1. E. Reilley
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    E. Reilley New Member

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    Avoiding stereotypes and writing a black lesbian as a straight white person

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by E. Reilley, Jan 27, 2016.

    Hi! I'm a straight white woman looking for advice on writing a black lesbian woman that is a "soldier" (she belongs to a military type organization) who is no-nonsense, rational, and who has strong leadership skills. I don't picture her as particularly feminine, she always dresses professionally but plainly, in slacks and a button up, she doesn't where make-up, and she doesn't have very much patience for the excess or foppish. I expect that her military background is the reason for all this, but I don't want to play into any lesbian stereotypes either. Her lack of femininity will make her a good counter to another excessively well groomed character I am writing. Again, my main issue is I don't want to play into any butch lesbian stereotypes or any angry black women stereotypes.

    I also am having trouble with her hair. What it should look like and how to describe it. The "military" group isn't really that, so conformed short hair isn't required.

    How to handle her sexuality without making a big deal about it is also causing me some trouble. Her counter character is bisexual (not a love interest) but writing her seems a lot more natural for me.

    Her name, her name, her name, her name. Is picking a "black" name offensive? Is ignoring the names that are commonly given to black people offensive? Her name must start with an A. She felt like and A to me as soon as I started thinking up her personality and it has a nice alliteration with Anna, the well groomed and proper bisexual counter. She's in her early 30s, her mother was a "military" woman herself. I want a more "black" (oh dear Lord that sounds so bad) name I think, but *sigh* maybe I'm overthinking all of this?
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    IMO, names and hair would depend heavily on the setting--is this a real-world present-day setting or something else? The meaning of the concept of a "black name" would, IMO, vary tremendously as you travel through the decades, through geography, through different family cultures, though all sorts of things.

    And I would quibble about "lack of femininity" being contrasted with "well groomed". It's possible to be well groomed without being conventionally feminine.
     
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  3. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Hello there, OP.

    I, too, as a white guy, have black female characters (though they're in a sci-fi and fantasy setting respecively). ChickenFreak has it right, the name depends a lot on the times, the family, and the culture your MC grew up in. If your MC grew up in Scandinavia, she's going to have a Scandinavian name regardless of her skin color. Same if she grew up in a country with heavy Islamic influences.

    You may be overthinking things a tad. You can have a tough, gritty, badass female protagonist who is well-groomed and happens to be a lesbian. Just be sure to make her a whole character so she's not just the "Angry Black Butch Lesbian Lady".
     
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  4. E. Reilley
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    E. Reilley New Member

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    It is set in present day U.S. and I don't consider the lack of femininity to mean someone can't be well groomed. As I said she dresses professionally, but plainly. I just meant the well groomed character is one that takes the way she dresses as a very important matter.
    I'm a little nervous about it. I know of well intentioned authors whose works have been criticized for their stereotypical characters.
     
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    It does sound like she embodies several unflattering stereotypes. You just have to convince the reader that she's not inherently like that because of her skin colour and sexuality. At the same time, it's naive to write as if her sexuality and skin colour haven't affected her life or, rather, the way people have treated her. For example, it's realistic that she would have to be strong and no-nonsense to survive a military career as a black, gay woman. That doesn't mean that all black, gay women have to be like that. I don't think I'm being very clear... do you see what I mean?

    Is there any need to describe her hair in detail? If not, I wouldn't bother, and I'd say the same for a character of any race. It sounds like all readers need to know is that it's worn in a practical style (so, tied up, if long) and A hasn't spent hours perfecting it like Anna has.

    As for her name, go with what feels right. If you're uncomfortable choosing a "black" name, there's no reason to choose a "black" name. She could just as easily be called Anna as the other character, right?
     
  6. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I'm not sure if this is an issue at all. Of course she'd want to look well-groomed if she's going to an important event like a board meeting. If my captain went into a gala where all the important ambassadors go and she's disheveled, covered in grime and soot and walking around in a uniform stained with mud and dried blood from previous battles, no one would think very highly of her. :D Unless she had a really good reason for it, though...

