Posted on 04/16/2019 at 09:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

You’re told not to limit yourself to writing what you know. 

And then you see another book pulled from publication because of how the author portrayed a character from a different background.

What’s a writer to do? Play it safe, or risk public outrage?

Two well-established authors are here to explain — and prove — to you that these aren’t your only options when it comes to adding diversity to your work.

Specifically, they’ve each successfully launched a series starring a character who doesn’t share their religious and cultural background.

These two novelists have taken slightly different routes to creating their characters, but they’ve essentially arrived at the same point and conclusions.

Melissa F. Miller's story

Melissa F. Miller, the USA TODAY bestselling author of the Bodhi King thrillers, is not a Buddhist ... but her brother, who serves as her beta reader and a member of her proofreading team, is.

And you might be hard-pressed to find someone more qualified for that job. 

Miller’s brother, as it turns out, not only spent time in a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Southeast Asia, but also earned the equivalent of a religious studies degree in Buddhism.

That said, she’s not relying solely on him — far from it.

Miller takes a similar approach to researching the Buddhist faith as she does for the scientific and legal aspects of her novels: tons of reading, from the Buddha’s teachings to meditations and Buddhist magazines; Dhamma talks; expert interviews; and field trips.

As a result, when her brother reads her drafts, they’re more likely to be “geeking out and debating some esoteric point that may not even make it into the novel” than going over the basics of Buddhism, yet again.

Chris Culver's story

Chris Culver, the New York Times bestselling author of the Ash Rashid mysteries, can thank academia in multiple ways for helping him portray a Muslim.

Of course, there’s his educational background — he has taught ethics, philosophy, and comparative religion — and the immense amount of scholarship on Islam that one can study.

But for him, academia’s more valuable contribution was how it connected him to actual people, not just the philosophy. 

“Good research includes talking to people, eating dinner with them and their families, celebrating holidays together, and essentially becoming friends,” he says. 

Culver doesn’t ask these friends to serve as sensitivity or beta readers, although certainly he asks their opinion on any conflicting information he encounters.

Their contributions come in a more abstract way: by reinforcing that they’re all individuals.

“The characters in my books represent the same diverse array of beliefs and lifestyles I see in my friends,” he says. 

“Some are extremely pious, but others aren’t. Some drink alcohol, some are very interested in politics, some love sports, some even put up Christmas trees.”

Putting it into practice

From talking to both authors, it seems that a critical next step is to step back from all the research — that is, to focus on telling a story, not on proving that the character is indeed a member of that faith.

The way Miller describes her overall writing approach (not just the religious element) is that it’s “educational entertainment.”

So rather than hammer home the science and the spirituality of a Buddhist forensic pathologist, Miller slips in significant, revealing details when the scene calls for it.

Here’s how it works in practice: When Bodhi weighs a cadaver’s liver, he does it exactly how any other coroner would.

But when he sees a spider on a window sill, he follows the First Precept of Buddhism and ushers it outside, rather than killing it.

“He doesn’t think (or say), ‘As a Buddhist, I can’t kill this spider. He just acts in accordance with his beliefs,” ’Miller says of her protagonist. 

The other, non-Buddhist characters that Bodhi encounters can also provide a subtle but appropriate opening.

“Maybe the next time he gives a bug a lift, another character will shake his head and ask Bodhi why he doesn’t just squish it,” she says. 

“... (And) because I write multiple third person point of view novels, I sometimes have another character ruminate on Bodhi’s behavior and the reason for it.”

Culver similarly looks for the right opportunities to mention his characters’ religion, rather than reinforcing it at every possible moment.

The way he sees it is that Islam is part of the character’s world, not the entirety of it. 

“In my Ash Rashid novels, for instance, many of the characters perform salah (prayers), but that’s just one part of their day,” he says. 

“Before that, they’ve gone to a crime scene, witnessed an autopsy, and interviewed witnesses.”

Handling criticism

The above advice has paid off handsomely for both authors, although no one’s perfect.

Culver’s second-largest book market, as it turns out, is a predominately Islamic country (Turkey), and Muslims frequently tell him how much his characters remind them of their families.

And when he has received complaints, he tries to take them as learning opportunities to make the next book in the series that much better.

Miller, so far, owes her brother and her own work ethic a big thank-you, because she hasn’t received negative feedback about Bodhi. 

If and when that day comes, though, she expects to use the same approach she would any other mistake — investigate, then apologize for and correct errors if necessary.

That protocol has been put to practice, a bit, in other reader complaints Miller has received ... about a pair of male calico cats in her Sasha McCandless series. 

“I was once owned by a male calico cat, so I had no idea they only occur in one out of every three thousand births, but my readers let me know,” she says.

“And, to be honest, I haven’t changed the sex of the calico cats ... because the readers who write to me about it are so delightful that I look forward to talking cats with them!”

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