1. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Writing a different "race", "ethnicity", "culture" or "color"?

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Andrae Smith, Dec 11, 2013.

    I'm sure many of us have heard the writer's adage, "write what you know," at least once in our writing career--that is assuming we've been around other writers for long enough. Well, recently I read an article about a white author who chose to write two characters, one white and the other black, as his protagonists and how it has been received by some critics and reviewers. The article's question, as noted in it's title, is:
    Can a White author write Black characters?.

    Here is the link to the article, though it is unnecessary for answering my coming question:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/09/michael_chabon_s_telegraph_avenue_can_a_white_guy_write_about_black_characters_.html

    Now, my question is not, "Can a white author write black characters?" Obviously, they can, and have. My question(s) is this: Is it a good/bad idea to write leading characters from social groups outside of your own? Can an author from one ethnicity convincingly and effectively portray a character that represents another ethnicity? Is it something a writer should be able to do (stemming from the past question about being able to write across gender lines)?

    Any thoughts are welcomed and gladly accepted here!
     
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  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    As a female, and as a white person who has traveled in countries where white was the minority, yeah, I think I can write a character of a different ethnicity. I know what it feels like. I know what white America looks like from the outside looking in. But I wouldn't attempt to write any ethnic character without a lot of research into that particular ethnic culture.

    In my novel I have a whole group of people who are 'immigrants'. I purposefully declined to describe what ethnicity they look like, only that one can tell their ethnicity from appearance. I don't want the reader to form an idea 'not me' or 'like me' from whatever appearance I describe. I want the reader to empathize with my characters for their experiences and not see them as [fill in the ethnicity] which I think then pigeon holes the characters in ways I may or may not intend they be seen as.

    By the way, your article mentions Spike Lee. I think his portrayal of ethnic characters in "Do the Right Thing" was incredible.
     
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  3. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well, my female MC is mixed race, essentially dark-skinned, and of French origin, but she was born to a culture that doesn't exist in our world, so I hope that gives me some leeway...

    Besides, I would imagine that an Afro-American and Finland-born offspring of Somalese immigrants would have really quite different stories to tell. Which one would write that character better if, for some reason, the representative of that minority wasn't available? An Afro-American who shares the skin color or a white Finn who shares the culture the character was born in?

    I hope it's possible to write people from different cultures. Especially with my and T's WIP that basically takes place in an international space colony, we have to put different nationalities and cultures there -- plus the colony-born people whose cultural background and make-up can't be directly compared to any existing culture, race, or ethnicity we have in the real world.

    One has to be sensitive, I think, and do a lot of research, preferably let representatives of the culture/race to read it, but I'd like to think it's possible to do it well. After all, we are of the same species, so it should be possible to emphatize with other cultures and ethnicities.

    I reject the idea we as writers or aspiring writers would have to stay in our bubble and only write what and who we are. My stories would be incredible boring accounts of some twenty-something white female students from a welfare state. Boring to me anyway. On the other hand, I know I won't write anything like e.g Yvonne Vera, Samuel Selvon, Jamaica Kincaid, Anita Desai, Toni Morrison, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sapphire have written, I most likely couldn't, but I'd like to think I'm allowed to incorporate other races, genders, and cultures into our writing, nonetheless.
     
  4. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee I really think you have mined a good vein with this:
    Here in the States, and much of the western world, the literary default for characters is White when description is not given. However, I think writing characters that are strong in self identity, but somewhat blank slates in appearance allows readers to form a connection to the characters without them considering "like me" or "not like me". On the other hand, in leaving out details pertaining to appearance in relation to ethnicity, we run the risk of perpetuating the default. I think the best way to approach it is to give the details that are important.
    Writing a character of any ethnicity will require knowledge of how that background may shape them and differentiate their world view from anyone else's just by cultural experience. Of course you know this, but as an example: there is no difference in writing a Black character or a Mexican character with regards to handling the character as an individual, but there is no denying that the family interactions and perhaps even the world view may be different. Many African Americans are Southern Baptist (or similar denominations), for example, while a majority of Mexicans and Hispanic people practice Catholicism. If religion has any role this would be something to consider--not as a stereotype, but just something to think about perhaps? :rolleyes:

    @KaTrian This is a good question:
    Who would be "better suited"? I think it does come down to research and devotion to the character as an individual, but I can't deny that each writer will bring a different interpretation to the table.

