1. prettyvisitors

    prettyvisitors New Member

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    choosing character ethnicities

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by prettyvisitors, Sep 15, 2018.

    I like my stories to be diverse in terms of race and sexuality, but I find choosing the ethnicities rather challenging.

    I quite liked the idea of making a main character ethnically ambiguous so the reader could potentially see themselves in the character more. However, if the character comes from privilege and prestige I don't know if it makes more sense to give the character fair skin and hair as those are associated with beauty standards in various cultures, which goes hand in hand with privilege.

    I also considered the idea of making the less privileged characters, often scrappy, good-natured characters from more challenging upbringings non-white, but I don't want to reinforce stereotypes. I'd like to do the opposite: provide positive role models.

    So here's the question: how did you choose your character ethnicities? Were they random, or did you adhere to real-world ideas about nationality, ethnicity and culture?
     
  2. Azuresun

    Azuresun Active Member

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    First, I really wouldn't advise thinking of it in terms of "role models", because that seems like a good way to make the character blandly inoffensive and forgettable. What's more important to me is that they feel like a convincing individual--even if their role superficially plays into a stereotype about their ethnicity, make the character more than that stereotype and make it believable that this individual person has a good reason to be this way and people probably won't care.

    It's likely that a character's ethnicity will influence their background and what happens to them in the story to at least a small degree, but it won't be the only factor in making them who they are, and maybe not even an important one (this will obviously be influenced by where and when your story is set).
     
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  3. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Welcome to the site!

    My favorite resource for these kinds of questions is Writing With Color. I've lost track of how many hours I've spent studying their perspectives on different racial and ethnic issues in fiction, and I think that some good first articles you might like to start with are "Determining your Characters’ Race and/or Ethnicity," "Character Creation: Culture or Character first?" and "Character Design and Assigning Race and Ethnicity"

    Bleeding-heart SJW liberal here :twisted:


    When I came up with the lead Villain Protagonists of my Urban Fantasy novel, my cast was
    • Charlie Petersen (lead protagonist): Black woman, leader of the group, most intellectual
    • Alec Shorman (first-person narrator): white man, loyal follower whose catchphrase would be "She's/Charlie's The Boss"
    • Amy Carmine: white woman, less sycophantic about obeying Charlie for the sake of obeying
    • Jason Carmine: white man, not a sociopath, but goes along with his older sister's and her two best friends' life of crime because they've promised him that they care more about avoiding collateral damage than they actually do
    Because I wanted a Black woman to be the leader of the group for a change, but I worried that if we saw her giving orders and Alec following them from her POV, rather than his, then it could be interpreted as him unwillingly obeying her because she's "bossy" rather than him willingly obeying her because she's "the boss."

    (I also thought at first she was straight and he was gay, but I've since realized I had this backward :p)

    Which leads to the thing I'm trying to work on the most in my revisions of the draft I've finished:

    I'm really sensitive to the "Black people are violent criminals" stereotype in my society, and I'd thought I'd done a good job of not sending this message with my story where the lead Villain Protagonist and two of the secondary Villain Antagonists are Black.

    But then I was shown that I hadn't actually hit one of the three criteria that I was using: "Black characters in the same story who aren't violent criminals." Of my 8 major characters (4 protagonists + 4 antagonists), the only one who isn't a violent sociopath is a white guy (Amy's brother Jason), and the many Black minor characters who are either innocent and/or heroes don't make up for the lack of a major one.

    My first advice that I'd been given on this matter had been to make all of my villains white, and at first, that looked like my best option (the core external conflict of my story is between the three camps of villains, and I couldn't find room to add a Good Guys™ camp that could get enough screentime and development to count as The Hero Antagonists).

    However, since spending months devouring Writing With Color's articles, I've come to terms with that not being as good an idea as it sounded.

    My thinking now is that Jason – the core moral compass of the story – could be adopted: that way, just because his sister's white doesn't mean that he has to be.

