PDA

View Full Version : Question About Diversifying My Characters



Stiger05
04-05-2012, 09:00 PM
When I write, my characters just appear in my head and I write them as they come. I don't typically describe any skin tones (I don't call out my white characters as being white, so it feels off-balance to call out POCs). I don't want people to whitewash but I describe hair and eye colors and let readers make their own inferences and insert their own images. (For example: curly red hair and bright green eyes; stringy, dark brown hair and blue eyes; thick, black hair and hazel eyes; fine medium brown hair and deep brown eyes, etc. In my head, the first two are white, the second is African American, and the third is Japanese).

Lately, though, from reading the AW forums and through my own reading/bookstore perusing, I have noticed the lack of diversity in current literature (specifically YA because that's what I write) and I'm wondering if I should be more intentional in making the POCs in my stories obvious to show the diversity I see in my head?

This question came up particularly because I have a POC who is a pretty main character in a WIP. She's pretty and popular and helps draw my loner MC out of her shell (as well as saves her butt a few times--it's an Urban Fantasy). She's also kind of punky, with several piercings and green hair (which throws a kink in my typical describe the eye and hair color style). Basically, other than the fact she's African American in my head, and personal mannerism differences that every character has, I don't draw any distinctions between her and my MC (who is of Irish decent).

My question is: should I? Not being a POC myself, are there issues etc she might face that I need to make part of her? I don't want to stereotype in any way, but a person is a compilation of their experiences and I want to make sure I'm seeing the whole picture and not missing anything important. (Oh, and I did read the stickies, sorry if this is there somewhere and I missed it).

A bit of background on the character, Veronica: The people in my story all have genetic special abilities. Veronica's family's abilities are the transmutation of matter and telepathy. The family is from the mid-western United States, although their work (with a group of "specials") requires they travel a lot. People with more than one ability are rare. My MC has three--one of which, telepathy, just presented itself.

Veronica can transmute matter and changes her hair color, etc at will. She's also telepathic, but like my MC, keeps it secret. I'm toying the with idea of making additional abilities the result of a hereditary disease. I think I'm going to give my MC Haemochromatosis, which is more common in those of Celtic decent. If I go this route, I'm would give Veronica Sickle Cell. (In part, I want to go this way to draw attention to these conditions. My little sister is a dwarf and attends a camp every summer for kids with special needs. She usually goes during their Sickle Cell week because there isn't a dwarfism week, and I have a friend with Haemochromatosis. I think people need to be more educated about hereditary conditions, but that's another topic for another day, haha).

Initially, Veronica and my MC don't get along. Like I said, Veronica is smart, pretty, popular, and kind of a know-it-all, while my MC is a loner who doesn't speak (she's mute) and tries really hard not to be noticed. They're in a training program of sorts together. Veronica stumbles upon the MC's telepathy and they find a connection and become friends. (If I go the disease route, Veronica will be aware of her disease, and the MC will learn of hers near the end).

Any guidance would be appreciated. Above all, I want to make sure my characters are real people. Thanks!

FoamyRules
04-06-2012, 12:17 AM
Well, for me, since at least one of my MC's will be a POC I do describe skin tone, hair color, eye color, etc. I also do that with my white characters.

Since your MC is African American it could be a good thing to flat out and say she's African American. There are experiences that a POC may go through that a white character may go through, and depending on if it's appropriate for the story it could be a good thing to add those factors in there.

Considering that most readers will assume the characters are white unless otherwise stated there is a way to do that while leaving much to the imagination.

backslashbaby
04-06-2012, 12:30 AM
You do need to be more explicit if you want folks to know her race or ethnicity, yes :) And definitely think through situations as if she really were African-American (so you should get good betas). I don't think you have to make an 'issue' plot at all (for lack of a better word :) ), but little everyday things may be different enough for a Black person, depending on the society and their race relations, etc.

It's cool that you are highlighting genetic disorders, btw! My health problems boil down to a couple of these, and we were woefully ignorant about them, which caused a ton of problems in diagnosis and just understanding in general. It'd be really cool if folks could follow a character through a bit of what it's like having something rare to deal with all the time.

MysticPunk
04-06-2012, 12:30 AM
I think you should specifically mention her race.

