The Race Card

This is US Women's Bobsled team. Look closely at the skin tones...what would it mean if I described a character as "black?"

This is US Women’s Bobsled team. Look closely at the skin tones…what would it mean if I described a character as “black?”

My WIP is set on a human-colonized world about a thousand years in the future.

Humans from all over the Earth were part of the original colony 500 years ago (er…from now?) and even more diverse people emigrated to the planet over the next few centuries.

The result? A planet where the way a person looks has little or nothing to do with what part of the globe they’re from.

In many ways, this imaginary world is not diverse, because people on this planet share a similar lifestyle, traditions, and community goals. Sure, there are pockets of people who might share a particular characteristic or customs, but those are trivial compared to the differences within 21st century humanity.

Although I have certain visuals in my mind of each character to start with (Christian Slater and/or Ricky Schroder show up in almost every story…) when I’m fleshing out the character I like to think that they could have the physical characteristics of a conglomeration of human ethnicities in any combination. Descriptions can be difficult when you get beyond height, skin tone, eye color, and hair color.

Even more difficult for me is how a twenty-first century audience will interpret my character descriptions as related to that character’s other traits.

I was recently thinking about how some of my characters might look. I can’t have a Christian Slater in every story, even though many characters start that way. I also tend to have a tall, handsome, red-headed Scotsman in every story, and I will make a point to change that in edits. After I had found some images I liked and defined my characters’ appearances more specifically (and diversely) I panicked. These characters had flaws…one was really oblivious to his friends’ feelings, another struggled with a post-traumatic mental breakdown. Others had a variety of personal issues.

“OMG…I can’t do this…what if someone thinks I’m saying that all ____ are _____?”

Of course, I’m not saying this. One of my overall writing goals is to say that people are people, that humans are diverse and yet the same in so many ways! But of course, I run the risk that a reader might look at just one story, put the implied ethnicity together with the character’s personality traits, and assume I’m making some kind of statement. It almost makes me want to take out my gaming dice and roll a random number to generate each character’s skin tone, facial features, and other physical characteristics. Of course, some characteristics are necessary to the character. Scharona (Under the Radar) might have the hair and skin of Lolo Jones, but Scharona has a muffin top that is far from Olympic perfection.

ROW80LogocopyGoals for this round of ROW80:

  • Do something writing-related every day: Mostly. One day it was just re-reading a little, but I give myself a B+ overall.
  • Do some actual writing every week: Oh most definitely. I could do more, but I’ve cranked out a good number of brand new words.
  • Engage with other writers every week: Just the usual little social stuff and commenting on blogs. Nothing much, but enough.
  • Stay away from the NaNo story for at least a month: My brain does still go back to the story every once in a while, and I have to distract myself. I sometimes second-guess my decision to spend January working on other stories in the same universe…maybe I should have got my brain completely out of that world…
  • Get sleep: This continues to be a struggle. Yes, I am getting sleep, but sometimes at the cost of actual living time. My best writing time is around midnight (it’s 12:13 AM now) and the wee hours, and my hubby takes care of the morning routine so I can sleep in the mornings. Sleep issues and anxiety attacks are another blog post.
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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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33 Responses to The Race Card

  1. Hi Beth, I enjoyed reading about your decisions for your current WIP and how you struggle with creating identities for your characters. I never really thought much about the cultural background and diversity of my characters. You definitely have me thinking about it now. Although mostly I am writing non-fiction currently I have written first drafts for a couple of novels in the past. Looks like you have a handle on your goals, keep up the good work!

  2. Rose F says:

    Your WIP sounds interesting. Descriptions are things I usually leave very minimal until the edits–as far as “OMG, what if someone thinks…?” I’ve been there, but it’s something I basically have to just accept. Someone somewhere is going to think I’m marginalizing their group even if that’s the last thing on my mind. 🙂 Good luck on your goals.

  3. Kathy says:

    I do something similar when I’m creating characters; they usually start off as white and/or male then tend to change over time as I try to make my stories more diverse. I find, generally speaking, it makes the story feel more realistic.

    I highly recommend the book Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It talks about writing characters who are from a different background than you are and how to avoid stereotyping. The book’s available on Amazon as an ebook and as a paperback and Nisi Shawl has a couple essays online that are also featured in the book. (http://www.cynthiaward.com/Writing_The_Other.html)

    • WendyStrain says:

      Thanks for the book recommendations! I’m also struggling with this a bit in my new work and could use some pointers.