    But my concern is still that a Black man who goes along with crimes because he's been promised that innocent people won't get hurt, who spends every scene he's in calling out his sister's friends on breaking that promise, and who realizes half-way through the book that their excuses aren't good enough and that he has to leave the group to go legit – becoming the only major character to muster up the moral courage to resist evil's siren song of an easy life – still feeds into the "Black people are criminals" part of the stereotype (despite his not being a sociopathic villain).

    ... If, by some miracle, you slogged through my Wall of Text, then I sincerely hope that the message you took from it is not "writing diverse stories is too hard to be worth it."

    My own story has a lot more of a minefield than almost any story that almost anybody else could come up with, so you are almost certainly not going to find yourself in the middle of something like that ;)

    And even if – by some anti-miracle – you do find yourself in that delicate a minefield with your own story, then it will still have been worth it for having forced yourself to learn things that you might otherwise have never had the chance to experience on your own.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2018
  4. prettyvisitors

    prettyvisitors New Member

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    "role models" was probably crude phrasing on my behalf. I mean, instead of having "the magic black person" or "muslim terrorist" clichés, you would swap them for something more empowering: leaders, love interests, etc. Thanks for your help though!
     
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  5. prettyvisitors

    prettyvisitors New Member

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    I have never heard of this site, so this is fantastic! This response must have taken you ages, so I really appreciate it :)

    I'm personally struggling with the idea of making a character of colour grow up in an impoverished or broken home, and having faced racist bullying growing up. On one hand, it's true that their race is subject to bullying, job discrimination, etc (their parents' divorce is irrelevant to race, I would say). On the other hand, in a world where minorities are accused of being lazy or criminals by bigots, I don't want to create something that plays into stereotypes.
     
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  6. Azuresun

    Azuresun Active Member

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    I think there's nothing inherently wrong with, say, a black person having mystical powers or being a mentor figure unless it's done badly--if the character falls into a well-trodden rut where they do what many other characters of that archetype have gone and there's no effort put into making them anything more than the archetype. Take The Wire--if you just look at the demographics, you could easily accuse that show of perpetuating negative stereotypes against black people, but it becomes more than that through good execution and giving the characters depth and reasons why they're a certain way.

    Personally, I also worry that by being too emphatic that my character is Ethnicity X and this affects everything they are and do, I end up making their ethnicity the most important thing about them, making what they are more important than who they are.
     
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  7. Azuresun

    Azuresun Active Member

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    I should probably answer the actual question. :)

    I try to make a conscious effort to have some diversity in the cast (I'm white), and think about "given the setting and time of this novel, what would the ethnic makeup of the people in this place be?", and have the main characters be a semi-accurate mirror of that. That might be overridden if I especially want a character to be a certain way--either because they simply popped into my head with a certain appearance / background, or because I think it would enhance their story arc. I'll also try and bear in mind that depending on the setting, characters who aren't white or otherwise the majority in the setting might have had to deal with a lot of crap that's largely invisible to me, and do some research on that sort of stuff. But I try not to think of it in terms of a series of checkboxes and things I must Never Ever Do.
     
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  8. MusingWordsmith

    MusingWordsmith Lively Fred

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    So I write fantasy, and I have a good handful of fantasy races in my novels. Usually when I come up with a character, I end up getting a 'feel' for what (fantasy) race they are, and then what ethnicity they'd be. I am aware of ethnic stereotypes, but really when I write, I mostly ignore them. I may pull from the real world as far as prejudices and the like, but really, I try to make them people first. 'Angry black criminal' could be a flat stereotype, or a truly engaging character. It all depends on execution.

    If you're that worried, perhaps getting some beta readers of the ethnicities your worried about improperly portraying would be good?
     
  9. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Member

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    ...
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2018 at 3:34 PM
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  10. Ashley Watters

    Ashley Watters New Member

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    I did not see anything about your setting. I would say time and place is an important factor. If you set your story like I have where I grew up in a time I grew up, there would not be many minorities. They mostly lived in the big cities. Separation of races even in the 80s was normal in many places.

