Novelist and screenwriter Steven Barnes has a website called Lifewrite.com. I signed up for free emails from him (which are great for writers), and this one seemed an interesting topic for blog discussion. He gave me permission to post it below:
"For years, at Science Fiction conventions a panel with the title: 'Can Human Beings Write About Aliens' has been popular. I've been a speaker on several of them, and enjoyed the debate. Inevitably, in time I also participated in 'Can Men Write About Women?' and 'Can Americans Write About Foreigners?' and 'Can Christians Write About Moslems?' etc.
A couple of years ago, I attended a play ('Permanent Collection') with my wife Tananarive. The play dealt with the stresses of a black curator taking over an art collection in a white suburb, and insisting on African pieces taking a more prominent position. After the play, we found ourselves wondering if the writer was white or black. Recently in the L.A. Times (January 15th) the author of the play, Thomas Gibbons, wrote of his struggles and conflicts, being a white playwright who has often written black characters. Well. Mystery solved, controversy begun. Can Whites Write About Blacks? The real question hidden beneath all of this is: can one person ever write about another? Gay and Straight? Conservative and Liberal? Southerner and Northerner?
Ultimately, it becomes ridiculous. Taken far enough, we can only conclude that no human being can write about anyone but himself. But wait...how many people really know themselves? The entire premise of Lifewriting is that one can most accurately determine one's hidden values and beliefs by actively engaging in three things: a healthy intimate relationship, a satisfying career, and a dynamic physical body. Let's be honest--what percentage of the human race has ever had all three simultaneously? That suggests, then, that we usually can't even know ourselves. In that case, no one should write about anything at all. Absurd. We have an obligation to write about the world we see, about people other than ourselves, and about the deepest reaches of the human heart...the basic premise is: extend to others the same basic motivations and needs that you yourself feel, your own humanity, your own fears and loves, and you will be right more often than wrong."
The best writers, Barnes and Due among them, do this. Which is why their books are applicable to all, no matter who the characters are.