Do writers need boundaries?

Vive la difference!

I’m at a really interesting point in the novel I’m writing. And I know that because it’s making me uncomfortable. It’s not violence or sex or swearing; no, it’s more subtle than that. It’s about religion and culture. More specifically, religion and culture that aren’t mine. 

I’ve recently had some brilliant email conversations with Lynn Michell, founder of Linen Press, and it’s been fascinating to see where our thinking aligns and where it diverges, when it comes to books. We’ve chatted about the tropes in genre fiction and how, for example, some of the archetypal characters in noir don’t play so well out of context, or in a more modern one. It all got me thinking about the boundaries writers place upon themselves and how that can either be a blessing or a curse.

Sometimes when you create a character with a walk on role there is something about them that makes you want to spend more time with them. In Line of Sight that spotlight fell on Thurston Leon, a West Indian private detective based in Dalston. Then (same book) there’s Stuart Fraser, the Scottish bloke working for Special Branch over in Belfast. And let’s not forget the two cops from Shadow State, Karen Edwards and Jun Wen – a black Brummie and a British Born Chinese detective. You see where I’m going with this now?

The BBC website ran a piece recently about how prolific author and TV writer, Anthony Horowittz, was cautioned to not create a black lead character because he is white. I don’t anticipate having a profile that high any time soon (!) so it’s a moot point for me, but one that I have considered anyway. Sometimes ethnicity, religion and culture are entirely secondary to a character because they either aren’t relevant to the story (and let’s face it, I’m talking about my stories here), and sometimes there isn’t space for that secondary character to get more than her five minutes on the page. And sometimes, for a whole heap of reasons, I don’t feel I have the skill to do it well enough.

But when a fear of being labelled patronising or concerns of allegations of tokenism prevent literature (or any aspect of the arts) being diverse and, well…imaginative…I think we have a problem.

My fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series stumbles into that maze because it takes place during the 2005 London Bombings. There are a few changes to the team and an assignment that forces people to confront their values and prejudices. 

As writers we’re so used to Mark Twain’s ‘write what you know’ advice. (Or Hemingway’s, if you prefer.) And you’ve probably heard my own updated version, which is ‘know what you’re writing about’. When it comes to diversity and inclusivity, I think it’s more important to just get out of the village of our own experience. We need to be able to write about people we don’t know, so that some of our readers can meet new people too. And not merely perfect, politically correct and sanitised stereotypes, but real, flawed and surprising people. 

Anyone who has read the series so far will know that I like to bring characters back from other books – Jack Langton, Sheryl, Sir Peter, and even Bob Peterson (I have a soft spot for Uncle Bob!). This time, MI5 operative Rupee Tagore also returns to Thomas and Karl’s world. She was always there, on the floor below.

Writers need boundaries to see how far we’ve come and then how far we’re willing or able to go. Beyond that, we’re into the wastelands of taste and the quicksand of appropriateness.

It’s a sad fact of our interconnected world that whatever you write, pretty much, someone will take issue or offence with. That’s lesson one from social media! I believe, as writers, we have to be true to the muse and to how faithfully we can express our imagination on the page. It’s a process, a continual momentum against that formless boundary made up of our own preconceptions and society’s mores. When we lose that momentum we become static, trapped in the confines of our own experience, culture and identity. It’s not that we have to continually push and risk offending or challenging; it’s that we need to feel free to explore the other when the muse takes us. 


  1. Chloe says:

    I find it difficult. We do need people to be speaking about their own cultures to get authentic voices – encouraging more people from minorities to write is important. But I don't think it's fair to say that people can't write about a different race or culture from their own. When it comes down to skin colour etc. it shouldn't make much difference, but things get more tricky when the plot means really understanding and expressing an actual religion or culture in its everyday detail. I hope we don't get to a point where people are too scared of being accused of all sorts of things to write about anybody other than people like them, but it's also important that representations ARE authentic or they do perpetuate stereotypes. Good luck!

  2. Thanks, Chloe. I think you've added an important point that I missed. Yes, diverse writers need to be encouraged as well, lest every diverse voice that's written springs from the research and imagination of, well, a literary monoculture! My approach is to use small details, so that I don't mangle speech and culture. It's always a work in progress. Growing up in London was a blessing because I can now draw upon memories of friends and colleagues. (And I have!)

  3. Lynn says:

    Hi Derek!
    It's an interesting question – should we include in our writing characters from backgrounds we haven't ourselves experienced? I see a continuum here from walk-ons where skin colour and cultural background are less important than their purpose in the plot to fully developed main characters where we can't get away with a skim over thin cultural ice. When I stayed in the Caribbean in an old sailing boat I worked out there no way of getting under the skin of the locals whose home it was. They didn't allow us tourists and travellers a chink of a look in. A facade is presented – but it's not who they are. Now, living in France, the culture is transparent enough for me to consider setting a story here or adopting a French character. But we all break our own rules. Linen Press author, Avril Joy, set Sometimes A River Song in an Arkansas boat community and gave the gorgeously authentic narrative voice to Aiyana, daughter of the river, yet Avril has never been to Arkansas. And my new novel, The Red Beach Hut, is about a gay man on the run and an oddball boy. I didn't ask your questions because the pair arrived insistently with their voices and stories intact. I like what you say here: writing is about how faithfully we express our imaginations. You and I know when we're winging it. Nothing jars for me in terms of the credibility of your characters' homelands, Derek, so you're probably venturing the right distance from your own boundaries. As you know, I have a few issues with the physically honed females, but that's another blog!

  4. Hi, Lynn, and thank you for the thoughtful response. I like what you've said – and illustrated – about the dividing line between when and when not to write a character that's 'other' to our own experience. And I'm aware that research, even when it's successful, will only get you so far.

    As you've alluded, I cross the border only as far as I feel I can maintain the illusion of authenticity. I will let you into a secret about one of my female characters (not the one that reminds me a little of Veronica Lake!) – she's based on a real person I used to know.

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