Necessity of Experience
I'm sure we've all read one or two stories where we were annoyed or even downright outraged at the offensive--or at best uninventive--way certain characters were written. I'm talking about the short, round villain, the down-trodden single mother, the prissy blond, the sexy Latino, the slutty Jersey girl, the wise old Asian, the butch lesbian, the joyless rape victim... As a teen I got so fed up with helpless female characters (usually written by men) that I avoided female leads altogether, thinking I had more in common with men. And I can't begin to guess how many male characters I've read who weren't like men at all, but exactly the way women want them to be.
Why does this happen? Sometimes there are intentional misrepresentations, but I believe that the problem usually lies in the author's lack of familiarity with the people he or she is attempting to portray. This ignorance can be deliberate or simply lazy, and is fostered by the delusion that what we see in movies, the news, and other media can be relied on to provide accurate representation. The result is caricatures of caricatures, characters so unrealistic and flat that we use phrases like 'cookie cutter' and 'cardboard' to describe them. At best, readers are offended. At worst, they believe what they're reading and perpetuate the lie that large black men are criminals, American Indians speak broken English, and homeschoolers are nerdy Christians, utterly lacking social skills.
This is why I believe writers must be intimately knowledgeable of the kinds of characters they're writing, of the experiences their characters have, and of the places their characters go. It's the only way to give readers deep, realistic stories that can provide glimpses into other worlds. But what if I want to write a fantasy novel about a scorned immigrant, and I've never been an immigrant, never lived with the dread of expulsion or fear for my life? What if I feel compelled to give voice to such a girl, but have no personal experience on which to build her story? It can still be done, but it's going to take work.
Personal experience is always the best kind, but since many of us can't (or simply wouldn't want to!) physically experience the things our characters go through, we need to do research if we want meaningful stories that will steal the hearts of readers.
So, I have a handful of research ideas that are both fun and useful, whether you're a writer or just want to broaden your understanding of the people around you:
First, take stock of your own experiences. In what ways can you relate to the person you're trying to understand? Maybe you haven't lost a limb, but have you ever been laid up with an injury or surgery? Don't presume to think you can completely relate, but channel those emotions for your benefit. I was never an immigrant, but I did live in another country for a couple of years, so I'm familiar with the challenges of culture and language differences. I can let that struggle influence my writing.
Second, Google really is your friend. Imagining yourself as a blind person, for example, may not give you much insight into what it's really like. But some technical reading (that word 'technical' is important. Reading Daredevil doesn't count) can give you an abundance of useful information that will help you in the next step, which is…
Third, interview real, live people. Asking for an interview can be intimidating, but I've found that people are happy and excited to share. They want to be understood and they feel important because someone cared enough to try. As long as you're respectful in your questions and tone, it will be a good experience for you and your interviewee.
Fourth, get feedback. If you're writing a character or place outside your personal experience, get several honest people who have lived that life to read it for you and tell you where you got it wrong. This is vital to authentic writing and understanding. Don't skip it.
All of this research becomes your own experience, letting you live vicariously through others in order to become a more understanding, compassionate human being, not just writer.
Note: About a year ago I wrote this bit for another blog, but either they never published it or I just never saw it. I hate to let hours of work go to waste, so I shared it here.