There are other ways to clue people in on race, your idea to give her sickle cell is clever and subtle. You can also describe her family in ways that make it clear. You should consider how her race relates to her identity.

She's popular but alternative. She's probably smart, too.

She could make jokes about not being the stereotypes. She can point out that Bad Brains were the most important punk band ever despite being black /rastas.

She could read black writers / poets or watch nonmainstream black films.

Someone can mention her race and be like "oh, wait, is that racist?"

Stiger05
04-06-2012, 12:54 AM
Thanks so much, guys! I really appreciate your input because I think getting this right is important. I'm drawing her personality from two good friends of mine, one is white and punky and the other is black and highly studious. I thought it would be a cool mash-up (and a great homage to two excellent people).

I especially like MysticPunk's suggestions of having her joke about not being the stereotype and calling out black punk bands and reading black writers (that would give me an great excuse to use some Langston Hughes!). I like the subtly of it, highlighting her race without throwing up a neon "hey look, I'm a the token POC here!" cause she's not, and I don't want to give off "magical negro" vibes. Does that make sense?

MysticPunk
04-06-2012, 01:20 AM
Go Hang out at afropunk.com and try to get an idea of how racially aware black punk kids can be and try to use some of it.

Good luck with your story!

FoamyRules
04-06-2012, 02:03 AM
I second Mystic Punk's recommendation.

I think you have a good concept going and wish you well with it! :)

little_e
04-06-2012, 05:14 PM
Considering that your story is urban fantasy, your characters will *come from* some sort of ethnic background that ought to be somehow reflected in their lives. An Asian character may or may not like rice, but they may have memories of family dinners with grandma which involved a lot of rice. A black character may not live in the ghetto, but they still have to deal with people locking their car doors when they drive by. Etc.

Ethnicity/racial background is something your characters would be aware of, just as you are aware of your ethnic background.

Corinne Duyvis
04-08-2012, 03:43 PM
In a lot of cases, there's nothing wrong with just flat-out stating someone's race. It strikes me as odd when people will describe characters' clothing or eye color but not specify their race. You use descriptions to give a mental image of someone, and race is a part of that. Besides, if I meet someone, I'll notice their race/skin color long before I decide whether their eyes are brown or more like hazel, you know? (People don't notice eye color all that much, so I try to avoid those descriptors anyway.)

There are definitely ways of indicating race without flat-out stating it. In my current WIP, in the first three chapters, you discover that my main character's last name is Santiago, his mother's name is Marķa, he has even brown skin, and he lives in Arizona. A little later, he speaks Spanish. It's not until over 1/3rd into the book that I use the word 'Mexican,' but it's not hard to pick up on him being Latino before that.

In another WIP, though, a character self-describes as 'a black dude' in chapter one.

It all depends on the story and the voice. You can take a lot of approaches. If you don't want to state someone's race because you don't mention white people being white (though nothing says you can't), that's fair, but you don't have to tiptoe around it either--especially if it's the MC, where race is likely to affect their day-to-day experiences. It can get awkward when writers try really, really hard to avoid mentioning race while still trying really, really hard to be inclusive.

lolchemist
04-09-2012, 05:20 PM
As a POC it feels so good when I find a character in a book that is something other than white/straight/etc that I really don't mind the author banging me over the head with it! Please, sing it from the roof tops! We need more diverse characters and it's not time yet for us to be subtle about them! Young readers need to see characters in books that are like them and it can so easily get lost if you barely mention it. Look what happened with Rue in the Hunger Games? I would have much rather the author had gone "RUE IS BLACK, SHE HAS BROWN SKIN. SHE'S BLACK OKAY? BLACK BLACK BLACK! RUE IS BLACK!" than to see the stupidity with so many of the fans going "OMG HOW DAAAARE THEY MAKE RUE BLACK???"

little_e
04-09-2012, 09:50 PM
Besides, if I meet someone, I'll notice their race/skin color long before I decide whether their eyes are brown or more like hazel, you know? (People don't notice eye color all that much, so I try to avoid those descriptors anyway.)


I recently asked my husband what color my eyes are. We've lived together for 7 years. His response was to ask me to look at him so he could see my eyes better.

