With all the uproar over this post here about agents and editors asking for characters who are gay to be cut or made straight and characters of color to be made white- or represented as white on the covers I wanted to put in my two cents. This pisses me off and is yet another reason to self-publish my works. I have several characters of different ethnicity in my books as well as gay and lesbian characters. I don’t want my books to be Bleached and Ironed.
It saddens me when I see authors talk about this and then say that because they are white they don’t feel they can write characters of color. To me this widens the gap between people dividing us into us and them. That’s not what writing is about. Writing offers us a chance to connect people and open us up to other worlds, experiences, and lives.
So, instead of just madly ranting, I’m going to list the things that I do which make me feel comfortable writing diverse characters.
1- I cheat. My YA series which has many people from different cultural backgrounds as well as taking place in different countries is done in 1st person. And my MC is female who was raised without an ethnic culture of her own, but was exposed to many cultures and lifestyles growing up in group homes in San Francisco. I don’t have to know how the other characters cultural background influences their perspective- I only have to know what they show my MC. And yes they do show cultural differences, but this is not as in depth as other POV’s need to be.
2- I read books written by people and about people from many different backgrounds. I also watch foreign and LGBT films. And yes a media portrayal of people from other countries isn’t necessarily a clear picture. Neither is my book. It’s a fantasy- a story of fiction, and the books and movies allow me to add little details that make my characters come through clearly. They also help me to break stereo types.
3- Basic research. I read travel books- specifically children’s books as they give a greater since of culture flavor. I also watch travel shows- Bizarre Foods and No Reservations being two of my favorites.
4- I’ve take classes on writing about people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Two of my favorites were How to Write Realistic Native American Characters and How to Write Realistic Gay Characters. I loved both of them and learned a lot! I learned what stereotypes are and what things are culturally true. I learned that like everyone else there is a huge range of personalities and backgrounds. IF YOU CAN TEACH A CLASS ON HOW TO WRITE REALISTIC CHARACTERs OF ETHNINTICIY, SEXUAL PREFERANCE OR RELIGION PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DO AND LET ME KNOW HOW TO SIGN UP!
5- I’m not afraid to offend people. I don’t go out of my way to offend people, however if I want my curvy blond to be panting for the sexy black waiter with the great round ass, then that’s what I’m going to do. That being said- I will do research and ask someone who is black to read my story and see what they think. Is every black person going to be happy no- but I can’t make everyone happy anyway. There are white characters I don’t relate to at all. I ranted through the movie 30 Days of Night because I lived in Alaska and there were big technical errors- it happens. Tell your story, research, get advice, do your best, and write.
6- Not everyone grew up in a cultural household. I’m mostly German; you wouldn’t have any idea of that by watching my life. I have a friend who is Zuni. Going into her house gives you no sense of her cultural background and she grew up on a reservation and still practices the Zuni religion. I have a friend whose family is Italian. At Thanksgiving they have turkey, stuffing, smoked octopus, pasta, and pumpkin pie. You get a sense of her culture because that is how her family lives.
Just because your character has brown skin doesn’t mean they identify or were raised in an ethnic and cultural environment. You don’t have to be perfect, you can stay within the things you know and are comfortable with. Maybe your Chinese character has a Buddhist alter in their home and hates egg rolls. Mix it up!
7- We are all people. Under the bindis and jeans, bling and manicures, Chanel no 5 and sandalwood, we are all people. We want to feel safe and loved and special. We want a home, a family, and to be happy. What that looks likes differs from one person to another. A home in the burbs with two kids and a dog can be the dream of an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, yet might be a nightmare for an Indian couple.
No matter what your skin color or who catches your eye, lust, longing, love they all feel the same. Does the shape of a mouth change the passion and nervousness of a first kiss?
8- It’s okay for them to have flaws. While stereotypes are wrong concerning everyone of a race, religion, or sexual orientation some come from a problem, issue, or quirk that is common within that community. There is an alcohol problem among Native Americans; they also have a higher risk of diabetes. Not all Native American have either of these issues, but they are a concern within the Native American Community. Don’t believe me, go to tribal websites and see what programs and services they offer, many have drug and alcohol programs and some have nutrition/diabetes programs. People have to deal with drugs, alcohol, abuse, and gangs- it doesn’t matter what color they are, who they have sex with, or how much money they make. Having a character dealing with these issues doesn’t mean you are stereotyping them.
We are all people with stories to tell. So tell them. Be brave and see your characters uniqueness. Don’t Bleach and Iron you’re books, no one wants to read that. Delve into your creativity, your heart, and your mind. Imagine what life is like for someone else- you do it all the time- unless some of you really are vampires and werewolves.
