The main character in my contemporary series is a tour guide who travels to many countries and has people from everywhere in her tour groups. Hence, I must create characters from ethnic groups and cultures that I am not part of. These characters must be believable and real, and I want to do this without unintentionally writing something that is offensive to members of other cultures I’m writing about.
That dilemma prompted this blog about how to write characters from other ethnic groups and cultures.
Personally, I start from the point of view that God created us all equal. Humans have two legs and two arms with one head and a brain that is capable of unbelievable things. Our bodies and internal organs are the same no matter where we are from. Our basic human needs and fears are the same.
“I suspect most people feel more or less the same when being chased by bees.” Max Gladstone in intellectusspecul-max-gladstone-on-bees
The consensus seems to be that they should. After all, we live in a diverse world. In most contemporary settings – even in most historical novels -- an all-white cast of characters would be odd, as it hardly reflects reality. So yes, a white author can write a diverse cast… and will learn something in the process.
In both contemporary and historical novels, if a writer is being realistic, it’s hard to find a time and place without at least some representation from people of other races or cultures who could show up at least as secondary characters, if not primary, depending on the type of novel, location, and time.
The second part of this answer, however, is that the writers must do their homework. Research! Research! Research! Then be respectful and understand which lines not to cross.
Mya Nunnally [bookriot.com/casually-racist-things-that-white-authors-do/] writes:
“It’s hard to explain the importance of representation to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s like not having a good parent to look up to. You don’t have a positive image of what you can be. When you’re a young child of color and all around you are stories and movies and television about white children, you internalize the idea that hey—maybe my story isn’t as important as theirs.”
The following applies to primary and secondary characters who have an impact on the story, not to pass-through characters. It is less relevant with minor characters who come and go throughout the novel without a significant role, but they still need some descriptors including ethnicity and/or culture.
● Ask The Big Questions
What is my purpose in writing this? Who do I expect to be my audience? These are questions the author should ask himself regardless of what kind of novel he is writing. Then, is the intended theme of the novel about ethnicity/ culture or is it a mainstream theme with characters who are persons of color?
Whatever you are writing, and particularly if your target audience is primarily white, this is an opportunity to add diversity to your books in ways that help other white people understand and embrace the similarities we all share as human beings. Remember the bees.
Are you willing to do the work? If you are writing a 500 page historical POC family saga, you are in for a lot of research. Be sure you know what kind of novel you intend to write and your purpose in writing it.
Massive research! Start by clearing your mind of everything you think you know about that ethnicity and culture. Be cautious of allowing friendships within the specific ethnic/ cultural group to be your only source of information. Even a multitude of friends can’t represent everything about the entire history or culture.
Look at your own ethnicity/ culture and think about how many differences there are between you other people you know in the same group. You will find many differences in background and experiences, even if you are all of the same ethnic group. Just don't try to cram everything you've learned into the novel; only use the parts pertinent to the story.
Read literature written by and for the group you want to depict. Also read or view anything you can which expresses the group members unhappiness with the way they are portrayed in the media and thought of by the general public. Read examples of white writers who handle ethnicity well, and maybe one who doesn’t.
Kelly Nichols and Kris Montee -- two sisters who write as P. J. Parrish – are a good example of writing a POC as the main character. They are so successful at writing their Louis Kincaid series, that the editor who bought the first book thought it had been written by a black man.
Hang in there, even when your feelings are hurt, you are overwhelmed with “white guilt”, or become defensive. Kayla Ancrum says [mediadiversified.org/how-to-write-women/men-of-colour],
"This blinding rage some People of Color have for white people is not born of bigoted prejudice, but rather from old hurt. Or fear. Or pain.”
You must must must disassociate your personal feelings about the issues and just sit quietly and listen and not get emotional. The purpose is to educate yourself about the issues that this group – and the character you want to write about – has strong feelings about and discuss in their everyday life.
● Be Aware of Ethnicity
Do not have your white characters pretend People of Color are not POC. White people and POC see the difference in each other. That isn’t to say they can’t interact, be friends, treat the each other with respect, etc, but they are aware of the difference. Mixed race people are often very cognizant of their racial perception and where and how they fit in. When you write such a character, they should have that awareness. Readers should identify with your character’s human characteristics over everything else.
Right now, most of the articles available on this subject are about white writers trying to create characters of color or different cultural backgrounds. That’s to be expected since the majority of the authors are white. However, white people are not homogeneous and do not come from the same cultural backgrounds any more than persons of color do.
