1. poptarts
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    poptarts Member

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    character's ethnicity

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by poptarts, Mar 4, 2011.

    does anyone know how to write about a non-white person without drawing too much attention to his/her ethnic background? i feel if i attach a "foreign" last name to a character, instead of viewing him/her as an individual people are just going to view him/her as a representative of whatever ethnic group that person belongs to. yet as a non-white person myself, the only world i know is the one where white people are in the minority and barely make any appearance.
     
  2. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Whichever race you happen to be, I'd make the character that race so it feels more natural to write about. Or at least make sure you know plenty of people who are of the MC's race (your friends, classmates etc).

    Make sure to avoid using stereotype overkill and heavily using stereotypes that would offend people (example, if all of your African-American characters were gang thugs, or all of your Asian characters were super nerdy with no social skills, you'd come across as an offensive racist.)

    On the other hand though, if you make a point of avoiding stereotypes and always go way out of your way to be the opposite of every stereotype, that can annoy people, too. You don't want to be a stereotyper but you also don't want to be a PC slave, you know?

    Really, the best advice I can give is to write about the ethnicity with realism. You say you're ethnic yourself, so you have plenty of real-life observations of how your family, friends (probably?) etc speak, talk, dress, act etc.

    Make sure you're spot-on with realistic dialogue and scenarios. I know this is a bit different from racial portrayal, but I hate when a book has 20-something-year-old or teen characters but the dialogue sounds like a 60-year-old prude and it's not accurate at all. Every culture has its own customs, jargon etc and if you screw it up, you'll be in trouble.

    Also try to have some variety to balance things out. For example, if you have a character whose main conflict is relationship abuse, and the couple happens to be Hispanic, readers might think "this writer is racist for implying that Hispanic guys beat on their girlfriends" if this is the only Hispanic couple in the novel. If an African-American character happens to struggle with grades or happens to blow off school, make sure to include some studios African-American characters too so readers don't think you're racist or pigeonholing the group.

    The main point ---- Focus on realistic dialogue and avoiding offensive, "this group is always this way" portrayal, but also avoid sounding like you're tiptoing around the PC Police.

    Hope I helped and good luck with your novel.

    EDIT: The only way race will stand out is if you include issues like racism, racist slurs etc or mention their race all the time. A girl in my workshop once wrote a novel about four women best friends and their issues. The writer was African-American and the characters were too, but she didn't beat you over the head with it, so the book didn't stand out as being a book about race. It just felt like an adult version of "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."
     
  3. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Where is your story set? I mostly write about chars who live in India. I give them names(Indian name), places where they live and according to the place readers know if the char is a minority or not. If the Indian char happens to live in Chicago, readers also know the char belongs to an ethnic minority, there is no escaping it. In such a case if you don't want to draw attention to his ethnicity just give his description, like eye color, hair color, skin color, in the passing, and make all the other things about him as American as anybody else, like the decor of his house, the way he speaks etc. In short, make his ethnicity just a part of him, and not everything about him.
     
  4. poptarts
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    poptarts Member

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    [deleted]
     
  5. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate the intelligence of your reader. Plenty of novels have main characters who are identifiable as part of an 'ethnic' minority. The reader would only judge your protagonist as stereotypical if both they have prejudices and you, as the author, play into them. Mallory quite rightly pointed out that race won't be an issue unless you draw attention to it.

    Paint a picture that most closely resembles your own life experience and don't try to second guess what you think the readers will be thinking. If you do that, chances are you will guess wrong.
     
  6. poptarts
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    poptarts Member

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    that's another thing. i don't WANT my story to be autobiographical. i don't want people to read my story and assume it resembles my own life experience in any way. i don't want to use the last name "wong" or "kim" and have people make it out to be a story about asian people rather than about people in general. i don't want people to finish reading my story and think, "oh, look, people of [insert non-white ethnic group here] descent are just like us." i want to be able to write a story about non-white people without the non-whiteness of the characters hanging in the back of the mind of a reader.

    i guess what i wanted to happen is for people to automatically picture someone who belongs to the same race that i do without my needing to mention anything about it, but i guess in a "western" setting where the default character is white that just isn't possible.
     
  7. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    Maybe you could use a deficit/allergy that is statistically dominant in your ethnicity group to subtly connect it to the race without mentioning it explicitly? Lactose intolerance or something.
     
