One of the cool things about being a writer is that part of the job involves exploring perspectives, cultures, times, and places other than my own. The sheer enjoyment of this is a big part of why I never write stories that look anything like my own life. I’ve always loved meeting people from other walks of life and countries and listening to their unique perspective on the world. Writing gives me yet another medium to develop that interest.
Some authors tell wonderful stories based on people and places very much like what they’ve known personally. In fact, this sort of story is highly valuable. It gives a more intimate and, some might argue, accurate version of a real place, event, or people. We’d probably believe a story about Napoleon if it was written by one of his aides more than we would one written by a dentist living in twenty-first century Japan. To give a real life example, part of the charm of Mark Twain is that he wrote in the language and local color of his own time and place. He’s considered highly valuable for the insights this gives future generations. But not everyone is inclined to write this way.
Other writers, myself among them, feel compelled to write about places we might not have ever seen. We might invent our own worlds and call up a past that happened generations before we ever took breath. Such writers are wise to put in the effort to give such tales a sense of truth.
If you are such a writer or someone who would like to give this approach a try, there are ways of going about it that can help lead you toward success, or at least shorten the line of angry readers offended by what you said or created.
1) Treat the people and place you’re exploring with respect. It doesn’t matter if they lived 10,000 years ago or currently inhabit the Earth, they are or were based on living, real individuals. Just as you would not want someone to disrespect you, don’t start off by disrespecting them.
2) Don’t foist your beliefs and perspectives upon the other cultures or regions you’re writing about. Just because it’s politically correct to think a certain way about said group does not mean this is a perspective a member of that group shares. For example, I have known Native Americans who got offended at the term and insisted on being called American Indians. I’ve known an African American woman who was offended by that term. She would say, “I’m an American. I’ve never been to Africa.” I’ve known Muslims who happily eat pork, and I know that no historical Viking ever wore a horned helm. The point is that just because it’s popular to think a certain way about someone doesn’t mean that really reflects the world from their perspective.
Further, especially as writers who may influence a great many people’s opinions, we need to be careful not to let our own political, religious, or social philosophy infringe on another culture’s right to be themselves. No matter how we think or desire or perceive, we will not change reality.
3) Understand that to accurately reflect another lifestyle, culture, or place than our own will mean that, at some point, we come across something we find disquieting or downright repulsive. Going in with that understand can save us and our readers a lot of grief. Rather, if we go in with the mindset of an anthropologist, open to exploring another culture for the sheer sake of exploration, can help us move past such discomforts. This doesn’t mean we have to agree, accept, or like everything we discover, but again, we should still maintain an attitude of respect.
Perhaps that is easier with certain groups, but there might be times when respect is a hard attitude to maintain. One historical time that fascinates me is Nazi Germany. I find a lot of what happened horrific, because it was, and certainly undeserving of admiration. But I have to keep in mind that these were real people enduring real situations. I can look at the fact that humans have done similar things throughout history and that psychological studies have shown that, under the pressure of authority, the average person will commit true atrocities. The evil that occurred during this time certainly isn’t worthy of respect, but I can respect the individual people for being people in a difficult time. I don’t have to think they were right, but if I degrade them through disrespect I do just what the Nazis did, diminishing their humanity.
4) Do your research. Make an effort to learn about the time, place, and people you wish to write about. If inventing your own world, take time to flesh it out, perhaps drawing on inspiration from real world cultures and times. This is a form of respect. A writer who neglects to do so only makes themselves look like a fool.
5) That said, accept that there will be errors and flaws. Take responsibility for them graciously. With this, remember that different people will have different perspectives. Going back to my real life example, if I were to write a story about a Navajo and have my protagonist refer to himself as an American Indian, I would probably get at least one angry reader tell me flat out that the term was incorrect and inaccurate. It wouldn’t matter to that reader that I know someone in real life who considers himself an American Indian, not a Native American. Perspectives are as different and wide reaching as there are people to have them.
6) Enjoy learning and inventing. Try cooking food that might be eaten in your book. Move like your characters or like the real people you’re drawing inspiration from. In cultures that do not wear shoes like we do in the industrialized world, people do not walk by striking the heel of the foot to the ground as we do. They walk and run on the balls of their feet. If writing about a group like this, go barefoot and try to walk like this. See how hit changes how you move and feel.
7) Keep an open mind. Other people throughout the world have completely different perspectives. Cannibalism is horrid to us, but to a culture like the Aztecs, who practiced it as part of religious ritual as well as to supplement their diet with an additional source of protein, it is standard and hardly repulsive. To a some modern American women, there mere thought of submitting to the authority of her husband might get her back up and have her ready to fight for enlightened ideas, but to other times, places, and women, this was commonplace and, in all likelihood, comforting in the social stabilities of that culture. In five-hundred years, people may look back at us and think it barbaric that we threw balls at each other for sport. Don’t force your own beliefs onto someone else or onto characters in your stories who shouldn’t reasonably have them.
8) Unpopular as this statement will likely be, don’t dismiss stereotypes just because they are stereotypes. In many cases, there is a kernel of truth behind stereotypes. For example, in my current WIP (work in progress), I have a Nok character. I dress her as Nok statues have been found to be dressed. Just because this style, as my husband pointed out after reading the first draft, matches the stereotype of the half-naked “savage” doesn’t mean I should dismiss it. To change how she dresses just to avoid the stereotype would be foolish. Instead, I dress her to match the statues found but give her a full, complex character so that she doesn’t risk becoming a stereotype herself. Accept stereotypes, but don’t let them control what you create. The best way to avoid this is to make fully, layered, and dynamic characters and settings.
9) Above all else, remember that it is fiction. As long as you take a respectful approach, don’t worry yourself sick over getting it right. Do your best, but ultimately, the real test of your work is whether or not it contributes something positive to others. If your readers, as a general rule, enjoy the story, don’t worry about the small handful of readers who might detest it.