1. Anaïs Rose
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    Anaïs Rose Member

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    Describing/Characterizing POC

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Anaïs Rose, Aug 18, 2016.

    Hi, so I'm a white author who likes to add in as much diversity as I can. I don't think I go out of my way to add diversity just for the sake of having an "accepting" tone, every character is an important part of the story, and how they look is sometimes important, sometimes not. One thing I've read frequently when going over advice for white authors writing POC characters (and the tumblr/blog writingwithcolor is certainly one of those sources) is to not write about the issues surrounding those characters that have to do with race. Let me elaborate: don't try to put your opinion about race into those characters' mouths unless you yourself have experienced those issues. <- what I've learned so far from my research.

    So keeping that in mind, I've been writing a main character from a small village on the side of a river in fictionalized Australia. The village is known as Nef, in the region of Ndun, and there's only about 300 people living there. Most people who live there are poor, and since it's so small everyone stereotypes them as marrying each other's cousins, or being illiterate, or having weird accents (the weird accents are because people from all regions pass through the river, bringing with them their own personal slang or way of talking). Now my character actually can't read, and this becomes an issue later as he signs a contract without having read it.

    Now as I was writing this story, I hadn't had a clear description in my head for this character except that he wears glasses, and maybe has red hair. But as I was researching Australia, I started learning about the indigenous people there, the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander people, and I thought it would be nice to have the main character, the only person who's actually from Australia in the entire book, be native to Australia. But then I realized, I've weighed him down with these bad images, of being poor and illiterate (not that those things define him, but other people in the story certainly like to think they define him), without thinking about what he would look like or what his ethnicity would be. I don't want to be one more voice stereotyping the indigenous people of Australia to be poor or illiterate or stupid, and I'm very concerned that I've accidentally done this. So if anyone has any words of wisdom for me, I'd love to hear it. I'll change his character in a trice if you think that's what I should do. Thanks in advance.
     
  2. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    As far as I got, your character is poor and illiterate due to living in a small, isolated village which, based on the description you gave, doesn't have the greatest educational and economic opportunities. In other words, you've given a clear explanation that has nothing to do with his ethnicity. If he had a different ethnic background and lived under the same circumstances, he would still be poor and illiterate. Stereotyping on the contrary would mean that you don't give any explanation for your character's attributes, but would simply slap them on him because "that's what people of his group are like". Indigenous Australian characters can be as poor or rich, literate or illiterate, stupid or smart as characters of any other background. All that matters is that they are fully developed persons with reasons why they are the way they are.
     
  3. NiallRoach
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    NiallRoach Contributing Member

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    A problem might well be, though, that he's there only aborigine in your novel. That means 100% of your native Australian characters are illiterate, poor, and live in poverty.
     
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  4. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Where does this story take place? If not in Australia (fictionalized or no), why the Aussie aboriginal as the put-upon character?

    BTW, illiterate does not equal stupid, though someone laboring under that condition might feel that way about him or herself.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I do a quick Google about the topic of aboriginal Australians, I perceive it to be a pretty complex topic. It feels problematic to say, essentially, "Oh, by the way, he's an aboriginal Australian," without a tremendous amount of research.
     
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  6. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    I see your point. There are a couple of issues with that though.

    First of all, why should poverty and illiteracy be seen as negative qualities? Don't get me wrong, they are certainly negative in the sense that they provide a disadvantage. However, they are not qualities but rather circumstances beyond the control of the character. He didn't choose to be born into this particular environment and he can't make high-paying jobs or educational facilities pop up out of nowhere. Neither does he have any control over the choices his parents made that lead to him being born into poverty and illiteracy. Only a complete jerk would fault OP's MC for the circumstances he grew up in.

    Second, OP's MC isn't meant to be a representative of his ethnic group, but a person in his own right, with his own specific backstory, qualities, goals etc. He is not supposed to be a native Australian character, but a character who just so happens to be a native Australian. Of course there is the risk that some readers would merely treat him as a representative of his ethnicity and not as a person, but that would be due to tribal thinking on part of the reader, not because of the way OP portrays her character.

    One thing people need to realize is that racism doesn't exist because of stereotypes. On the contrary, stereotypes exist thanks to racism. Racists, just like all other one track minds, live in their own twisted parallel universe. They will only take note of things that fit into their world view while ignoring everything else. So even if the character would be a millionaire newspaper magnate, readers who are inclined to view the indigenous peoples of Australia as collectively poor and illiterate would at best see him as the exception that proves the rule.