    Your WIP with T. sounds really interesting at that and I would love to see how you handle that. I think writing fictionalized cultures is easier because you can create the circumstances that produce said culture, but balancing it with real world cultures might be tricky.

    And personally, I agree with this:
    It would leave a lot of us with too little to write about and vastly stifled imaginations. Beyond that, writing, like any art, is a way of sharing culture and experiencing it. I think a writer of skill should be able to write about others cultures, ethnicities, etc. because, if done well, it allows people to become more sensitive to each other. Like you said, we are the same species. But I agree about the importance of research.
     
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  5. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Good points. The default white is a weird thing. The reason why I was a bit miffed that betas asked T and I to mention my MC's color right away was because I felt that in that scene, it didn't matter, and I would've mentioned it in a context where it'd feel more natural. But on the other hand, in a story with multiple POVs, one has to take into consideration the POV, and "luckily" in that scene it was a character who would note the color. Still, will it really be a horrible throw-off and mindfuck if you find a few pages later she's not pale as pancake after all? To me it wouldn't be, but I don't know...

    I think it's a bit easier for us sci-fi and fantasy oriented writers to tackle this stuff 'cause the depictions of certain cultures aren't so strongly tied to our world. There's more leeway.

    And like others have pointed out, the character comes first. We don't want to write stereotypes and all that...
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    My "immigrants" are very much discriminated against. Were I to make them Black, Asian or Hispanic it would be cliché. If I make them White with the existing population being Black or Asian or Hispanic it would be distracting as people would read into that some Affirmative Action message that is not the theme I am writing about. I'm also purposefully avoiding religion and god beliefs. With these aspects blank, I'm hoping it allows the core issues to be amplified. Time will tell when the book is finished if I met my goals. Book one has a strong theme of the division, 'us vs them' (maybe I should say, 'us vs those people'). I've also got the theme of individuals within the group who feel like they don't belong, they aren't like the rest but also don't want to be.

    Book two in the duology deals more with the themes of class divides and broader social pressures to conform.
     
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  7. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Just a simple response to the core question: yes, I've done it, and it was published.
     
  8. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @KaTrian One thing that surprised me was the small uproar among Hunger Games fans when the movie hit theaters and two secondary characters, Thresh and Rue, are played by black people. There were a surprising number of readers who thought they were white "like the rest of them" even though Collins writes this description of Rue in the book:

    "And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor."

    And Thresh:

    "The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He's one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox."

    They obviously aren't close readers... But many people tweeted they felt betrayed by the movie because their bubble was burst.

    @GingerCoffee I can understand not wanting to have your work mistaken for an Affirmative Action piece. And I think that your core issues will be exemplified, but I wonder if leaving out certain information perpetuates the trend. Readers will fill in the gaps on their own, which may be a good thing as it may expose us to our own prejudices.

    @Lemex, duely noted. :cool:
     
  9. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Holy crap, really? That's so... Doesn't it take place in dystopian, possibly future America? Of course there'd be people of color.

    Something similar happened with Harry Potter, if my memory serves me right. One Gryffindor, Lee Jordan, and the auror, Kingsley Shacklebolt, were played by black actors in the movies => a big "revelation."
    I think the default is so strong that sometimes readers just don't register what's described, and for the author to make a big deal out of the color in a novel that's not about racial issues or skin color would come off odd.

    When I did a course project on Afro-American beauty standards and ideals, I came across some data about this not happening so much vice versa. Unfortunately I can't find the references now 'cause that was some 3 years ago -_-

    Ah, the coveted middle ground... So hard to find, at times.
    I like exposing prejudices, and unfortunately catch myself cultivating them at times too. The former has happened three times with my and T's WIP, and while the betas appreciated being caught in prejudice, they ultimately advised against such mindfucks. We caved in on two occasions (one regarding color, one regarding gender) 'cause basically they could be seen as too deliberate attempts at it, but one still remains 'cause in that scene it's really the character who gets slapped in the face later when she finds out she assumed wrong... I'm not changing that.
     
