Creating characters of color, especially when you yourself are not of that ethnic group, is an issue most writers will grapple with at some point in their careers. While we could debate the issues of cultural appropriation that occur when white authors produce diverse characters—or how those efforts impact writers of color attempting to share their own stories—it is more beneficial to discuss what all writers can do to craft characterizations that touch upon race in a respectful way. This post offers five action steps to consider when deciding how to incorporate diversity into a story.
Figure out why diversity is important to you. Why have you decided to include a character whose background varies from your own? Does this effort shine a light on an important social issue? Are you attempting to reflect the world around you? Does the choice deepen your manuscript’s plot? If you have positive answers to at least one of these questions, you’re off to a great start. If you’re undecided, stick with characterizations that align with your own experience. After all, an unfocused representation of someone else’s community may only illustrate your ignorance. Do not undertake the task of depicting diversity in fiction until you’ve honestly endeavored to understand why the characterization is important.
Next, release yourself from the pressure of perfection when writing your diverse character. Naturally, you’re aiming for a realistic depiction, but your status as an outsider makes authenticity impossible. Besides, authenticity implies there’s only one way to be Asian, only one way to be Latino, et cetera—when we all know that life varies from person to person. Make your goal to create a fully fleshed human being whose emotional complexities drive the story.
Put aside your assumptions about diversity. Most people learn about other ethnicities and communities through depictions in the media, which is often an exaggeration and therefore not reliable. Also, don’t expect one person to represent an entire community—that includes relying on the two or three people of color you may know. That is to say, you wouldn’t trust the accuracy of a political poll that relied on a couple responses, so don’t base the complexities of an entire race or social group on a few examples. Remember, people vary from region to region, and you don’t want to adopt stereotypes. Instead, do some legitimate research. Read a variety of literature—fiction, non-fiction, historical, and contemporary—written by people of color for people of color. The best way to learn how to describe the issues of an ethnic group is to uncover and examine the topics most vital to the community. This will give you fodder for the character’s inner life rather than merely their outward appearance.
As you engage in research, try to identify and understand what things people of color find offensive or incorrect with regard to their portrayal in the current cultural landscape. Avoid committing the same offenses as previous artists and learn to identify stereotypes by seriously considering the problems of other ethnicities without judgment.
For instance, as a Black female, I despise that writers rarely mention the skin color of white characters but over describe characters of color using offensive adjectives such as coffee-colored, mocha, caramel, and—by far the worst—brown sugar. This subconsciously perpetuates the notion that all characters are white, straight, able-bodied, and male until proven otherwise and that whiteness is the coveted standard. Avoid this by describing everyone’s ethnicity, using colors found in nature like bronze, mahogany, ebony, onyx, or sienna. Don’t use foodstuffs or inanimate objects that objectify and propagate the historical notion of black and brown people as chattel. Hair color, hair texture, body shape, names, dialects, and a distinct setting may also aid in descriptions that speak to race, but avoid tropes that marginalize members of that community. And remember, even individuals with light skin have cultural elements that shape their growth—think Irish, Italian, Jewish, et cetera.
Bottom line, trust that your audience is smart enough to pick up subtle cues and work to create a grounded character that extends beyond color. Dig into the character’s internal life or focus on the relationships between characters (how they react to and perceive each other) as a way to incorporate diversity. Consider humanity over the common restrictions of race, which isn’t the whole of a person’s existence—rather, a small piece of a much larger picture. Think about what cultural experiences have shaped how the character sees himself and the world. How will those ideas affect the way he behaves and interacts with others?
Stay the course even when the writing seems difficult. The initial urge may be to shy away from some of the more difficult aspects of race in favor of colorblindness. After all, the human experience is universal, and the rules of characterization remain concrete, right? Yes, but here’s where we urge white writers to dig deeper. Even though a person of color may embody the typical aspects of the American middle class, the world doesn’t ignore appearance. Despite the strides we’ve made in equality, a person of color still recognizes if she is the only representation of her race in the room. Like it or not, race is a legitimate part of what shapes us. Therefore, creating a racially neutral protagonist in the name of colorblindness robs the character of depth and fails to reflect the social mores that shape awareness. For example, a person of mixed race may grapple with shifting perceptions—what aspect of race does he identify with at home versus which side does society force him to adopt in public? Of course, this is an uncomfortable question to consider and may prove impossible to adequately research, but a diligent writer should not ignore considerations of this ilk if the goal is to create a three-dimensional character fully entrenched in his environment.
Once your story is complete, look for readers who identify with your diverse characters and have them review the work for sensitivity issues. Does the portrayal feel contrived? Does the inclusion feel offensive through motivation or dialogue? Listen closely to the feedback offered and endeavor to obtain comments from several readers. This type of feedback is the best way to sharpen your depictions of diversity and the manuscript as a whole.
Creating a character of color when you’re not one yourself isn’t like researching a technique that one can master simply by watching a YouTube video or documentary. You’re dealing with real cultures that bear a historical significance, so commit with sincerity and the best intentions. Craft a relatable depiction using sensitivity and respect, but make sure your desire to include this representation serves the story and isn’t merely to satisfy some publisher’s wish list. Consider what’s right—not just in your eyes but in the eyes of the community you’ve endeavored to represent—and be open to hearing from others about how you can improve.
Andrea J. Johnson is a writer and editor who specializes in genre fiction. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Seton Hill University and a copyediting certification from UC San Diego. Her craft essays have appeared on several websites, including Popsugar and Submittable, and she recently completed a cozy courtroom mystery novel. To learn more about Andrea’s work, follow @ajthenovelist on Twitter.