Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Can White Authors Write Characters of Color?

Status:

My New Year’s resolution was to keep my email inbox under 50 emails (currently in process) at any given time. Well, I’ve been hovering around 58 emails.

Listening To:

WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT by Los Lonely Boys

This question is sparking conversation in the adult-fiction world, but it seems to be front and center in the children’s realm. Attend any SCBWI regional or national meeting and this topic is sure to come up: Can a white author write a character of color?

The answer is yes. We live in a diverse world. In fact, in most contemporary settings, an all-white cast of characters would be odd, as it hardly reflects reality. So yes, a white author can write diverse cast.

However….

Before I discuss this further, I want to acknowledge two awesome movements that all writers need to be aware of:

  1. #ownvoices on Twitter
  2. WeNeedDiversebooks.org and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter

Writers, if you haven’t spent any time listening in or participating in these Twitter conversations, I strongly recommend that you do. Even if you’re an experienced writer. Treat it like any other research you do to create and fully realized characters.

So let’s tackle my “however.” This endeavor is not to be taken lightly. Make your characters realistic and grounded, and avoid falling back on stereotypes. Instead of merely describing your characters’ skin color, build a realistic and complex backstory for each character: What past experiences related to their heritage have shaped their identities and worldviews, and how will those things affect the ways in which they think, behave, and interact with others during the course of your story? Research extensively. Engage sensitivity readers of the same background(s) as your character(s). Expect and listen to criticism.

And read, read, read. Here are a few articles to get you started. I’m no expert, and I’m still learning along with everyone else. But the authors on my client list are from a variety of backgrounds, and we all support diversity in literature.

Know that some readers, respectfully, will not read your book if you are a white author writing a novel which features a character of color. And you need to be 100% okay with that. It is a reader’s prerogative.

Finally, begin to engage in similar conversations related to writing characters of different genders (it ain’t just male and female, folks!), sexualities, and physical abilities. The depth and range of characters that you create for your novels is limited only by your willingness to step out of yourself and into the lives of those who are not like you!

Photo Credit: Sean McMenemy


7 Responses

  1. Marc Vun Kannon said:

    I can barely be bothered to describe my MC, since I write from the inside and most people don’t go around consciously thinking about what they look like. If it weren’t for pronouns or some romantic concerns I wouldn’t go on about male or female. I don’t waste time or effort going to all the trouble of pointing out someone’s skin color if it doesn’t matter to the story. I just write characters. The reader can dress them up however they want.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon said:

    I can barely be bothered to describe my MC, since I write from the inside and most people don’t go around consciously thinking about what they look like. If it weren’t for pronouns or some romantic concerns I wouldn’t go on about male or female. I don’t waste time or effort going to all the trouble of pointing out someone’s skin color if it doesn’t matter to the story. I just write characters. The reader can dress them up however they want.

  3. Liz Tully said:

    Thanks for the links. I’m writing an amateur detective novel and I want “the sidekick” to be a woman of color. (Think Stephanie Plum and her buddy Lula.) Actually I want a few of the minor characters to be POC, because that reflects where the novel is set. I’m in very early stages of revisions, but I did let two critique partners take a look and both had questions about this sidekick character.

    On my first pass, I put in minimal physical description. Like the commenter above, I thought the reader would fill in the rest in their imagination. Apparently, not being clear about ethnicity or color leaves some readers confused and wanting clarification.

    After going to the “Writing with Color” blog for some help with descriptions of skin tone, I arrived at a portrayal of the person I saw in my imagination. I found getting that ‘face’ on the page very satisfying.

    I look forward to investigating your links.

    1. SS said:

      Hi Liz,

      It sounds like you’re doing good work. Please be mindful of the ‘sassy Black friend’ stereotype that abounds on television and the Hallmark channel.

  4. Robert Brenchley said:

    I’d add one more thing, get to know people of colour well. Know what makes them tick, and where they’re likely to be a bit different to white people. Just to take one example out of many, black people, at least in the UK, tend to be more accepting than white. That was the first thing I noticed when I moved to Birmingham in the 1980’s. So I can visit a black fundamentalist church, and feel welcome. I’m very wary of going to white ones because I’ve repeatedly been checked out to see whether my beliefs and my church fitted their doctrinal boxes. If they don’t, we’re in the wrong, perhaps ‘not worshipping God properly’ – I’ve been told that twice, once because we don’t make the women wear hats and once because we baptise infants – or in an extreme case, I’m ‘going to hell’. I’ve been told that multiple times. You only find these things out from observation. Then again, there are differences, and can sometimes tensions, between Africans and Caribbeans, and between people from different parts of Africa. And so on.

  5. Sheri Rose said:

    When I taught middle school English, I always started a literature studies unit in a different way. For some sets of short stories, I’d give my students the collection and assign a couple of stories to read before discussing anything to let them make their own assessments and form their own opinions. One short story collection I did this with was 145th Stories by Walter Dean Myers. The majority of my students were Mexican-American, and they were surprised when they found out the stories were written by an African-American author and about life in Harlem. They thought, while reading, that the stories were about Mexican culture in America, and assumed Harlem was a fictional place in the Los Angeles area with large numbers of Mexican-American citizens.

  6. Katrina Ariel said:

    Yes! Yes to the need for diversity, and yes to the need for it to be as real and respectful as possible. I’d like to also add that white writers (especially those whose target audience is primarily white) have an opportunity to bring diversity into their books in ways that help other white people embrace the similarities we all share as human beings. Characters of other races and gender preferences can be tricky to do well, but it’s another way to grow as an author, and I think the world needs us to fight for equality and human decency on all fronts right now.

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