  10. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @KaTrian Yes it is set in dystopian future America, but because minority presence in literature has been so minimal historically, people default to create an all white cast as the normal. And with modern authors minimizing the mention of color or ethnicity, it has become easy for readers to insert their own image, as I mentioned on the other thread. So I guess that is a reason for AA and other Minority literature, to give representation to these minority groups from their own perspectives. I would like to think that people just default fictional characters to look like them, but I know I never did. African Americans are somewhat under-represented in my literary imagination (if I may be so bold as to use that descriptor), and as you can see from my Avatar, I am black myself.

    So a new question arises, from the combination of both threads, should authors be willing to make characters less invisible? In literary fiction, you can't just write a protagonist as dark skinned and have him and his family talk and think exactly the same as a white protagonist if he is ethnically black. That's not to say you should exemplify differences, but family interactions, food preferences, social anxieties may be different, even if they are not the focus of the story. Of course there are those Black people who are indistinguishable from white people in every way but history and color, and that is fine. But should writers be more willing to allow character's cultures/ethnicities/colors be known, or does that impede too much on the readers ability to become that character?

    I think any skilled writer should be able to step outside of their own skin (pun unintended) to write from any perspective. But I also think that whether a protag. is White (American), Black (American), Hispanic, Middle Eastern (not to lump that entire region as one people), Chinese, Korean, Finish, French, South African (White or Negroid), or what have you, if a writer is writing literary fiction in which any of these groupings are represented, then the writer should be willing to let that show. As an example, in Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, the protagonist Humbert Humbert is a European in America. Because we are in his head (1st person) we see some occasion French (among other languages) slip in his thoughts.

    It may be a little different in Genre fiction such as Sci-fi of Fantasy, in which you can change things and make things up to the point where real-world ethnicity and culture don't matter as much. This would be the case with your and T.'s WIP and perhaps with @GingerCoffee's "immigrants."
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    @Andrae Smith: I do hear you. The same as I read distorted female characters that don't reflect the women I know, it is a serious issue for ethnic groups when they are underrepresented or misrepresented in literature and film. For the record, I do have ethnic minorities in the story. One of the secondary but important characters is of Arab descent. I have made her family one of the most tolerant people among the intolerant. The woman is a lesbian and her parents are completely OK with that. But I will think about some of my other characters to be sure I'm not contributing to the issues you speak of.

    I was going to bring this up in another thread but it seems to fit here just as well. I told you about Melissa Harris Perry's book revealing false female stereotyped blacks in the media. It was blatantly evident in the picture of Obama in the "selfie" that was caught by another photographer. The people who would contrive criticism of Obama wherever possible implied that Michele Obama looked angry in the picture. They suggested she was miffed and her husband was flirting with a blonde woman. Look at this ludicrous New York Post article.

    Angry black woman and blonde-chasing black man are two of the falsehoods often portrayed in the media.
    It's an outright lie and the photographer that took the image was angry about the misrepresentation. Of course Rupert Murdoch owns the NY Post, no surprise there, but it's no less disgusting.

    Here's what the photographer had to say about the lies:
     
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  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In this sense I'm happy that in this version of our WIP, the reader knows right away she's colored, and they know the man she's with is white, as both details are given. In the old version, the POV character paid attention to how well armed the two were, so basically the reader could've imagined anything... A bit too sparse.


    Well, I'll express my personal opinion with an overstrike. I like to become a character I'm not and lead their lives as they are; men, women, black, white, etc.
    Furthermore, I believe cultures and ethniticies could be depicted and celebrated without any bigger underlying agenda. I love to lose myself to some post-colonial lifestyle in Old Delhi (even though it's not always very pretty) or become a Caribbean male immigrant in London in the mid 1900s.

    Yeah, though even in our WIP the color plays a bigger part later, as even in our imagines society, people have formed some cliques and groups based on ethnicity even if they were born into that society (while their parents were born on Earth). I do hope we've handled the events and attitudes realistically, and not gone overboard preachy about the fact that racism fucking sucks.

    @GingerCoffee Thanks for sharing that photo and the story behind it. The things people get into their heads...
     
