Writing Character

Umbrella Pat here:

One of the great difficulties and controversies of writing fictional characters is whether to “write what you know” or expand a book’s universe by writing characters of different cultures and ethnicities— or finding some happy medium.

Obviously, when I write about characters who live in Regency England, I’m not precisely writing what I know—unless years of research and reading count as knowledge. My Magic and Mystic characters with their psychic and paranormal abilities are hardly in any known universe, except to the extent of knowing what it’s like to be a fish out of water and researching psychic powers.

By those standards—research and experience—I suppose I can “know” people of different cultures and
African village ethnicities. So I might introduce a Chinese or African character into my Regency story and wrap them in appropriate attire and give them a historically correct background, but I have not spent decades studying Chinese or African culture, history, or literature, and don’t feel the familiarity I do with my make-believe Jane Austenish characters.

Since characters are my story, more so than plot, I need to know them from the inside out. I need to know how they felt as children growing up, what foods they like, how they feel about their hair, how they react to fear or joy. Because my parents were both orphans and I grew up in a small family, my characters will often be the products of small families. That’s what I know best,Family-at-night and it works well with my historical characters where death and distance so often truncated relationships. I might imagine what it was like to grow up in a large family in a village where I’m related to everyone, but I would not be comfortable plunking my heroine down there unless I could quickly move her out.

So trying to imagine someone who came from a hot, dry desert country where everyone dresses in grass
Fish-out-of-water skirts and transferring them to chilly, damp Regency England…  Fascinating fish out of water story but not one I would be comfortable writing. It would be difficult enough trying to fit a person of different color into an essentially white bread world, to have that world constantly reacting to their physical differences, without trying to get inside that character’s head.  It would be wonderful to read a book about such a character, but for me, the complications would exceed the limits of historical romance.

This leaves open the question of whether contemporary romance with culturally or ethnically different characters can be written by an author not of that race or culture. Americans are Americans, after all. We grew up with the same TV programs, in the same schools. But I’m old enough to remember the immense cultural divide between nationalities and religions and race as recently as the sixties. Even if my heroine is thirty, wouldn’t she be affected by the influence of parents and grandparents who thought in more judgmental, less educated old ways?  I can still remember trying to figure out if I was a Mick or a Polack when I was a little kid and deciding I was a Pat. I can’t bring that kind of information to the table with a character labeled with worse slurs, although I’d like to.

What do you think? Should authors stick to what they know or attempt to stretch their imaginations based on what we’ve read and observed? Can we really “know” what it’s like to be a different race or culture? Or can we just say romance is romance and who cares how well the character is drawn as long as the story works? What do you bring to a story when you read about characters of a different background than your own?