Checking Yourself

Creating authenticity in a character demands careful thought. This effort extends over a wide range of writerly issues, from dialogue that rings true to inner thoughts that a reader shares. Maintaining a reader’s trust is hard enough when you’re writing about people you know well. What happens, however, when you need to include characters of a different race or ethnicity?

This point was driven home to me while watching the superb documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Using the words of James Baldwin, the film points out how little white America knew about their black brethren in the 1960s and how little it continues to know today, even after electing a black president. Based on the manuscripts I read, I would venture to say that same willful ignorance extends to Latinos, Native Americans, and so on.

We think we know. Everyone is bombarded with cultural messages all day long. From advertisements to TV shows to the news cycle, we imbibe the novel perspectives of diverse people. I would even say we require fresh viewpoints in order to keep from being bored. Yet why is it that when I read about a black detective, say, I don’t sense any hint of suspicion toward his white peers? Or the Latino husband that must have a mistress and seven squalid kids at home?

How does an author stand in the shoes of such a character? You have to dig deeper. There are plenty of sources beyond the surface impressions gained through exchanges in the breakroom or through the TV screen. By way of analogy, I discovered at an early age that I learned more about a foreign country through novels by native authors than all of the news reports ever produced. Extending that idea, why not start the search with Native Son?

What makes this type of exploration difficult is that the story, if it’s any good, sweeps you away. The experiences and feelings of humankind are common to a large degree. You have to force yourself to read with intent. In my experience, the length of such bouts of concentration is maybe five pages—before you get caught up. But distinct impressions about a character’s attitude toward a range of subjects can be gleaned. You can then inform these permanent attitudes with temporary feelings that you yourself have felt.

Exercise: Fear is the predominant feeling emphasized in the movie. Fear of the white man. When you consider such a stamped-in attitude for your character, ask yourself: how many forms does fear take? It can make a person bite her tongue, but it can also, in a crisis, flare into anger. If you use that range in the different scenes for your character, maintaining the constancy of fear is not as hard.

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”
― James Baldwin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.