So, you’ve heard a thing or two about diversity. You’ve heard that a lot of people are looking for diverse stories these days. You might have even heard about the success of Black Panther in the box office and realised that stories that add diversity to Hollywood as a whole do very well! Awesome! But when it comes to writing about race, you’re a little out of your depth, right?
With the recent Black Lives Matter protests, it is more important than ever to make sure you’re sensitive when you write about race. We’ve needed to listen to black voices for a long time now. Now, more people are openly accepting the importance of it. Book shops all over the world are promoting stories from black people’s perspectives. You might have even seen a study on racism or two.
But how can you be part of the good cause? How can you make sure that you are writing characters of different races well in your story? Stick around and I give you some great tips to get you started. While this is, by no means, an exhaustive guide to how to write different races well in your story, it is a great start!
Learn the Language
PoC, minority, diversity, representation… it can all seem like jargon, right?
I get that so much! It can sometimes feel like the English Language is changing faster than we can keep up with. And not just because of writing about race, either! Just the way the internet has a strange habit of bringing light to strange slang and then dropping it just as quickly as it made it popular.
If you’re as ancient and British as I am, you might remember how people always used to use the word “reem”, for example. No one uses that anymore! Or, how “and I oop” and “sksksk” are gone. Dead. Bye-bye!
When it comes to words that we use to make ourselves more inclusive, however, I think these are going to stick around for a little longer.
As I said on my blog post on the matter, changing the way you speak about diversity can really have a huge impact on how you think about minority characters. If you think about race differently, the changes are that it is going to revolutionise the way you write so much!
So, when you talk to other people about race, try to use the term “PoC” for someone who isn’t white. It means Person of Colour and is one of the most stigma-free ways of referring to different races and skin colours. Plus, never use the word “normal” to describe a person’s race.
Separate the narrator’s language from the characters’ language. Of course, some characters might be bad, racist people who use bad, racist terms and slurs. Just never let that bleed into the narrative and make sure you show the reader that their language isn’t acceptable!
Take the time to ask questions and learn from your mistakes. The USCA inclusivity guide is a great start.
Let Characters Struggle Over Things that Aren’t Race-Related
Sometimes you need to have race tension in your writing. Does every single struggle a PoC goes through in your work have to be all about race, though? We PoCs have all sorts going on in our lives. Yes, racism and race tensions can play a big part in what we go through. However, it doesn’t define most of us and we have a lot of other stuff to think about.
Characters of different races shouldn’t only be in your writing if the story is about the struggles of being that race. If we’re going by tropes, you can have black nerds or East Asian jocks. What about an Indian mean girl for a change?
One of the best things about the increase of representation is that people like me have more characters who look like us that we can relate to. As a British person living in London, racism does play a part in what I go through. However, it’s such a small part of my life compared to my other struggles. So, why wouldn’t I want to read a story about a mixed race girl finding love, hating her day job and battling mental health problems? It’s my reality!
I’m not saying that you should ignore race. I’m not saying that it can’t play a part in your story. However, how about also having the PoC characters struggle with other things in the story? It doesn’t just make it easier for PoCs to relate to your characters. It also means that readers of other races will be able to empathise with them a lot better, too!
The more people who relate to the character, the more of a success they will be. Plus, you’re helping to humanise PoCs, which is amazing!
Avoid Indulgent Food Descriptions
“I’d like to taste me some of that chocolate” is something a creepy, sleazy character says in my story When I’m Gone. Why? Because it’s so, so creepy!
And that’s where that kind of description should remain. If you’re going to describe someone with food in that uncomfortable way, the reader needs to get that it is weird.
Food descriptions can very quickly become objectifying. What do you do with food? Well, you eat it, of course! So, it can get super weird when you start to describe a person with using food. It’s like you wanna eat them or lick their skin or something. That’s either kinda sexual or just plain weird, right?
I’ve read a whole lot about how to write about a character’s skin colour or race, and a lot of other PoC writers highlight this in their advice. There are even some great resources to give you other ways to describe skin colour in your work.
Personally, I’m not sure if I would agree that using food is always a bad thing. I’ve done it before with Evanna in The Queen of Freaks because I don’t really know another way to describe that warm, toffee-like tone of her skin – the tone I myself have. Sometimes it’s hard to find another word that gets the right image in people’s heads straight away. Do you know another that I could use? Makeup brands say caramel!
But because it’s so easy for food descriptions to become weird, I suggest that you try to avoid them as much as you can. Or, stick to things that naturally grow out of the ground rather than things that slaves would have produced. Maybe Evanna’s skin matches some kind of nut. I might have a think…
Describe PoC and White Characters in the Same Way
When you only write about someone’s skin colour when it’s not white, it makes it seem as though you see white as the “default” race. It’s as though you think that white is the “normal” and any other race is “added” to your writing. This is a huge red flag. It’s one of those things that shows that you may see white people and PoCs as different without even realising.
Don’t fret if you look back on your work and see this pattern! Lots of people don’t even realise they’re doing it! Plus, I highly doubt you did that on purpose. However, why not try this tiny change? It will help race diversity so much!
So, from now on, try to make a conscious effort to describe your white and PoC characters in the same way? You’re not going to lose the message of your story or change it drastically in some way. It’s a small change that can really do so much good!
How do you do this? Well, have a think about how you want to describe your characters. Do you want to focus on their skin colour and eyes? Maybe their hair, too? Well, great! Commit to doing that for every single character in you writing regardless of their race. This increases equality in your story in a very easy, simple way.
