I don't want to offend anyone!
I don’t want to offend anyone!

What color are your characters?

What race?

“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!

Well, maybe that last one...
I can do that.

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?


Maybe not.

As a white writer, it’s a fair concern. So let’s address it.

Careful... careful
Careful… careful

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.

Wow, I'm clueless!
Wow, I’m clueless!

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.

Cool, huh?

We read books, after all.
We readers are smart. We read books, after all.

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.

On the lookout for offsiveness.
On the lookout for offsiveness.

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.

Psychotic killer, but good friends.
Psychotic killer, but good friends.

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.”

sam and john 2We’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.

House_of_Lies_61221If 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?


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your humble host
your humble host

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.

Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

International bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 17 titles published in over a dozen languages. From Romance in Poggibonsi to action and adventure in the sci-fi thriller The Navigators, to comedies like Night Of The Colonoscopy: A Horror Story (Sort Of) and the heartwarming and humorous anecdotes about parenting in the popular Savvy Stories series, his knack for surprising audiences and making you laugh or cry - or hang onto the edge of your seat - has been enjoyed by audiences around the world. And you are guaranteed to get a page turner every time. “That’s my style,” Dan says. “Grab you on page one and then send you on a roller coaster ride, regardless of the story or genre.” Readers agree, making his string of #1 bestsellers popular across the globe. He will make you chuckle or shed tears, sometimes on the same page. His novels always contain twists and turns, and his nonfiction will stay in your heart forever. Dan resides in the Tampa area with his wife and daughter. You can find him blogging away almost every day on www.DanAlatorre or watch his hilarious YouTube show every week Writers Off Task With Friends. Dan’s marketing book 25 eBook Marketing Tips You Wish You Knew has been a valuable tool for new authors (it’s free if you subscribe to his newsletter) and his dedication to helping other authors is evident in his helpful blog.

62 thoughts on “Oh, NOW You Did It! Or Did You? – THE RACE CARD IN WRITING

    1. You are so right about that (and thank you). This post has already been seen by a record number of people and it’s been up, what, 5 hours? I’ve added over a dozen subscribers to the blog and I haven’t had breakfast yet…

      These are areas we all want to do, we just want to do them well and we need help.

  1. Nice piece! I like to include diversity whenever I can in my writing (race, sexual preference, gender, religion), and the narration of the story generally dictates how it will go. A 12 year old kid will have a different perspective from an adult, people of a certain mindset will be different from those of another. I generally try not to come across as an ignorant idiot. Though some of my characters are.
    For a good example of race done right, I’d recommend Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. That’s a statement right there, and it’s subtle and simple and absolutely brilliant. I won’t spoil how, but he really does it well.

    1. Thanks, M! (May I call you M?) I’ve seen that in your writing. “I generally try not to come across as an ignorant idiot.” – Exactly. And thanks for the great suggestion.

    2. One blogger fan of Gaiman put it this way:


      “What Gaiman does is subtle. Instead of defining his characters’ identities and hitting the reader over the head with it again and again, he works in gradually shifting descriptions.”

      (I try to do this with just about all types of character descriptions. I think it increases readability about a million percent.)

      1. That’s a great way to describe what he does in general! (And also what a lot of us strive to do, I think.) In Anansi Boys, he does something … shall we say different? He does something a lot more direct (it even extends to the description of himself on the jacket of the book!), and it really works.

  2. One of my favourite pages for using when I work on physical description is writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/writing-with-color-description-guide-words-for which has a good discussion on different tones and such.

    For a good discussion on why you occasionally see aggressive “no chocolate/coffee/etc”, the first post on the same topic is http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several which goes through colonisation-traces and such.

    With that said, keep in mind that there are as many perspectives as there are people. Some people don’t mind chocolate/coffee (assuming it’s not written creepily), others do. If you’re planning on noting the shades of your PoC’s skins, do the same for those who aren’t PoC.

    1. I have a crime thriller I’m working on and I’ll be using a lot of this for the bad guy, not to make the homicidal murderer black (cliche, yawn) but to see how far I can go in what he says and does without ever telling people his race, and then watching what they THINK his race is.

  3. I have a friend who is a reverend – most people find that shocking, as do I – and we were at a party, across the room from each other. I commented that it’s so funny I’m good friends with two reverends and priest, who would have thought that? Can you believe XYZ is a reverend AND a friend of mine?

    Now, the people I happened to be speaking with didn’t know XYZ, So they asked – which one is he?

    I said, “He’s the one in the white shirt.” – That was no help. Lots of people had white shirts on.

    “Which one?”

    “The one with the tan shorts”

    Still no help.

    “The tall guy?”

    “No, next to the tall guy.”

