View Full Version : To Change My MC's Race, or Not to Change It?

09-28-2013, 01:03 AM
I'm about halfway through my current WIP and I'm contemplating changing my MMC's race. I based the character around my dad, who was white, so the character has always been white in my head. However, I've been reading so many articles about the lack of diversity that have really saddened me. Especially this one (http://timemachineyeah.tumblr.com/post/58648290519/this-is-a-jar-full-of-major-characters). I typically just write characters as they appear in my head, but the noticeable lack of diversity has me wanting to be more intentional.

This story is told from two POVs. The FMC is mixed (Mexican/Cherokee/German). The MMC has a best friend who is white and an older mentor type character who is black who plays a very important role. There are other diverse characters (a doctor is black, an investigator is Korean, friends of the FMC are of different races). That's how they all appeared in my head. Lately, I've felt compelled to make the MMC black as well. This article (http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/opinion/davis-black-men/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn) on CNN popped up on my Google homepage today and caught my attention. What stood out was this:

Black man in pain is a story rarely told.
Hip-hop is considered a safe and powerful space to tell black men's stories. Yet Eminem is the rapper best known for narratives about suicide, addiction and emotional pain.
It's easy to imagine someone who looks like Eminem, Kurt Cobain or Alexander McQueen as suffering from depression. But Lee Thompson Young (http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/19/showbiz/lee-thompson-young-death/index.html)?Not so much.
There's no quintessential cult movie -- a "Black Boy, Interrupted" so to speak -- where we see a black man who struggles with depression or distress. There are even fewer examples of black men seeking help. "The Bob Newhart Show," "M*A*S*H," "Frasier," "In Treatment" and "The Sopranos" are all shows involving men in or providing therapy. They are all white.
I'd already been considering it, then I read that article and it pushed me to make the switch. The MMC is 18 and has cancer, he's depressed, he goes through a swell of emotions and internal struggles and conflict. It shouldn't be a complicated question, I should be able to just change his race if I want.

Except a critical part of the plot is that the MMC is a thief. He robs banks, albeit for a "good" reason, but he's still a criminal, and "black guy criminal" is not a stereotype I want to fall into. I don't want this character to get pigeon-holed, you know? I also can't change this aspect of the plot. It is the plot. The story is kid who robs banks who happens to have cancer.

I'm torn. I want to promote diversity, and like I said, I do have diverse characters. I guess I just feel like it's not enough. I don't want to perpetuate this myth of the criminal black male, but I would love for a conflicted, emotional, weak, yet strong, black main character to carry this story. What do y'all think? Am I over-thinking this? Should I just write what I feel I should write? Or am I right to stop and question this?

T Robinson
09-28-2013, 02:51 AM
In my opinion, you are over-analyzing. Go with what you wrote in the beginning. Everything you change that early and something that basic, causes a cascade of changes further in the work.

What you originally put down was your thoughts. Now you are worrying about perception. Just write, focusing on the various elements in a good novel. It's all about the story. A good writer induces empathy with the MC in the reader. Race is one very small element that is going to be lost in the whole thing. A young man with cancer who robs banks for a good cause. Enough to read the first five pages anyway. Good luck.

09-28-2013, 08:09 AM
You could make him biracial as well. Just a suggestion. Tackle race and escape the "black male criminal" stereotype. JMO.

I had not heard about Lee Thompson Young. That's sad. And you are right. Though "Any Other Race But White Regardless of Sex, Interrupted " is more true to form. I do appreciate your take on diversity, and I, personally, don't think it's tokenism. I've changed my character's races loads of times, too—just like I've changed sex, sexuality, hobbies, religious bent etc... to fit the plot, or make the story more interesting.

The raison analogy is quite good, IMO.

09-29-2013, 12:15 AM
Thank you both for your thoughts! I love the raisin analogy too. It makes a good point. It doesn't take much to be inclusive, and the lack of diversity is only going to change if writers start changing it. I'm going to think about the biracial idea. It's not a big change story-wise, but it could be a big change for readers who are looking for MCs who are more representative of them.

09-29-2013, 10:14 PM
I wouldn't do it just as a sign of inclusiveness. My MC is black, with a supporting cast of black and Latin children. It's difficult to write about characters like that because if you write them like they are just versions of you, people will criticize you for writing them "too white." When you start to give them characteristics that define "black" or "Latin" in your head, it's easy to accidentally overstep and be thought of as using stereotypes.

