I’m very excited to be able to share with you a guest post from a favorite of mine: Susan Fanetti. Susan is a prolific indie author and university English professor. I appreciate her taking the time to share her viewpoint on this issue!
Susan writes stories about love, family, and people finding their strength and overcoming the obstacles life throws before them. I love everything she has written and would recommend any of her books to other readers. Please take a moment and check out her Amazon page.
The Meet Your Next #OwnVoices tour highlights books that cover marginalized groups. The Own Voices hashtag was created by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books that are written by an author that shares a marginalized identity with the character. A marginalized group covers everything from race, sexuality, disability, etc.
This past summer, during an annual Q&A in my reader group, I got a question about writing lead characters of color—what it was like to write those I’ve written, and whether I planned to write more. In honor of this “Meet Your Next: #OwnVoices” blog event, I’ve revised that answer.
I’ve written leads of color since Footsteps, the first book of the Pagano Family series, in which the female lead, Sabina, is Argentine. In the Night Horde SoCal series, there are three female leads of color (Sidonie, Pilar, and Juliana). And then Ox and Caleb in the Bulls. These characters’ heritage is a factor in all their stories in some way, though the degree of overt significance to the plot varies. In the most recent Sawtooth book, the female lead’s Shoshone identity and reservation home are absolutely integral to the plot.
That’s not by design so much as led by the character and what’s important to them and why. As I get to know them, they show me what matters, and I write accordingly.
Obviously, I know it’s really all me, what I’ve learned, and observed, and experienced, that’s shaping these characters. However much it may feel like it, there aren’t actual people talking in my head. But I always try, with every character, to let them have a distinct, authentic voice and not be merely a vessel for myself or my own worldview.
So. Here’s my philosophy and approach to writing characters of color.
First: If I were a traditionally published author, I would think three or four times harder about writing leads of color. Though I try hard to be respectful and authentic, and tread very lightly, if I weren’t an indie, I don’t think I’d write leads of color at all. Why? Because publishing contracts are a finite resource, and authors of color are not nearly equitably represented in traditional publishing. I believe authors of color should get dibs on the publishing contracts to tell stories of characters with whom they share heritage. #ownvoices is a thing for a good reason.
But I’m indie, so I’m not taking up a resource marginalized authors struggle to get fair access to. I can set aside that question of access and representation in publishing and focus on the stories I’m telling and who’s in them.
So, second: For a white woman like myself, I think there are basically two valid arguments on the topic. On the one hand, there’s the “stay in your lane” argument, which certainly has merit (especially where traditional publishing is concerned). But on the other hand, there’s the representation argument—that is, it’s high time white authors stopped imagining that everybody in their story worlds looks just like they do, or, when they think to include diverse characters, those characters all land in rigid stereotypes.
As an indie, I fall fully into the second camp. I want my fictional worlds to be as diverse and interesting as the real world. Yes, Signal Bend is very white and yes, rural mid-Missouri towns are very white generally. There are characters of color in that series, but they’re mostly antagonists—with the exception of the Underdawgs in St. Louis, who are a gang allied with the Horde. But from that early, the very beginning of my publishing days, I was feeling squeamish about the racial situation of my story world.
It’s a fairly similar situation in Quiet Cove (both Pagano Brothers and Pagano Family series). A Mafia is not exactly a wellspring of diversity. In fact, the homogeneity of that culture is a major story point in the Pagano Brothers series. Quiet Cove itself is more diverse, but with the exception of Sabina and Ben, Sabina and Carlo’s adopted son (Footsteps, the Pagano Family series), most of those characters are in the background, not terribly important and not vividly described.
And that’s why I ended up taking on the often terrifying task of writing leads outside my own cultural experience. I was getting pretty damn uncomfortable with the whiteness of my stories.
I was really glad to open the Night Horde SoCal series and have that richly diverse world from which to draw characters. In Tulsa (Brazen Bulls) and Jasper Ridge (Sawtooth Mountains), too, I thought hard about what those areas look like, who lives there, how people there interact and intersect. I don’t want my characters of color to be there simply for diversity’s sake. I don’t want them to be stereotypes or sidekicks or background decoration. I want them to be integral to the world, fully enfranchised.