  8. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Too much overthinking stifles creativity... write and don't worry too much.
     
  9. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    If the character has a chinese name, I believe most readers would picture a chinese character without the need to point it out further. If a character you read about is named Javier Ramirez, don't you automatically think Hispanic guy?
    I think you're thinking about this too much. If you don't want race to be an issue, just don't make it one. Drawing from your own experiences doesn't mean to write about stuff that actually happens to you. That I lived in New York means I can write about the city and the people realistically because of my experiences, without having to write about actual events.
     
  10. Ice Queen
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    Ice Queen Senior Member

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    To be honest I really don't think that people are very different whatever ethnicity they come from. Obviously there's different customs and so on and so forth, but you can easily downplay those so that they're really not important. For example, if you were to write about a character who's indian, just give him an indian name, describe him as having dark skin etc. There's no need to even include cultural cliches. I knew an indian guy once whose only indian attribute was his appearance and name XD He acted like a young scottish guy because he was born here and didn't have terribly traditional parents.
     
  11. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Write your characters as individuals, and if you do it well, their individual traits will overshadow their race/culture.
     
    1 person likes this.
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    this is the best advice... i strongly suggest you follow it...
     
  13. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    The simple way to keep it in check is just to not give it much space. You don't even have to ignore the problems minorities face, you just don't have to give it much space in the story. The fewer lines and pages you write focusing on ethnicity the less it will be the focus of the story.
     
  14. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    What I do is establish the character in a certain way first through dialogue and mannerisms, maybe an omniscient look into a thought. It is not until a bit later that I mention an ethnic inclination and/or skin color in a glancing term, and only if it matters to the scene/story.
     
  15. Anonym
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    Anonym Contributing Member

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    Give heritage it's due acknowledgement, but don't interject it into the life of your character any more than it's present in your own. Don't compensate either way.

    We're more alike than we are different. Ethnicity shapes a person, but only life can define them.
     
  16. poptarts
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    poptarts Member

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    yes, but let's have a short story where the last name isn't mentioned and where the main character is just named kimberly. would it ever occur to the average reader that she could be of hispanic descent or--god forbid--the daughter of a recent immigrant from cambodia who's decided to give her a name that more people can spell and pronounce correctly? unless their background is explicitly stated in the story, most likely the assumption would be that kimberly is an all-around american girl--very white and very middle-class.

    the point is a last name that doesn't sound stereotypically "white" just sticks out like a sore thumb. people don't give much thought when they read names like mccullough (obviously irish) or levine (obviously french). it's when they read names like yamamoto or bhattacharjee does all kinds of stereotyping--as subconscious as they may be--creeps up to the point where a book that isn't even trying to make a statement about "culture" suddenly becomes "ethnic."

    it's irritating.
     
  17. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's because traditionally 'Kimberly' is not a Hispanic or Cambodian name. To flip the coin, if we see a Hispanic or Cambodian name, should we think 'oh but perhaps (s)he comes from xyz', to cover all bases?

    Is it stereotyping to connect types of names to their possible ethnic origins? No. Is the assumption always correct? No.

    I may have an English name, but I'm not just of English or even British descent.

    The writer needs to tell the reader who their characters are, after all.
     
  18. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Another question to ask:

    If Kimberly's ethnicity don't effect and isn't important to the short story, what purpose does it serve to define it?
     
  19. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think this is within your control. Everyone characterises people they are reading about. Whether the characterisation is fair or not isn't something you can do anything about if you yourself are accurately portraying your characters. I think you're making it really hard for yourself.

    What I meant by 'painting a picture' is that we all have life experiences in common, regardless of our background and ethnicity.

    Hmmm.

    Yes, also, what w176 just said.
     
  20. poptarts
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    poptarts Member

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    sigh.

    i was frustrated by the seeming lack of empathy on this forum, so i took it upon myself to complain about the same problem on some other forum, where i'm happy to report that despite my occasionally poor choice of words i'm not the only one who knows what the hell i'm talking about.

    so while problem isn't solved, it's nice to know that some people get it and it's not just all in my head.

    rip thread.
     
  21. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    Lack of empathy, huh? People come and try to help and this is what they got in return...
     
  22. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    So what was the question even about? Did you want advice and opinions, or just people to agree with you?
     

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