    I can see that. My advice here would be to just write her in a way that makes sense for her. If she's well-written, most people aren't really going to care. Here's something I've learned that might help you out: People are people, they go out and do the things they do, live productive lives, etc. They have their own interests, their own hobbies. Being gay or being black is just a part of who they are -- one aspect of the larger apple pie that is their entire character, and while she may have to deal with racists or homophobes or sexists giving her crap for being a lesbian black lady, those three things are just aspects of her character.

    @Tenderiser is also correct. Even if she's not like that because she's a gay black woman, you should probably take into account that she'd have to deal with those who will give her crap for being gay/black/woman, or being all three!

    Another thing Tenderiser brought up is true. Just because she had to harden herself up to survive doesn't mean every gay black lady on Earth is like or has to be like her. People react in their own unique way. What works for one person may not work at all for another.
     
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  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I wouldn't worry too much about a character you describe as 'no-nonsense' and 'rational' fulfilling the angry black woman stereotype. Rational and angry are usually rather at odds. Her quasi-military background justifies her preference for function over form regarding style of dress, too, imo - especially since her mom was military too, so presumably she was raised this way. And I'd take a similar approach to her hair: what's most functional? Maybe she'd buzz it all off to prevent all hassle? Maybe she has a short natural style for minimal effort? If it's long, maybe she keeps it in braids, twists, or locs so she can easily pull it back/up into a neat bun or ponytail to keep it out of her way? Honestly (also being white) I've found a lot of help in scrolling through beauty/style blogs just to get some visual references and ideas of what's easy to do daily or low-maintenance in the long run.

    Handling her sexuality without making a big deal on it probably depends on just ... what things happen in your story. If she has a love interest, don't treat it as a special thing - don't treat it any different than you would if the LI were a dude. If not, again just don't make a big deal about her sexuality. Maybe she offhandedly mentions a girl she thinks is cute, maybe a guy comes onto her and she wryly shoots him down. I'm pretty sure if you had her make a joke about not being able to walk straight or keep her back straight or draw a straight line, every lesbian I've ever known would snicker. It's okay to be light about it.

    As far as her name goes, it's trickier but my gut says pick whatever you want. If you'd feel weird about picking a 'black' name, maybe don't go with that. But the best advice I could give would probably be to actively seek advice from black women. I know it's been linked before but writing with color is a great resource.
     
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  8. E. Reilley
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    E. Reilley New Member

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    I do understand what you're saying and the part about her hair sounds reasonable. I wasn't uncomfortable with choosing a black name, more the prospect of it seeming to forced. **Here is this character and she's black, see she's a badarse, and she has a black name.**
    Thank you for the link, I'll definitely check it out and the hair tips are very helpful! On the note of her sexuality I'll probably have it mentioned offhandedly. She won't have any serious love interests, at least not in the foreseeable future. Plus, she won't be open about her personal life so long discussions about her sexual preferences don't seem necessary.
     
  9. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I hear you. How about looking up baby name data for the year she was born, in a state or area with a high black population? Then just read through the As and find one that you can picture her with. Whether it's a "black" name or not, you'll probably feel better about your choice if you know it's a realistic name for her to have. Nobody could say you'd just sat down and thought "oh she's black, she has to be called Shaniqua" or something.
     
  10. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    Apart from "lesbian," I'm pretty sure you just described Amanda Waller. She's even old(er than her counterparts) and fat on top of that, and I once saw a white man angrily denounce her as a mammy stereotype! But other readers loved her so much there was a widespread outcry when she was rewritten as young and thin, and a large part of that was that she had room to be awesome. She came off as a force of nature, not really a good guy and not really a bad guy, but someone with very clear goals who would do whatever was necessary to achieve those goals and could triumph over people who seemed much more powerful than her. Maybe that's the key to this character--make her cool, interesting, or sympathetic enough that it gives her depth.
     
  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I don't want to downplay your dilemma or your concerns, but I reckon the trick all writers need to develop is the ability to put yourself in a character's shoes. If you were that woman, how would you dress, how would you wear your hair, what would your attitude towards other people and your career be? Who would you love and why? Dig in, and find out. That way you won't end up with a paint-by-numbers stereotype.

    I feel sometimes that writers construct their characters from the outside in. They begin with a list of external characteristics, then try to build a real human being out of them. Maybe it's best to construct them from the inside out instead?

