Opposites Attract Some Authors

Willa CatherBack in 2013, when I was writing about literature for The Huffington Post, I did a piece about female-written novels that star male characters and male-written novels that star female characters. I’d like to expand on that today by discussing novels with other author/character dichotomies: those by writers who create protagonists of another race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

The question remains: Can novelists write well about people who differ from them in a significant way? The answer is yes, of course. Not always as well as authors who are what their characters are, and there’s some risk of stereotyping and “cultural appropriation,” but writers who are not what their characters are can use their imagination, do research, channel their personal knowledge of people they know who are unlike them, and so on. (Heck, human emotions are human emotions.) Plus novelists can also include characters who are in the author’s “group.” Still, writers who’ve “lived” what they write can understandably have an edge — and more of a “right” to the subject matter.

I thought about all this while reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, which I also mentioned in last week’s post. Allende is of Chilean descent, and most of her novels prominently feature Latina characters. But this particular book primarily focuses on Americans of Japanese and Eastern European ancestry.

The sort-of flip side of that is John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck was white, and that novel (his first major success) includes a number of Mexican-American characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the white Harriet Beecher Stowe includes several crucial African-American characters — such as the titular Tom as well as Eliza and George Harris.

Among the works of African-American writer James Baldwin is Giovanni’s Room, which focuses on white characters. But there’s also an authorial similarity: the novel has a gay theme, and Baldwin was gay.

Willa Cather was also gay, even as the relationships in those Cather novels that contained marital/romantic elements were heterosexual — as was the case with My Antonia. But there’s gay subtext in some of her books if a reader looks closely enough; for instance, the Jim Burden character enamored with Antonia could be a reversed-gender stand-in for Cather. (Pictured atop this blog post is a seated Cather with her domestic partner Edith Lewis.)

As mentioned earlier, some authors kind of split the difference. African-American novelist Octavia Butler’s Kindred, by way of example, stars a 20th-century black woman (Dana) who’s married to a white man (Kevin) when the involuntary time-traveling to the Antebellum South begins.

And the part-black Alexandre Dumas focused on white characters in virtually all his novels — including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — but changed things up with Georges and its black protagonist.

Getting back to ethnicity, there’s J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert — a novel by a white French author starring the Moroccan woman Lalla.

Some religious crossovers? George Eliot, a Christian, included three major Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda while also featuring several prominent Christian characters. The short historical novel Hadji Murat by sort-of-Christian Leo Tolstoy stars the 19th-century Muslim leader of the book’s title. And White Teeth by British author Zadie Smith, who has described herself as not very religious, co-stars the fairly devout character of Samad.

We can widen this discussion even further with disabled authors writing about not-disabled characters and vice versa. For instance, Daniel Keyes created special-needs protagonist Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, and Lisa Genova has penned Still Alice and several other novels starring characters faced with devastating neurological challenges.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic?

The great Vancouver-based podcaster Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), who often comments here, interviewed me again about books. She asked how I get ideas for this blog, how people choose which books to read, how to find time to read, whether to finish a book one doesn’t like, the state of reading in this era of digital devices and shorter attention spans, etc. All in less than 15 minutes! 🙂 (One of my podcast answers includes praise of this blog’s commenters. 🙂 )

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about topics such as another broken developer promise — is here.

59 thoughts on “Opposites Attract Some Authors

  1. Thanks, Dave, for your insight. I realized last night that I was starting a small book that is another example of writing about opposites. “Laughing Boy” by Oliver La Farge – a Harvard archaeologist writing about young Navajo people and their culture. It is quite detailed with lovely imagery and for the time, 1930, was probably the only way white readers could glimpse this life. Who are some of your favorite Native American writers?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dcmori, for that very relevant mention of “Laughing Boy” (which I haven’t read). Nice description!

      Unfortunately, I haven’t read too many Native-American or part-Native-American writers, but I have enjoyed books by Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie. (Though I felt a bit guilty about reading the latter because of his sexual-misconduct history. 😦 )

      Who are your favorite Native-American writers?

