1. AttilatheNun
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    AttilatheNun New Member

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    Racial Choice for Main Character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by AttilatheNun, Dec 30, 2014.

    I'm in the late planning stages of a story I'm working on, and when filling out more details about my main protagonist, it occurred to me that I needed to decide his race. Originally, I had envisioned him as white, most likely because I am white and I live in a society where most characters in most forms of media are also white. Upon thinking about this a little more deeply, I reached the conclusion that there was really no reason why the character had to be white. The story I have planned is not intended to directly address racial issues. Furthermore, there are a few reasons I think making him a person of color might be a good idea.

    As I mentioned, a disproportionate amount of the existing fiction is centered around white or mostly white characters, so doing some small part to rectify that disparity is appealing. I also thought it might be an interesting challenge as a writer and as a person to try to see and write from someone with a different viewpoint on life and society.

    I have my doubts, however. While representation of people of color is a good thing, I am uncertain if it is my place as a white person to provide that sort of representation or if it would somehow be disrespectful or distract from people who can write that kind of character from a place of personal knowledge.

    The other main problem requires a bit of explanation as to where I am personally in regard to racial issues and awareness thereof. Through a series of recent events both personal and national, I have lately had a growing awareness of the racial tensions and racist power structures that still exist in America and the world at large. I have also become more aware of the fact that people can say or do things that, while not overtly or intentionally racist, nonetheless cause discomfort to people of color because of racial undertones. This awareness, however, has done little to help me recognize when something that I or someone else has said or done has caused this kind of problem. I am working on that, but I still struggle frequently to identify whether saying or doing a certain thing may be problematic.

    Given that, I actually sat down a while ago to start working on a plan for making my protagonist black. When I did, however, I found myself examining every little detail under a microscope, trying to determine whether I was being unintentionally racist. My brain kept trying to interpret even the most mundane physical description in terrible ways. The anxiety was preventing me from getting any actual productive work done and I eventually ended up discarding the whole mess.

    Since then, however, I've been wondering if I gave up too easily. The reasons for making the main character a person of color are still quite compelling to me. I've gone back and forth on it for a while now and have been unable to resolve my conflict, so I bring it to you folks. What do you think? Am I right to worry, or am I making a big deal over nothing? Should I charge ahead, proceed with caution, or scrap the idea altogether and go back to my original, white protagonist? Why?

    Also, I tried to find some sort of social justice forum where I could post this topic to get a different perspective on my dilemma, but my searches returned mostly websites for in-person events or scholarly journals. If anyone knows of a good site where I could cross-post this, I would greatly appreciate it.
     
  2. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here are my views: -

    It smacks of tokenism to make your protagonist another race out of some perceived need to address an imbalance in literature; or Tolkienism if you choose to make him a dwarf.

    I live in London. Frankly I would find no difference in the motivation between myself (white male) and a second generation black guy; but I would probably find a great deal of difference in the motivation between myself and a recent Polish immigrant (another white guy). The race would be a lot less relevant than the person's circumstances.
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2014
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  3. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    I have never written much in my native language (sadly, I'm not good at it) and the only time I started writing was in English. And it's a natural thing, I'd say, for foreign speakers to try and complement their knowledge of pre-existing English literature when they first start writing. So I started writing with Caucasians as the main characters. Even though there are not any Caucasians or Blacks where I live, and I am neutral to them as far as my culture goes, I tend to make very stereotypical African-Americans initially, so I really did try hard to--most of my characters, if not from my ethnic background, are Caucasian. Point of my rambling being, it's not a big surprise and I feel that if you are choosing a different race only because you don't want to be racist, why even bother with race? Remove it from the story if its so irrelevant to the plot itself.
     
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  4. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    If in your mind's eye you see the character as white, write them as white. If not, don't

    I will admit to having said to myself, "Self, I would like to write a character of X ethnicity or religion" and then used that as a building block to flesh out the character - but when you do that you commit to doing the research to do it right. Plus, even in those cases, personality traits that have little to do with ethnicity usually outweigh whatever identity I have assigned to a character. I have a major Indian-American character who is much more defined by her obsession with music and pop-culture than by what ever characteristics I've assigned as a result of her Indian identity...because she's a whole person.

    More importantly - color by itself is not an identity. If you tell me your characte is white, that tells me very little in terms even of their ethnic identity. I have a lot of white characters...but they all have wildly different identities. The Greek-American who grew up working in a diner in Wisconsin is very different from Serbian-American from Connecticut whose mother is professor at Yale - both of whom are very different from the military brat with an English last name whose family has been in America since before the Revolution and served in every major war. Identity is a lot more complex than this concept we call "race".
     
  5. KevinMcCormack
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    KevinMcCormack Member

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    I've done this as a deliberate exercise, which included getting feedback from the experimental character's demographic. For example, I wrote a quick story with the first person narrator as a black woman in the 1950s Caribbean, so I asked my mother in law for feedback on credibility.

