Tips on Writing Characters of Color

Buckle up for this long post.

I started this post as my usual writing tips on Instagram, but I cannot fit it concisely into 10 slides without leaving out a healthy chunk. Here is your ultimate guide!

Due to lengthiness, I’ve broken it up into different parts.

  • Part One: Writing Characters of Color
  • Part Two: General ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s of Writing Characters of Color
  • Part Three: Characters of Color in Realistic Historical Fiction
  • Part Four: Characters of Color in Epic/High Fantasy
  • Part Five: General Representation
  • Part Six: Questions to Ask Yourself

Part One: Writing Characters of Color

No matter your racial or ethnic group, there is always a possibility of misrepresenting another group. This post applies to everyone who wants to write a character of someone outside of their identity.

I’m a firm believer in telling someone it’s none of their business when asked about my racial or ethnic identity, but the messenger in topics like these is important. I am of Hispanic, African, European, and Indigenous descent. My life experience/culture is a black Hispanic American with light skin. I’ve experienced racism, but I have not experienced colorism.

While I’m categorized by my friends as bossy, I don’t like telling other writers what to do and write. If you want to blow past everything I’m writing here, then go right ahead. If you feel you want to implement some tips and ignore the rest, that’s your choice. I’m merely providing another perspective that might help you shed light on potential problems you may run into.

I find it hard that, today, authors “unknowingly” write an all-white cast. The push for representation has never been so high. I’ll say it plainly as I’ve done before: if you think including characters of color in your story is “too hard” or “too much effort,” don’t be a writer. Writing is already hard. If you think adding POC is going to be the hardest thing you do, you’re not cut out for it. Also, you probably have some racism you need to sort through. In addition, adding diversity will not grant you any brownie points. It is normal; you’re not doing anyone favors.

“If you think including characters of color in your story is ‘too hard’ or ‘too much effort,’ don’t be a writer.”

There are a lot of elements to this topic of discussion. I will touch base on all of the ones I can think of and I welcome any questions or suggestions in the comments!

Is your main character white? Cool. Are a few side characters people of color? Also cool. Are you nervous about accurately portraying them? You came to the right place.

I’ll start by saying that you cannot please everybody. But, if an overwhelming amount of readers has the same opinion about your portrayal, maybe take a step back and reevaluate.

It is possible to write a marginalized side character without making their oppression their main narrative or their only purpose in the story.

Part Two: General ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s of Writing Characters of Color

DO: Get more than one sensitivity reader–people who are not your friends. Your friends are biased. Sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language. Sensitivity readers will not only improve the quality of your work but will ensure that you have more enjoyable and accurate representation.

DO: Research the history of the racial group. History matters, even if you’re writing a contemporary story. History explains why some racial groups act a certain way or perform a certain cultural practice. You might not find a need to be completely educated in the entire history, but I would suggest that the more important your character is to the main narrative, the more research you have to do. It’s part of the process!

  • Note: This also includes researching their cultural practices such as clothing, hairstyles, habits, traditions, and more. Remember that cultural members are not a monolith. Not everyone follows the same “rulebook.”

DO: Understand the societal treatment during that time. The levels of this will vary depending on the amount of realism your story includes, but I will note that, no matter how fantastical your story is, it is still rooted in the world we know and live in today. I will comment on this further in the post.

DON’T: Make your only character of color the villain or the maid. There’s nothing wrong with this if there is an influx of POC, but if this is the role of your only character of color, that’s a problem.

DON’T: Turn your white characters into the savior for the character(s) of color. The white savior complex is… counterintuitive. It can be defined as a white person helping a non-white person in a self-serving manner, which means that the white person’s only intention is to make themselves feel better. There is an old proverb that sums it up: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.” The white savior complex is patronizing and belittling. It portrays people of color as if they are incapable of helping themselves. Remember that your characters of color are their own people. They are capable and will likely not need too much of your white character’s help.

DON’T: Contribute to colorism. If your characters are light-skinned, please don’t make them hate dark-skinned people or think they’re better because of their skin. Please. Just don’t.