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  13. Oswiecenie
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    Oswiecenie Active Member

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    I don't want to step on anyone's toes but I find this kind of question incredibly ridiculous. What will come next? Can mesomorph people write endomorph or ectomorph characters? Can people with straight hair write characters with curly hair? Seriously.
     
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I would say, "and yet so many people fail at it", but then it dawned on me the first fail that came to my mind was a female that wrote an awful female stereotype. :p
     
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  15. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @Oswiecenie, I know you mean well, but I'm afraid it goes deeper than that. It is one thing to write a character with different physical attributes, but presenting someone of a different, real-world culture or ethnicity is a bit more complicated. There is more to consider than just the person's looks and individual traits; there is a matter of heritage that is attached. I can't write a black character by simply changing some of his expressions to make him "sound black"; that's stereotyping. A person's ethnicity ties them to their family and their history, and in many cases helps to define themselves. So writing a character from across the "racial", ethnic, or cultural divide is a bit more challenging.
    Further, in the States, a person's color can easily affect how they are received, which might come into play in literary fiction. I'm black, so I have to consider whether or not I'm going to where a beanie and a hoodie instead of a beanie and an overcoat when I go out. Depending on what I wear, and where, some people will create ideas about me, and that's a fact that I have to live with. Writing a black male in literary fiction, it might be relevant to include such anxieties, depending on the story. But it cannot be written off. There is also a matter of not offending readers of specific backgrounds with inaccurate portrayal of characters. So if you have no valid input on a matter I found important enough to ask, I'll ask you to respect my thread, please.

    @GingerCoffee thank you so much for the link and the comment. You are absolutely right about being careful not to perpetuate stereotypes and how the media really twists things. All the more reason to be aware of the portrayals we put out.

    @KaTrian I couldn't agree more with this:
    And based on how sensitive and considerate you are to and of the differences and the value therein--while recognizing our intrinsic unity-- I suspect you and T. are handling it well. The key, I think is to treat every character and every group represented with care and integrity.
     
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  16. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    One of the reasons I ask is because I can write some default character with ease. He/she could be unique unto himself and far from a john/jane doe, and everyone could imagine him just as any other protagonist only with a different skin color. That would be fine, but in a real world setting or literary fiction, that character may be a cultural or ethnic john/jane doe. How would he/she relate to the world they live in. I guess it all comes down to being able to manage characters, but I can't write an ethnic character for crap. "Why bother mentioning ethnicity anyway?" Because sometimes it's part of the character. I guess my OP is akin to asking can an American write a believable and acceptable French person. Dividing it by nationality doesn't seem so scary, does it? But there is still a culture attached that could be offended.

    But now I'm just thinking out-loud.
     
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  17. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    These are all good points. You brought up details that could be missed if one doesn’t make enough research (and what’s enough, then…). It’s a bit like… as a woman you might think twice what to wear if you have to go to the grocery store at midnight to get toilet paper. Sure, some still insist on high heels and a skirt, but I try to look dude-like with baggy pants, a track-suit jacket, and sneakers – I just don’t want unwanted attention or, well, create ideas. I think the stereotyping is a valid concern in whatever we write, but at least when we write characters that come from the culture of the writer, s/he can get away with some stereotypes more easily, I think, while if you put yourself into very different shoes, possible stereotypes might stand out more, and even offend (I’ll get back to this in a mo).

    Thanks, I hope so. Although, it’s slightly ironic you should say that ‘cause I also have another anecdote related to breaking stereotypes…
    …T and I pissed off a Swede with the same manuscript. She was of the opinion all Swedish people speak perfect English. It's just that we’re trying to write a person, not a stereotype, and our MC just isn’t linguistically or verbally talented or skilled -- it's relevant in othe ways too, not just her language skills. Besides, the character’s mistakes are based on real mistakes Swedish EFL speakers make…

    @Oswiecenie
    I guess there are two cans at work here. Can we, as in, are we allowed, and can we, as in, are we able to. And sometimes the first question affects whether or not we even proceed to learn how to write a character that has different cultural and ethnic heritage.
    I don't think my writing a curly-haired person can be compared my trying to write a woman with, e.g. this blogger's experience.
     
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  18. Arannir
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    Arannir Active Member

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    Honestly, I've always written characters, different from myself. Older men with and without kids. Characters of different ethnicities and the opposite gender.

