Monday, July 16, 2012

"How do I write for someone so unlike me?"

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.


  1. Ya know as someone who counts as a diverse writer, I gotta say (having two sides of my family being a different race) there really isn't that much difference.

    Everyones a person, and human nature is remarkably consistent. I'd say the biggest gap (and this really does exist) is cultural knowledge.

    Ie. Something which people think is a "x" race thing isn't, or they're not aware of cultural norms/faux pas etc.

    And cultural knowledge is IMO stuff that you can learn with a bit of time spent talking to people. (though I don't think it would hurt if you're writing something about a particular social group to actually get someone from that social group to help/or at least read what you've written to let you know if anything isn't working).

  2. I agree. I think one of the biggest mistakes amateur writers make is to try to "write like" someone of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. Writing someone the way you think any person would speak or act in a given situation, and then considering the life experiences that might alter how a specific person might handle a situation, rather than thinking "what would a woman say" "what would an African American say?" etc., tends to read much better, and people may even be surprised how well you write/understand such different character types when you aren't trying so hard to show you can, IMHO

  3. The biggest imaginative leap in writing is often thought to be a man writing from a woman's point of view, or vice versa, but I suspect that it's a lot harder to accurately portray a very different culture than it is to portray the opposite sex in one's own society. We're all humans, as Duggy says, and there's the writer's starting point right there.

    The biggest risk seems to be a kind of cultural chauvinism whereby characters in the past, or in a foreign culture or country, are represented as having a modern Western mind-set. Only travel, research and a willingness to spread the imaginative wings can solve that one.

  4. Dave, I very much agree. That historical lens is very hard to break through. I think the current Pixar film Brave suffers a little from this.