    “Oh, the black guy?”

    “Oh is XYX black?”

    It’s fun for me.

      1. Thank you, Melinda. That’s high praise, indeed.

        Just today a friend said that when she reads my books she feels like I’m talking to her. Those are both amazing compliments. I am humbled.

  4. I tend to spell things out, mostly because I’m at the mercy of my character and his perceptions. If he’s looking at a group he doesn’t know, he’ll notice if someone has blonde hair or tan skin or is black. My 16-year-old character won’t think the black guy is of African descent. He would think the guy is black. So the vernacular you choose partly depends on the story and character (though I never use the n-word or food descriptions, and I run from stereotypes like the wind). If I’m on the fence about a description, I ask a friend who is part of that race if it’s okay. So far, so good.
    That said, you can’t always depend on visual information to determine race, if it’s important to the story. My grandpa is Cherokee, but he looks white, especially since his hair turned white. His mother looked a lot like I do, and back in the day when not being white was especially frowned upon, she pretended to be white.
    So I think using race to give physical descriptions is okay when it matters and it works. If race (I’m speaking heritage here, not necessarily skin color) is important enough to mention, it’s probably part of the story and deserves some fleshing out.

    1. Brilliant, as always, Allison. It’s worth saying that some people play the game of calling out anything as potentially offensive, I believe as a way to show how smart they are. Good storytelling is what it’s all about. You do that.

  5. I find that for primary characters, if you just write them and their interactions naturally, any necessary information about race, ethnicity, and cultural identity will reveal themselves either directly or indirectly. If the don’t become palpable on during the course of the story, then they probably aren’t relevant to the story. Some characters can be three dimensional and fully drawn, while remaining race-neutral.

    But, if you feel you must convey ethnicity, and all else fails, you can always use the Trusty Barbershop Scene. Orchestrate a scene where you character stops in a their friendly barbershop/beauty salon for a quick trim, and all questions of racial identity will be answered quickly and definitively 🙂

  6. Oh, and M Howalt – on your suggestion. One thing we writers should do a LOT and don’t do enough is FIND and BUY those books AS REFERENCE GUIDES when they do the things we need to learn.

    So, for example, M Howalt was explaining that Gaiman (Anansi Boys) takes character descriptions and race elements to another level, and does it well. For $6 you can have that eBook and KNOW what he does and LEARN how to do it. Cheap lesson, if you ask me. (And how often do you need to do that? Not often. Would you spend an hour online searching for examples in blogs? Yes. Is your time and education worth $6? Hell yes.)

    1. Oh, I don’t know… everything is a challenge when we are new to it. I was a dialog tag fiend not that long ago. Now I can write a 100,000 word book without using them. With a little education and some practice, we’ll all get to where we want to be!

  7. This is always a tricky issue, so I’m glad to see someone address it. I try to avoid stating the obvious when it comes to race in my fiction, but I’ve been known to use the terms ‘mocha’ and ‘olive’ skin before. I personally like having a general image in my mind for a character when I’m reading. Others prefer to create their own. Either is fine, but your excellent post gives writers pointers on how to approach the issue.

    1. Thanks, Carrie! I think as long as the writer’s intentions are good, that will be obvious and it will work. A good character is more than their description, after all, and we should start with what we are comfortable with.

      And thank you for the kind words. That’s very nice of you.

      1. And as long as the writer sees the character as more than the color of his skin. On an earlier comment, so much of the description is based on who the observer is. A child might point to somebody my age and call him (or me!) “old.” Yes – in a world of ten-years olds, that’s correct. My mom, however, can’t entertain I might ache from arthritis and shortness of breath…
        I love this post!

  8. I’m fascinated by this question and I’ve wrestled with it in both my last two novels. I’ve allowed another character to be embarrassed or curious about their own reactions, so it’s not me, but the character who may get into trouble.

  9. I realized recently that in one of my stories, I had too many white characters. Drat. I try to avoid that ’cause I complain about all the white bread characters in TV series–and there should be more characters with disabilities too. Remember Tales of the Gold Monkey? And I appreciate the guy in the wheelchair in NCIS:New Orleans.

  10. Me, too. Also, I never thought Seinfeld was lacking color the same way I didn’t feel The Cosby Show was lacking in white people, because those were slices of those people’s lives, so to speak. However, if we go to a mall or a hospital in our story, that’s different. If I walk through downtown Tampa at lunchtime, I’m going to see people of every race. As writers, I think we’re often just trying to show the world as it really is, and sometimes it can be tricky to do that.

  11. Good point. Btw, when I left Boston for another city I was startled by the lack of blacks and others in that city, but that has changed a lot.

