SF Benson: WRITING DIVERSE CHARACTERS

Have you heard the adage, write what you know?

Recently, numerous posts have floated around the internet regarding authors penning characters outside of their personal culture, ethnicity, or race. Some readers and authors contend that it shouldn’t be done. Their theory purports that it’s disrespectful to do so.

Before I pull apart the idea as it applies to fantasy, I want to address the notion from my perspective.

In a pure sense, the adage suggests that an author stick to the stories that best capture his or her own culture or race. Basically, an author who is African American (fill in whatever race, ethnicity, or culture works for you) should only write about characters and plot lines centered around urban settings.

There are many reasons why this view is problematic. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll choose two.

The first—what if you don’t fit the stereotype? Unsure what I mean?

Let’s say you’re an African American who grew up in a suburb (like my daughter did). Let’s also say that you had a rainbow coalition for friends. You attended a diverse school, ate things like sushi, and intermingled with lots of different cultures.

Writing what you know assumes the author lives in the places associated with their culture or race. There’s a presumption that the writer should identify with the people from these areas based on appearance alone.

The second issue (and possibly the most overwhelming one) is that the concept is limiting.

Let’s broaden the scope a little to understand the problem. If writers stuck to what we knew, that would mean men couldn’t write from a female perspective. The vast majority of male/male romances (written by women, by the way) wouldn’t happen either.

Upholding such a narrow-minded notion limits creativity and puts restrictions on the type of stories readers can enjoy. Mind you, however, that contemporary tales must include some facets of reality. But that doesn’t mean authors can’t write outside of their personal experience.

How?

Keep reading.

When it comes to fantasy, naturally, writers must bend the rule. Otherwise, how would we write space operas, or even vampire and shifter stories?

Personally, I don’t know any real vampires (despite what my characters would like me to believe). I also don’t know any aliens or shifters who could give me the proper feedback.

Naturally, I’m stretching the concept to make a point. It all comes down to two key words—

RESEARCH and FEEDBACK!

Just like everything else, writers must do their due diligence. Research what you don’t know, and then ask the RIGHT people. An excellent resource is a Tumblr blog: https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com. Writing with Color is dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity. There is a wealth of information to get you pointed in the right direction.

Personally, I believe there are certain things you should and shouldn’t do when writing diverse characters. Be mindful that this list is not all encompassing. Rather, it’s some of those key factors I look for when reading works by other authors. The way a writer (or even a producer/director for TV or film) handles each of these items determines whether I would recommend the book (or movie or series) to someone else.

  • Skin Color

This one is a major faux pas a lot of authors make. First, there is nothing wrong with saying that a person has dark skin or even brown.

Some people will take offense to non-color authors using foods to describe skin complexion—mocha latte, cocoa brown, caramel colored, etc. The main issue is that describing a person using food could be read as sensuous or even a fetish. It can also be seen as dehumanizing a person. Finally, it comes off as cliché.

Writing with Color has an excellent guide talking about use of food for skin color. The blog also gives some wonderful alternatives for describing skin tone (i.e. tawny beige, golden brown, deep sepia).

Yes, there are exceptions—like olive-toned—to every rule.

  • Hair Texture

The prime descriptor you want to stay away from is nappy. It’s a historically negative adjective implying bad hair. Leave it at kinky or wavy, and you’ll be good.

The most important thing to remember is that natural hair is a sensitive issue for African Americans. We have been harassed, bullied, assaulted, and even fired for our hair choice. If you’re writing about characters who are African or of African descent, be sure to get it right.

Don’t be afraid to ask about the different ways we wear our hair. Talking to someone is the best way to gain knowledge.

Also, make sure it’s plausible. People of African descent grow dreadlocks. There is a cultural significance behind the style as well. So you can’t write a white character with them. The appearance may seem the same, but on the white character the hair is matted.

  • Stereotypes/Tropes

Writing with Color offers a page dealing with stereotypes and tropes for a vast group of ethnicities and cultures.

There are so many (check out this reference for some of them). It’s best to stay away from them. Hollywood’s depictions are not a good point of reference. This is an area where a sensitivity reader is invaluable. These talented individuals are able to pick out slang and negative descriptions in your manuscript. Things that may seem innocuous to you, may be harmful to another.

  • Naming

This one is a personal pet peeve. Not every African American girl is named Shaniqua. Not every Latina is named Rosie either. If you want to write non-white characters, get yourself a good naming guidebook. Please refrain from [insert ethnicity]-sounding names. You should aim to be as authentic as possible when naming your characters. I highly recommend: Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon 

HOWEVER, make the name fit for your story. What if you’re writing a historical fantasy with slavery as an issue? If your characters are recently freed slaves, they may want to have names which assimilate them to the surrounding society. In the same regard, if your characters are slaves, they won’t answer to their pre-slavery names.

