Elizabeth: Creating Diverse Characters

These past few Wednesdays we’ve been talking about diversity in romance writing/publishing.  In the Diversity Spotlight post I talked about the recent decrease in the number of books published by diverse writers (aka PoC).  In the Diversity Reading List post I suggested some diverse authors and books to consider when looking for that next book to read, and in the Diverse Reader’s Perspective I posted an interview showing what the current state of diversity in romance writing/publishing looks like from the perspective of a diverse reader.

To wrap things up, I wanted to talk about some things you might want to keep in mind when including diverse characters in your own writing.

It’s not just skin tone

If you include diverse characters in your stories, they need to be more than just white characters with a different skin tone.    Sure that sounds obvious, but I’ve read any number of stories where a reference to skin tone was the only thing that differentiated a diverse and a non-diverse character.  Just like a character from a small town will have different experiences, perspectives, and behaviors than a character from a big city, the same is true for your diverse characters.

How do others react?

Every day it seems you can see examples in the news of individuals being treated differently, whether consciously or unconsciously, because of the color of their skin.

For example, two African-American men were recently arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks where they were waiting for a business meeting, without having made a purchase.  As a result of that particular incident, Starbucks held company-wide anti-bias training just this week.  During the training, some folks shared ways they’ve treated customers differently, such as:

“An employee said he had hid the tip jar when he saw a group of black men walk in. He became embarrassed, he said, after he gave them their change and they asked if there was a tip jar for them to leave in.”

There was also a recent incident where an off-duty police officer pulled a gun on a non-white individual he thought was stealing, but who had actually just purchased some mints in a convenience store.  After that occurred, an African-American friend of mine said she now makes a point to get a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, just to be safe – something I, being white, would not have to worry about.

And let’s not forget the two women who were detained by a border patrol agent in Montana because they were speaking Spanish or the two Native American teenagers who were pulled from a college tour in Colorado after a woman on the tour called the police on them when they apparently made her nervous by being quieter than others in the group during the walk through campus.

Describing how your characters think, look, and act is important, but without showing how others react to them and interact with them, you’re only partway there.

Look, listen, and Learn

Everyone experiences the world in their own way, but for someone who is black or brown, the world can be a very different place than it is for someone who is white.   Writing believable diverse characters can be challenging if you’re not diverse yourself, but it’s not impossible.

A good first step is to pay attention to the people around you and to your own responses.  If you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, does the cashier treat the customer wearing a burka differently than the African-American youth or an older white woman?  Do you notice that some passengers stand closer or further away from other passengers on the subway?  Why is that?  When you read the news, are there noticeable differences in how different races are portrayed?  (e.g., a white gunman is suggested to have ‘mental issues’ while an PoC is more likely to be referred to as a terrorist).

If at all possible, talk to actual people and learn about their experiences and what the world is like for them.  I’m very lucky in that my day job is in the field of diversity, working with a group of individuals who are, not surprisingly, very diverse.  I have been able to pick up a lot of knowledge that I otherwise would not have known and get some eye-opening perspectives.

Unconscious-bias training can be helpful, but even more edifying is to talk with people who have been on the other end of those unconscious biases.  For some interesting perspectives, you may want to check out the MSNBC Town Hall, Everyday Racism in America that aired earlier this evening.

So, do you have any suggestions to add for how to create believable, diverse characters?

7 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Creating Diverse Characters

  1. Roy Wood, Jr., also talked about that receipt thing; he said something like, yes, I want the receipt. But not IN the bag — staple that #$%& to the outside so everyone can see that I’ve got a receipt.

    And actually, in my hometown, this was very, very common. (It’s a very white hometown.) The stores would staple the receipt to the outside of the bag in a lot of cases. I’m not sure if there were class wars going on that I was oblivious to.

    I don’t think there’s any great one-size-fits-all way to show diversity. You are very right: it’s more than skin color. Or hair textures. I think there’s a certain sensitivity about safety. You can see this in gender diversity, as well. A woman writer may have characters take more precautions about walking alone. A black writer once mentioned something about never living in a house that has only one exit/entrance (no escape routes in case the lynch mob comes, was the implication). I just read a short story by John Chu where our first hint of character diversity came from the fragrance of beef and anise being a comforting smell.

    I guess one way I’m trying to educate myself about diversity is to read more stories by diverse authors. Last week, I talked about the romance magazine, Heart’s Kiss, which has quite a bit of diversity in several diverse ways. This week, I’m starting to read some back issues from the science fiction magazine Uncanny. They also have a commitment to diverse authors and diverse characters.

    • I agree, Michaeline, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to show diversity. Trying educate yourself and read more stories by diverse authors sounds like a good step forward.

      Are you familiar with the blog Romance Novels in Color? They’ve got some great interviews and book recommendations.

      “Romance Novels in Color is dedicated to showcasing diversity in romance, because love in all cultures and colors is awesome.”

  2. Thank you for continuing this discussion. Until I started a series where the protagonist is a PoC, I hadn’t realized how overwhelmingly White (and Western European) most characters in most of my books are. Worse, that made me realize that I can only think of one non-white author from what’s on my bookshelf — Even the author of the series with the PoC lead character turned out to be white, which I’d assumed wasn’t the case, given that African heritage is a core motif in the series.

    I need nudges like this to move me out of my rut, so… thank you, again.

    • Glad to be of help. I’m always looking for suggestions for authors/books to add to my reading list; feel free to pass along any recommendations as you expand your own reading.

      I’m trying to tone down the white glare from my own bookshelf though, as a fan of Regency romances, finding diverse authors/characters can be extra challenging in that genre.

  3. I have black friends–middle-aged women with advanced degrees and good careers–who talk about being trailed through department stores by store detectives who assume they’re planning to shoplift. WTH?

    • Our African-American CEO (of a $60B company) has said he has experienced that as well, when he’s without his security entourage. WTH indeed.

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