Part Three: Characters of Color in Realistic Historical Fiction

First and foremost, I want to remind everyone that there will always be loopholes. Always. Every time. Only black people were slaves after the trade began? False. Over a million white Europeans were slaves in North Africa from 1530 to 1780. No Afro-European aristocrats? Dido Belle Lindsey. No successful Afro-European authors? Alexandre Dumas. For every doubt you have about the presence of POC in a setting that doesn’t revolve around oppression, there are multiple events and people to disprove your misconceived notion.

Now, there are different levels of realism and accuracy that you want your story to have. I’d like to point out that 100% historical accuracy is impossible. The impossibility percentage gets higher the farther back in history you go. The documentation of an era is not completely reliable. How many life stories and accomplishments do you think oppressive governments had burned and buried?

I should like to bring up the “colorblind” casting of Anne Boleyn in the new miniseries. Anne Boleyn wasn’t black, but she was cast as so. The racist outrage is insane. People claim it’s not historically inaccurate. Do you know what’s also inaccurate? The costumes in the beloved Tudors TV show. The casting of Henry VIII in Tudors. King Henry VIII was fat with red hair but was cast as thin and brunette. The responses?

Silence.

I promise you that, even with your favorite show or favorite book, there will always be something inaccurate about it. If you draw the line about accuracy at race… you might be racist. (That’s sugarcoating it.)

I’ll admit, the story I’m writing now is not accurate. My main character is the princess of England–and she’s black. Her love interest has western Asian roots. Their pain doesn’t revolve or even include a bit of their identity. It’s inaccurate, but something in my story was already going to be misrepresented because I cannot fully accurately represent London in the 1880s because I was not there.

If it’s going to be wrong, why not have fun?

Don’t take my word as Bible. I know people of color who do not agree with writing diverse historical fiction without even thinking about oppression. I prefer it because I’m tired of reading about pain and, for just a little bit, I want to feel represented and happy in a historical setting.

As I said, there are levels. Do you want to make your story a bit less inaccurate by including oppression? Okay! Determine how much accuracy you want in your story, but keep in mind the suggestions I’ve written. It’s possible to have their narrative be outside their oppression. Avoid making them the villain. Avoid the white savior complex.

Part Four: Characters of Color in Epic/High Fantasy

No matter how high or epic fantasy your story is, it is still rooted in the world we know and live in today. The oppression systems are rooted in what we know.

While race may not exist in your high fantasy world, your oppression system (which is inevitable in developing societies and has existed since the beginning of civilization; there is no way out of it) will ultimately relate to racism in some type of way.

In Harry Potter’s wizard world, wizards are prejudiced again “half-bloods” and those with human parents. Muggle-born wizards are called “mud-blood.” It’s a faint allusion to the fact that white people have viewed the blood of people of color to be dirty or contaminated.

In the novel I am drafting now, vampires aren’t secrets, but instead, they’re openly hunted. There are insults directed toward them. It will never be a far stretch. There is another element in the story (that I won’t reveal because it’s slightly spoiler-y) that I did not realize is similar to a certain angle of oppression we know and live in. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t spoken to a friend.

If you’re afraid of doing this by accident, I recommend talking to people. Discuss your world and the possibilities. It will open you up to angles you may have not once considered.

Part Five: General Representation

Personally, I do not have an issue with a white person writing a biracial/POC main character. I know plenty of people of color who do have an issue with it, but this is just a reminder that everything is subjective.

You will be subjected to more scrutiny if you write outside of your ethnic or racial group with your main character. It is more fickle and more susceptible to misrepresentation to write about a person whose shoes you never walked in. This is more evident in contemporary stories and a little less so the more fantastical your story gets. But, remember that our worlds will never be too far apart.

Part Six: Questions to Ask Yourself

To finish off this lengthy post, I’ll provide a list of questions to ask yourself about your characters of color.

  • Do they fit into stereotypes?
  • Are the only people of color in my story villains or submissive?
  • Do my characters of color experience more pain and loss than white characters?
  • Do I dehumanize them? (Like turn them into animals. The Princess and the Frog, I’m looking at you.)
  • Does their narrative revolve around their oppression?

I hope this post was helpful! If you have any opinions, thoughts, or suggestions, comment below!

Until next time,

Marina Hill

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