What color are your characters?
“a tall black guy cooked at a large grill set on the sidewalk”
- I get that you want to show diversity but describing skin color like that is a slippery slope. From what I can see you’re only doing it with non-white characters…
(That ridiculous observation is not from me, by the way.)
Race is tricky, my friend. It can be very awkward to show how open minded you are and how inclusive you are when you try to explain to a reader that different characters are of different races – without saying what color their skin is and sounding like a complete racist!
You can do it, but it’s hard. And sometimes it sounds stupid.
Is somebody black? Are you going to try the old “chocolate colored” repartee? Or mocha? Cos Michael Jackson was pretty fair and George Hamilton was pretty tan. It doesn’t work, and even worse, it sounds amateurish. Can’t have that in our writing.
But how, then, do we describe the helpful black doctor as black? Or the black neighbor who accidentally played a key role?
Do we have to show their race? Won’t readers assume the characters are white?
As a white writer, it’s a fair concern. So let’s address it.
Since we are wordsmiths, it’s worth drilling down to get it right, but at some point you have to be confidant in your characters and your talents.
I once thought a friend had made some racist comments in her manuscript, but I had misread what she wrote. That’s almost as bad. I confused two characters, and when she said the rasta guy looked like he might smell bad, she wasn’t saying that at all; I got lost over who she was talking about.
But that opened my eyes a bit.
Googling yielded no good ways to show race in stories without possibly being offensive as hell to someone, so I asked a friend who is a black author. She said what I did in The Navigators by describing Jonesy’s apartment was good, but she also said that readers can assume whatever race they want (not necessarily white) if we don’t specifically tell them otherwise. She’s black; she assumed everyone in stories she read was black.
Many readers are like that, putting their own character descriptions into play if you don’t provide them. I like that. (We talked about how less is more in character descriptions, HERE)
So what to do?
I’d skip the straight up identifiers and work it in sideways. When the MC snuck into Jonesy’s apartment, the train conductor’s watch he needed to borrow was near some African art on a case below a framed MLK poster. That doesn’t really mean anything but people took it to mean he was in a black lady’s apartment, and that’s what I wanted.
You don’t want her talking in dialect or eating friend chicken and watermelon. That crap doesn’t work and it’s going to piss people off. I’m a little pissed off reading what I just wrote, but let’s get it out there. (Relax, I’ll bash white guys in a sec.) And besides, watermelon and fried chicken ROCK. I eat them.
The doctor character that everyone liked in The Navigators was black in my mind. I don’t know if that came across to anyone else. I didn’t do a lot to be overt about it. One of his nurses was of Asian descent.
What can your black man or Asian lady DO to show they are people of color? They can say things to each other that make it so. For example (and these are not from the story):
“Fix your fro, asshole.” Nobody says that to a white guy.
If somebody says “You white boys always…” (have such small d*cks, wear funny shoes, whatever – there’s your payback for fried chicken) – she obviously is not white and is probably black. Black girls call white guys white boys, and usually without it being derogatory, if placed in a friendly context.
What did that black guy on Survivor say? “We brothers don’t do the whole ‘swimming’ thing.” There you go. Have a character say that and we know what he means, no silly coffee, chocolate, or mocha skin color descriptions required.
When it’s friends talking to friends, they are being playful and it’s way less racist-sounding. Banter is fun to read and endears your characters to the reader.
In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino used the word “nigger” a lot. He got a ton of crap for it, too. He’s not necessarily a racist, that’s just how his characters talked. That was real to that story, and by the way he had Ving Rhames’ character refer to Bruce Willis’ character as “my nigger,” too.
But Tarantino’s characters were visible. Ours aren’t.
Until we describe them.
And even if you are careful, that STILL doesn’t mean you won’t offend someone! You’ve seen the news. People are walking around LOOKING to be offended. I don’t need Rev. Al on my doorstep.
In business, revenue hides all sins. That mean if you make enough money, you can probably have some bad habits and nobody cares.
In writing, a good story, well told, and with compelling characters, hides all sins.
If you have described your characters well and developed them well, nobody cares what race they are. Make a note to not describe their race, and go through the manuscript not doing it. See if it ended up making a difference. Usually not.
If you want to add it in, add it.
But do it well.
I have no issue asking my female writer friends about whether a woman would say or do something, just like I have no issue telling them a male character of theirs reads wrong to my eye. They get notes back. “Guys don’t say that. Guys would say this.”
We’ve had discussions about what the sexes feel when having an orgasm. It was awkward, yes, and more than a little funny at times, but we managed, because we’re adults (kind of) and we want our readers to remain immersed in the story. We’ll have awkward conversations with each other to make sure the reader doesn’t feel awkward. Messing things up does that, whether writing about sex or race or whatever, so ask your writer friends for help.
Un-immersing your reader from the story is the unforgivable sin.
If you’re trying to show diversity and be inclusive, good! If your multi-ethnic characters are friends it’ll show – and that will open the door for you to be even more ethnically diverse. These are skills, and like anything else they have to be developed. See how your favorite authors do it and emulate them. (And keep notes in case Rev. Al shows up. Look, I was just copying what Stephen King did!)
If you have areas where it’s problematic, we can attack them one by one and pretty soon all’s right with the world.
Where’s a story you found race described well?
How do YOU show racial diversity in your characters?
Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Send it as a comment to any post or hit the Contact Me button and, you know, contact me. I’ll see what I can do. (I have lots of smart friends, too.)
FOLLOW ME! I’m this helpful and funny all the time. Probably. Don’t miss another valuable bauble that falls from my fingertips. You read this far; you may actually need this stuff. SUBSCRIBE/FOLLOW TODAY (click the follow “Follow” button, above) and if you send me your email through the Contact Me button I’ll send you a free copy of my amazingly cute book “The Short Years” plus we’ll probably become friends and start hanging out and stuff.
If you benefit from this blog, share it with your friends!
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Alatorre/e/B00EUX7HEU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1425128559&sr=1-1 and check back often for interesting stuff.