by C. S. Lakin
If you’re a fiction writer, you create characters. Hopefully believable ones. Characters your readers love and hate. Characters that pop off the page and take readers on an exciting journey.
Regardless of whether you write lighthearted comedy, serious relational dramas, complicated romance, or adventurous fantasy, more than mere authenticity is needed—if you want to be a sensitive, responsible writer.
What is involved in being a sensitive, responsible writer? Sensitive how? Responsible how?
For writers who care about equity, racial justice, and e pluribus unum, it requires a self-check.
Not only are all of us ingrained with some measure of racial bias, we often don’t recognize it. This is particularly true when it comes to writing fiction. Our tendency is to default to what we’re familiar with, and that brings into play stereotypes, tropes, assumptions, and other (sometimes subtle) travesties that do a disservice—if not outright harm—to others.
In order to cease perpetuating these hurtful acts, we need to acknowledge this truth that Daniel José Older shares: “We are always writing the other, we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories. When we create characters from backgrounds different than our own, we’re really telling the deeper story of our own perception.”
So what are some steps we can take to be sensitive and responsible in our description of characters?
- Do real research. When digging into a culture or ethnicity not your own, beware of “experts” who bring in stereotypes and hidden biases. Actually talk to people of that group and listen to what they say. When I wrote my novel Intended for Harm, I talked to some black women in my church about the scenes I was writing, and I vetted my dialogue with them, which was not only culturally but regionally specific. I had them read my scenes and give me feedback. I was concerned with “getting right” not just dialogue and description but authentic behavior and concerns.
If you’re writing characters from a culture you’re unfamiliar with, and you don’t know anyone personally from that culture, find someone. People are out there. Get into dialogue with them. The
Hippocratic Oath can apply here as well: “First do no harm.”
- Be humble. Seriously. I love what Older says: “The baseline is you suck.” In our society everyone’s an expert. Everyone has an opinion and defends their right to that opinion. To write authentically, sensitively, responsibly, we need to be humble. To listen, we have to shut up.
- Be careful with character roles. Don’t slip into those defaults I mentioned. Don’t have only white people the CEOs or team leaders in a company and people of color as the janitors. Don’t relegate a person of color to being “the best friend” instead of giving her her own needs and goals. Don’t show minorities as the white man’s burden. Watch out for the white person always in the role of saving the black person. Don’t misappropriate culture (like showing a Hindi wearing a bindi as merely a fashion accessory). And, for heaven’s sake, don’t make minorities represent the bad or evil element in your story.
- Don’t use race as the defining element. If you’re a white writer, you might tend to assume all your characters are white. And then if you bring in a non-white character, you single that person out by describing their ethnicity (but not the white characters’). Watch for that.
- Be careful with language and dialect. Here, too, you can default to stereotypes if you have Asian characters, for example, speaking broken English, or you have every black character talking smack the way you hear on Comedy Central.
Sure, this isn’t easy. You are going to make mistakes. Be teachable. Apologize when you offend, and make the necessary corrections. Don’t be afraid to ask people of other ethnicities what is
appropriate to say and use as description for their ethnic group.
And before you get too far in writing characters of other ethnicities or voices, you should ask yourself why you want to do so in the first place. Alexander Chee says: “If you’re not in community with people like those you want to write about, chances are you are on your way to intruding.”
Avoiding describing characters’ ethnicities or genders or “otherness” is taking the coward’s way out. In this age of oppression, we writers need to do more than avoid unpleasantries or accept diversity. We need to play our part in breaking down the walls of divisiveness and inviting inclusivity.
As Mo Black says: “For the duration a reader is engaging with your work, they are trusting you with a piece of themselves. You are responsible for that little piece. You can choose build people up, or tear them down. To ignore this is at best an act of gross negligence.”
If you do a self-check and ask: “Should I be telling another’s story” or “Do I have a right to tell that story,” the answer might be no. Be sure you have a good reason for putting that minority character or #othervoice in your story, and make sure you’re doing it in a sensitive, responsible way.
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning author, blogger, writing coach, and copyeditor. She specializes in manuscript critiques and teaches online courses at cslakin.teachable.com. Her blog Live Write Thrive offers more than a million words of instruction for writers, and her Writer’s Toolbox series of books helps fiction writers master the craft. She also gives tips and insights into self-publishing at TheSelfPublisher.com.