    If you believe that all human beings have a common core—the capacity to love, hate, think, work, create, be confident, be insecure, react, rest, play, fight, grow old and die—then find that core for your character and build from there.
     
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  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd like to expand on that a bit... You're probably quite right when it comes to the US; a black girl can be called Heather -- she doesn't have to always be Shaquand. However, in the classes I've taught with lots of born-and-raised-in-Finland kids with immigrant parents (Somali, Afghan, Russian, Bosnian, Vietnamese), the kids and students overwhelmingly often have a non-Finnish name. :whistle:

    Also my English teacher friends, now that they've started to make babies, have been giving English names instead of traditionally Finnish/Scandinavian to their babies. My old school friend gave a traditionally Nigerian name to their kid 'cause that's where the father is from.

    So perhaps in the OP's case I'd also think what her parents might call her. Maybe their favorite flower was Azalea and that's what they call her. Maybe they spent their honeymoon in Alanya where the baby was conceived so they call her Alanya. Or there could be a family name they cherish, like Alma, or an author they love, so they call her Angelou (which is a surname, but people are given weird names sometimes!), or, like Link mentioned, if they are Muslims, maybe she's called Aisha.
     
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  13. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    That's been my belief. Start at the basic core of humanity -- what we're all capable of -- and build from there. If they're a person of minority, keeping in mind the sort of thing they may have to put up with that someone of the majority might not. How do each character react to a certain situation? What traits do they individually possess? What do they personally like or dislike.

    I think there's another difficulty here as well. What if you created an Asian character and he/she actually did like nerdy things/doing kung-fu? It feels right for this character, so how do you show that you're not just stereotyping Asians? My thought would be to show other Asian characters doing their own thing that has nothing to do with nerdy things/kung-fu. That way you could have an Asian character who is doing something stereotypical, but because there are other Asian characters doing totally unrelated things, it could prevent misunderstandings and potential accusations of racial stereotyping.

    Can't believe I forgot that part. :p Yes, it would also depend on what her parents would want to call her as well.
     
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  14. King Arthur
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    King Arthur Banned

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    I find thinking of small things often helps. What's her favourite meal/food, for example?
     
  15. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Just write as you see them and want them to be. A person is a person, and therefore should be defined by who they are and what they do. It is good to 'flesh out' the little details that make the world more real, but don't overthink it. Settle on who they are, like persona, lifestyle, and other traits. I have a minor character that is an 8ft Captain that cracks wise, kicks ass, and is also caring in his own way and knows when to be serious. Just an all around good guy who makes the best of his life as a soldier, but knows when it is ok to be himself (he is a big teddy bear). It is mentioned once in the first novel that he is black, and this is only mentioned by an MC that is an alien at the beginning. Little bit later on his girlfriend/lover drops his name instead of the code name they use, and it is simply Nicholas. So you see doesn't matter what they look like, so much as who they are and what they do, that is what the reader is going to take away from it. Basically just write the person and not societal perception of what that person should be. Skin color is an arbitrary factor when there is so much more to a character than meets the eye. I hope this opinion is helpful and best of luck to you with your works, and I hope to one day get the chance to read some of them. :D
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I like that suggestion. A LOT.
     
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  17. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I'm a straight white guy and my main character in one of my stories is also a black lesbian. Her partner is white and has a child. I just write them all as people and haven't assigned them any specific personality traits based on their sexuality.
     
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  18. Holden LaPadula
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    Holden LaPadula Member

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    Play with irony. Take Cinna from the Hunger Games. EVERYBODY in the Capitol is glitzy and over-the-top. And as a fashion stylist everybody would except Cinna to be even more so. But no; he's even normal, except for the golden eyeliner. Make her hair flowing and feminine to counteract what everybody expects it to be like. Go against what you described and write her as feminine when not on duty. Maybe under those war gloves she has beautiful nails. Also, don't go off on tangents about sexuality or any of that; write about her sexuality as if she were straight, except with girls instead of guys. Overall, tack on the irony and make it as casual as you can! Maybe her name can be Glinda or something feminine and not stereotypical. Maybe not Glinda, but..... XD
     

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