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  2. A timely topic, which my book club tried to tackle Thursday night. I had immediately thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe during the recent controversy. The outcry now comes from an emergence and acceptance of many writers of diverse backgrounds, more than ever before. One other novel, since you asked, is “Wide Sargasso Sea,” about a young Caribbean heiress and her slaveholding family, written by Jean Rhys, who though part Creole, moved to England when she was 16 and moved around Europe thereafter. The novel is a dark, fascinating look at madness and racism, a strange sort of prequel to “Jane Eyre.” I look forward to your future literary postings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dcmori! I appreciate your comment. Yes, it’s wonderful that the author pool is now much more diverse, even as that can make for some interesting scenarios when it comes to depicting characters who are unlike the author.

      “Wide Sargasso Sea” is an excellent example of this topic! A beautifully written, chilling book that gives a lot more nuance and insight to “the woman in the attic” in “Jane Eyre” and her previous life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How about ” The Good earth”, by Pearl S. Buck. won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932. Ms. Buch also Nobel Prize in Literature 1938.
    She was an American writer and novelist. As the daughter of missionaries, Buck spent most of her life before 1934 in Zhenjiang, China .
    The book was an inspiring drama follows the many ups and downs in the lives of Chinese farmers Wang Lung and O-Lan .

    Dave, I read the book decades ago, perhaps time to find the book and read again as I don`t remember so much of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! That’s a great example of an author writing about people unlike her and a culture unlike hers! Reminds me a bit of another American writer, John Hersey, writing about China in his novel “A Single Pebble.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Resa!

      I’m also a huge fan of Rebecca — her podcasts, her blog posts, and her as a person.

      And I appreciate you reading the latest of my Baristanet columns (which are never about coffee 🙂 ).

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  4. Donna Leone’s detective Commisario Brunetti, in her series set in Venice, is a man, and she is not. I think she makes us men out to be maybe better than we are if he were typical, but he seems exemplary among other men depicted. The character Brunetti does have the advantage of being but partway up the chain of command within the force, and must be wary of the wily self-serving, corrupt and duplicitous ways of his superior, Patta, and of the punctilious and vindictive Lieutenant Scarpa, who though Brunetti outranks him, lives to thwart and suppress his allies and favorites. Here is where being a woman writing about a world of men might have been helpful– as I assume the lives of most women have made them aware and able to diplomatically navigate such environments and personalities, at work– and at home.

    Not coincidentally, the most able and resourceful character at Brunetti’s workplace is Signorina Electra, Patta’s secretary, who does as she pleases, yet pleases all she must as necessary. She can pry out any hidden record from any source via personal contacts and a deft computer hand, dresses with provocative good taste and keeps her anteroom filled with flowers for all who pass through to enjoy, paid for by artful juggling of departmental budgets. In the character Electra, I see favorable bias towards one’s own sex on the author’s part, though not without sound reason.

    Then there Virginia Wolf’s “Orlando”, who is man and woman, though not simultaneously. It’s been years since I read it, but I don’t recall Wolf being at a loss to make either Orlando readable, and even believable, certain biological impossibilities set aside.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting how being a woman could be an advantage for Donna Leone in writing the Brunetti character (and other male characters in that Venice-set series). And I can see why from what you wrote.

      Your description of Signorina Electra reminds me a bit of the very capable Robin Ellacott, who’s at first an assistant to private investigator Cormoran Strike in the J.K. Rowling series.

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  5. Hi Dave,

    It’s been a while since I mentioned Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, but I think it fits. The series of books is ultimately about a group of five good guys trying to save the world. Two of them are white men, so probably not a stretch for King there. The third is a disabled black woman. The fourth is a 12-year old boy, and the last (but not least) is a billy bumbler which is kind of like a cross between a racoon and a dog. Pretty sure King has never spent time as a furry little animal, but he makes this creature absolutely believable, and incredibly adorable. He gets into the heads of all these characters and makes them very real, even though it’s all set in a completely fabricated time and place.

    Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones has been unputdownable. It’s mostly centred about a 14-year old boy, so Silvey could probably draw from his own experiences there, but as mentioned last week, there are Asian and Aboriginal characters. There are also two young sisters and their voices are just as real and vivid as the boys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Two great examples of works in which the authors get outside their own skin. I’m particularly intrigued by that “billy bumbler,” and am guessing you’re correct that Stephen King “has never spent time as a furry little animal.” 🙂 (Ha ha!) I follow King on Twitter and have never seen any indication of that. 🙂

      And, yes, very nice when characters feel real — even in a made-up time and place.

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      • Oy the billy bumbler is so cute! Most of the time he’s just kind of a pet for the group. They feed him and cuddle him and teach him tricks. But there are a few chapters when you get into Oy’s head and realise that he’s much more than he at first appeared.

        I started reading King when I was about twelve or thirteen and immediately fell in love with his characters. Whether they were teenage girls, or old men, or furry creatures, they all feel real and completely believable.

        Actually, there probably lots of books written from an animal POV that would fit this topic 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • You became a King fan early in life, Susan! He IS the kind of author who can appeal to readers ranging from early teens to decrepitude… 🙂

          And, yes, some excellent novels written from an animal point of view — definitely a leap for human authors. “The Call of the Wild,” “The Incredible Journey”…

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello, Dave! First of all, I really enjoyed the second podcast you made with Rebecca.
    I too thought immediately of Anna Karenina, but Elena beat me to it. But Dostoevsky is also very, very good at getting into a character that is not remotely like himself . Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! I also enjoyed your second podcast with Rebecca. Excellent — you’re VERY knowledgeable about Ivan Turgenev. After listening to that podcast, more Turgenev reading is in my future. 🙂

      Very true about the great Dostoyevsky being eminently capable of creating characters unlike himself. Many examples of that. I do sense that he and Raskolnikov have some elements in common (along with their major differences). Not murder in common, of course, but nervous/angst-ridden temperaments. Plus some money trouble and incarceration time.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve just recently started a blog and have been looking for other writers who I can follow to get some inspiration. After stumbling upon this and reading it, I really love seeing your point of view on this topic. It has crossed my mind, like in John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” how a male writer can portray a teenage girl so well. You describe this so well and your thoughts are so organized. Please write more on this!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Most of the novels that I’ve written (and am currently trying to publish!) have male main characters, so I feel like this is a great topic for me! 🙂 I think many writers have a large amount of empathy and imagination, and it allows them to write whatever story calls to them – however, stories outside of our own social lenses should be thoroughly and properly researched. I found the best way to capture the voice I needed was to sit down with veterans from WWII and just let them talk. I didn’t really ask many questions, I just wanted to get a feel for the way they bonded and talked to each other, which really did some good in the group interviews that I did. Although Steinbeck is my favorite author, I haven’t read Tortilla Flat. I have read Pastures of Heaven though, which includes some Mexican-Americans and many female characters. I also did manage to finish the Count of Monte Cristo – it was definitely worth the commitment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, empathy and imagination go a long way, as does research. The research you do for your books sounds terrific — for instance, what could be better than listening to veterans who were “there”? And I know you also do a lot of library-type research and traveling-to-places research.

      “Tortilla Flat” is excellent, and often quite funny — as are Steinbeck novels such as “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” in parts. And it was nice that Steinbeck included Hispanic characters in several novels, with “The Wayward Bus” another example of that.

      Congratulations on finishing “The Count of Monte Cristo” — a classic 1840s page-turner!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nimbus of a Writer! I haven’t seen or read enough Shakespeare plays (maybe four, and those were years ago) to give a legitimate opinion. I hope others chime in!

      (I did see an old movie version of “Macbeth” relatively recently, and Lady Macbeth — while memorable — didn’t seem like a very three-dimensional character to me. She might have been more complex in the play itself, but I haven’t read “Macbeth” since high school. 🙂 )

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  9. I’ve always thought Toni Morrison wrote men’s characters really well. The best authors who write this way seem to have not only great imagination but wonderful powers of observation. Not to mention empathy with our common humanity. Your topic, Dave, suggests a nearly impossible attempt to get in the head of someone so very different from oneself. Can you imagine Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. writing fiction from each other’s perspective?!? Certainly much better than their threatening to punch one another. Don’t know if you’re old enough to remember this 🙂 That compassionate writing would be a true tour de force. Maybe there are examples of this; I’d appreciate recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I agree that Toni Morrison wrote male characters well — as she of course also did for female characters. Other female novelists who I think really captured the male psyche include George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, etc.!

