With the recent press about the forthcoming novel American Heart, I’ve heard a lot of people asking, “Am I the right person to write XYZ type of story?”
First of all—this is not a stupid question! (And because I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are no stupid questions, you know I mean that.) “Am I the right person?” is predominantly asked by writers seeking to create books that feature diverse characters and stories. Hooray! Please do create narratives that are diverse and inclusive, because we can all agree that having more diversity in the book market is a very good thing. An even better thing is when those stories are written by own voices authors who share the experiences or backgrounds of their characters.
Now, few authors create characters exactly like themselves…that’s usually called a memoir. Writing outside our own lives and tapping into the collective human experience is a hallmark of storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with creating characters who are different from you. In fact, we should always be exploring other points of view—if we didn’t, reading would be really boring! But are you writing a book that would be better (i.e. truer, richer, more compelling) coming from an expert voice? Because there’s a big difference between sharing a story and sharing someone else’s story.
To help you determine where you stand, I’ve created a five-question quiz. For the purpose of this quiz, I am going to use “marginalized group” as a term for a group that finds itself unfairly disempowered or discriminated against due to gender, orientation, ability, ethnicity, or religion. This term also takes into account people who have suffered trauma, abuse, or other significant hardship.
Ready? Here we go.
- Is your main character(s) part of a marginalized group?
- Sort of—I have supporting characters in this group
- Are you part of that same marginalized group?
- Sort of—I am an ally with close friends and/or family members in this group
- Are you drawing on personal experience when writing this story?
- Sort of—I am drawing on the experience of a close friend and/or family member with their permission and support
- Does your book focus on personal, social, or political issues related to this marginalized group?
- Sort of—issues are a factor, but not the focus of the story
- Are you working with a sensitivity reader(s)* to review your story?
- Sort of—I am not hiring a professional, but am having my story read by people who share the experience or are part of the group I am writing about
*If you’re not familiar with sensitivity readers, learn more here.
If you answered mostly YES, it sounds like you’re on the right track—keep writing! If you answered mostly SORT OF, keep being thoughtful as you move forward. Be sure to do your research and work with sensitivity readers and friends or family members to make sure you are representing the story appropriately. If you answered mostly NO, you should probably head back to the drawing board. You may not be the right person to write this book.
Some authors may think this is censorship (which, may I say, is a very problematic view), or at least a limitation. But instead of viewing this as a lost opportunity, think of all that we gain by having the right people working on the right stories. We get books like The Hate U Give, Brown Girl Dreaming, You Bring the Distant Near, When Dimple Met Rishi, If I Was Your Girl, American Born Chinese, More Happy Than Not, American Street, and dozens more. Books are made better by having authors who have not just observed but lived their stories. And readers are made better by getting diverse, authentic perspectives of our world.
“Am I the right person?” can be a tough question to ask yourself as a storyteller, but it’s an important question to ask nonetheless. There may be some stories or themes out there that you simply aren’t meant to write, and even the best intentions and scrupulous research won’t change that fact. The good news is, acknowledging what won’t work is an important step in finding what you are meant to write. And trust me, whatever that story is will be made infinitely better by being told through your voice.