  4. kathils says:

    I tend to have Gerard Butler in every story. *sigh* Or Luke Evans. So I can fully relate.
    It sounds like you’re doing well on your goals. Sleeping is very important. Hopefully you can work that one out.

    • Mmm… Gerard Butler…
      I was writing a scene once where one set of characters was doing a cameo in another story and I realized Christian Slater was talking to himself. It was weird.

      I don’t mind too much having an odd sleep schedule… until something comes up requiring me to be awake at certain times such as to teach or when one of my kids is sick.

  5. I don’t think you should worry about people thinking you’re making negative statements about certain groups of people as long as you’re writing genuinely and with your personal prejudices aside. We all have them. We know that not all Irishman, for example, are drunks or see leprechauns. Not all black people live in the hood. Not all fat people are lazy or smell bad. Be careful of stereotypes and it will be fine. What I would most suggest though is not letting your fear of offending be the thing that stops you from writing diversity. Exclusion, in my opinion, is just as bad if not worse than giving it an honest try and getting it wrong. With regard to SciFi, which I absolutely love, it I am confronted with a book or move, especially if set in the future, and it does not have a diverse cast of characters, I will refuse to watch or read it. I personally find it offensive, exclusive, and highly unrealistic.

    • I have nightmares that my book is so successful that I get a movie deal, and Hollywood takes all my variously-sized, variously-aged, and variously-skin toned people and replaces them with 22yo blue-eyed blonde underwear models.
      🙂

      • Ha! Now that is a very real threat. Do like Orson Scott Card and refuse to settle the deal until they agree to portray your characters according to your vision. I would. My fear is that Hollywood will create a romance where there was never intended to be one. All kissy face when the character never had a love interest.

  6. As someone who constantly worries about offending people, I understand your dilemma. However, it’s your story with your characters, and only you know what they look like and how they feel. I think we worry too much about offending people of different races. If we all just look at each other as people who are different but interesting in our own way, there would be less of this offense. I worried about a racial situation in a book I wrote called “The Gnome”. One of the characters, who was white, left a politically incorrect statute on her lawn as a joke for one of her black friends. I was hoping everyone would take it in the good-natured fashion it was intended. So far, there hasn’t been any problems that I’m aware of. So maybe we worry way too much about these things. Bottom line, create the world and the characters they way you need them to be. It will work. If we don’t mean to offend, we probably won’t.

    • Just as some people are bigots, so too will be some of our characters. Good/bad/troubled people come in all colors from all backgrounds. I personally don’t (usually) take offense to characters who are unPC. That said, I do think it is important to be mindful of our own prejudices and failures and not let them bleed into our writing. We should be careful about what we say, IMHO. I would take offense to a careless flippant comment made in “good natured fun” because it shows a lack of sensitivity and consideration for who I am. Nevertheless, the end result should not be one where we are afraid to speak out, or where we are forced to behave PC even when we don’t feel PC. (I sure am not PC on all topics.) Rather we should censure ourselves so that our actions and our intentions are aligned, lest we be misunderstood.

      • I think this is all good advice, Khaalidah. I don’t think I have any personal prejudices based on race or color. I certainly don’t FEEL like I do, so I don’t worry about that coming through. My biggest problem is that I don’t know what OTHER people might feel. I’m very sensitive to people’s feelings. But at the same time, I think some people can be more sensitive than they should be. I guess if we treat others the way we want to be treated, we’re doing the best we can.

    • It helps that it’s SciFi, set in a far future world. I’d be stressing much more if my characters were contemporary!

      Then again, I do have a contemporary on the shelf with some diverse characters…this will be good practice for when I need to return to that one.

  7. Tui Snider says:

    I just saw your comment about how your mother always tries to find herself in your stories. I once read an interview with an author who had based his bad guy on his boss. When the boss read the book, however, he pull the writer aside and said, “I see you put me in your book.” As the writer mentally freaked out, the boss continued, “You based the hero on me. I won’t tell anybody, but thank you.”

    So… you just never know. I think Carl Jung would shrug and say that the projections people make onto you and your writing are not your responsibility!

    Oh – another thought along these lines (‘cuz, yeah, I agonize on this same issue!) in one of her books on writing, Anne Lamott says that anytime you base a character on an ex-boyfriend with whom you parted on bad terms, mention that he was also extremely unendowed. That way, he will never want to say that a particular character is based on him.