Go ahead if you want, but it's not just a matter of changing "Richard Smith" to "Leroy Johnson". It's only worth doing if you feel that your story gets better as a result.

Rachel Udin
09-30-2013, 03:10 AM
The guy doesn't have to be black either. He can be other kinds of PoC too.

Personally, I started thinking of my characters naturally X as they started after I spent a long time deprogramming myself. (Taking Ethnic Studies classes, taking anthropology classes and also getting a severe wake up call.) Also helps to read PoC literature, especially those rec by PoCs and written by PoCs. Then you start with the question, "What race is this person?" rather than "they are white until..."

Before the wake up call, I still was putting in some PoCs here or there. I still have to revise a book to remember to address the actual race of the characters. ^^;; (I didn't know the default to white back then.) (I was frankly afraid to since the main characters are kinda prejudiced...)

BTW, in the Raisin analogy, I still saw they put in "Aang" and it just makes me all kinda of sad he was white in the movie all over again. (especially since the director is Indian and should know better since Aang is Sanskrit, dammit.)

As for your issue... sometimes it's not this book but the next one that you can do it to. I looked at a recent book and I couldn't find a way to make any of the white characters another race (even though I'm PoC myself). It just wasn't going to happen. Supporting characters, yes. However, the next few books after that were PoC inclusive on the MMCs.

Kim Fierce
10-01-2013, 05:01 AM
For this particular story it might be ok to leave things as they are, and consciously set out for the next one to be different.

But if you feel about it that strongly, then go for it.

I'm white and try to include diversity in my stories, too. My first novel had mostly white characters and some black. My next 2 books are a series, and every character is multi-racial, but in that last book I had to make a conscious effort to spell this out more clearly, because apparently at least one reviewer didn't realize that this was the case. And I have short stories which alternate between featuring white, black, Lenni Lenape MCs. For the Lenni Lenape stories I have had to do a lot of research about the culture in the 1800s to make sure I get things right: for example, a boy's uncle on his mother's side would usually have more to do with a boy's rearing than his father because things are matrilineal, people call siblings "Sister" or "Brother" instead of their names, etc. I want to make sure I include proper cultural representation in the midst of the story.

In this case, I can see where you're coming from . . . you want to have diversity, but don't want people to see a black criminal character because you're afraid it will be a stereotype. Since you've already gotten so far, you may want to think about how much work you might need to do besides just changing the word "white" to "black" or whatever other race. You wouldn't necessarily have to completely change the way your MC talks or anything but there may or may not be other changes you might need to make. It all depends on how strongly you feel this change needs to be made for this particular story on whether you want to do it. Good luck!

10-01-2013, 05:16 PM
I'm not crazy myself with the idea of making characters non-white simply for the sake of 'diversity', especially if it's already a fairly developed character as someone else. T Robinson above makes a good point. It's your story of course, but be wary of anything coming across as 'tacked on' to a reader. imo it partly depends on how many people of any given background that you actually know irl. For all I know three-quarters of your friends and family are non-white.

10-01-2013, 06:00 PM
Thanks, guys! I really appreciate it. I have a lot to think about. Maybe this it isn't right for this book. :(

Don't worry, if I do decide to make the change, I know it's not a simple matter of changing the word. I'm white, but I grew up in the middle of a mostly black neighborhood in the south and my mom taught and coached basketball at a 99% black school, so I'm familiar with the cultural differences that would have to shift, and I can straight up sit down with my friends and discuss any issues I might not have thought about.

If I do make this change, it's not just diversity for diversity's sake; it's because I think it would make the story better, and because there are entire groups of people who are underrepresented in literature and this will only change if writers change it. A lot of my secondary characters are diverse because the people I grew up around are diverse. For better or worse, though, I write a lot of myself and my family into my MCs, and since we're all white, my MCs tend to default to white (not all, like my FMC, but most). I have to be intentional about changing that, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

Thanks again for all your help. Like some of you suggested, if it doesn't work for this story then I can make it work for the next from the outset.

10-18-2013, 08:38 PM
The character is based on your dad and came to you as white so just write this story the way he came to you. Some other day a black character is going to come to you and ask you to write him his Boy, Interrupted, book. Don't mess it up by taking that character and recasting the story you have now. You already know in your heart that your Boy, Interrupted character won't be a thief. Shoving him into this story thanks to post about some raisinettes is just unfair to all of your characters involved.