If you imagine a character as black or Asian or Native American, be specific! Let your reader know what they look like so that you’re all on the same page.
The thing is: a character can’t help with diversity and representation if we don’t know that they’re a minority! The same was said to Rowling when she said that Dumbledore was gay but chose to keep him in the closet for years. You can bet that the same is true about race.
Most people will imagine a straight, white, cis person if you don’t let us know that they aren’t. While that’s frustrating to me that people consider white to be the default, it’s just something that we’re going to have to factor into the way we write until it goes away.
So if you really want to help with racial diversity in writing, you should take the time to actually let the reader know what the characters’ races are. I know that it can be quite clunky or awkward to do that without using stereotypes at the start. However, the more you work at it, the easier it will become.
There are plenty of ways that you can do it, too. You can work the character talking about their race or ethnicity into the story in some way. You could have another character talk about it. Or, you could just describe their race outright as the writer. You might even want to try out loads of ways until you find one that works for you!
I get that you have this canon in your head of how you think your characters look. Your readers aren’t psychic, though. Plus, you don’t want them to go all “Death of the Author” on you.
Stop Forcing PoCs to Justify Their Existence
There is a huge trend of claiming that any diversity in stories today is “forced” or that a black character in a story is “bringing politics into media”. This is toxic and just plain wrong. It’s something that we need to try to get rid of as soon as we can!
To be honest with you, this is more of a problem with readers and audiences than it is with writers. Still, though, I think you need to be aware of it in your own work. While you’re a writer now, you do read and watch other people’s work, don’t you? And when you do, have you ever suggested that someone’s identity is in some way a “political statement”? If you have, that could really affect the way you write characters of different races. It might cause some issues.
No one should have to justify their right to exist. The people who claim that diverse casts are “political” are often the same people claiming that there is no inequality in the West today, yet they are responsible for some of it! I mean, I don’t see them say “why is this character a straight white man when the story is set in India”, do you? But when the character isn’t a straight white cis man, they throw their hands up and get angry. That is treating people differently.
Why am I saying this all in a post about writing race? Well, a lot of us can fall into the trap of pandering to people like that. You might be scared to post your diverse cast just in case someone claims it’s “forced”.
Don’t let their cries stop you. Minorities should not have to justify their right to exist – either in media or in real life.
Look Up Race Stereotypes
You might hear a lot about how this story has too many stereotypes in it, or that film is offensive because of how it feeds into bad tropes.
This is a real problem when it comes to how PoCs are represented in the media right now. We are often put into these really rigid boxes of how we act and the roles that we can play in stories. Not only is this kinda offensive, but it can also get boring! Even more importantly, it gets in the way of making a complex, interesting character. And we all know that stories are full of complexity!
But when it comes to avoiding those tropes, it can seem like it is way too hard, right? I get that. It seems like every time you get the hang of one stereotype, there are six others that you need to think about. How the hell can you stay on top of that and make sure that you write PoCs in a sensitive and fair way?
Well, research is your friend. There’s really no other way. It’s all about reading and listening to as many people as possible when they speak about the worst of the stereotypes. Then you’ll know when to use and when to break from the tropes that already exist in the media.
But don’t think you have to cram every single stereotype ever in your head. That’s not the point at all! The best thing about putting in the time to learn about tropes is that you’ll get quite good at identifying them all on your own after some time. Your research is just the start!
If you don’t know where to start, try The Take on YouTube. Or you might want to have a go at TV Tropes, too!
Consider Beta Readers
If you really want to make sure that your writing is sensitive to race, it is a good idea to get yourself a beta reader. In fact, I would say that you should try to get more than one, if possible!
Beta readers are great because they can pick up on things that you might miss. They go through your story with the eye of a reader rather than that of a writer and they can ask you questions and clear up some issues as they come up. Beta readers are great for many reasons! As well as writing race in a sensitive way, they can also help you to clear up confusing or muddled plot elements.
Try to get beta readers of all different demographics. You want to make sure that you have as many points of view as possible to be as sensitive as you can. If you are able, get some beta readers from the races that you have included in your story. Try to ask more than one person to help you, as no race is a monolith.
There are loads of people out there who love to help with this kind of thing! As long as you show that you are willing to learn and change and you won’t get defensive as soon as they make a comment or suggestion, I’m sure you’ll find someone who is willing to read your story for you.
How do you find beta readers? Well, most writing apps like Wattpad have forums that you can try out. Then there’s the ShanniiWrites Forums that are part of this site. If you are willing to pay, you can find readers pretty easy, too! Like my Ko-Fi!
Research Writing About Race
Just like with the stereotypes thing, it’s important that you do your research about other things to do with race, too.
Have a think about where you want to set your story. Is it in the US? The UK? Or somewhere else in the world? What town or city? This will give you a good idea of how race is treated in the place where you want to set your story. Also, you can have a look at which races and ethnicities are more or less common in that place so you know how people would react to your character.
For example, let’s say you want to set your story in Japan. You find out that black people are not very common there. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a black character! Of course not! But it does mean you might want to have a think about how being black in a place where there isn’t a whole lot of racial diversity might affect the way your character lives and sees the world.
As well as that, you’ll want to make sure that you listen to the voices of the races you want to portray. The chances are that there’s a kind person from that race out there who has written a blog post or book to help you get to grips with how to be sensitive in your portrayal.
We live in a great time. There’s so much info out there to help you! In fact, there’s actually a book coming out in a few days to teach you how to write black characters. Check it out!
I hope this has helped. Good luck and happy writing!
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