    Sometimes you can use a different race to make a point about the story, even when the race doesn't itself make the character very different. For example, Ursula K LeGuin had a character in Left Hand of Darkness who created chaos in an androgynous planet because he was male. Nobody cared that he was black. The complete disinterest in his race emphasized their culture's prejudice toward dedicated males and females.

    I think ultimately I have a similar answer that I had in another thread about how much consideration should be paid to potential offense. My answer was that it depended on whether it would offend the people who would have bought your book in the first place, and whether you're self publishing or submitting manuscripts to publishers, or if you even care about sales at all.
     
  6. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    If it's not relevant to your plot, don't even mention the skin color. My sci-fi's protagonist is a black woman but her skin color, and the skin color of the men and women who work aboard her ship don't matter so it won't even be mentioned.

    The only time you should worry about the skin color is if you're writing a historical piece and/or discussing racial issues. Otherwise, they can all have blue skin for all the readers care.
     
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  7. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hell, not even I as the author know what race my characters are. Even if I did, then it would be irrelevant. That is the beauty of literature: you can be as abstract as you want.
     
  8. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm going to buck the trend a little and say that I do see value in consciously, deliberately deciding to have diverse characters in our books. I think it adds something, not just to the book but to society.

    That said, I think you do have to take the time to make sure you do it right. If you're writing scifi or fantasy, it's probably easier - you can either ignore racism entirely or be completely theoretical about it. But if you're writing a contemporary novel set in the US, I think you need to really work to get your head around the way your character's skin colour has impacted on his life experiences, and therefore on the person he is during your book.

    So, I think I'd say it's more challenging than some people would say it is, and also more worthwhile.
     
  9. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    I'm a white, pansexual female. My MC is not white, not female, and absolutely gay. I do make mention of that fact that he's dark skinned, but only because he's stranger in a strange land, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. He's well aware of this... even plays up to their stereotypical image of him on occasions.

    When I started to create the character, colour never even entered into my mind. It was only when I came up with my story, I realised that by making him a different colour to the native population it might make for an interesting perspective.

    I understand why you would wish to address the balance, but I believe by over thinking it you are in danger of drawing attention to your own discomfort. Think person first, colour second. Will colour effect a person's experience? Sure it will, but the person's innate personality will too.

    I agree with @BayView that it would be so much more difficult to write in a contemporary setting. And that's why I don't. ;)
     
  10. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Indeed. Writing a main character of a different background that is not your own is very hard. Being that you are not from that background and may have never grew up around people of that background.

    But me as a black person can tell you I've written a story where the main protagonist was not the same ethnicity as me and I was able to pull it off. I even asked people who were the same ethnicity of my character if I had wrote anything that was stereotypical or incorrect and they said they found none. Instead they said they liked my character.

    No I am most certainly not denying it was hard. In fact I had to do a TON of research of the characters ethnicity. But if you're dedicated you can pull it off. So I say go for it.

    But like others have said, it SHOULD be at least relevant to the plot.
     
  11. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know what the ethnicity of your character was, but I've certainly heard the argument that it's much easier for a black person to write a white person than to do the reverse, because white culture is dominant, so black people are inundated with it whether they want to be or not. There are loads of 'realistic' white people depicted on TV, in many novels, in history books, etc., so it's easier to understand their perspectives.

    Not saying it's impossibly for a white person to write a realistic black person, at all, just more difficult.

    And, of course, you could have been writing about an Asian person or someone of some other ethnicity than white.
     
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  12. Nicoel
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    Nicoel Contributing Member

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    I'm split on this. Part of me says - YES do a different race. We don't have enough books with multiple races included. Part of me says NO. Write what your character is. Not what you think he/she should be.

    The last book I read, or even that I heard of, that had a black main character (I'm white) is from the perspective of a 17 year old male hoodlum with a bad background in New York who got his 16 year old girlfriend pregnant... Stereotypical much?

    The last book I read that had a Mexican main character was an illegal immigrant who also had a messed up life. Need I say more?

    I've always based my main characters as white because that's how I've always SEEN them, if that makes any sense. I have however had background characters, and secondary characters with a purposefully different ethnicity to give some color to it. :) Oddly enough, I've never worried about being racist or offensive. It's not like I was calling my characters the N-Word or some such.
     
  13. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Good points.

    But what about if the white character is a specific nationality? My protagonist Italian-American and again I had to do a ton of research. i.e researching the language/slangs. Thankfully I had some friend to help me out. Another thing is I had to avoid beings stereotypical.

    True. Though I think James Patterson(who is one of my favorite authors) writes a very realistic black character; Alex Cross.
     
  14. Nicoel
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    Nicoel Contributing Member

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    I never realized Alex Cross was black!:crazy:
     
  15. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Really!?:confused::D

    I too didnt know he was black at first.
     