    Why not? Aboriginal Australians can go and live wherever they want, like all other people.

    When we're talking about the indigenous peoples of Australia, we're talking about a group of several hundred thousand, probably up to a million, all living in different places, under different circumstances, with different values, different interests, different priorities in life etc. To get a truly comprehensive overview of their present-day situation and the way it affects them on an individual level, OP would have to spend a considerable amount of time with every single one of them. Of course, she could just read some research papers on that topic, but even then, all she gets is a very broad and generalized picture and her MC might end up as a lifeless accumulation of generic traits and tendencies that might be applicable to some but not to others. Thus, developing a personality and an arc for the character first and then going "oh, by the way, he's an aboriginal Australian" is indeed the best recipe to get a compelling, relatable MC who happens to be an aboriginal Austalian.
     
  7. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    This. This is precisely what I was going to say.
     
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  8. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    If it's fictionalised Australia, don't use a 'real' race with very real struggles that you aren't living. I can't see any benefits at all for you taking this route!
     
  9. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    Even if you're not exactly living a struggle, you can still empathize with the people affected. Besides, the story isn't about indigenous Australians as a group, it merely features one particular character who happens to be an indigenous Australian. Big difference.
     
  10. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I repeat: there are no benefits for the author in taking this route, but a lot of problems.
     
  11. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    Then which 'route' exactly is the author taking, which problems arise from that and what benefits would an MC with a different background have?
     
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    There's the potential benefit of the author having the satisfaction of telling the story they want to tell. What that's worth is subjective, I suppose. I think what you're saying is that the author should not tell this particular story, and if that's the case I don't agree. The reason I draw that conclusion is because if the author can't use an Aboriginal character for the reasons stated, then the author also can't very well use some made up race and say "yeah, they're a lot like Aborigines but they're not Aborigines because I don't call them that." The same criticisms with be forthcoming. So what is really being said is that the author needs to choose a different story to tell.
     
  13. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Not at all. As the author describes in the OP, she had planned the story and the character and was writing it when it occurred to her that it might "be nice" to make him native Australian. What I'm saying is the author should stick to the story they wanted to tell, as changing their mind offers no benefit but does open them up to problems with representing a real group of people.
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Ah, yes I understand what you're saying. I suppose for me it comes down to, now that there are two choices on the table, which story does the author feel more passionate about? Which one does the author believe in more? That's the one that is going to produce a better final product. The same general plot, but one version having an Aboriginal character who has to deal with issues of race, poverty, oppression, loss of culture, and the like, becomes quite a different story from the version where the character doesn't have all of those challenges.

    The version with the Aboriginal character is also going to be a lot more difficult to do well.
     
  15. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Yeah. I think it's pretty obvious from the OP - "would be nice" wouldn't cut it for me when considering a change with this much impact.
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, you may well be right in that regard. I wouldn't go down this route without having done the research, and having thought about it, and ultimately caring about the subject matter. Throwing in a character just because it would be cool write it that way isn't likely to produce an effective end product. You're more likely to end up with a caricature rather than a character, which would be a disaster.
     
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  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    A side issue: Is this modern Australia? I think of modern Australia as a country that probably wouldn't leave even a small town without schools. So I'm wondering about the reason for the illiteracy.

    If the answer is, "Well, this is a fictional Australia..." I'd say that there's a point where the name of a country should be changed, because there's a point where it's only kinda sorta inspired by the original.
     
  18. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    ...but the character was already quite fleshed out before he got assigned an ethnicity, if I got the OP correctly. How could he end up a caricature then?
     
  19. Anaïs Rose
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    Anaïs Rose Member

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    Alright so here are some issues to clear up:
    -It IS fictionalized Australia, but I never name the place where they are. Again, it's fictionalized regions that I took a lot of characteristics from in my research of Australia.
    -I never name my MC as Aboriginal, just indigenous. I took his new appearance in my head from pictures of Aboriginal people that I found online.
    -The reason I changed his ethnicity was not because it "would be nice" but because I was struggling; I realized that most of my supporting characters were non-white and my two MCs were white/non-specified. Everyone in the book is representative of their region and I wanted to reflect that with my character. If he's from Australia, then he should be from Australia, hence, indigenous. My white character is from Oklahoma, America, my engineer character is the son of Arab immigrants, the race car driver siblings are from Seoul, Korea, my little boy character's mother is from Niigata prefecture, Japan, etc. I didn't want these characters to be perceived as sidekicks while my white/non-specified characters got all the glory.
    -I don't think my MC's character is defined by his "short comings" (which are really not short comings, just disadvantages), I think his character is defined by his struggle to overcome these disadvantages, his unwillingness to allow other people to take advantage of him, his stubborness and fighting spirit.
    I'm very interested in what everyone has to say, and I'm reading everyone's replies carefully, and if anyone has anymore questions for me, please let me know.
     
