1. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Writing from a different race/ethnic POV

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by carsun1000, May 27, 2015.

    Hello,

    Halfway through my current work, I see the need to add a character from a different ethnic background and was wondering if one can successfully craft a character that is not from one's ethnic background. I read all of Sycamore Row of John Grisham and noticed he does a very good job creating believable African-American characters although his characters were based in post-civil rights era. Trying to do the same but struggling a little bit in that department, especially trying to write a modern day middle class AA character who is a witness to a crime and must now run and hide in the projects to protect himself.

    Any recommendations on how to deal with this issue?
    NB: This work is not necessarily based on race or race issues. I just want to make sure that he sounds and act within his ethnic group. Thanks.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think you have to decide it on a character-by-character basis. I work with black attorneys who sound and act differently from 20 year old black guys that my son hangs out with. A couple of weeks ago, I met with two black judges who sound different from the black guy I was talking to at a heavy metal concert last month. If you're looking at ethnicity first and trying to make your character fit some idea of what sounds and acts within that ethnic group, you're on the road to potential stereotypes.
     
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  3. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Thanks. That is my fear my biggest fear. I don't want to present a character that AAs would say "Oh, you think this is how we all act?" or to the general readers saying "yup, that's how they act!"

    But I got to say though, that staying away from stereotypes is pretty difficult.
     
    Last edited: May 27, 2015
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    It is. I just boil it down to my characters. Some people do act in more stereotypical ways for their race, gender, sexuality, or what have you. But that's just the surface, and never all there is to them, so one solution is to make the characters three-dimensional. Make sure you're not stuck with a flat character.

    Apart from that, I think the character can behave however you want. I know a black guy who hangs out at my favorite coffee house who is lower middle class socioeconomically and grew up in a pretty bad part of southern California. Stereotypically, you might expect him to talk and act like a gang-banger you see on TV. But he doesn't - he speaks like a well educated man would be expected to speak. But some people who live in his same neighborhood certainly do exhibit some of the stereotypical characteristics. But if I got to know them better, I'd find out there was a lot more to them that what I see when I'm just visiting the area.

    I think you can make any approach work if you give your character depth and respect the individuality and humanity of the character you're dealing with.
     
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  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If you only write about your own race/ethnicity, you're going to miss out on an awful lot. The key to not focus on what is stereotypical, but rather what is plausible for your character, given his/her background. And if you are going to be writing extensively about a particular ethnicity, try immersing yourself in aspects of it. When I was writing about Cuba, I started listening to lots of Juan Formell and Los Van Van, read some classic Cuban novels and poetry and cooked lots of Cuban dishes.
     
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  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you find it difficult to stay away from stereotypes for other groups? Are all your female characters frilly and girlish, or else sexy and evil? Are all your male characters macho and insensitive?

    I think part of the solution may be to try to have more than one character from the group you're writing about. If you have a Magical Negro character, and that's the only black character you have, I think it's going to feel like a stereotype (I'm looking at you, The Stand, and all your friends, too!) But if you have a bunch of black characters, with lots of diverse personalities, and one is a Magical Negro, I think you're probably fine.
     
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  7. Enyo
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    Enyo Member

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    I know it's a picky thing, but is it possible you could say "African-American" or "black"? "AA" is for people with substance abuse problems.

    Anywhoo, I agree with the people who said that it's more about assessing your character overall and applying things that would be appropriate. Middle class is pretty easy to do regardless of race. BayView did point out that you'll need more than one back character to even things out, but if the character is in the hood, having more than one black character is going to be a given. My only concern is that you plan on putting a middle class person in the hood, where it gets a little bit more hairy (unless you have experience in/around the projects, then I rescind my concern). You will need to write a few black characters that act/speak/think differently than the main does. When you're getting into the low income experience, it opens the potential for ghetto stereotypes - especially when you try and write the characters who use a lot of slang. While I despise the genre, "urban fiction" stories are actually pretty helpful, though it can be overkill. Still it wouldn't hurt to read some for free online and pull some elements of it.

    I myself am a middle class black woman, and have a few family members that are low-income, though they don't live in the projects. They live in "the hood", if you will. I'd be happy to give you some insight if you need it! Cheers.
     
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  8. DeathandGrim
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    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

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    I'm Actually interested in this myself as I have an MC who's Italian and I'm not Italian. And it's true different ethnicities have some tendencies but I more focus on the character themselves than the race.
     
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  9. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This reminded me of something I read from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (she's a Nigerian writer and her works include e.g. Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah). She said that "if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

    I guess what I got out of that is that I shouldn't think what a character should be based on his/her ethnicity, but rather just open-mindedly delve into different experiences people who could have been a part of the characters life, or even the character, have had, and from there allow their fictional version or amalgamation, the character, to emerge.
     
  10. Woof
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    Woof Contributing Member

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    She is pretty awesome. Jackie Kay writes an awful lot about diversity in cultural identity as well; Red Dust Road is fabulous.

    OP: If you can, and if what you're writing is contemporary, I think by far the simplest thing to do is go and sit in a coffee shop or bar in the area you want to write about... or somewhere similar nearby. You'll have your pick of realistic characters to draw from if you sit there long enough! Or just go for a walk, or sit in a park; do anything that you might normally do to get identifying character detail.
     
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  11. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    As others said, don't rely on stereotypes. True some people might act out the stereotype of their nationality/ethnicity/gender/sexuality, but not all do. That's not the point.

    Just focus on their life experience, where they grew up and the sort of people they hung out with/were forced to be with on a daily basis. All that shaped the person to how he/she is at the point your story begins. Focus on that and you should be fine.

    Good luck! :)
     
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  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's entirely possible, but it does require research, and as others have said you have to flesh them out as fully (or more fully) than your other characters and be really careful with employing stereotypes.

    It also helps to have READERS who are from whatever ethnicity you're writing (or at least not from your own ethnicity) to call you out on your biases and stereotypes - because you won't catch them all yourself. I know on my WIP it's been really really helpful to have an African-American reader to rip up my scenes involving certain neighborhoods in my city, and somehow I randomly ended up in a writing group with a Greek-American reader who can call out all the mistakes I make with my Greek-American protagonist. Once I finish the first draft, I know that the first thing I'm going to need to do is find an Indian-American reader to smooth out a major character I'm writing from that ethnicity (which I'm really going to need because that character has become very sarcastic and occasionally self-stereotypes to make fun of the racist perceptions of people around her). Feedback is critical.

    But on the whole I think it's not only possible but necessary to have good characters from outside one's own background.
     
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  13. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Enyo, I did not mean to offend anyone with this post. I just figured after I used African-American in the first sentence, that most people would understand my use of AA. Again, nothing is being implied here. But I will take everything you said to heart and make it work as I continue researching my WIP. Thanks.
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know that African American is always the best term. I read an article that said most black people either prefer black or have no preference than prefer African American. Anecdotally, most black people I know in my personal life or work with prefer "black" (we've had the conversation), so that's why I use the term.

    Also, not all black people are of African descent, and not all of them are American. I've chuckled a few times hearing someone refer to a black man born and raised in the UK as an African "American."
     
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  15. Enyo
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    Enyo Member

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    I wasn't offended. I just get a little frustrated that people don't type out of my ethnicity. Something about it being typed as "AA" disturbs me.

    Yes, I know. :) I prefer "black" because it covers everyone in the diaspora. That's the term I use for myself and all my friends and family do too when talking about themselves. But I assumed that carsun1000 was writing about black Americans, so I figured either term was appropriate.
     

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