Writing Diversely: Character + Culture

Greetings, readers. Let’s get right down to it: Where are all the culturally diverse, quality characters across media? One of the biggest problems with diversity in media is representation of various races in meaningful ways. The “standard” hero story still focuses on the White (Straight) Male Protagonist and the “standard” romance on the White Heterosexual Couple. Mainstream audiences are used to People of Color in movies about overcoming racial hardships and little else (e.g. 12 Years A Slave, Selma, and 42), or exotified cultural mysticism (e.g. 47 Ronin, Last Samurai, etc.)  which is not to say that these are not good movies or good representation, only that PoC are still not acceptable in broader stories and roles. Those visionaries trying to bring racial representation to the forefront definitely exist, but there is still a problem getting the viewers and producers to support what the Powers That Be still deem “a risk.”

No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.
No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.

While representation or lack thereof is easy to spot in movies and television due to visuals, the whitewashing of casts in literature is equally problematic. So, let’s say you’re a writer who wants to ensure you have a culturally diverse cast or main character. Where should you begin?

Well, let’s start with the definite DON’Ts:

  • Do NOT make a character’s race their main focal point (unless it drives their arc/story) or a justification for their existence, even (or especially) for background characters. In other words, if you ask someone to describe your character to you and they can’t go very far past, “They’re black/Asian/Mexican/whatever,” then you’re doing something wrong. Ideally your PoC characters should be allowed the same amount of complexity as any other main character. Don’t get hung up on making sure they are [insert culture here] enough.

    Good Example: Ari and Dante in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (read my review here). Their Mexican heritage is mentioned and important to establish both their physical appearance and their family background. Their diversity (as queer people of color) informs their conflict but is not as all-caps descriptors of who each character is. They are Ari and Dante, but they are also Mexican and LGBTQ.

    Bad Example: Some characters that can’t be described very far past their race: Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and Mickey Rooney’s yellowface character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Think that no longer happens any more? Try BBC Sherlock’s The Blind Banker episode and its China Doll/Lotus Blossom Soo Lin, the Dragon Lady boss of a Chinese smuggling ring, and Orientalism everywhere.

    soolin2
    Literally every time we see Soo Lin she is surrounded by tea pots.

    soolin3
    Exhibit B.
  • Do NOT base your knowledge or representation of a culture off of already existing stereotypes or tropes. This goes hand-in-hand with the above DON’T. If your diversity decisions are based on thoughts like, “This character is going to be smart and shy, so it’s easiest to write them as Asian,” or “I want this character to be a gang leader, so he’s going to be black,” you may need to start reframing or rethinking how you will diversify your cast, lest you fall into the Fake Diversity cast. Your Asian character can be smart and shy, but hopefully that won’t be the only thing your reader will take away from your story about them. Just like any other character, you want to move away from 2-D simplicity.

  • Do NOT assume you can write them like any other character with a simple race label in place. Yes, it will be trickier to write about a diverse character than a standard White Protagonist. After all, everyone knows what to expect from a WP, so it’s easy to fill in the collective blank spaces — why s/he does this or that, how they talk, how they save the day, etc. A person’s culture affects more than the way they look or speak. It changes the way they react to being yelled at by someone, or how they make their hard decisions along a quest.

    Good Example: Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen series follows a female samurai through a world of Japanese folklore and mysticism. Though Salmonson is not Asian herself, she makes sure to do her research (more on this later) and so her text is informed by accurate Japanese history and religion, as well as culture. Tomoe Gozen’s samurai code guides her decisions and how she conducts herself across a variety of relationships, casual and deep.

    Bad Example: Let’s revisit Chebk’s review of Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer, whose very Asian protagonist still thinks and acts like a White Heroine in a fantasy world inspired by feudal Japan. Other examples include Holly Black’s Tithe, which stars half-Japanese Kaye whose literal only Japanese trait is her eyes. Also, her half-Japanese-ness does not matter because her Japanese father is not present anywhere in her life or the book. And also she is a faerie changeling anyway so she’s not really even half-Japanese. (What the hell, Holly Black?) I’ll be following this up with a review of The Darkest Part of the Forest and whether or not Black’s improved her representation of PoC later this month.

    Black uses Kaye’s Japanese heritage as an aesthetic. Her culture does not matter for anything else in the text.

    Making a character’s cultural background matter.
  • Do NOT think you need to stick to historical fiction or strictly culture-based stories. Seriously. Write a run-of-the-mill romance story with every plot cliche you can think of — but replace the paper doll White Couple with an awesome Iranian rock star and the black hipster chick he falls in love with. Write a science fiction journey to the center of the Earth with Kenyan characters whose folklore mixes with real-life science. Give me a coming-of-age story with a Korean boy in the growing bastions of Asian immigrants in Texas. PoC are people beyond their race and their stories should reflect this, too. (But don’t forget that their culture influences who they are as people without defining them.)
  • Do NOT be afraid to try to write about a character or cast of different culture(s). It can be daunting, but every genre definitely needs more diverse characters and it can start today with all of our stories.

    diversity
    Via NaNoWriMo’s blog.

Once you decide on your character’s background and direction, here are some things you may want to try:

  • DO your research. Read stories that don’t just observe PoC, but that also can give you background on their experiences and traditions, the way racism changes how they act around certain people, or how cultural traits they learned as children are now in conflict with their grown-up and modern (if not necessarily Westernized) selves. Even if you don’t go that deep, at least know what you’re talking about when you’re inputting even the little details. For example, again, BBC Sherlock’s Chinese gang uses distinctly Japanese origami flowers and cranes for their calling card. What?
  • DO try to write them the way you would any character, while balancing respect and incorporation of their cultural background when and where necessary. I think we’ve driven this point home, but here it is, one more time. And lastly:
  • DO have fun and ask for help if/when needed!

From a non-PoC perspective, or as a PoC of a different race than some of your characters, it may take some time to reorient, to do your research, and to be consistent in your portrayal of racially diverse characters. However, I guarantee you there is a market for such characters, casts, and stories — from the little girl delighted at seeing characters just like her for the first time to the jaded reader deeply grateful to be able to say At last with your book in their hands.

Of course, race is just one aspect of diversity. I will be covering sexuality and disabilities in other posts over the next few weeks. Are there are any other aspects of diversity you are interested in? Let me know in the comments! Chebk will be back on Sunday with a post on Odd Cultural Traditions. See you next time, readers!

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6 thoughts on “Writing Diversely: Character + Culture

  1. As an avid reader (and a wannabe writer) thank you for this! Even some of today’s most popular writers fall into these mistakes (I LOVE John Green’s stories, but just thinking about the cast of characters in Looking for Alaska makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes – and just because he has acknowledged that his “diverse” characters tend to only be supporting cast members, and we are right to criticize him for that, doesn’t necessarily make me feel any better). End rant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! And, yes, it’s frustrating when the really popular authors fail to adequately address their lack of media representation when they could easily reach a wide audience and influence the entire genre. 😦

      We hope we will introduce new, diverse YA reads to you and everyone else this year! Thanks again for reading! -Cheri

      Like

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