Louis Burklow

    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.

  27. Daniel Morrell

    sounds interesting

  28. Mary Hopper

    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.

  29. Chi Shannon

    Something I’ve always wondered about! How to do it well, without looking like a total jerk 🙂

  30. browsermix

    Iteresting article. I must now read Dark of the Moon and would love to win Sun Sand Murder
    Thanks…….

  31. Patrick Murphy

    The idea of writing fiction is to imagine being somebody else, so I think this should not be discouraged.

  32. Nancy Zahar

    Sounds like good advice. Thanks.

  33. Joyce Lokitus

    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.

  34. JAMES LYNAM

    Great advise that I will take to heart.
    Thanks.

  35. Peg Nitskoff

    Looks like you hit the nail on the head. Internally we are all the same-but research is always prime!

  36. Saundra K. Warren

    If you are capable you should go for it!!

  37. Clydia DeFreese

    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!

  38. Kyle Johnicker

    Really important to be inclusive, diverse, and authentic in writing. Bravo!

  39. Karen Hester

    Many writers have pulled this off – it just takes talent

  40. Cairine Stade

    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.

  41. Chris Noe

    Interesting topic. I have wondered about this.

  42. lasvegasnv

    interesting subject

  43. Robin Cresci

    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~!

  44. dan breslin

    often in todays climate we need more authors like this to explore different cultures

  45. elsie321

    Very informative. I have often considered what it takes an author to set out on this type of journey.

  46. vicki wurgler

    interesting subject thanks for giveaway

  47. Jaime Cummings

    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..

  48. Jerry Marquardt

    I would love to thank you so much for featuring this fine giveaway. I look forward to following you in the future.

  49. Richard Hicks

    I love the cover

  50. antonio torres

    i would read this.

  51. Penny Snyder

    Would love to read this!!~

  52. Daniel Vice

    I would like this

  53. Buddy Garrettza

    I want to read it. It sounds great.

  54. HESTER MAYO

    Looks good!!

  55. Lori Walker

    Want!

  56. Kim Keithline

    sounds great sign me up

  57. Mike Rogers

    Looks good!

  58. Michelle Garrity

    Looks like a good read!

  59. Susan Smoaks

    awesome, can’t wait to read this.

  60. Philip Lawrence

    Sounds interesting!

  61. JULES M.

    very interesting! thanks for the chance

  62. HESTER MAYO

    Fascinating!!

  63. Carl White

    [b]Sun, Sand, Murder, cool, also my plans for the summer.[/b]

    [b]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.[/b]

  64. Tim Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  65. Sandy Klocinski

    Would love to read this book. Thanks so much!

  66. Lily Kwan

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  67. Denise Sachs

    This would be very intersting.

  68. Wilifred Alire

    I would like to read this book so I can see how well the author observes and immerses himself.

  69. susan beamon

    If the writer can make me feel the characters, than the writer has done the job. Nothing else matters.

  70. Janet Gould

    This looks like a great read.

Comments are closed.