I had an interesting discussion this morning with a writing colleague whose opinion I value greatly. And in the discussion it was suggested that I patronise my characters, and by extension, my reader. That has never been said before, and of course, I’ve spent most of the day worriting at it like a terrier, and looking up exactly what ‘patronising your characters’ might mean.
What follows is thoughts and discoveries made today, and posted with thanks to said colleague for making me think.
I’ll start with a fascinating post and subsequent discussion on Susan Hill’s blog HERE, in which she is taken to task for liking Alexander McCall Smith’s lady detective stories set in Botswana, as they are, (some say) patronising.
Also, I work in a face to face group with a few playwrights, one of whom has a wonderful play set partially in Cameroon, in which all the characters are Cameroonian.
The play was sent to a theatre company for a rehearsed reading, the job given to black actors, who liked the play…. until they saw the writer, who is white. It then became ‘patronising’, and they refused to read.
So why is it patronising for a white writer to write black characters? Because that seems to be the issue with both the above.
I write Irish characters, Welsh characters, Cornish, Alaskan, Jewish, Londoners, Japanese, Spanish, male, female, old, young, dropouts, middle class, drug addicts, loners, farmers, postwomen, bank managers, homeless, morticians, single mothers, boys in homes, poets, cleaners, fishermen, hotel workers, bakers, city workers, painters decorators, teachers, carpenters, miners, beggars, social workers, priests, hairdressers, colonic irrigation specialists, soldiers, ex-soldiers, librarians.
I do not write an awful lot of headmistresses, magistrates, queens, kings, prime ministers, lords, ladies… because their lives don’t interest me in the slightest.
Am I patronising because many of my character have issues to overcome? In most of my work, it is the least likely characters who are the catalysts for change, in others. Those who appear to be the 'weakest links'. But I don't think they are, at all, so that's why I write them, I suppose.
But I’m wondering, do I patronise them all, because they are not me, in the same way people are saying white writers can’t write black characters without patronising them? Or conversely,black writers cant write white characters. Or the queen cant write a begger, or a beggar can't write a magistrate?
Are the only characters we do not patronise very very close to our own actual experience? Is that why many writers only ever write ‘what they know’? But I know every emotion that my characters feel. So why does it matter that I am not the embodiment of them in aggregate, externally. Maybe I am, internally.
My colleague also said maybe the comment made had more to do with her/him as a reader, rather than me as a writer. Even more confuddling!!