Writer's Workbook: Creating Ethnic Characters Who Don't Suck

May 19, 2015


Image from Pinterest.
 One of my goals as a romance writer (but definitely not the only goal) is to create complex, engaging characters from diverse backgrounds.  Most of my stories are set in California, a place that has long been influenced by many different immigrant groups.  Popular media would have the world believe that we ethnic-American-type folks spend all of our time fighting for social justice, trying to keep our cultures alive while battling drug addiction/alcoholism/gangs/poverty/overbearing Tiger Moms. Okay, maybe.  But we fall in love, too.  So where are our love stories?

Romance authors should not think about writing diverse characters as a way to fill quotas or follow trends.  It's true that over the long run, our readership will change along with census projections; by 2050, ethnic minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites as the majority population in the United States.  Regardless of this, we need to tell stories that speak to readers of all backgrounds, and we need to do it well.  

If you are a romance author who is interested in creating diverse characters but who feels anxiety about doing so, here are three ideas I like to keep in mind.

1. Create characters whose ethnicity is not the most interesting thing about them.
 
Oscar Isaac, an actor in the new movie Ex Machina (which was fabulous *Oprah voice*), recently did an interview for the Dinner Party Download, one of my favorite podcasts.  Isaac, who has played characters of many different ethnic backgrounds, said something that made me think about my own characters and how I craft them.
I’ve been very active in making sure that — for instance, when I get a script, if the script describes the character as Latin, or whatever ethnicity it might be, my very first thing is to take that away, and to see what is there.  Because often what happens is you get characters that are quite bland, and the only interesting about them is that they’re exotic and they’re from some sort of weird place and they speak funny, or they have funny cultural things. Like maybe they’re “passionate” or something.  You know, or “bad tempered.”
Ask yourself as a writer: When you take away the ethnicity of your character, is he or she still a compelling and fully-realized individual?  If not, that character is underdeveloped.  How to fix this?  Think: what are the universal anxieties and fears that all people face?  Fears about not being professionally competent? About not being a good parent?  Secret anxieties about not being good enough for one's significant other?  Throw some of those into the mix and watch your character immediately become more complex.

2. Do not use the word "exotic" to describe a person.

Plants, okay.  Locales, all right.  People? No. Connotation affects both casual and savvy readers alike, and even the slightest word choice will affect how your readers perceive both your characters and (gasp) you as a storyteller. An author who describes a female character's features as "exotic" is making an uncomfortable implication.  The author is asserting a norm by which the reader should judge what is exotic and what is not.  If my skin is brown and my hair is black, I see that every day in the mirror.  It is not exotic to me.  But now I know what's exotic to the author, and that creates a space between us.  Unless its use is very deliberate (perhaps to show that a character is insulated and maybe ignorant), the word "exotic" implies an uncomfortable sense of otherness: orchid vs. daisy, mofongo vs. mashed potatoes, brown person vs. white person.  No bueno.
3. Vet your manuscript.

In a 2012 post from Heroes and Heartbreakers entitled "Race and Romance: Choosing Between White, Off-White and Beige," author Elizabeth Vail writes
Another argument is that white authors have no authority to write about characters of color. In response to that, I’d love to point out the enormous number of tea-jettisoning, independence-declaring, 20th-century-born American authors who (authoritatively!) write stories exclusively set in Regency-era Britain. They do this because they research.
The cool thing about writing present-day ethnic characters as opposed to historical characters is that...well, examples of your characters are alive right now.  You can go ask them in person.  For me, real-world research is 50% treasure hunt and 50% dunk in the awkward-sauce bucket.  If you'd like to write a romance novel about say, a sea urchin diver off the coast of Santa Barbara (ahem, say, for example, my next novel Deep Down from the Wild Rose Press), after you've exhausted Google and your local library, you're going to go find real-world people to talk to and read your work.  Sometimes you're going to ask a stupid question and they're going to look at you like, "Aw, poor little dopey-ass lamb." *head pat*  But if you've chosen the right people, they will help you include the details your story needs to be strong.  And what feels better than that?

Here's a tip from my own experiences: if you're having trouble finding a reliable person to beta read your manuscript for technical or cultural details, find another author who's written nonfiction on the same topic.  Writers understand the exigencies and tend to help other writers in need.

As a writer of multicultural romance, I think Vail puts it best when she says
See, even in this day and age, “white” is considered the default, the norm, from which any deviation needs to be explained in the narrative. If you have a non-white heroine, there has to be a particular reason. You can’t simply have a black hero or a Latina heroine or an East Indian hero simply for kicks. It’s confusing. Are we just supposed to relate to these characters like they have problems similar to ours? In a word: yes. I’m especially confused as to why the romance genre hasn’t had more people of color in their novels, because what’s more universally desired and respected, across cultures and racial lines, than love?
Creating realistic, complex, ethnically-diverse characters who struggle with universal challenges on the well-worn road to love?  Sounds like a noble writing goal to me.

For more information on Cowboy Valentine, my multicultural erotic romance starring a Mexican-American honor student and her Anglo cowboy crush, please click here.  For more authors' tips on how to approach research in the real world, please click here.