Not so long ago, an American author could pretty much count on having an exclusively North American audience, unless their work was translated into other languages. It was the same for writers of other nationalities – the vast majority of their readers would be from their home country. Thanks to the internet and satellite communication, that is no longer the case. I speak regularly with friends and acquaintances from all over the world. South Africa. New Zealand. Namibia. Hungary. Great Britain. Argentina. The list is endless. They read many of the same books I do, in English.
The world grows smaller every day. I think it’s important that our work reflect the diversity of our readers. How do we go about doing that in a way that: 1.)isn’t offensive, and 2.)is realistic? Changing skin color and dialogue that conforms to racial stereotypes is certainly NOT the answer, even though some writers seem to think it is. Giving the character the “accurate” clothing and taste in music for their race isn’t the answer either.
The writer who chooses to use those “techniques” is either too lazy to do it correctly, or they just don’t know how. Either way, it’s poor writing. I’m not an expert, by any means, but I have picked up a few things. Making our writing racially diverse is much more complicated. The steps below will help, though they are not all-inclusive.
- Decide on a mix of ethnicities that fit your setting. For example, in a tiny town in rural Kentucky, you wouldn’t expect to see a group made of up Caucasian, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American teenagers. While such a group is possible, it is hardly the norm, which will make it a bit less than believable, if that’s what you’re going for. To help decide the ethnic makeup of your group, look up census reports for a community like the one you are writing about in a location as near as possible to your setting. The ethnic composition of the community will show you the likely makeup of your hypothetical group of teens.
- Once you’ve determined the races of your teens, it’s time to go deeper. It’s common for people who aren’t extremely well acquainted with people of other races to have stereotypical expectations of members of those other races. But the fact is, most people don’t line up neatly within racial stereotypes. Remember, your characters are people, with a specific gender and a specific age, before they’re members of races.
- Remember that hypothetical group of teens? You need to know their cultural background, as well as their personal history. Each ethnicity has its own history and culture, which is going to have some effect on who your characters are. Things as obvious as speech patterns and holidays, to how children are disciplined. When you know the cultural background of the character, you can decide how that background affects the character.
- Personal history will tell you more about the character. People raised in a large city will be different from those raised in a small town. The character’s family income will determine things like peer groups, education, career paths, etc. Those factors will also affect speech pattern, as well as behavior, beliefs and morals, tastes in music and clothing, etc.
- Your setting will also influence your characters, as it would in any type of fiction. A lone African American student in a classroom full of Caucasian kids is going to act differently than one in a classroom of mixed ethnicities. Crime rates, ethnic mix, economics and the like of the story setting will, to some degree, determine what the characters do and what happens to them.
- Of course, if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, or an alternate reality or alternate history, real ethnicities may be different from the ones you are writing about. Still, the same principles apply.
If you want to create dynamic, well-rounded characters, with realistic dialog and interactions, each character should reflect their individual racial, cultural, family, and personal backgrounds. When you know those backgrounds, you’ll be able to select which qualities your characters will have, rather than relying on tired old racial stereotypes that no one fits into.