Welcome back to my “Ask a Writer” blog segment! This week’s topic actually wasn’t a question directly posed to me, but rather to the entire Twitter community, and it just so happened to really catch my attention.
@reagancolbert97: Okay, big question for you more experienced writers. I love describing characters exactly how I see them, but what about describing race/ethnicity? What have you learned or done in your own works? Thanks!
I’m going to begin addressing this tricky question with a little disclaimer: I am a white, straight male, so I obviously can’t pretend to speak for anyone outside that identity bubble or really have an intimate sense of what goes on in their day to day lives. I accept this and know this to be true.
Like most other people I’m sure, I’ve always felt a lot of pressure to include diverse characters in my books, from different races to sexual orientations. I feel like it’s only fair to try and make sure a lot of different types of people get represented in my writing, as long as the nature of the story doesn’t specifically prevent it. But also, as again I’m sure many people do, I feel uncomfortable at times writing a female character, or writing a person of color, or a gay character, or anything else outside my immediate knowledge. I’m worried that I’ll be too stereotypical, I won’t do that group justice, or worse still, that I’ll offend people. I really try to avoid this in my everyday life, and I try just as hard to avoid it in my writing. And so to be honest, I do struggle with it at times, but I think I’ve sort of managed to find my way.
Let’s use my most recently published work, Camp Ferguson, as an example. I conceived of the characters in the story long before I thought up the plot, and had their personalities fully-formed in my head before I even started writing. But aside from a select few of them, what they physically looked like, or what their sexual preferences were, wasn’t at all decided. I knew what I wanted them to be like, just not how they would look. Full disclosure: most of the primary characters are white, like myself, including my main character Jack, his love interest Tessa (who naturally has to be straight then), and my villains Drake and Scoutmaster Hasselberry. Those were the characters I had images for in my head previously, and I knew exactly how I imagined they’d look. Maybe I should feel guilty about this. Maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.
The others, I wasn’t so sure about, so I considered how I could best throw in a little variety without seeming too concerned about it or not concerned enough. Leo, the prankster character–is there any reason he couldn’t be Asian? No, not really (and personally I feel Asian people especially are criminally underrepresented in fiction)–so that’s what he became. Quentin, the kind but indecisive troop leader–any reason he couldn’t be black? Again, not really. And Lucas, my antisocial genius–I wanted to make sure at least one character had a sexuality other than straight, so could I make him gay? Sure, why not? And the more I thought about them in this new light, the more the characters grew on me, and I could finally visualize them as the fully-realized characters they are.
I know at this point some people might accuse me of being insensitive by just slapping some token characters of different identities into my story. But please believe me when I say that, whether it was a good idea or not in the end, I did it with the best of intentions. I really wanted the cast, as I said before, to represent a lot of different demographics, and I made an honest effort to do so. I guess you can be the judge of whether my approach was right or wrong–hopefully after you’ve at least read my book! It’s on Amazon, by the way.
I should also add that because I specifically wanted to avoid stereotyping, especially harmful stereotypes, another element of my approach was not to dwell to much on the identity of the characters after I had established them. The fact that Leo is Asian or that Lucas is gay is certainly an element of who they are, and they do occasionally come into play in the story, but they don’t define who the characters are by themselves. Could Quentin, for example, be concerned about the way fellow people of color are treated? Of course, and I’m sure he is at times. It just doesn’t come up in the context of the story. Maybe I’m assuming a lot of things about people who don’t actually exist, except when I put them down on paper, but I like to think that really good characters have more dimension to them than even what their writers are able to spell out. But on the other hand, Tessa has quite the feminist streak that does frequently come out when the male characters in the story talk down to her or don’t take her seriously. In the context of a military-style boot camp, I’m sorry to say that I do think that situation probably comes up a fair bit in real life, and so it was very important to include in the story and show a strong female character standing up for herself and fighting the good fight–I mean, she can basically kick anyone else’s ass in the book.
Hopefully as you can see, I’ve tried to take a really good-faith approach with creating characters of different races and identities. Those elements of a person’s identity certainly help make them who they are, but I like to think they’re not totally defined by them. Whether they’re white or black, gay or straight, I think that at their core all people are still just human beings with many of the same fundamental problems and insecurities, trying to get by as best they can. So that’s how I approach it: just treat them like any other person. It’s kind of how I try to live my life, too.
As for describing race itself in writing…that’s even more challenging. Honestly I’m not sure I do a very good job. There’s certain ways of describing people’s appearance and/or race–you know what they are–that just bottom-line aren’t acceptable, and I do always keep that in mind, especially when I’m writing. Aside from my introduction of characters where I actually go into great pains to describe their appearance, I don’t bring it up all that often in the rest of the book, except for an occasional reference here and there to maybe remind people or talk about a situation they’re in. For example, if I’m talking about Quentin, I refer to his having dark skin a couple of times (sweat beading on the dark skin of his forehead), and frankly I don’t think I really bring up Leo’s being Asian much at all. Lucas’s attraction to men does come up a few times just in passing (mostly because he has an unrequited crush a bit on Jack), but it doesn’t become super-plot relevant until my third planned book in the series, when–SPOILER ALERT–I finally give him a partner.
But like I said, I struggle with this issue, a lot, and I’m under no illusions that my way of approaching it is the right one, or the only one. It’s just the one that I chose to try to respect all people and represent them. If I can give another example–that of my upcoming TBA sequel to my first book, The Showstopper! (also on Amazon!), I’ve been seriously stymied in my development of it because it takes place in the 1930s in New Orleans, and at least some of it is going to focus on the treatment of the black populace in those times. Needless to say, the 1930s weren’t the most enlightened time, and bad stuff happened frequently due to racism (not that it still doesn’t, just saying), so glossing over that would feel wrong to me. I just don’t know how to address it without coming off as insensitive or misrepresenting. I have a feeling some research is in order, but I don’t know if even studying the history of the period will be enough to make me comfortable. In addition, I’d like to include a character who’s a female Secret Service agent at the time–already breaking a lot of barriers–and also bisexual. Having known some people who identify this way, I feel like I’m at least a little educated on the subject, but to place that identity in the time period of the 1930s poses its own challenges. Do I portray her as completely unrestrained and unapologetic about who she is–which is my first reaction? It would be kind of awesome. But on the other hand, would that be at all realistic? I’m not sure. Hence my dilemma.
I hope that maybe this blog post has informed you a little bit about my choices in writing in terms of race and sexuality–and not made me look like a total jerk or idiot in the process. It’s a tough element of a story to wrestle with, but I do the best I can.