      I remember reading about that Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley Jr. feud — and it WOULD be amazing if those two had tried to write like each other. As weird as Margaret Atwood and Ayn Rand switching places, or Dostoyevsky and Nicholas Sparks (ha ha). 🙂

      “The best authors who write this way [about an “opposite” character] seem to have not only great imagination but wonderful powers of observation. Not to mention empathy with our common humanity” — very accurate and eloquent!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Dave,
    Again, such an intriguing topic. Thinking about this reminded me of Cuckoo’s Calling, written by J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith. The main character, Cormoran Strike, is a veteran of the Afghan War and has lost his leg. I felt the author did a great job of getting inside the head of a man, first of all, and then to depict how painful or challenging it was at times to function with/without his prosthesis. As far as I know, J.K. Rowling doesn’t have any prosthetic limbs, so she must have done a great deal of research to get this right!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. You always give me “ah ha” moments, Dave. First off, I am deeply grateful for writers being able to write. I know that sounds rather trite, but I am in awe of how writers are able to bring a narrative to life, of creating amazing characters that become ‘real to me’, even friends. To me, the most difficult characters to portray are children so that they are believable. “To Kill of Mockingbird” by Harper Lee was extraordinary, simply because she was able to tell the story from a child’s point of view, without giving the nuance of an adult “thought” being hidden in a child’s dialogue. “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, which I read with I was 10, has the same quality – I identified with Meg and understood that Charles was special – a child to children connection. And speaking of “The Poisonwood Bible” – there were elements of this idea too. The ability of writers to view characters at different stages of life is truly a remarkable feat. Again, thank you for sharing your insights on TTT – I love our conversations and enjoy your blog discussions. A literary banquet!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      I share your amazement at what great fiction writers can do. And I agree that it is NOT easy creating believable children characters (who sound like actual children). “To Kill a Mockingbird” indeed has that quality (with Scout), as does “A Wrinkle in Time.” And there’s Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s “History,” etc.!

      And then, as you mention, in some cases authors depict children growing up — as in the “Harry Potter” books. Also an admirable skill some authors don’t possess.

      Last but not least, thanks for having me on your terrific podcast again!

      Liked by 3 people

  12. This is my third try to post:
    I found it interesting to read Elena’s comment below about veterans’ lit. It reminds me of the current controversy over the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. I haven’t read it, nor do I intend to, but it’s been praised by Stephen King, John Grisham and others, (especially Oprah), but was also panned by many Latinos. I think the main reasons are that the author wasn’t ever a migrant, nor experienced it from the standpoint of being a Mexican; she copied (though not plagiarized) events appearing in writings of certain Latino authors; and she didn’t understand some of the Mexican slang she used, as well as some of the Mexican locales that she may not have even visited. This is what I got from a cursory reading of an on-line article by a Latino about the controversy.

    As to books I’ve read, the one that came to mind was “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m not sure if this exactly fits this column, but we’ve previously discussed how well Kingsolver created separate voices for the mother and her four very different daughters. After each one was introduced, I didn’t need to even look at the chapter headings to know which one was relating events and feelings in the first-person. The book was meticulously researched as to the African setting, customs, and language of the natives.

    You already mentioned Lisa Genova, whose novels I loved. Not only does she have the credibility of her PhD in neuroscience, but the books are so good because of her compelling portrayals of the disabled and her own empathy for them and their loved ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry about that, Kat Lit. I see one of your two previous posting attempts in this blog’s spam folder. The next time you have a posting problem, you could pop me an email and I could “un-spam” your comment before you try to repost. Of course, if you make your own copy of a comment before posting, you could just paste it and try again. 🙂

      Yes, “American Dirt” has created a lot of controversy. The author has some Hispanic ancestry, but just a little, and there clearly seems like some “cultural appropriation,” some “misery appropriation,” and not enough research going on. Yet it’s important for stories like that to be widely told. Too bad that few of the excellent Latina writers out there have the megaphone that Jeanine Cummins now has.