I feel like trying to pretend like people don't have race, like we don't notice racial categories and only describe people by shades of brown and hair colors and the like, is really a well-meaning white person thing. Like, we want to say, "Hey, we're so not-racist, we don't even notice race!" That's fine and dandy, but black/Asian/Indian etc. folks don't have the luxury of not noticing their own race.

steamforged
04-10-2012, 01:49 AM
I recently asked my husband what color my eyes are. We've lived together for 7 years. His response was to ask me to look at him so he could see my eyes better.

That's such a good way of putting it! Fiction does an awful lot of focusing on eyes and eye color, and when viewed from that perspective it seems a bit silly. I guess they're the windows to the soul and all that jazz.

Tasha&Kamali
04-12-2012, 09:58 PM
I recently asked my husband what color my eyes are. We've lived together for 7 years. His response was to ask me to look at him so he could see my eyes better.

I feel like trying to pretend like people don't have race, like we don't notice racial categories and only describe people by shades of brown and hair colors and the like, is really a well-meaning white person thing. Like, we want to say, "Hey, we're so not-racist, we don't even notice race!" That's fine and dandy, but black/Asian/Indian etc. folks don't have the luxury of not noticing their own race.

I agree with this 100%.

It's sort of bothered me how some writers are so afraid of just saying BLACK. Race isn't a bad word. It isn't something we have to be subtle or ambiguous or vague about. It's not anything to tip toe around. If someone is Hispanic in your head, make them Hispanic on the page.

I think creating contrast with differences is one of my favorite things about writing. Pronounced differences, not just in behavior or things i'm showing (and not telling), but in culture and awareness of race.

Becoming color blind--as in race/ethnicity not being relevant in any capacity-- always seems disingenuous to me. Counterproductive in a multicultural society, imo.

lolchemist
04-13-2012, 04:12 AM
I've noticed that too, like some authors really seem to hate using the actual words. It's always brown skin or almond shaped eyes or they'll just name the character something obviously stereotypically ethnic and I'm not saying any of that is wrong (at least they're trying to be inclusive?) but unless you're writing about a fantasy world where Africa, America, Asia, etc. don't exist, it's okay to use the words!

MysticPunk
04-14-2012, 11:18 AM
... unless you're writing about a fantasy world where Africa, America, Asia, etc. don't exist, it's okay to use the words!

YES.

FoamyRules
04-15-2012, 06:02 AM
Like in my earlier post I am a little guilty of describing skin tone, hair texture and color and what not, but I always mention my character's race. I describe their features subtly, but I always let the reader know what race my character's are. For some it's important, others not so much.

Stiger05
04-17-2012, 10:38 PM
Thank you all so much for your input! I would have responded earlier but I had knee surgery last week and have been in kind of haze, haha.

I hear you all and will definitely make race more obvious in my writing.


People don't notice eye color all that much, so I try to avoid those descriptors anyway.Honestly, this is something I didn't realize. Eye color is one of the first things I notice about someone. I look people in the eye when I talk to them, so I'm more likely to know the color of their eyes than anything else. Hair color/texture comes next because it's so close to the eyes. I guess that's why I describe looks the way I do. I had no idea other people didn't notice eye color. (Coincidentally, it's one of the features I find most attractive. My husband has these gorgeous green and brown flecked eyes. I don't see how everyone he meets wouldn't notice them immediately, but that's just me).

lolchemist
04-18-2012, 04:36 AM
I notice eye color immediately too. I could list you the eye color of a thousand friends, family, acquaintances and even celebrities right now and even give descriptive adjectives. I think it's just one of those things that some people notice and some people don't.

veschke
05-17-2012, 09:44 PM
I just wanted to drop in and say I'm glad that I found this forum and this thread! I'm starting work on a new novel -- my previous ones have been other-world fantasy and sci-fi, where I can make up whatever society I want; the new one is much more tied to the present day, and I've been pondering how to diversify my cast of characters. It's good to know that this is a topic here.

Raventongue
05-17-2012, 10:31 PM
:nothing

Well, that and I think it bears repeating that most PoC's aren't likely to mind it being outright stated, and anyone else who has a problem with it probably would have bigger problems with diversity than that.

kaitie
05-18-2012, 08:29 PM
I just wanted to point out something that happened in one of my books, and also ask about it at the same time. I have a girl who is Chinese-American in one of my books. I described her physically, but didn't mention until the second chapter or something that she was Asian. It just didn't seem necessary at the moment, and my thinking was that I didn't want the reader putting stereotypes on her--I wanted them to get a feel for her as a character before finding out.