If your fantasy story is based on a real region or area of the world, you might want to investigate the history of the location. Discover how the people name themselves.  If your story reads Asian but all the characters have European names, you might want to address this before publishing.

  • Balance

Are you presenting positive as well as negative characters?

Let’s say you create a world where there are at least two distinct races of people, one orange and one turquoise. The orange group we’ll call the Degenerates, and the turquoise will be called the Royals. If the Degenerates are relegated to a status of villain (as a whole), or if they are hated by the Royals simply because of skin color, you’ve only masked racism with different skin tones.

People of color want to see themselves in a wide variety of roles—main characters, bad characters, sidekicks, superheroes, etc. In all honesty, no one wants to only be seen as fitting one role. This is one of the problems Hollywood has had for years, casting POCs as only sidekicks or buffoons.

Although you’re writing fantasy, make sure you allow ALL characters to play ALL roles.

If you’re including diverse characters, let them be the hero or heroine. Cast them as bad guys if you will. Just keep in mind, that you want to vary it from story to story. Don’t always have your villains or negative characters always be a diverse persona.

In my humble opinion, every author can write about diverse characters in their stories. The key is to remember your purpose. If your story is intended to be a depiction of a real experience (racism, sexism, Black on Black crime, etc.), then consider working closely with a sensitivity reader. If your story will have flashbacks or references to REAL points in history, get yourself a sensitivity reader. But if your story is merely a tale with characters who happen to be diverse, stick to basic details.

What do I mean?

Let’s say you’re doing a take on Snow White. Instead of the usual cast of characters, you decide that Snow White will be an African American girl and the dwarves will be different races. You might even throw in a few who identify as other than male or female. What details do you need to include? Accurate descriptions of skin and hair (as relevant to your story) and maybe speech patterns. You might change names to be suitable for the characters too. Unless you take your tale out of the forest and intend it to be a focus on the human condition, you might not need to worry about Snow White’s opinions about racism.

The nice thing about writing purely imaginative tales is that we have the leeway to invent ethnicities, cultures, and races. Characters don’t have to fit the norm—white, brown, or black. An excellent trilogy, The Loom Saga by Elise Kova, does a wonderful job of this. The author created people of unusual color (shades of gray or rainbow-colored) and ethnicity. We have to rely on Kova’s amazing worldbuilding to give us a glimpse of the characters.

So should fantasy authors worry about an accurate depiction of diverse characters?

YES.

If we are including familiar topics—racism and sexism, for instance—then we need to make sure that the landscape is plausible.

Using topics that are too close to home for some ethnicities and races will also earn judgment. For instance, mulattos are individuals who are born of mixed race. Their skin color may be lighter than other African Americans. During slavery, they would have worked within master’s house as cooks, maids, and other indoor staff. The distinction between light skin and dark skin created a dual system—house slaves and field slaves—and animosity. Fast forward to the Black Codes and Jim Crow. Some mulattos passed for white in order to avoid arrest. A scenario—passing for white—that became a sore point throughout history.

IF a non-African American author wants to write a character who fit this description, the plot should include some sort of self-discovery. Allowing the character to “pass” and slip into a segment of society undetected will read wrong. BUT if this character finds a connection to her heritage and decides NOT to pass, that story will have power (but get a sensitivity read to be certain).

Will following my guidelines help you avoid ridicule? Possibly. Not following them may get your story criticized before you hit publish. The strongest piece of advice I can give would be to always research, get feedback from authors of color, and get a sensitivity reader (this is something I do for other authors, by the way).

Oh! One more thing about sensitivity readers…

Make sure that whoever you hire is familiar with the culture, ethnicity, race, or sexuality you’re checking for. I probably wouldn’t write a coming of age story about an Indian (from the country of India) character and ask a Native American to read it for cultural accuracy.

What problems have you encountered in writing diverse characters? I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.


2 thoughts on “SF Benson: WRITING DIVERSE CHARACTERS

  1. Shantella, thank you so much for sharing fantastic advice on writing diverse characters! In the past, I confess I was afraid of getting it wrong and tended to stick to the more basic details. Writing fantasy and sci-fi helped a bit with this. In hindsight, I wish I’d tried harder to be more inclusive. This is something I’m striving for in current and future books, and hope to continue to improve upon. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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