I was at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, and frankly, I'm still a little fried from the experience as I type this. Fortunately, my attendance at Jane Espenson's panel on Sunday allows me to not have to think too hard to come up with a writing tip today.
Jane has been writing for TV for 20 years, with her best-known stints including writing for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and currently, Once Upon a Time. She's long been on a list of my favorite writers and her old blog is chock-full of useful writing advice. On a personal note, I wrote her a fan letter when I first moved to Los Angeles, asking for advice about breaking into TV writing. A few weeks later I was pleasently surprised when she wrote me a personal letter back. A small gesture, perhaps, but the fact she cared to do so told me a lot about her character.
My point is, Jane knows her shit. She's also recently branched out into webseries writing, and co-created the series Husbands with Brad Bell. Husbands was the focus of much of Sunday's panel. For those not in the know, it's about a newly-married male gay couple. Director Jeff Greenstein (who worked on Will & Grace and Desperate Housewives) noted that part of the show's appeal was that it took a common experience (the struggles that a new couple faces in a relationship) and found a new way to package it so it wasn't "just another romantic comedy." (In this case, using a gay couple instead of a straight one.)
During the Q&A portion of the program, one young woman asked what Jane later described as one of the most interesting questions she'd ever gotten. Quite simply, this woman asked "As a young straight woman, how can I become better at writing characters not like me," meaning, blacks, gays, Asians, and so on.
Espenson and Greensteen both essentially arrived at the same conclusion. Greenstein said that when he wrote for Will & Grace, as a straight man, he found the best approach to writing the characters was to look for what was the same about him and those characters rather than becoming stymied by what was different.
Jumping off from that, Jane noted that though writers are often told to "write what they know" a good way to overcome limited experience is simply to meet all kinds of people, suggesting writers get out there and live life. For her, she overcame this by being in a diversity writing program, which meant that many of the people she was learning alongside were "unlike" her.
So if you're looking to write someone different than you, both tips are worth remembering.