Writing Minority Characters
I don’t usually identify minority characters in my fiction. As of this writing, i recall only doing it twice in regards to race. Once in terms of neurodiversity, (which I share with the character.) Once I alluded to but did not directly explore a budding queer relationship in a subplot.
I have written female characters quite often, and even wrote a first-person novel from the point of view of same.
So far, however, most of my characters can probably be seen as belonging to any given minority that isn’t otherwise stated. That is because the plots and action of the majority of my fiction are not affected in demonstrable ways by minority status. In many cases, I truly feel my characters could be any given race the reader envisions without difficulty.
Don’t misunderstand me, however. This is not a denial of minority statuses and experiences. Rather it is an issue of context, both in fiction and in life.
If I am playing chess with someone, our respective races are essentially irrelevant to the situation.Yet if I’m exploring best public policy or taxation or law enforcement with that same person, our races are very much relevant to the situation.
Put another way, I am not “color blind,” and anyone who claims to truly not even notice or consider the race of someone else is in fact not being logical. Yet within my fiction, even the fiction that involves exciting plots and high stakes, the characters are for the most part involved in “chess.” That is to say, there is nothing about what most of them do that requires an identification of their race. The reader gets to envision that.
Matt bought a pack of gum and a Red Bull from the black clerk at the store. He held the door open for an Asian woman on his way out.
Who cares? The clerk may be black, or they may not be. But in such a scene, they are playing chess.
But let’s go further than just “playing chess.” Do I, or any white authors have the right to compose characters of color in their fiction?
The short answer is yes. I’m a firm believer that authors ought to be allowed to write whatever they wish to write.
Still, just because one is allowed, it doesn’t mean one should. So as a white author, for instance, I have a lot of research to do before I feel comfortable writing a character of minority status in a situation that depends on said status. And if that character is my protagonist and not just a secondary character? I have even more work to do.
I have the most work of all ahead of me as a responsible author if that minority character is the protagonist, to whose thought the reader is privy. Exceptional discretion should be exercised. So much so, that unless a story idea struck me to the center of my very essence, I doubt I would undertake diving to the appropriate depths of sociology, history, psychology, etc required to give a minority character the consideration they deserve.
I would be more apt to do so the farther away I am in history from such a perspective. An African gladiator in Ancient Rome for instance, is more likely to show up in my fiction after proper research than would an inner city African-American single mother living in modern Chicago. That experience is a current living experience of millions that I must accept I cannot fully understand without possibly years of investigation; I do possess latent white privilege to a degree, and I must accept the limitations I may have in bringing proper life to such a scenario on the page.
To avoid the appearance of whitewashing my fiction, I feel moving forward that I will more often make at least a passing mention of a character’s race more often. I consider this not out of guilt, but out of a desire to be broad in my appeal, so long as my characters are only playing chess.
Will I go beyond that level? That is difficult for me to say right now. Because unlike a chess board, not everything is simply black and white.
- Posted in: Miscellany