Writing Diverse Characters
In the creative writing workshop, Writing Diverse Characters, led by author and poet Carrie Fountain, attendees learned several techniques concerning how to write characters from diverse backgrounds, especially when writing from relative positions of power. The workshop ended up being broader than expected, as opposed to being concentrated on writing characters from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, but I still learned a good deal about the value of specificity and knowing my own limits. In my short story included below, “Faces,” I experimented with the techniques I learned in this workshop by writing Georgia, a Black female portrait artist, who struggles with the new limits imposed on her craft by COVID-19. In my story, she wrestles with her inability to paint from life since lockdown and ultimately rediscovers her own face to create a self-portrait. I wrote this piece to explore Fountian’s advice in a familiar context, namely in the context of portraiture, in which I have experience as a studio art minor. My goal was to create a character from a racial background different from my own without overstepping my own knowledge and experience.
Several of Mosaic’s primary areas of development were addressed during this workshop, such as shaping identity when Fountain addressed my individual concerns about writing diverse characters and related to my experience as a creative writer. I learned how to contribute as a global citizen by examining my motivations for writing diverse characters, as well as learning techniques to do so responsibly. This workshop also helped me construct a well-managed life by combining my interests in writing with self reflection rooted in a desire for social justice. Additionally, Fountain’s workshop provided space for Southwestern’s creative writers to get to know the Debby Ellis Writing Center and taught consultants how to best serve those writers from diverse perspectives. Lastly, this workshop inspired eight new creative writing resources that will soon appear on the DEWC website.
During the workshop, one of our first activities was to grow a sentence as a group into a highly specific story of its own, one that accomplished work by providing creative and interesting details. Fountain connected this exercise to the importance of specificity, which she defined as the opposite of stereotype. Since several attendees, including myself, had expressed concern over writing harmfully stereotypical characters, this comparison to specificity made a good deal of sense, as stereotypes are built on assumptions. To combat the dangers of these assumptions, I learned to ensure that my characters are specific and complex enough to break out of any cookie-cutter mold toward which I might otherwise lean. To accomplish this specificity in my own short story, I wrote my character first as a portrait artist impacted by COVID-19 whose artworks are “hastily sketched in charcoal, others meticulously crafted in glistening oil paints.” Pulling from my own experience in these mediums, I was able to delve into great specificity by including particular materials such as “mineral spirits and turpentine,” as well as oil paint color names such as “burnt sienna and raw umber.” In this way, my primary focus was on creating a character about which I could knowledgeably write and provide accurate and interesting details.
Another valuable lesson I learned from Fountain’s workshop was to pull back from any material I feared I could not portray with the understanding and respect it deserves. Many writers hear the age-old advice to “write what you know,” and Fountian’s advice simply spun this saying in a different light. Because, as a white person, I cannot fully understand life as experienced by BIPOC people, I did not attempt to write a racially charged or informed moment. After a great deal of study and consultation, it is possible that I could respectfully develop characters who live into their experiences as BIPOC people more explicitly, but for the purposes of this reflection, it would have been presumptuous, at best. Instead, I wrote my character observing herself in a mirror when “Georgia gazed at her own face” and “traced the soft curve of her neck where it met the angular slope of her jaw.” Having gathered artistic inspiration, she then “uncapped burnt sienna and raw umber,” brown oil paints, and began her self-portrait. This is largely the extent of racial influence found in my story. Georgia’s race is simply one of several character qualities I wrote, including artistry, frustration over new limits, and desire to create beautiful work. In this way, I attempted to create a BIPOC character without writing a story centered specifically about race that I am not qualified to relate.
Although Fountain’s workshop was different from my expectation, I enjoyed her teachings and appreciated her advice. I came up with the character concept for Georgia during the free-write time provided in the workshop, and I have included the results of this exercise below. Fountain’s workshop offered many chances to grow and overlapped with multiple Mosaic goals, such as shaping identity, contributing as a global citizen, and constructing a well-managed life. Going forward, I will continue to think about specificity and recognize my own limits as a writer when I attempt to responsibly write characters whose experiences do not reflect my own.
The ghost of lightning flared through Georgia’s curtained windows. Her eyes wide with a rainbow of after-images, the artist rolled a dry paint brush across her knuckles and stared at the blank canvas glowing in the darkness. Illuminated only by a small desk lamp that flickered at each roll of thunder, the brush’s hog bristles scratched at Georgia’s skin. She picked at a dried spot of paint sunk deep into the lines of her palm and listened to the stinging rain pelt the glass of her window.
Gone were the days she could prop her easel in her yard and sketch the faces of each passerby. Above her, dozens of portraits gazed down, some hastily sketched in charcoal, others meticulously crafted in glistening oil paints. Georgia knew few of those to whom the faces belonged; she always sought out new people, captured in a moment’s glance or by a friendly call to sit in the sun with her a while. Since lockdown, no new faces had joined the strangers lining her walls, and their conversation had long grown stale.
Georgia slumped in her chair and groaned. A prism of paint jars echoed her frustration as another clap of thunder rattled their glass sides like an unruly poltergeist. The canvas brightened in a blast of lightning, mocking her in its unmarred simplicity, and the portraits exchanged glances before settling in for another fruitless night lit by the weak glow of a lamp that sent shadows swinging from the mask dangling around its neck.
Solid masks, striped masks, even obnoxious mustachioed masks. That was all Georgia saw when she set up in her yard. It was worse when they had on sunglasses, faces hidden behind layers of a cartoon character’s cheap disguise. The acrid fumes of Georgia’s paints still wafted around the studio, but even they had begun to settle into complacency as the artist stared week after week into the impenetrable heart of white gesso.
Georgia huffed a sigh and flicked the paint brush into a tailspin until it rolled off her angled desk. The portraits circling the walls rolled their eyes and watched the brush lodge itself beneath the artist’s chair with a clatter as Georgia snatched at thin air several moments too late. Chair legs screeched in harmony with a crack of thunder, and the artist scratched at the tile floor with impatient fingers before pausing as a flash of lightning lit the studio in stark relief.
Her head ducked under the desk, Georgia stared into a cracked mirror propped where she had abandoned it after it fell from its place on her bedroom wall. In its silver sheen, she touched the cold glass and traced the soft curve of her neck where it met the angular slope of her jaw. For the first time in a long time, Georgia gazed at her own face, the swell of her cheek, the fan of her lashes fluttering against rich skin.
As bullets of rain raged outside her window, the portraits whispered. They watched the artist catch the mirror in one hand, her brush in the other. They peered as she uncapped burnt sienna and raw umber, weaving their vapors into the sharp odor of mineral spirits and turpentine. They listened as a laugh rang out at the first dark shade streaked over white canvas. And deep into the night, they murmured under the rumble of rain as a new face, an old face, looked up and smiled.