Last week I read this post in a Facebook group for writers: “Should writers be allowed to write characters that they have no similar experience with? Such as writing a character of a different gender, sexuality or race. Curious about other people’s thoughts. I honestly think you should, but I have encountered people who think you shouldn’t.”
Of course, I responded in the said group, but the subject is important enough to explore further. I’ll explain why. As humans, we are compelled to group people. Friends, family, and acquaintances. Men and women. Black and white. Gay, straight, and transgender. There’s an evolutionary reason we do this. In “the old days” we needed to recognize our tribe because we were vulnerable beings. Sticking together with your own group gave you the protection you needed. After all with bears, tigers, and god-knows-what-else on the loose, it was a dangerous world. So we distinguished between “my people” and “other people.”
In the current world, we don’t need to divide people into groups anymore. In fact, like some other evolutionary leftover traits, it harms us to do so. We have evolved to the next level, where we can all just live and work together. It is safe to live in another town than the one you were born in, or even another country far away from your birth tribe. There is no need anymore to discriminate. You are even more likely to become a victim of discrimination than you are likely to benefit from it.
So here we are, no need to group people but stuck with a brain that still thinks it should. What do we do? If we are well thinking, civilized people, we educate ourselves. We learn ourselves that different isn’t wrong and that variety is the spice of life. And especially that last bit is vital to writers. Variety is not only what makes society thrive, but it’s also the beating heart of art. Famous photographs, paintings, songs, books and films all make proper use of contrast.
We need differences to define ourselves and the world around us. It’s not a curse; it’s a tool. And yes, by all means, you should use it. Write about others, if you are a man, write a woman. If you are straight, write a gay. If you are a weightlifter, write a ballerina. Write to build bridges and create insights. Surprise the world!