And for those of you creating whole new worlds- there is no excuse for not having more diversity in your characters. You don’t have to deal with social issues in a steampunk alternate universe with dragons- just let that go and have people living together peacefully (well except for the soul sucking demons).
In a moment of self-refection I wondered why this upsets me so much. It’s horrid that this is happening and that this is still the mindset of many publishers, editors, and agents, but why am I furious?? The truth is I feel like I spend 80% of my life bleaching and ironing myself to fit in at work. I work for a Christian based organization and they do great work and I work with great people, but who I am really isn’t acceptable for work, and because I live where I work I have to fake who I am all the time. Now I do have a few co-workers who I can be honest with- but I am very selective about when I share those parts of myself. Also I SUCK at hiding and toning down who I am – I mean I really really suck and if anyone from work were to read this they would think- um no Alica we know who you are, you can’t hide anything. I do I self edit all the time, and I do my best to hold my tounge and tone down who I am because who I am would be judged as not right or good enough for work. Because of this I’m always afraid I’ll be fired at the slightest thing- which is really my writer brain going crazy because at every review I’m told I’m doing well and appreciated. So it’s just my own fear reeking havoc on my psyche.
My writing, my books, and what I read should be a safe place. A place where I don’t have to edit- except for commas, a place where I can express myself and explore the world, people, and cultures without fear.
For anyone who read or even skimmed this long ass post thank you. Sorry for the rant and the soul revealing truth bit. I’ll try and have something light hearted and funny next week.
I couldn’t have said it better.
Alica, I love you SO DAMN HARD for this post. I’ve had a response of my own brewing in my head, but I haven’t been able to write it quite yet, because the entire “bleaching and ironing” of literature makes me see red, and I’m afraid of writing when I’m enraged.
With that said, your tips are AMAZING, and things that I have been recommending to other bloggers and writers. In my day job, I’m a sociologist, and I study race, gender, sexuality and class (primarily in pop culture), so I have a lot of things to say about how we can be better about infusing our work with characters from backgrounds different from ours. One thing that I’ve wanted to do is write a series of posts about “thinking like a sociologist,” or at least infusing the lessons that I’ve learned from sociological theory (feminist theory in particular) into our writing. Dunno if I’d ever be able to teach that sort of thing, but in my dreams, one day down the line, that would be an online seminar that I would give.
But again, thank you so much for sharing this. You’ve given me a lot to think about in terms of my own post on the topic.
*Hugs* thank you so much!!! I made my hubby read my post before I out it up because I have the same issue, but I just had to say something. I would love to read Think Like a Sociologist!! Please go for it. I’m thinking of breaking down my tips one by one and creating a post for each of them.
I can’t wait to read your post!
I, too, would enjoy reading a blog with a sociological bent, especially about different races and cultures and diversity, etc, Write on!
I hadn’t heard about this until now but I can’t say I’m surprised. In my first book more than half the cast are people of color. I suppose that’s just one more reason to go indie. Nobody can tell you what to do with your characters.
Indie all the way- there is no way I will be part of an industry that behaves like this.
It may be long but every word is right on track! I see no reason, with some research to do them justice, that I can’t write my MC as any ethnicity or bias that I want.
Excellent post, it’ll make people think!
Thank you- I hope it makes people think and inspires them to try something new!
I can’t agree more. Underneath our gowns of belief, disbelief and cultural differences, people are all same, with same emotions to showcase and needs to nurture. Rest assured these differences are getting thinner with each day of progress. Writers should face no boundaries on how they conceive their characters.
Thank you! I agree, boundaries are breaking down knowledge is power as the saying goes and the more we know about each other the closer we become.
Fabulous post and fantastic advice. Somewhere in the comments here, you said you might break down your tips and expand on each. I would LOVE that. We need more diversity in our stories but to have that, we also need more courage and confidence. Your post offers both, and expanded posts, I’m sure, will provide even more! I look forward to reading them.
Thank you- I guess I better start writing those tips!
Well written. Thank you so much for sharing.
By the way, I’m sorry I’m just now stopping by to say hi! I’m in your urban fantasy gruop.
Welcome! Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked it.
Like those above, I can’t agree more. This “bleaching and ironing” is turning our literature into a blank slate of predictability and expectations. Literature needs to grow with a society and reflect its vast social changes as it goes along. Down with perfection and normalcy!
I awarded you a little bloggy award over at my blog. 🙂 Participate if you want to! Might be fun!
Yes, I want real and gritty and diverse. Thanks for stopping by and for the award! Headed to your blog to check it out.
I especially liked point #7. Great post!