I want to let them tell their stories.
But I am a white woman, and there’s no way around the truth that when I write a character of a different culture than my own, I’m stepping into shoes that are not mine. I mean, obviously, I’m stepping into somebody else’s shoes when I write an outlaw biker or a Mafia don, too. But there’s a different, more complicated dimension when I’m creating the voice of a person who faces systemic prejudice and oppression that I myself have only observed.
Is it hard? Absolutely. It’s terrifying, because I absolutely do NOT want to get it wrong. I feel a huge responsibility to be respectful and true to the cultures of my characters. I don’t want to write from what I think is true. I want to be sure I see my own limits and biases. And that is fucking hard to do.
My approach is, first, tons of research. Not just books and articles but finding people of the cultures I’m writing—going, for example, to the Nation’s official website and reading every page and link, asking questions (though I’m also sensitive to burdening others to educate me). And honestly, the very best resource I’ve found beside people I personally know from the culture I’m writing about? TWITTER. I find and follow the accounts of people who are talking most about what’s important in their culture. If they are writers beyond Twitter, I read their writing. If they have a podcast, I subscribe. I listen to what they have to say, what’s important to them, what they’re frustrated by. I pay attention to their online interactions.
In the specific case of Caleb, I did some historical and geographical research about Osage Nation (but history is written by the victors, of course, so I don’t rely only on that). I went to the Osage Nation website and availed myself of all the resources there. I emailed someone who helped me with the language (I didn’t want to be a pest, so I ended up using only a few words, rather than emailing again and again as opportunities for Osage words arose in the story). I was referred to a YouTube channel of an Osage woman who has videos of all kinds of elements of modern Osage domestic and political culture, from cooking to tribal governance.
Finally, I have a friend who is a Miwok citizen here in California. Now, there are vast differences between Osage and Miwok, as vast as the differences between any two nations, but in terms of colonial impact, marginalization, cultural appropriation, and sensitivity, she had some insights to share.
As I said, I let the character tell me how their heritage shapes their story. In Caleb’s case, he’s a patch in a mostly-white MC in Tulsa. The big question I had for him was how he’d come to make that choice. In learning that, I learned what being Osage meant to him.
In the Sawtooth Mountains Stories, I created a world with a significant Indigenous population, with a fictional Shoshone reservation neighboring my fictional town. And in Anywhere, the third (and latest) book in that series, which has a Shoshone female lead, I ended up taking on an overtly socio-political tone, because that was where the character led me. That’s who she is.
When I began to prep that series, I knew I wanted to set my cowboys in Idaho, mainly because PRETTY!! (And there might someday possibly be a Montana Horde series, so I wanted to reserve Montana for that, just in case.) Then I did research about Idaho, wherein I learned more about its diverse and robust Indigenous population. So right off the bat, I included Shoshone characters as key members of the area and the story I was building.
I created a fictional reservation to neighbor my fictional town because it’s easier to write in fictional spaces. They can be what I want them to be, and there’s not such an acute responsibility to be exactly correct in the details, seeing as the details are my invention. In the case of a reservation, that’s doubly, triply important, because it’s already a sensitive situation of a culture that’s flagrantly appropriated while it’s being constantly oppressed. So I wanted to create an authentic but fictional reservation, reflective of the realities for the Shoshone peoples and life on a reservation but without risking misrepresenting an actual place.
With Jasper Ridge and the Sawtooth Jasper Reservation, I’m trying to write about a world of different cultures, peoples who’ve been living together for generations—the ways they might come together or push apart, the friendships and tensions. As the series has progressed, the fictional reservation has become more and more a feature of the stories, and the Shoshone characters are wanting their time on the page. So I will write their POVs. And do everything I can to get the real experience represented by my fiction as right as I can.
Again: research, asking questions, finding answers, checking those answers against more research, finding people who can speak first-hand, and listening to what they say. Testing my understanding, accepting corrections to that understanding, recognizing nuance. Checking my privilege.
I’m in a constant fret about whether I’m getting it right, striking that balance between telling a story and appropriating it. But I will keep trying, keep learning, keep doing my best to create a world in my stories that looks like the world as it is.