      Barbara Kingsolver is definitely a writer with the skill and compassion to dig deep into — and empathize with — characters who are not like her.

      Totally agree with what you said about Lisa Genova!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. The instance of your topic that made an immediate impression on me was the pregnant Dewey Dell in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I remember thinking, hey, how could he have known that? Another instance that I hope is an instance would be Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Dave::

    I enjoyed your blog – as always.

    I’m not sure my contribution is on point but after reading your piece, I tried to think of examples that would fit. What came to mind is a Melville’s creation – one of literature’s most memorable characters:- Queequeg Quite the contrast between Queequeg and the man who created him. Not mere differences in skin tone or sexual orientation – rather a hudge cultural rift. Doug

    On Sun, Jan 26, 2020 at 3:20 PM Dave Astor on Literature wrote:

    > Dave Astor posted: “Back in 2013, when I was writing about literature for > The Huffington Post, I did a piece about female-written novels that star > male characters and male-written novels that star female characters. I’d > like to expand on that today by discussing novels with ” >

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Doug! That’s a GREAT example — the white author Herman Melville creating the memorable character of South Seas harpooner Queequeg in “Moby-Dick.” I’m sure it helped that Melville — who also created the also-memorable black character of Babo in “Benito Cereno” — was a world-traveling sailor as a young man who met all kinds of people.

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  15. Of course, there’s always “Anna Karenina”…

    Interesting question about whether people with lived experience can create better characters who share that experience. I’d say the answer is “sometimes.” It can give that ring of authenticity—but sometimes it can also cause an inability to communicate the actual experience. I had an interesting discussion with author Brian Van Reet, who agreed to be interviewed for one of my classes. He is an Iraq vet who wrote what he originally intended to be an autobiographical novel. However, he found that making it autobiographical got in the way of expressing the key feelings of his deployment he wanted to express. He eventually ended up making his central character female in order to convey what he wanted to convey more accurately.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Elena! “Anna Karenina” is definitely a memorable example of an author creating an opposite-gender protagonist.

      And that’s a very thought-provoking point about how an author can be too “close” (for lack of a better word) to a character the author is like/resembles to depict that character as well as possible.

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      • Yeah, I’d say you have to connect with the character on some level in order to create a good character, so writers who just treat their “Other” characters as objects instead of identifying with them will fail artistically, but getting too hung up on fidelity to physical details instead of emotional experience can also prevent a writer from conveying the experience they want to convey.

        This is a huge topic of debate right now with “vet lit,” with some authors saying only (combat) veterans have the ability and the moral authority to write about war, and others saying that it should be open to all who want to do the research and the emotional work to understand on an artistic if not physical level what it was like.

        Liked by 4 people

        • “…getting too hung up on fidelity to physical details instead of emotional experience can also prevent a writer from conveying the experience they want to convey” — that seems to be a key point, and it makes sense.

          I didn’t realize that whether or not an author is a combat veteran is a big debate topic re “vet lit.” I can certainly think of novelists, such as Stephen Crane and Willa Cather, who conveyed war in a (seemingly) convincing way without having been in the military. Then again, experienced-war-firsthand authors such as Hemingway, Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and Erich Maria Remarque certainly wrote novels that directly or indirectly “benefited” from their military time.

          Liked by 4 people

          • It’s a big topic right now, as part of a trend of what Dave Buchanan, a professor at the Air Force Academy, calls “combat gnostism.” But as you pointed out, although there has been some excellent war literature written by veterans, there has also been excellent war literature written by non-veterans. First-hand experience of anything can certainly give you a deep and special insight into it, but it isn’t enough to make art.

            Liked by 4 people

            • “First-hand experience of anything can certainly give you a deep and special insight into it, but it isn’t enough to make art” — so true. I guess a combination of first-hand experience and strong writing ability can be REALLY powerful, but even that’s not a guarantee in every case. 🙂

              Liked by 4 people

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