(As always, let me know if you don't want to be tagged.)
I think this is a really important topic, since obviously there is a vast under-representation of minorities in terms or race, religion, sexual orientation, etc in books and other media.
In my contemporary fantasy series that I am currently starting to tackle head on, I have a pretty diverse cast. They are from all over the world so I have a variety of cultures, ages, and races represented, plus one of the two main POV characters is bisexual. It is important to the story that the group is diverse since it is a multinational organization, but it makes me a bit nervous to write.
For those of you who have attempted to write characters that are very unlike you, often in a number of ways, how do you best go about ensuring that your characters are true to their backgrounds without whitewashing (or the equivalent) and trying to avoid stereotypes?
My home board is CEP so I am trying to pull things I have learned about everything from natural hair, referring to adults as "Mr./Miss X" in the South, and so on into it but there is so much and I want to avoid screwing up as much as possible. Obviously the answer to part of this is finding beta readers who belong to the groups I am worried about in later stages, but what about during the first drafts prior to sharing it around?
Any thoughts, ideas, or comments from others dealing with similar concerns are appreciated.
Post by imobviouslystaying on Jul 20, 2016 19:26:09 GMT -5
I'm honestly not good at this. It's something I want to do in theory but in practice, never really get around to. My characters are rather overwhelmingly white and fairly European, even when in my contemporary stories.
That being said, the majority of my characters are far removed from my own life experiences and a number of them are also rather removed from typically presented backgrounds.
I think with contemporary diverse characters, you need to develop a good voice and a reasonable background. A lot of people think you can just be some minority and then create the character around that. But just as white folks are diverse, so are minorities and this black person's experience will depend highly on where they come from.
So when I write a diverse character, I work hard to determine where they have come from and work from there. There has to be more than oh she's black, Asian or gay.
When I read other novels and memoirs about diverse or minority characters, I've noticed that most carry culture from major life events with them but tend to not really carry over too much culture day to day. This is also, again, highly dependent upon their background.
For instance, I'm currently working on a series about a set of very diverse sisters. They are the grown daughters of a David Beckham style character with a bit of a DiCaprio-ish past lol. He was a European soccer player who had children with models and actresses from around the world before settling down with a woman who was raised in Argentina but whose mother was Spanish and father French.
These sisters are half French via their father and through their mothers are second generation Russian, first generation Russian, Algerian, Indian (Bangalore), Irish (second generation), and Japanese.
I try to focus less on their cultures and ethnicity alone and more on how it would influence their backgrounds, their decision making, and their life celebrations. Because I think those are where we see our own differences play out. As a black woman, I don't act out with my culture. But it has influenced the things I enjoy.
So I've got Stella, who is Algerian. I look at what it would have meant for her mother to have an out of wedlock child with a Frenchman. I have decided it would have meant her mother raised her mostly outside of traditional Algerian culture. So then I look at what her mother might have brought abroad with her and I've decided she's probably surrounded Stella with Arabic and Algerian art and music. Stella would have grown up primarily in France which tries hard to be a secular as hell so I keep that in mind as well. And then later for other reasons, Stella ends up living somewhere in the south (TN or LA) so we're getting those influences as well.
In the end, I have a character who does not live in traditional Arabic culture. Therefore, there's no need for me I don't think to spend a tremendous amount of time looking to get into the head of someone raised in the moral expectations of that culture. But obviously she would grow up for a love and respect for the artistic nature of that culture.
Instead of saying any of that outright, I'll bring it up as needed/helpful to the story. When I mention her home, I'll set a scene with some influences. Usually this means pulling up a picture on pinterest or google of a home in Algeria and then using those colors schemes. When I starting thinking of her wedding, I went to pics of Algerian weddings and picked out a few elements that were striking to me and then thought about how to frame that in the world in which she lives. She's not going to have a full on Arabic wedding but it seems to me she'd marry in a kaftan. From what I've seen Algerian women own/wear a lot of jewelry (in many Arabic countries girls' ears are pierced before they've left the hospital) but instead of saying, look, Stella wears a ton of jewelry, I'll have another character remark on a particular piece in the group and Stella will say they were her earrings and she's keeping them from her daughter. It doesn't need to be said outright that this might be an Arab tradition.
And I think that's key. Anything you do has to be a natural progression and/or add something to the story. And you don't ever have to state definitively that this is an ethnic and/or diverse thing. All of us do things that are linked directly to our culture or upbringing but rarely do we state that fact, though others might remark and we might explain.
So I guess maybe that's it. If you were that person, would you feel the need to explain for nothing and how much would you explain if asked? Is it natural that someone would ask?
As for ways to learn more, I'd suggest finding novels or memoirs involving people of a similar background you're trying to go for. For the sister whose mother is from Bangalore, I was very influenced by Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Obviously those are different cultures. But the worldview would have been similar, the culture shock, what she held onto, what she let go of, and what fascinated her. I pictured this being similar to how Bebe's mother would have felt and seen the world and then when I started sketching out her story I could wind those things through. I thought then it would be reasonable that while Stella's mother crossed into French culture easily, Bebe's mother would have been drawn to mr French soccer player and been good for a while but would have struggled tremendously with guilt and been unable to completely leave her culture behind.
So for that reason, Bebe is far more conservative than her sister and is shy and keeps far more of her Bangalore culture, of which I'm still researching.
And good god almighty, I wrote a damned novel that I hope is remotely useful. And like any writer, I can't kill my darlings, no matter how useless they might be so here you go.
Post by imobviouslystaying on Jul 20, 2016 19:34:29 GMT -5
Oh and for side characters, I think it's absolutely vital to consider what you are using that diversity for and when. If every time this character speaks, it's oh hey, I'm black, you've got a problem.
IMO, diverse side characters should just be diverse, no need to show it unless you're using that diversity to advance the story or set a scene somehow. You don't even need to establish it in an clear way.
Obviously this isn't a writing example, but if you've ever watched The New Girl, I think the first and second season handled this really well and I've used that influence a bit while working on these girls' stories as well.
I definitely think diverse characters are important and I know it's something I need to work on.
My problem is it's always tricky for me in how you say they are diverse. Like, do you say "Grace, who was Asian...." or how do you do that to introduce the character yet not make it feel like you're like "hey everyone! here's my diverse character!"