Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Character

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Is it legitimate to use first person if the character is a man and the author is a woman? Or if the character is from Russia and the writer is from the US? Isn't that what third person is for?

Indeed, some writers choose third person when writing from the perspective of a character whose experience is very different from their own. However, a writer can craft a first person voice that is genuine, regardless of her relationship to that character’s world. Fiction is an act of invention. Russell Banks writes from the first person perspective of a woman in his novel The Darling. In Little Bee, British writer Chris Cleave writes from the perspective of a young Nigerian woman. Sara Gruen imagines her way into the male experience and the world of the circus during the early part of the Great Depression in her novel Water for Elephants. Authors are limited only by their own interests and skills.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler experiments with voice, from his story collection Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which captures the voices of Vietnamese immigrants in suburban New Orleans, to Severance, a collection of voices, each captured in the moment of being beheaded. His early work stayed close to his own experience, but as he moved away from that he found something interesting:

And eventually, and that’s the thing about the artist’s unconscious, eventually, you break through to a place where you’re neither male nor female, not black, white, red, brown or yellow; you’re not Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh, you’re not Vietnamese, or American, or Albanian, or Serbian. You’re human. And if you write from that authenticity, then you can draw those truths up through vessels, character vessels, quite differently from yourself.

An author undertaking this task does have to do the necessary work to achieve authenticity and this process will be different for every author. Russell Banks has discussed his approach to writing in voices very different from his own as a process of listening:

When it has worked—and I can’t ever be sure when it has and when it hasn’t—but when it’s felt like it was working . . . it felt not as though I was speaking through them like a ventriloquist but rather was listening to them and transcribing what I was hearing.

As a fiction writer, you’re not hemmed in by your own life. But authenticity will only come with careful attention to the voices and experience you want to capture.