When anyone, white or a person of color, writes a character, just as much research about era, location and cultural background is necessary for the time and place. Most likely, the person of color or other culture doesn’t know about a white person’s ethnicity and culture, nor understand their attitudes, values, and mindset. It should be a learning experience for a POC author as well.
● Use a Beta Reader
Have one or more Beta readers from your character’s ethnic or cultural group to assess your work and keep you on the right track.
My opinion is that the major pitfalls can be avoided if the writer has done the research I keep harping about, and is aware of being respectful and sensitive. The following pitfalls are very important to POC readers.
● White by Default
White by default is a sticky wicket and is as much a writing issue as a sensitivity issue. In many novels, when characters are introduced, only those persons of color are called out. That leaves the reader with the idea that everyone else is white if not identified as something else. This doesn’t bother most white writers, but it does bother the readers who are not white. It may cause younger readers to ask, “Aren’t there other people like me out there?”
So, what's the option? You can't introduce every character by mentioning their ethnicity.
The rule of thumb is that pass-through characters who never show up again in the novel [the waiter, the maid, the bank teller] and have no impact, are not described at all or with only one descriptor [e.g. the waiter with the big Roman nose].
Writing primary and secondary characters require the heavy-duty research and a Beta reader if possible. Minor characters who show up now and then, or who are there but have little or no role in the outcome are usually described often by actions as well as unique things about their looks [e.g. the maid with with the limp].
All characters need to be introduced by showing, not a feature-by-feature description, which will probably solve the introducing only white or only POC characters. Physical character description should be more than skin tone. Show the reader hair, eyes, noses, mouth, hands. Body posture, body shape, skin texture… though not all of those nor at once.
● Avoid Stereotypes
Stereotypes are a no-no in every type of writing. It’s lazy writing; a shorthand used to make quick descriptions of minor characters. When a writer does this, it’s easy to fall back on stereotypes.
All your characters should possess a fully realized, well-rounded personalities. After all, not all Japanese are good at math or a master at martial arts. Stereotypes are particularly noticeable in clothes, hairstyles, professions, and dialogue.
● Do Not Describe People Of Color Using Foods
If I learned one thing, it is that People of Color do not like having their skin colors described as a food color.
Mya Nunnally [bookriot.com/casually-racist-things-that-white-authors-do/] explains that first, this kind of description is usually applied to people of color. Second, “People of color have a shisorty of being used for slave labor involving food, especially coffee, chocolate, and so on. /the words you use have a historical context. Be aware of them."
Don’t despair if one of your latino characters has “skin the color of caramel.” There are plenty of other ways to describe skin tone, including flowers and earthtones. Here are a few listed in "writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/words-for-skin-tone".
Black English is a dialect of English, not standard English using bad grammar or slang. The dialect is African-American Vernacular (AAVE), and should be researched the same as any unfamiliar dialect. The name for the dialect was suggested in 1975 by a Black scholar. Even though it was never formally adopted by linguists, the dialect has its own rules and structure. Don’t wing it!
Scholars still argue about what AAVE should be called, leaning one way or another at different times. This probably why our white population isn’t familiar with either the name or the concept of it being a dialect. At this point in time, this is the name to use when researching.
● The Faithful Sidekick
Ever since – and maybe before -- Author Fran Striker wrote the “Lone Ranger” series of books, first released in 1936, the only person of color [if there was one in the story] was the hero’s sidekick or maybe the villain. Those works in themselves were surprising for the time to have one lone POC character. Be cautious when you use a POC as a sidekick. At least make the character a full blown person with the appropriate feelings and mindset for the time and place, and give him or her a significant role.
● The White Savior
Another pitfall is the novel with the white person who “saves the natives”, presumably because they can’t do it themselves.
There is a lot more to be discussed about diversity in writing novels… just look at the number of sources. Across the board, we all need to respect the rights and dignity of others and to be aware of and sensitive to those things that hurt or denigrate others.The more the topic is addressed in the writing community, the better we will get at mutually dismantling inequality. Writing a POC character in a book with sensitivity and understanding may seem a small step, but every step in the right direction counts.
Paper by Rebecca S. Wheeler at the Workshop of Language, Westport, Connecticut 1999
Title: African American English is not Standard English with Mistakes.