    If your setting is in a world of your own making, you can define how race factors in the story. Make sure your readers know your parameters for relationships especially if the setting is an alternate earth. In my story, I have mostly white people because that is who I know best. I do include minorities and non-hetero people. They are just people like my MCs and I treat them that way. Maybe someday I will be able to write characters who are not just like me but I have a lot to learn first.
     
  11. Irina Samarskaya

    Irina Samarskaya Member

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    In anything I wrote that took place in the real world: 99% where they physically are (a Russian is a Russian, a German is a German, etc.) and 1% what I want them to be for whatever reason.

    In anything in a fictional world, I never really described much of the physicality but I suppose "Europoid" or "Asiatic" would be vague ways of describing most if not all of them.

    I don't really think much of race for its own sake and just do whatever I feel like. I tend to think of race when the story actually requires it. Like if I wrote of Germans fighting Frenchmen... well, obviously the German side would be 99% Germans and the French side 99% French. Beyond that is context-sensitive. If I were to write about Germans in WWI I doubt they'd have much nice to say about France unless they hated their own country and were mentally preparing themselves to defect (or something).

    If ethnic conflict isn't a theme though, I just do what I want and make sure it makes sense.

    EDIT:

    As far as your premise is concerned, I don't know why race matters. Complexion? Sure. But there are dark-skinned White people and light-skinned Black people. Why? I don't know. First thing that comes to mind is exposure to the Sun, which darkens whatever color a person happens to have and since Farmers and other outdoor workers are generally exposed to the Sun it makes sense for them to be visibly darker than people who work indoors. Would nobles therefore have lighter skin than peasants? Maybe, maybe not.

    If the nobleman is a knight, then maybe he often fights outside and hunts in the wilderness, thus tanning him naturally. If a citizen is a writer (like YOU perhaps? :p ) then perhaps he is paler than average because he doesn't get out much. Perhaps the female characters, regardless of profession or background, are paler than the males because they deliberately block the Sun with parasols or something--like the Japanese used to (and many still) do.

    Within a race, there's a lot of plausible explanations for lighter and darker skinned members. And since nothing about the premise is racially oriented, I'd just go for whatever I felt was right based on that character's lifestyle (like and outdoorsy type ought to be tanned/dark-skinned unless they deliberately try to block the Sun with wide-brimmed hats or parasols, while someone who prefers to stay indoors ought to be paler than the local norm unless they deliberately tan themselves or something).
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2018 at 7:59 AM
  12. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Member

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    Sounds good.

    Artificial ethnic and racial separation & segregation is the root and base of racism - also when it is done in the name of "anti"racism or "tolerance".

    So there is no need to do it when writing, reading, talking...
     
  13. Irina Samarskaya

    Irina Samarskaya Member

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    Isn't history the root of racism? Old grudges still clung? New ones made? Racism is to countries what a bad relationship is to people.
     
  14. DK3654

    DK3654 Active Member

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    Most of the time, I just pick whatever ethnicity comes to mind and feels right for the character- whatever that means. I think that works well as a general approach. Real life is an odd distribution. You will likely have a little touch of stereotyping from doing this- but this is actually realistic- ethnicity is related to culture.
    But admittedly, one of my WIP MCs- Jade- who is one of my more stand-out minority characters, I choose intentionally to be asian for diversity's sake during very early character concepting. What I didn't do is use that as a guide for designing the character.
     
  15. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Would you be curious to learn that that’s not the case?

    https://bowdoinorient.com/2017/04/13/debunking-the-myth-of-color-blindness-in-a-racist-society/

    In a color blind society, white people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to race, can effectively ignore racism in American life, justify the current social order and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society. Many people of color, however, who are regularly hindered by race, experience color blind ideologies quite differently. Color blindness constructs a society that denies negative racial experiences, undermines cultural heritage and invalidates unique perspectives.​
     
  16. Irina Samarskaya

    Irina Samarskaya Member

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    I'm sure given enough mental gymnastics "White people are always racist no matter what--now give me your money, Whitey!"can be said in such eloquent and sophistic ways large numbers of people, especially Whites, can even be conned into giving that money whether they know it or not. For those having trouble, place the work "Jew" in place of "White" and it should be obvious. If it still isn't obvious... then I guess it's rather easy to program racism into the human brain and simultaneously believe it's anything other than racism.
     
