By: Jason Henry Evans
For many years I have taught a class at writing conventions called, “How to Write Authentic African-American Characters.” Today I will distill the basics of that class and apply to anybody who wants to write characters outside their ethnic group in a few of easy steps. The goal here is to avoid stereotypes and to create characters that are authentic to their own culture while also making them full of depth.
I want to caution you though. Deciding that you want to write characters outside of your ethnic group, characters you have no experience with culturally, is a HUGE undertaking. It requires research, sensitivity, respect for that culture, and a thick skin. Why a thick skin? Because someone is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong. All you can do when that happens is sit down and listen to those people with patience and respect. It doesn’t make them right and you wrong, but you do have to be open to the criticism.
In order to write these complex characters you will have to do research on the following:
Whether you’re writing science fiction, historical romance, steampunk, or thrillers, you have to know the history of the ethnic group your character comes from. History reflects people’s values and perceptions. If you’re writing about a character that comes from four generations of home owners, as opposed to renters, that will definitely change how they value things like security and money. In addition, you will probably discover interesting tidbits about said group that will color and deepen the way you write about your character. Learn the history of the ethnic group you want to write about. It doesn’t have to be an expansive knowledge, but getting the highlights are super important to start out with.
The actual religion of your character may be inconsequential to your story, but knowing the religious leanings of the culture can help deepen character development. See, religion, whether it’s practiced or not, colors people’s perceptions and values. Understanding that can give you better insights on the values of your character. For example, let’s say you have a black character who’s an atheist. But he grew up in an Islamic family, going back three generations. While he doesn’t practice Islam, he still may avoid eating pork, because he didn’t grow up eating it and never acquired a taste. See what I did? That character is slightly more unique, just because I gave him a background in Islam, even though he doesn’t practice it.
Now it gets hard. Researching culture should lead to a breakdown of its component parts. How your targeted ethnic group values work, marriage, family, music, fashion and food, among many other things. Do you have to be an expert on every little thing? No. But you should be generally aware of at least some of these things in order to make your character feel authentic. For example, let’s say your protagonist is visiting her friend Betty, who is Chicana. When your protagonist gets to her house, she smells wonderful exotic spices because Betty is making a batch of tamales. Don’t describe how Betty is filling the corn husks with seasoned chicken and jalapenos. This would be cultural tourism. The reason why Betty is making tamales is far more important to her character. Tamales can be labor intensive. Making a big batch is an act of love. Who is Betty trying to express her love to, within the confines of her culture?
While researching culture can be hard, it can be a treasure trove, too. There are dozens and dozens of films, TV shows, comics and novels that deal with these issues all the time. Search them out and consume them. Become immersed in the culture of your character. Listen to their music, read their stories, understand their values by participating honestly. It may not be easy, but it can be very rewarding.
It’s very important to understand how poverty intersects with culture and history when writing about ethnic and culture groups outside your experience. Again, this has to do with values and expectations for your character. This is especially true if your story takes place in the U.S. and is also applicable to many characters in many settings.
Because group survival trumps individual expression, many people who are the children of immigrants (or slaves, or Native Americans), have felt this tension between the obligations of their family and the desires of their heart. If your story has room, a little research here can go a long way towards creating depths for your character and an interesting subplot, if you so choose.
If you’ve never done something like this before, start small. Write minor characters before you create a story whose protagonist is ethnically and culturally different from you. It gives you the opportunity to experiment without having to rewrite an entire novel as you learn more about your characters and their backgrounds.
Once you’ve done your research and written your story, you need a sensitivity reader to take a look at what you’ve written. This is to give you insights on things you may have missed when doing your research. It can also prevent you from embarrassing yourself over something you innocently missed.
Creating vibrant characters who are ethnically and culturally different from the group can be a rewarding experience for both the writer and the reader. I fundamentally believe anybody can write characters and stories outside of their own milieu and do it well enough that people within those cultures and ethnic groups will see themselves in that story.
You must do your homework. Once the work has been done, you can experiment. Not every Jew practices their religion. Some Koreans go to Baptist churches. A lot of Black people listen to country music. Our world is a vast tableau of connectivity and overlapping experiences. If you come across these ethnicities and cultures with respect and passion, your characters will be authentic.
Jason Henry Evans says that life is funny. In 2004 he moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. He dedicated himself to public education and realized his heart was not in it. So he moved on. At the same time he stumbled into a creative world of art and literature he now calls home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
You can catch up with Jason on his Facebook Author Page or on Twitter. You will also find up to date posts on his blog.