One line from the book, from an early section where Hurston is explaining her methods for collecting folklore in the South, stuck with me especially:
Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.
This line changed how I thought about the work I wanted to do. It’s not about having a background that lines up with the characters you’re writing about, I realized. That’s not the responsibility of the fiction writer. Instead, you have the responsibility to be sympathetic—to have empathy. And the responsibility to be knowing—to understand, or at least desire to understand, the people you write about. I don’t think the quote means you need to handle your characters with kid gloves—I think it means you have to write something true by at least having a baseline of empathy before you start writing it.
I immediately put that line on an index card and stuck it on my cork board. It lived above me for the four years it took to write the book. It was a daily reminder that I would never be able to access these characters, or make them feel real, if I didn’t have in the back of my mind that my job is to be sympathetic and knowing. And it reminded me that, if I managed to be sympathetic and knowing, I would be free to do whatever I wanted.
Readers only balk at writers depicting people who aren’t like them when it feels like the characters are types. It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and three-dimensional characters that people start to say, what right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.
Of course, it’s hard when you’re worried about representation, or whether or not you have the right. But at a certain point, you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and trust your own motives. You have to have confidence that you’re coming from the right place. You have to allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real. Not good, not bad, certainly not perfect—just real.
It’s also about following the story, no matter how hard it gets, so that the characters have time to go where they need to go. You have the right to write the characters you choose, but you also have the responsibility to see those characters through—to give them time to become nuanced and real. Once you’ve started you have to go all the way. You can’t go half way.
I’ve found that, if I focus on doing the work every day, the imagination part starts to take care of itself. The beautiful thing about imagination is how it keeps opening doors for your characters to walk through. You’ll be surprised—they’ll walk through these doors, if you free yourself to allow that to happen.