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I’m not an African-American painter raised to praise god who instead worships color and light…
I’m not a homeless transsexual trained as a computer networking specialist working in a drag club until a Persian prince rescues her…
Nor am I a fifty-year-old, white FBI agent crushed by the death of his teenage son with whom he spent more time fighting than he did laughing…
I’m not a Mexican-American struggling with her memories of Desert Storm...
Nor am I a handless, footless time travel agent selling vacations to the past…
Nor am I a twelve-year-old tomboy clutching her stuffed frog and a pellet gun…
…and yet all of these people have been central characters in my plays.
People often ask how I write x kinds of characters so well, where x has equaled everything from women to mathematicians to kids. I have never come up with a satisfying response. They want me to say my gayness gives me a special kinship to girls or I have a degree in fractal geometry or I’m quietly raising two tweens from some past life. But it doesn’t, I don’t, and I’m not.
When the question comes from fellow playwrights, it comes with added pressure. They don’t just want to know how I do it, they want to know how they can do it. But I have no special secret for writing characters whose worlds are beyond my experience. It’s merely how I write, and how I write is a reflection of how I view the world.
And that’s where I stop myself.
Because if I assume all writers work the same way the implications become dangerous. In these terms, if you are a male writer unable to write believable, fleshed-out women characters, then you don’t view women as believable, fleshed-out people. If your gay characters are secretive, suicidal victims or your lesbians are vampiric sociopaths, then your writing is reflecting (un)conscious bias against queers. And if you only imagine black characters as saviors, sacrifices, or slayers of white ones; or Asians that barely speak English; or Latinos as drug dealers or the working poor…
This is a too simplistic and ungenerous way of interpreting a writer’s psyche and process. Dramatic narratives may not come out of nowhere, but they don’t come solely from within us. Sometimes we’re told a story so often we forget there are others, even within our own communities. Just ask the many queer writers who cannot write plays without someone coming out of the closet or crushing on some hetero or whose drama depends on self-harm.
Moreover, if a person who is (un)consciously misogynist/racist/homophobic/classist/etc. actually attempts to put themselves in the shoes of someone they oppress by writing about or for them, why be ungenerous? Should reductive interpretations of their failures be used to stop them from ever understanding other people? Do we prefer they shut up and live miserably knowing they are pitiable, failed citizens of a diverse America who should stop trying to un-other their Other(s)? Why not help them succeed in revising the narratives of their work and the life it reflects?
(And, no, I’m not writing in code solely to straight, white, Christian, American men. I read/see a lot of plays. I witness lesbians trying to write men; Asian-Americans trying to write Muslims; and everyone trying to write Asians/Asian-Americans — seriously, is it so hard to write a non-magical Asian person, fluent in a language, who is not secretly killing you with exotic sex trickery?)
This is all to say that I don’t know how you do it. Or I do it. The best advice I can give, then, is to talk generally about writing with this question in mind. So here are some tips.
1. Take a leap of faith.
Writing outside of our own experience has become so tied up with the fear of not doing x community justice, unconsciously perpetuating offensive narratives, or sounding false that people stop trying to do it. That’s dumb. Remember the first play you wrote? Is it messy, rife with clichés, or a derivative, truly awful load of utter horseshit? DON’T LIE; WE ALL KNOW IT IS. But you tried again. If this writing is forging into new territory, it will probably suck the first time you do it. Maybe the second and the third. It will undoubtedly get better with each attempt, though.
2. Accept failure so you can learn from it.
It’s a given in first drafts that you’re going to fail to communicate ideas or say things you don’t mean. The hard truth with these particular experiments is that your missteps could be hurtful or even support narratives of social control and oppression that result in disenfranchisement, impoverishment, and death (just telling it like it is!). If someone is kind enough to point out a mistake don’t entrench and deny it. If you notice your own mistake, don’t ignore and try to get away with it. Figure out how you went wrong and revise or start over.
3. There is no greater resource than a community of peers.
There are few playwrights that don’t benefit from a writers group (I know some don’t, but most do). Our medium’s ultimate expression is in front of an audience, so it makes sense to develop work with a test audience. With a trusted group you can be up front about your experimentation, your perceived faults and anxieties, and the quality (or lack) of your first stabs at it. They can be up front with criticism. Look out, though: if your writers group is comprised only of people with similar life experience, you need to seek out a new one.
In brief: be brave. Be humble. Make friends. That’s it.
And while you’re doing that I’ll finish writing this nerd-hating marketing associate who developed unwanted super powers after losing his virginity.