    What I'm trying to say is, try something different. I've never been starving or freezing to death but I always simulate something along those themes in my work. I don't know what it's like to be running for my life but survival reguarly lives in the text I create.

    To be honest, I write in first person and the only time my main character has been white, fifteen and male was the only time I lost intrest in writing.

    A writer doesn't have to be able to write from different perpestives just write well. If they can, great. In my opinion, I think most authors do anyway.
     
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  19. jannert
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    Actually @Andrae Smith, this is an excellent question. It's one I've struggled with myself.

    If you're writing futuristic sci-fi, I suppose it's relatively easy, in that any inherent racial prejudices and or cultural issues which might come with the character's ethnicity can be 'solved' by the time the story takes place.

    However, if you're writing historical fiction and/or modern-day fiction, I think there is a lot that needs consideration. I don't feel like I can readily step into another ethnic person's situation, and give an accurate portrayal of what they might deal with as part of a minority group, or what their own cultures are like, deep down. I would tend to write them as an outsider would see them.

    I have shied away from creating a major First Nations character in my story which is laid in the late 19th century American west, because I really worry about getting it wrong and causing offense. One thing came to my attention recently, that writers like Sherman Alexie and Richard Wagamese (as well as my friend Jim, who is part Blackfoot) think of themselves as 'Indian' (or more correctly as members of a particular tribal unit) rather than as Native Americans, which seems to be the default PC term these days. I do intend to tackle this issue in an upcoming novel, set in my favourite period, but it will be tricky to get it right. I would never even try to make them a POV character, because I really don't feel entitled to do that.

    One of my POV characters in the novel that is currently my WIP is of Hungarian-Roma background, although I've removed him from his culture for the purposes of my story, and allowed him to acclimatise within a more familiar one. But even so, I've got shelves of books dedicated to researching these ethnic backgrounds, and I'm STILL worried I got some of it wrong.

    Don't know why this is such a minefield issue for me, but it is. I hate stereotypes, and particularly hate WRONG stereotypes. I'd hate to create one out of sheer ignorance.
     
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  20. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, at the end of the day, you will have most to offer from your own perspective. If you were a sailor, it would make sense to write about sailors. If you're an extremely educated person, it would make sense to write very educated people. And so on.

    Of course, you could say to me, well, you can write about a French sailor or a Russian sailor. Now, either that added detail is superficial, and didn't need to be said in the first place, or, if it's important, would have benefited more had I used my natural nationality.

    Obviously, it's not so black and white as that. Maybe an author grew up with Eastern European foster parents, so he can write them well.

    But, if an author is writing a POV with an ethnicity outside of his personal experience, in my opinion, he better have a very good reason to be doing it, so good that he/she is willing to put in strenuous research and has valuable insight to offer from his/her own unique perspective, something only an outsider can have.
     
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  21. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm just wondering how many writers pick some nationality or color for their characters "just because." Usually there's a good reason for it, like they, indeed, have something to say through it or they just really like the culture even if they aren't members of it which makes all the "strenuous" research a joy.
     
  22. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure fondness is a good enough reason. That's something best expressed through the eyes of an outsider.

    For instance, if a white American wanted to show how discrimination is detrimental to Islamic Americans, being white themselves, with enough research, they might have an easier time demonstrating this point to other whites.

    However, if a white American simply thought Muslims were awesome, even with research, that MC might come off as unrealistic and or patronizing.
     
  23. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's a bit of an extreme example and I know I wouldn't have the writing chops to do just that. But I think I could discuss racism through the victims in a made-up setting instead of modern one. I also think a non-bullied person could write a bullied person. A lot comes down to what the novel is about as well. If it's about Swedishness, I couldn't write it 'cause I'm not Swedish.
     
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    Fair points, all.
     
  25. mammamaia
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    as i've traveled the world over since the mid-50s and have lived among people of many cultures and races, i can write about them convincingly... but even with my semi-eidetic memory of their ways/speech/etc., i would still have to do some research to write believably 'as' a person of a different culture/race...

    most of those who haven't been up close and personal with people unlike them probably won't be able to manage it very well, even with research... that said, there are probably some notable exceptions...
     
    Andrae Smith likes this.

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