  20. Iain Aschendale
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    Iain Aschendale Contributed Member Contributor

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    I think you could be okay with the MC being an aboriginal pseudo-stralian, but one thing that strikes me (from your short description) is that your story sounds slightly unrealistically diverse. It's a fantasy world, yes, but you have an illiterate Aboriginal Australian from a small town who's teamed up with an educated Arab-American, two Korean athletes, and a Japanese woman? Not saying you can't do it, but I'm a caucasian American living in Japan and my social circle isn't that diverse. Which doesn't reflect well on me, mind you, but just be careful that you aren't assembling a Benetton commercial for the sake of it, lest it take away from your story.
     
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  21. Anaïs Rose
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    Anaïs Rose Member

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    His brother and mother are also indigenous, from the same area. His brother, however, can read. "poor and live in poverty" strikes me as a bit redundant. Actually, given where they live, they're actually thriving, but they don't have a lot of extra money. He's poor by our standards, but rich by the standards of the village. He's not actually aware he's poor until he visits bigger regions with large cities. The only "poverty" part of where he lives is that they don't have access to an optometrist or schools. The opening pages of the book describes where he lives as a bright, vibrant region filled with good food and cultural traditions of beading and basket weaving that the people there use to create their livelihood, selling food and art items to people that pass through the river. By no means would I consider him and his family to be living in poverty.
     
  22. Anaïs Rose
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    Anaïs Rose Member

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    Thanks for the question! Actually the main event of the story is a giant underground racetrack where people travel to once a year to take part in the Supreme Races, toting their cars across the oceans to race against people from all over the world. Nobody in the story actually lives there except for my MC, which is why there's so much diversity; people there are literally from every region possible. hopefully that cleared it up :)
     
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  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm still wondering if this reflects Australia--are there places without schools?
     
  24. Anaïs Rose
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    Anaïs Rose Member

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    Not that I know of? Again, it's not designed to directly reflect Australia, I just took the characteristics of the region from Australia, like the weather, animal life, and what kind of food is locally available. I suppose I should have been more clear when I said fictionalized Australia. I'm not sure anyone who read it would look at it and think "Oh, obviously Australia", probably just "Oh, look, a desert-y place with crocodiles and swamp hens". There just so happens to be a small fishing/farming village without a school, which isn't my reflection on Australia, just a part of the narration.
     
  25. theamorset
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    It's hard to say what the character should be like, without knowing the whole story. But it also seems like you're setting yourself with a very difficult task.

    I don't know if I agree with the advice to only discuss prejudice in a story if you've experienced it, either. I'm sure some people feel that way, but I'm not sure I would limit myself that way, as a writer. Working through it would probably be a good thing for me as a writer.

    In a way, prejudice is a universal experience as all people experience getting treated unfairly.

    But it's also true that unless a person really can emotionally put himself in someone else's shoes, the writing won't come out believable or sympathetic. The person has to realize that he's only experienced a little taste of it, and it would be different for a person who is subjected to an ongoing culturally set prejudice that everyone is absorbed with. But I think an empathic person could put it into his/her writing successfully.

    As for the character being a 'stereotype' because he's illiterate, etc., that's probably not going to offend anyone, BUT if you made the person seem truly stupid or nasty, it might not do too well for you.

    I wrote such a character recently, a person who is mildly developmentally disabled. He clearly has problems, he isn't perfect, and his intellectual challenges cause him trouble, and, clearly, he isn't a physicist, but he has a lot of other really good qualities, and is growing and changing as a person, meeting new challenges, etc. Further, he gets involved with a really brilliant woman who has a lot in common with him (similar things have happened to both of them) despite their differences in IQs. And in fact, what she needs, validation, support, he is able to provide.
     

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