Can you write about people who don’t look like you?

As writers, how do we tackle 'writing the other'? Clue: asking this question is missing the point.

Can you write about people who don’t look like you?

One of my most fave podcasts is In Writing with Hattie Crisell. It’s jam-packed with interviews with successful writers spilling their guts on where, how, why and when they write. I’ve spent many a lunchtime walk with my proverbial nose up against that podcast studio window, devouring the details of various writers’ journeys to writerdom.

I recently listened to Crisell’s conversation with Brandon Taylor, a novelist from an illiterate family whose book, Real Life, was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was an interesting conversation for lots of reasons, but what really piqued my interest was Taylor’s stance on storytellers writing about people of different ethnicities, sexualities, genders and abilities.

How do I write about ‘the other’?

Can you write about people who don’t look like you? How do we tackle this as writers? Asking these types of questions is missing the point, asserts Taylor. Along with a critically acclaimed novel, he writes insightful essays, and he and Crisell discussed There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You, which he wrote for Lit Hub back in 2016.

The article delves into concepts such as ‘writing the other’ – a term Taylor deplores. Instead, he makes a case for the importance of empathy when writing about both ‘self’ and ‘other’. Otherwise haven’t we failed as writers altogether?

‘A writer’s work begins and ends with empathy. Without it, there can be no writing, at least not good writing, and if the author cannot enter into the lives of those unlike himself, then he must, I think, hold the work about himself up for closer scrutiny.’

~ Brandon Taylor

With this view, writing about people who do not look like you (or have the same experiences as you) needn’t be off the table, nor should it. Looked at from this angle, how can it?

This view also throws into the light the assumption that it's easy for black writers to write black characters, for queer writers to write about queer experiences and so on. As Taylor points out, there are no blog posts, classes or workshops ‘meant to instruct us in writing white middle-class ennui.’

Stories can harm as well as heal

When writing about characters from marginalised groups, if we only show one side of that character, the side the mainstream knows – ridicules, even – that harms marginalised readers, marginalised people.

‘Harmful writing happens when an author’s empathy becomes limited in scope.’

~ Brandon Taylor

As Taylor points out, the intention behind reducing marginalised characters to this 2-D flattening is not usually a sinister one, but rather caused by a lack of empathy. ‘There can be no story without empathy,’ he writes. And: ‘You can’t write if you can’t empathize.’ [sic]

In other words, if you have empathy your writing will be good no matter who you’re writing about. Which means Taylor’s Lit Hub article title doesn't quite ring true: there is a secret to writing about people who do not look like you. It's called empathy.