5Writers welcomes guest writer Allen Gorney back to our blog!
Allen Gorney is a writer and actor. He currently teaches at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. His forthcoming novel The Scottish Bitch was released on March 17, 2016 under the name Jameson Tabard by Beating Windward Press. You can find him online at www.jamesontabard.com.
Writing Their Stories: Divergent Approaches to Writing Diverse Characters
By Allen Gorney
I look like a white man. But that’s not the whole truth.
My skin color belies a tapestry of ethnicities so vast it could take days to explain. Trust me, I’ve done the family research. I’m what happens when your ancestors lived (and fled) countries that were invaded and colonized. My mother’s cooking celebrated this. Dinners included paella, bacalao, pancit, so tang hon, corned beef and cabbage, and kielbasa—thankfully never all on the same night. But you see me walking down the street—I’m white.
I’ve read several articles and attended many lectures on what diversity means—what diversity is. It’s become a buzz word. You can tell a publisher or an agent that you’ve written a book with “diverse characters.” You can have a screenplay or stage play that requires a “diverse cast.” Superficially, that lets everybody know that you have non-white, non-heterosexual characters who may be non-gender binary or have some form of disability.
According to the definition, your story is “diverse.” But it’s not that simple.
What diversity actually means is that you’re portraying these characters with depth, avoiding stereotypes, acknowledging the impact of their culture’s history, immersing yourself in the culture. In short, your characters are three-dimensional: real people with textured stories.
I wrote one of my full-length stage plays, Squankum Road, to include not a single character who is like me. The plot concerns a black mother’s quest to exonerate her teenage son after his arrest for hitting a young Hasidic boy with his car throws the town into turmoil. The play, set in my racially diverse hometown of Lakewood, New Jersey, features a cast of eight: Black, Hispanic, and Hasidic Jewish characters that represent the community’s largest racial groups.
As I wrote the play, I did receive some criticism about my being a “white” man writing a black female protagonist in a play that deals so heavily with race. I was warned. I was told this play might incite a backlash (against me). I will be honest here—living in a time when race is such a hot-button issue, I began to doubt my own play. The big question ran through my mind: I’m not black and I’m not Jewish. What right do I have to tell this story?
The answer was simple. I have every right to tell this story.
I went back to my original feelings about the characters. I specifically chose to exclude a “white Christian” voice. It would have been too easy to make the play a black-versus-white storyline. I was more interested to explore what happens when two historically oppressed groups must resolve a conflict between them. To do this, I created real people. I didn’t just represent their races. They’re living, breathing members of a community—one in which I grew up. I represented the real town, a town fraught with both civic pride and, at times, racial prejudice. They are roles that cause people to respond passionately to what they say and do. They garner empathy. Their dialogue resonates.
It took months of combing each word in every line of dialogue to ensure that each perspective was balanced. I had friends and industry professionals read the play to offer insight to ensure the message was clear and no one character was reduced to a stereotype. If you’re going to write diverse characters, this step is crucial. You must have someone outside your background—whatever that happens to be—read your work.
I also write novels under the pseudonym Jameson Tabard, which tend to fit under a different brand. My forthcoming book The Scottish Bitch is a modern retelling of Macbeth—with drag queens. Not surprisingly, it’s an over-the-top dark comedy, vastly different in tone from my aforementioned play.
I never quite asked myself the same question with this book as I had with Squankum Road. What right do I have to tell this story? I’m not a drag queen, and I’m not Scottish. But again—I have every right to tell this story. I immersed myself in this world. I traveled to Scotland, and even though I’ve never done drag myself, I’ve been to many, many drag shows.
However, even with that level of cultural sensitivity and immersion, I consciously decided to write the characters stereotypically. Yes, I broke one of the aforementioned “rules” of diversity, but the reason for doing so helps to convey the theme. The book conveys a simple message: gay men with egos who tear each other down will get what’s coming to them. It would’ve been too easy to portray the straights versus the gays. I was more interested to explore the nature of hubris rather than gay victimization.
I specifically turned the tables on gender, sexuality and race in the novel, finding humor in all of this. I began this article by explaining that my whiteness is what you see when you look at me. “Whiteness” can refer to the color of one’s skin or to the appropriation of a generalized “Americanness” attached to one with that skin tone. Most white people know their ethnic backgrounds and many would be offended if you mistook it. Irish pride is such that if you mistake them for being English or Scottish, you might get punched. With a Scottish protagonist, I had some fun with that.
Will some people be offended by this book? Probably. But I have no control over that. The key to finding humor in diversity is representing everybody stereotypically—and ensuring that your characters are not revered for their ignorance. One of my favorite films is In Bruges, in which Colin Farrell plays an assassin on the run. He’s homophobic, racist, sexist, size-ist—just about every –ist you can think of. He’s not venerated for any of this. His life is not glamorous, but rather, he’s tortured. The imperfections endear him to us. In spite of his bigotry and prejudice, we root for him.
He’s a real person. That’s what diversity is.
Allen Gorney novel The Scottish Bitch was released on March 17, 2016 under the name Jameson Tabard by Beating Windward Press. You can find him online at www.jamesontabard.com.