    Happy row-ing to ya from Texas! 🙂

    • I often pull names for secondary characters from my facebook or Google Plus friends. Sometimes, if I let on that I used a certain name, the friend will say “Oh! Make them like this and that…” and I have to explain that all I’m using is their NAME. I rarely have a character who is strongly based on a single person. They might look like one, and have a plethora of idiosyncrasies gathered from a dozen different people.

  8. I agree we worry too much about the meaning people (*sigh*, Moms) will take from our writing. One of my recent characters had a Mexican-American mother and a Fomorii father (a monstrous Otherworld race). I worried people would think I could only imagine a non-white person as a monster or something — not at all true! Plenty of white people are monsters! (lol, kidding)

    Best of luck determining the identities of your characters. I think you’re approaching it in an interesting way for outlining, and it’s definitely good to go into the writing with an understanding of your character’s background.

    • I have a Mexican-American character in another story, and I’m afraid the only clue the reader has to this particular characteristic is some mention in dialog about his heritage. There are no stereotypical behaviors…because I can’t think of what a “stereotypical behavior” might be for a Mexican American lol! And his looks…he’s a bald body-builder. Those characteristics are more important than any others.

      • What you could do is say something sort of vague and off hand to clue the reader in. Such as, he inherited his jet eyes and easy to tan skin, the color of the sand on the mesa to his aztec grandfather. Something like that. Then, boom, we know what he is, no stereotypical characteristic has been attributed and then you can move on knowing the reader has a clear picture in their head.
        Or you could mention the stereotype (whatever that could be) and say he has been trying to live that down all his life…

  9. WendyStrain says:

    I’m dealing with the same thing in my current work – my main character has switched ethnicity on me and I think it’s a fantastic change. She knows who she is and isn’t allowing me to do anything to change her, but I have a lot to learn about her and fear I may end up not giving her an accurate portrayal or that the portrayal I give her will be misinterpreted. Thanks for bringing up the subject, I’ve really enjoyed reading through the comments.

  10. Laura says:

    Great post. I’d never really thought about that before – how my characters are perceived. Great goals. Have a good week (and I hope you get some sleep.) x

  11. Siri Paulson says:

    Oh, this is a tricky one. As an SFF writer, I’m a passionate believer in adding diversity, and I haven’t gotten called out on it — yet — but I do worry about it. From reading articles by N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and others, I’ve learned that (a) respect is important, (b) research is important, and (c) listening is important (and not getting offended if you do get called out, but listening and striving to do better). Writing diversity can be scary, but I think it’s so important to keep trying.

  12. Eden Mabee says:

    I think that’s one of the reasons to keep physical details (unless hair color matters, I leave it out, etc.) sparse in writing. I know I prefer as a reader to fill in my own ideas of what a character looks like (it’s my gripe with all movie novel combos… the imagination has been done for me).

    Do readers need to know about someone’s hair color or ethnicity in your future sci-fi? By this time in the future we may have moved past a Gattica world where parents have had their babies custom deigned in the womb to have blue hair and magenta eyes… It’s only the unusual traits, the traits that stand out that should matter to the story. Otherwise, we readers add our own Ricky Schroders, Gerand Butlers, or (in my case) Lee Philipses to the story and have fun indulging…

    Just my two cents…

    • And I LIKE a lot of description. I want to know the author’s vision of the characters. See, it’s a good thing we all don’t like the same things, or we would all read the same books and others wouldn’t get read. 🙂

      • I get upset if description comes too late. Either, it doesn’t matter and I can visualize what I want, or put it in early enough to help me establish a picture of the character before I get too far.

        Although, I did read a book once (whose name I sadly can not remember) where the characters’ appearance was a huge OMG! in the middle of the book. (Spoiler: they weren’t human. None of them. But we assumed they were.)

  13. A good night’s sleep makes such a big difference. I hope this continues to get better and better for you. Congrats on your writing and writing-related goals. It sounds like you’re doing well. And giving yourself time to leave your NaNo story alone is very wise. It’s always good to go back to our work with “fresh eyes.” All the best for the days ahead.

  14. Thanks!
    It’s useless…truly useless for me to attempt to edit a large story without first getting away from it, preferably for at least a couple of months. Many authors dive right in, but if I try that I can’t see the forest for the trees.

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