In my initial outlines for Counsel of the Wicked, Matthias, the main character, was gay in a world of religious repression and rampant homophobia. Now, my characters have this habit of telling me things about themselves as I’m writing. It’s how I know I’ve written a good character, when one has taken on a life of his or her own. This tendency took an interesting turn in Counsel, when Matthias took the bit in his teeth in the middle of a chapter, and revealed that he wasn’t gay at all. He was asexual, and I had a problem. Every other time something like this has happened and I try to force the story back to where I thought it should be (no, the outline says you do THIS!), I’ve broken the story, so I’ve learned to go with it. But I had never written an ace character before; I had no idea how to write an asexual character without making them either a caricature or a stereotype. Which led to the question: What do I do now?
Well, like any good writer faced with a lack of knowledge, I started with research. I knew nothing at all about asexuality. Surprisingly, I found that Tumblr is actually a very good source of references for writers on alternative sexualities, with many links to websites that answered most of my questions and allowed me to finish the manuscript. Then I went looking for special beta readers—I sent out a request to my usual communities for readers who could tell me if I’d written Matthias properly. To my delight, I had eight people who identified as asexual come to me and volunteer. And to my dismay, four of them backed out when I gave them the trigger warnings for the manuscript. However, the other four read through the manuscript, and I was told that I’d written a good portrayal of a demi-romantic asexual character. I’d written a believable character who existed outside my personal identity.
I’d written “The Other.”
One of the biggest lies that creative writing students are taught is that they should write what they know. Really. I’m not sure how creative that actually is, but that’s what the book says. Write what you know. So, if I was writing what I know, I’d be writing books about an overweight, 40-something, Puerto-Rican/Italian, gluten-intolerant, bisexual, homeschooling, stay-at-home mom who’s been married for twenty years, and who is currently living in Central Florida. That’s a lot of adjectives, isn’t it? Well, if I’m writing what I know, that’s me, in a verbose nutshell. Now, tell me honestly, how many books do you think that would sell? One, maybe.
Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of “write what you know.”
I am, however, a huge proponent of the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi School of Creative Writing. When you don’t know something, run and find out. Odds are pretty good that you’re writing on a computer of some flavor, which means that there’s a wealth of information at your fingertips. Google is your very best friend, and there are always going to be people who will be willing to read what you’ve written, if only because it is important that all people be able to accurately see themselves in the mirror that is published fiction. Because all the stories can’t be about the overly-muscled white dude who saves the world, or the model with the lower back tattoo beating up on vampires or demons or whatever the monster of the week is in publishing at the moment. Sometimes, the stories need to be about the overweight, 40-something, Puerto-Rican/Italian, gluten-intolerant, bisexual, homeschooling, stay-at-home moms. Or the demi-ace boys.
A couple of months after Counsel of the Wicked came out, while I was hard at work on Haven’s Fall, I was invited to a dinner that had absolutely nothing to do with writing. It was a product demonstration, for a tester that you can use to see if there is gluten present in your food. It’s a fascinating little thing, a real boon to someone who can’t have gluten in any form, but who does have to travel and is at the mercy of restaurants more than is comfortable for someone to whom regular food can be poison. You know, like me.
Anyhow, I’m at this very nice dinner attended by all these big name bloggers and writers in the gluten-free industry, as well as others in the food industry. I spent most of my evening sitting next to the Head of Special Diets for Walt Disney World; that was pretty awesome! I’ll admit that by the time the salad showed up (the device said don’t eat the dressing!) I was wondering what the heck I was doing there. Then the organizer came over to talk with me.
“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “Your book is the first one I’ve ever seen with an asexual main character. My daughter is asexual.”
That is the why of writing outside your identity. Of turning your back on writing what you know and instead doing the work so that you can competently and respectfully write beyond your limits. Because it matters.