Advice on writing for a character outside of your race, sexual orientation or religion

Published July 20, 2013 by G.L.

Since becoming a book blog reviewer and part of an assortment of book loving communities I’ve engaged with many aspiring as well as published authors. I have to say I’m always the biggest fans of the ones who make a conscience  effort to incorporate some kind of diversity in their writing. This doesn’t always mean you HAVE to have a checklist of what’s missing in your book. For example:

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Do I have at least one Asian character? CHECK

Do I have at least one Black character? CHECK, CHECK

Do I have at least one gay person? CHECK, CHECK, CHECK

If that’s someone’s approach I advise you to put down your pens, laptops or other useful writing aids and take some time out to read this post.

I don’t think authors should ever feel pressure to write characters that they aren’t emotionally attached to. I also don’t think authors should write characters of different backgrounds just to “do it”, because that makes it come off as a chore. Writing from a different perspective other than “what you know” is such a rich learning experience, especially if you do it well. But for others who are still confused on how they should go about it, here are some tips to help writing for diverse characters easier.

First of all I want to point out that this is not a post to help white authors write non white characters, but a post to help ALL authors write for different characters. Gay, straight, Muslim, Buddhist, Sri Lankan, Brazilian, Angolan, disabled, plus sized or whatever you’d like to explore. Because face it writing “what you know” is becoming a really lazy excuse to why authors aren’t writing characters outside of their own comfort zone.

I think the main problem with writing a character outside of one’s race, culture, physical makeup or religion is that too many writers focus way too much on how we differ as people and not enough on how we’re similar. Forget about how we look on the outside for a few moments and recall the things people go through on a regular basis. Just graduated from USC with whole bunch of student loans and a job that will barely keep you afloat? So does Juan from East LA. Fall in love for the first time?Guess what so has Ravinder from Richmond Hill, Queens.Going through some tough times since your mom passed away about a month ago? Your coworker Keshia lost her mom 3 years ago and knows exactly how you feel.

All I’m saying is that we all go through similar if not the same issues. Problems are not “race”thing. Everyone in life has problems.The only way authors make writing for diverse characters difficult is by going to extreme measures to make a character “authentic”. And authentic to one writer may mean “Stereotypical” to the next.

The way I define authenticity is writing a character that is both honest and relatable. If that honest, relatable character just happens to be of Asian ancestry, then they just happen to be of Asian ancestry. I know a lot of writers are worried that they will have to do a ton of research to “nail” their multicultural characters but I have to say i disagree. Unless you’re writing about someone that lives in a different country you don’t have to spend hours at the library looking into Japan’s history to write about a Japanese American. Other than the types of foods you eat at home, the language you speak with your parents or the way the people of that culture conduct themselves socially, the only research you’ll need to do will be based on what YOU want to do with the character. If an author writes about a black teenager named Penelope adopted into a white family from Bixby Knolls,CA; the character is not going to talk like Yolanda from The Bronx. Keep in mind where your characters live and what their lives were like before the events in your story, because that will make a huge impact on what you put on paper.

A certain school project comes to mind a few years back. In one of my creative film classes , I had to write my first screenplay.(I’m working on turning it into a novel )

I choose to write from a male point of view and mapped out his entire backstory.

1.He loved Baseball

2.He was a native New Yorker but since graduating from North Eastern, made a new life in Boston,MA.

3.He worked as a Junior Executive in Marketing.

Halfway through the story, I realized I mentioned very little about what his race was and what he looked like. I started to experiment on what race I would make him, what his sexual orientation would be, what features would he have. Days went by and in those days he was Asian, he was black, he was gay, I even painted him white in my head for a day. Want to know what i came up with? Kelly Rodriguez, a Brooklyn native of Puerto Rican descent. Nothing really else changed about the way I wrote him other than how he identified himself culturally, but the thing is I wrote the story first and in my second draft is when I painted his picture. When his culture came into play I was able to add some things that made him special, like the fact that he was bilingual and his love for New jack swing music but other than that it was very easy for me to write him Puerto Rican because I don’t see people in this culture any differently than I see myself. We all have relationship issues, we all have money issues and we all cry at the Lion King(well maybe not), but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that characters outside your norm are not Aliens. They’re people just like you!

We may have different accents, or speak different languages or look different on the outside but our everyday experiences are what makes us the same. Next time you decide that maybe, just maybe you want to write a gay character(because gays fall in love too)or a Latino character or a disabled character; take this ounce of advice first: Write a story that you’re passionate about. Write the story that makes you want to not procrastinate and finish already. Write the story that rings true to you. And please don’t ever let the race of your character dictate what they will experience and how they will behave because you’re the writer of the story, only you can dictate how your character will behave and what they will experience. To follow old rules is falling into the trap of old times and from here on out readers want to read modern stories!

In short, just write a story. If, when you’re finished with the story you find it so universally appealing that the race, sexual orientation, religion or mental state could be added later on when you’re going through your second draft(because no one’s first draft is the final draft)then you may just be on the right track!

Helpful Links:

FIVE WRONG-HEADED REASONS FOR NOT WRITING DIVERSE CHARACTERS IN SCIENCE FICTION

DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY: WRITING THE OTHER

WRITING THE OTHER

photo credit: Daniel*1977 via photopin cc

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5 comments on “Advice on writing for a character outside of your race, sexual orientation or religion

  • Reblogged this on Return: A Light Novel Series and commented:
    Great article from one of the people I’m following;

    I think the main problem with writing a character outside of one’s race, culture, physical makeup or religion is that too many writers focus way too much on how we differ as people and not enough on how we’re similar. Forget about how we look on the outside for a few moments and recall the things people go through on a regular basis. Just graduated from USC with whole bunch of student loans and a job that will barely keep you afloat? So does Juan from East LA. Fall in love for the first time?Guess what so has Ravinder from Richmond Hill, Queens.Going through some tough times since your mom passed away about a month ago? Your coworker Keshia lost her mom 3 years ago and knows exactly how you feel.

    Other notes: I’ve selected a cover artist for the first book. I’ll post an update shortly.

    J. Kresnik

  • Wow, this is such a powerful post! This is truly impressive, well-reasoned advice that I hope all readers and writers take advantage of. I know I’ve got some more food for thought kicking around after reading your post!

    • Thanks Mary! I hope that a few people could learn a little from our post. I’ve read a lot of posts addressing similar to just Caucasian authors but I realized ALL authors need to know how to write out of their comfort zone, so we wanted to write something that spoke to everyone.

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