  16. Nicoel
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    Nicoel Contributing Member

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    Haha, I have no idea how that detail flew over my head. I guess I didn't care so much about his skin color that detail just kind of skipped past me... :D:read:
     
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  17. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Its not your fault. :DPatterson really did not go in depth about his race, but only when he needed to. The first time I officially came to the conclusion that Cross was black was in the book "Big Bad Wolf", when the antagonist the Wolf is surprised to see a black detective(Cross). But earlier reading through the book, I did have hints that Cross was black. 1. He lived in DC(IIRC) which has a large population and his family had a culture that resembled a black family. Especially the grandmother.
     
  18. Nicoel
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    Nicoel Contributing Member

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    I've never read that one before! The first time I ever read a James Patterson book I was probably much too young to be reading it - and was put off by the comparison of a fountain to a very old mans ejaculation...:rofl: Since then I've only read one or two of them! I really should find some more to catch up. :p
     
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  19. Kaitou Wolf
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    Kaitou Wolf Active Member

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    Honestly, I don't think skin color matters that much, though I do have Asian characters pop up in my writing, but that's because I like how Asian people look, nothing to do with making a point. Though, I would like to see more Asian characters.
     
  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I knew that one of my MCs in one of my WIPs was going to be Brazilian from the get go. I knew it because the idea of him came from pondering modern Brazilian policies of self sufficiency and not importing things that don't need to be imported. It made me think of Brazil growing in the future, unexpectedly, kinda' the way China took Average Joe westerners by surprise, and in my story Brazil is a multiworld ultra-power where your rights as a citizen are partially dependent on the commercial allegiances you have to Brazilian mega-corporations. That's really the background, and not the actual story itself, but it plays a part. So I knew that one of MC had to be a Brazilian citizen: Marco. His love interest (and the other the MC) is not Brazilian because through this relationship I wanted to explore my ever evolving reconnection to my own culture, Puerto Rican, where even though I am genetically a PR, I feel like "the white guy" and I am treated like "the white guy" as soon as I open my mouth and people hear, what is to locals my strong American accent. So, the ethnicity of one was determined by storyline. The ethnicity of the other was determined by emotional realms I want to explore. Neither is an afterthought.

    Don't make a choice based on an afterthought.
     
  21. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Then there is Neil Gaiman, who wrote Anansi Boys and in 300 pages never once mentioned that his main character, Fat Charlie, was black.
     
  22. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    But if you read American Gods first, you would have known off the bat.
     
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  23. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Yes.

    Also Anansi is an African mythical figure, so it's not really a leap of imagination, so much as belly flop onto common sense. Still, there's no mention of race on any page, which I think was king of the point all along.
     
  24. Empty Bird
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    Empty Bird Member

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    I don't understand the issue.

    Why is it hard to write a so-called "black person"? Or an "Indian person"? Or a "white person"? Or a person of a race that isn't our own?

    Do people who have the same colour as us somehow become a new sort of person entirely?

    I'm completely puzzled by the amount of complexity and worry that has to go into such a thing.

    The writer of Black Beauty didn't struggle to get into the mindset of what a horse could think like. Why is it so difficult to get into the mind of a person of a different race?

    I think it's quite sad, this hesitance to pick up a character who's a different colour to us. We're all people, we all feel the same, think the same. Colour runs as far as the skin- it shouldn't taint a character.

    If you want to write a character of a different race, do it. If you don't, don't. You'll have critics who wonder why you wrote a black character when you're not black and you'll have critics who wonder why you wrote a white character rather than a black one.

    Are you writing a different coloured character to tip the scale somehow or are you writing them because that's how you imagine them to be? Of course theres an ussue in literature about a majority of Caucasian characters- it wasn't that long ago that laws against people of different ethnicity's were vanquished. The wound is still there, will be there for a long time. People cringe and treat the issue of different races so ginerly that it's no surprise that there are so many issues about race in literature.

    If this is about race, it's different, but if this is about colour then I'd like to think that thre's no need for the ussue to be so complex.

    If Katniss suddenly changed to having dark skin, would it change the story? I'd like to think not.

    Why does colour have to suddenly change a character?
     
  25. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    @Empty Bird - I agree, it really isn't that big of a deal to write from the perspective of a non-white person. If the plot isn't about racial issues, who honestly cares about the skin?

    To be fair, I can see where the others are coming from. It's a delicate issue, and some of us don't want to be labeled racist because we accidentally had our non-white character do something stereotypical. If my sci-fi captain were Asian and loved science, you could see how some might think I was being offensive for buying into the whole 'All Asians are science nerds'.

    'But what if they're from a different background' however can be explained with research. Obviously I'd need to do research if I were going to write about someone living in San Francisco because I've never been there. Or if the story were set in Japan or Taiwan, then research their cultures. Research and ask questions.

    That said, you're right. Color doesn't make the character, and someone will always find something to be upset about in anything. OP, just write your character.
     

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