Considering Character Identity

Do your characters ever feel like an extension of yourself? Mine certainly do, if nothing more than the heroines are typically people who I aspire to be, possessing the bravery to stand up for what they believe in and for others.
But what about characters that are very different from you? Race, or the lack of diversity in stories, has been a topic of particular note in recent years. But what about gender and sexuality? In the fantasy genre, I know that I have seen a number of gay characters in recent years. Typically, at least one of these characters is particularly flamboyant in his dress and mannerisms. Additionally, those relationships that are categorized tend to be male/male. Thus far, I have rarely come across any female/female story lines, though I know they do exist and aren’t uncommon. I also haven’t read any transgender literature yet, though I’m interested in doing so. Knowing this, please forgive my limited experience with these concepts in the written form.
The conceptualization of gender identity and sexuality is complex and very individualized (and I’m certainly in no place to comment or offer guidance. I’m simply an observer). There’s no checking one of two boxes in our world anymore, though numerous entities still try to categorize people in this way. What really has attracted my attention to this concept, though, is a book I finished recently called Every Day written by David Levithan. I downloaded this ebook because of an article I’d read and though the concept sounded intriguing.
In Every Day, you have a character who you can’t identify as male or female because he or she doesn’t exactly know him/herself! This character wakes up in a new body and a new life every day and has done so, the reader expects, since birth. This character has no idea what he or she was named so calls him/herself simply A. A has no concept of gender or race or sexuality for him/herself. A‘s life is complex, but not one that is complicated by these labels and that’s one thing that makes this story fascinating. Additionally, A wakes up in bodies of people of all types indiscriminate of gender, sexual identity and race.
One day, A embodies the life of Rhiannon’s boyfriend, a guy named Justin, and falls in love with her. A comes back to her every day even though he/she embodies a new life each time. Rhiannon is cisgendered and her sexual orientation is straight, so it’s interesting to watch how she responds to A when A arrives in the bodies of different people, particularly when A appears female. For Rhiannon, it’s difficult to see beyond the shell that houses A for the day.
The entire time I was reading this book, I thought about gender and sexuality and how this character smashes through all of that and wondered what that means for me as a writer. I often try to insert characters of different backgrounds into my writing with the purpose of being inclusive. But truly I can’t tell you anything about what it means to not identify as the white, cisgendered, straight woman I am. I am interested in understanding the perspectives of others and I respectfully find them and their experiences fascinating and I want to know and understand it as best I can.
We all understand and experience this world differently. How do we as writers, therefore, portray these experiences in our writing? This question is one that I chase around in my head frequently and it is usually the thing that makes me freeze up and become unsure of myself. There’s so much pressure to do this correctly, to not put words in the mouths of people who identify themselves in a certain way and people are quick to offer critique and accuse you of misrepresentation.
One of the best things you can do to educate yourself and present a certain perspective in a favorable way is to read. What are the people who identify with a certain gender or race or sexual orientation reading? This can tell you a lot about how they want to be portrayed.
If you have the opportunity to sit down with someone who identifies with the population group you want to write about, then do it. If you can ask those complex questions with someone who understand what you as a writer are trying or wanting to do, it’s a priceless opportunity to gain those nuggets of knowledge right from a real-live source.
Even though showcasing characters of different cultural, sexual and gender identities can be a nerve-wracking thing for a writer, I believe being inclusive is important. I also believe that you can approach it in a respectful way so that readers understand that you aren’t trying to speak for them or anyone else, but truly mean to honor the people in a specific identity group. Learning about people different from ourselves is important and so is telling stories of people from all walks of life. Character identity is another facet you can use to make your characters more real and three-dimensional.

2 thoughts on “Considering Character Identity

  1. Nice article! I wanted to add that when writing characters outside of our experiences, it’s always important to be holistic about our research too. We miss the human element if we just research via text (be it in a library or online), but if we just ask people, we’re bound to waste our interviewee’s time and patience with a lot of questions that are easy to find answers to.
    One note too on the subject of writing different genders/sexualities, is that it can help be a gateway to exploring those traits in ourselves. I myself realized I was bisexual as I started writing bisexual characters in my stories, and when I question definitions of gender and how I relate to them, I often explore it by writing characters who also question gender, hence some of my transgender and nonbinary characters. (It’s also a phenomena you see in a lot of teenage fanfiction writers, using the fanfics they write to explore sexuality and power dynamics! Hooray for fiction helping us figure out reality!)

    1. These are great points! Thank you for sharing. I love the idea of exploring ourselves through our writing.

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