I had a couple of beta readers say I should say it up front, the first time, because they had to change their image of her once I said it. So it might be good to point it out from the moment she's introduced. At the same time, I didn't really take the advice. I'm just wondering if people think it's 100% necessary to mention it?

I similarly have a guy who is described as having dark skin, but it's not until halfway through the book that someone specifically says he's African-American. I'd thought it was obvious, but a beta called me out on that one, too. I don't know if it's a question of reader bias or if I just don't do a good enough job of describing.

kaitie
05-18-2012, 08:32 PM
:nothing

Well, that and I think it bears repeating that most PoC's aren't likely to mind it being outright stated, and anyone else who has a problem with it probably would have bigger problems with diversity than that.

I don't know if this is directly related to your thought, but this is the problem I face: My POV character wouldn't see a reason to mention it. They've known each other for a long time, and they're friends, and they don't look at the other person and think, "Oh, she's Asian," or "Oh, he's black."

So when it doesn't make sense for the POV character to mention it and it would be solely for the reader's benefit, is it still something that should be done? A couple of my readers obviously felt that the answer was yes. I just find this to be one of those confusing sort of things.

Raventongue
05-18-2012, 09:27 PM
Hmm. In that case, bits if I know. I'm all 3rd-person omni almost all the time.

Prolix
05-18-2012, 10:40 PM
So when it doesn't make sense for the POV character to mention it and it would be solely for the reader's benefit, is it still something that should be done? A couple of my readers obviously felt that the answer was yes. I just find this to be one of those confusing sort of things.

That is a bit tricky. My 2 cents are completely tarnished by my own personal bias, but feel free to pocket them anyway: if it doesn't make sense from a POV perspective, I don't feel that you should insert a blatant tell-all at the start. When approaching a written work, readers are going to make assumptions on the gaps in appearance information to piece together their visuals, and far more often than not, these visuals are going to be for white characters unless otherwise stated upfront (and sometimes even despite contrary information indicating otherwise). I definitely agree upthread in that I think - and wish - that more writers would move past just descriptions and outright state race in the situations where it makes sense to do so/the like, but in the case of your POV and the relationship the characters in question have, you've said that they're not going to think of themselves or each other in straightforward "he's black" "she's Asian" identifiers. The inclusion of culture, and attitude, and all sorts of other setting can give that information without someone outright saying it before the first foot is out the door.

I don't know. I just feel that, while your beta readers had to change their image of her, it's not necessarily just a criticism. There's broader and deeper-reaching sociological issues there, too. Rue from THG is an excellent recent example of this: she was described as having dark brown skin and eyes, and to many, those='white', likely because the only people with those features actively and consistently represented in the media are white, or whitewashed to fit the white ideal.

Apologies if I've added to the confusion. I really should have a forum cut-off time that is well before 4am.

LJD
05-19-2012, 06:59 PM
I just wanted to point out something that happened in one of my books, and also ask about it at the same time. I have a girl who is Chinese-American in one of my books. I described her physically, but didn't mention until the second chapter or something that she was Asian. It just didn't seem necessary at the moment, and my thinking was that I didn't want the reader putting stereotypes on her--I wanted them to get a feel for her as a character before finding out.

I had a couple of beta readers say I should say it up front, the first time, because they had to change their image of her once I said it. So it might be good to point it out from the moment she's introduced. At the same time, I didn't really take the advice. I'm just wondering if people think it's 100% necessary to mention it?

I had this issue in my trunked novel. My MC's best friend was Chinese-Canadian, and originally this wasn't mentioned in the first chapter, but then I decided it should be...

I dunno. If your POV character wouldn't mention it, then it would seem unnatural to do so. But I understand a reader not wanting to adjust their original picture of the character. If race is not all that important to the story, then it wouldn't be a big deal to me. I wouldn't like to feel like it was being hidden from me though.

One of the two MCs in my current WIP has an Asian love interest (parents are from Hong Kong)...but then I realized that while "Asian" here suggests the person is has a Chinese, Korean, etc. background, that is not the case in the UK. So I was thinking of changing the descriptor, though I haven't yet.


Sorry, that really wasn't very useful...