  17. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    ... Then it's a good thing that's not what's happening.

     
  18. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I'm not sure making a character's race ambiguous is going to help readers relate to them more. Most people know what race they are. They are not ambiguous toward knowing their race and how being a part of that race affects them. Race alone is not going to make me relate or not relate to a character. And your stereotypes even in reverse are not going to do much for diversity. Allow your characters to have more complexity than the color of their skin and any prejudges related to it. We're writers, and I would like to think our character development goes deeper than that.

    A good deal or writing or maybe even most writing doesn't clearly spell out the race of characters. There's a difference between that and aiming to be ambiguous. If you want diversity in your story, put it in there. Don't beat around the bush. But if it's in there, it should have a purpose or an effect on the story. I wrote a story with no white characters. I don't think that means white readers won't relate or be interested in the story. And I don't think race is what makes readers relate or not relate to characters.

    I don't know what world you live in, but this view on minorities is insulting. And if you're trying to add diversity into your story to counter these views that are quite cliche, you're probably not truly aware of current or major issues surrounding minorities. I don't think you have to worry about playing into stereotypes if you just decide not to play into stereotypes.
     
  19. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    Racists.jpg :p

    Well I just have humans, the Aliens see that they are different only in terms
    of color, as they tend to be more monotone in skin color with varying shades,
    and that they probably haven't seen just how diverse humans are. Other than
    that they are just individuals of the same species and are either working together
    or fighting them. (The Martian Colonials are Human same as Terrans) :p

    As for the Alien Species that exist in the story, well that is another can of worms
    that would take far to long to want to cover, again...

    So yes they are kinda random, cause I didn't plot out any of it, of course being
    human or ET they don't really worry about who is superior, only that
    neither is particularly up for having their insides become their outsides in the
    middle of a battle.

    As far as sexual preferences go, it doesn't play too much into the overall story,
    but there is a few minor moments of mentioning something in passing where
    it works. It doesn't change the fact that the majority of my large mixed cast
    is filled with a bunch of good men and women (Aliens get lumped into that
    as well, cause making up special words for them would be too much of a pain
    in the ass). Just as it is on the other side for the antagonists.
     
  20. Philliggi

    Philliggi Member

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    It depends what the story is about. If it's based around cowboys and Indians obviously race would come into it. If it's about the jews in ww2 obviously race would come into it. If it's about slavery, obviously race would come into it.

    Yet if it's about a generic story that could happen anywhere, amongst any group of people, I would say keeping the decision open to the reader is a good idea. The easier you make it for the reader to paint their own picture the less forced your story will feel
     
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  21. AbyssalJoey

    AbyssalJoey New Member

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    Ok, first and foremost, ethnicity =/= skin color, I'm assuming you live in the U.S in which case I can understand why you would tie ethnicity with skin color, but this is incorrect.

    Ethnicity refers to culture, nationality, native language and stuff like that, therefore "white" is not an ethnicity, there are several countries where having white skin is the norm (the U.S, Canada, England, Germany are a few examples) and, contrary to what I think is common belief in the U.S you can indeed have a skin color that usually would not be tied with a certain ethnicity (white and black mexicans is the 1st one that comes to mind).

    So, to answer your question, if I want a character from X or Y ethnicity, I focus my research in culture, religion, language (specially curse words) and geography and after that, I decide if that ethnicity is the right call for what I'm trying to do with my story.

    P.S: I'm writing this from a hypothetical point of view since I tend to write high fantasy and future fantasy.
     
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