    1. Some places are like that. I think Salt Lake City has very few minorities, as does the state of Vermont In Florida, about 1/4 of our population is Hispanic and about 15% is black, but in Guam they’re pretty much all Guamians – no blacks or Hispanics. So the setting tells part of the story. A book taking place in ‘Bama or NYC better have some color in it!

  12. Great post! I think a lot of white people (not just white writers) are afraid to describe a person’s race. In fiction, this really shows and makes the writing sound awkward. What I try to do is 1. Write with honesty and without fear, and 2. Let my characters describe each other. I think that as long as you’re honest with the descriptions– meaning that the characters are describing each other in a way that’s natural for those characters–it really shouldn’t be offensive.

    But I do also try to be subtle and leave some of the character descriptions up to the imagination. If it’s not important to the story, why mention the character’s race? Like you said, most readers will imagine the character as belonging to the same race they do. That’s just fine with me.

  13. You know…..I really, really learned from your post! I’m so self-centered that I just don’t even think about anyone else but me. Even when I’m writing! I kind of just picture the world to be an extension of ..well, ME!! Alas, we all aren’t crossed-eyed, freckled beauties such as myself!
    But–I am working on my first novel–and I will have to describe various characters and you have given me a much-needed insight..AND a valuable writing lesson. Thanks so much!!!!! I am looking forward to more of your posts. I like your style–easy to understand and fun!

  14. There are people out there just waiting to be offended, as we all know and as I recently got reminded of.

    I made a less-than-complimentary comment about a contest, and people went BER ZERK. My Twitter feed blew up. After about 40,000 impressions between moderators and contestants (I kid you not – food for thought, though; controversy is good for traffic, but who wants to be that guy?) finally ONE of the moderators asked, hey was your comment about them or us? Everybody else was like, yeah, who was that directed at? In other words, you idiots went bananas NOT EVEN KNOWING WHO I WAS TALKING ABOUT. You all got personally insulted when you weren’t sure I was even talking about you? That… that’s just sad.

    So glad people here are much smarter than all that. Look at the intelligent discussion we’ve had.

  15. Your post got me thinking. I am blind. If someone entered my home without knowing anything about me they would, on first glance see nothing to indicate I am visually impaired. Indeed the pictures on the wall might lead them to conclude to the contrary. However, looking at my bookcases the visitor would see Braille books and hanging in the hall cupboard a harness for my guide dog. I guess therefore anyone wishing to indicate that a person is blind without explicitly mentioning the fact could refer to the presence of Braille books and a guide dog harness. However one would need to be careful as the apartment might be shared by several people only one of whom is blind and the visitor and/or reader might jump to the erroneous conclusion that a particular character is blind when, in fact it is an entirely different person. Also not all blind people read Braille and many don’t use guide dogs!
    I don’t have any objection to the portrayal of blind characters. What does anoy me is the lazy assumption that all blind people have fantastic hearing and this somehow compensates for their lack of vision. It irritates me in the real world and in the world of fiction.
    As for race, in my story “Samantha” Sam’s friend, Lisa is mixed race. As the author I can’t imagine how anyone would find the description of Lisa offensive (a black friend has read the book and certainly did not find it so). However if anyone did comment negatively on my portrayal of Lisa I would, of course listen carefully to what they had to say. I wouldn’t necessarily change the story but I would listen.

      1. Thanks. You have an interesting blog. I tried following but the “follow” button seems to have disappeared together with the “re-blog” one. I have had this issue previously. Logging out of WordPress then in again sometimes solves it. Oh the joys of WordPress! Kevin

  16. Remember “Sanford & Son”? They used the “N” word all the time! I don’t know how they get away with that in syndication now, if the show is even syndicated. A few years back D.L. Hughley lamented that the NAACP admonished Black comics not use the “N” word, even in jest. “Don’t use the ‘N’ word?” he said. “That cuts about 45 minutes out of my routine!”

    Several years ago I had an acquaintance of Vietnamese extraction who said he was tired of seeing Asians portrayed as geeky scientist or humorless doctors. I told him to be thankful he sees that much. My people (Hispanics and Indians) are usually portrayed as gang-bangers, drug dealers or illegal aliens. On my father’s side of the family, we’ve been in Texas for some 430 years.

    Race and ethnicity aren’t easy topics to discuss, but writing about them – even in fiction – is still tricky. The same goes for gender, religion and sexuality. But I feel the best approach is just to confront them without holding back. At some point, we all have to get over those things and move forward.

  17. Great post with excellent points, Dan. Often times when we watch a movie of a book we’ve read we’ll be surprised by the choices they make regarding the characters. It’s one persons interpretation. I like the idea of allowing the reader/viewer the freedom to make those choices for themselves. Sharing this post now. 🙂

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