Writing Race

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Writing Race

Postby Imogene » 09 Oct 2011, 16:17

I wanted to ask how people write race in novels.

In my speculative fiction novel, my protagonist is non-white (like me) and a different ethnicity and religion from me (although I have close friends like her). However, I picked this all randomly--this novel comes from when I wrote several different stories with different protagonists, and this story was interesting enough to continue, so I kept the protagonist the same race and religion. Also, when this story was just an idea, I found a great picture and decided that was what my protagonist looked like.

However, this is hardly tied into the story except for some implicit thematic elements. Plus, I have friends of the same ethnicity, race, and religion as the character--but not all at once. So is that fair? I think my character is good and I'm trying to write her well just as a character. To be honest, it feels really strange to just...change her. I might, though, just to make things simpler.

What do you think?
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Re: Writing Race

Postby Beethovenfan » 09 Oct 2011, 18:48

Hi Imogen.
Hmm, you know, I'm not quite sure I understand exactly what you're asking. Is it how do you portray a different race (different from your own) in a novel? If so, then my question for you is why is it necessary to know what race they are? Is knowing the person is Hispanic or Samoan, Japanese or white, important to the story? If not, then don't worry about it. But if your story is about how life affects this person because of their race, then I think it's best to portray that through what they do in everyday life. Giving a description of what they look is fine, but that only last for a paragraph. Show race in the writing by what they do, how they act, and how they think. Not sure if this is helpful, it even sounds a bit nebulous to me. But then again, I am only hoping I have interpreted your question correctly.
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Re: Writing Race

Postby polymath » 09 Oct 2011, 19:24

A conventional and socially sensitive method for portraying ethnicity or any identity feature for that matter is through other characters and setting perceptions and comparisons and contrasts.

I recently learned about the power of writing about something else to reveal and justify a strong narrator identity presence, what would otherwise come across as author surrogacy's vices of self-centralization, self-idealization, and self-efficacy. For example, parents, neighbors, acquaintances', etc., backstory, interacting characters' dialogue, actions, and emotions, evocative setting details related to cultural identity, and cultural naming conventions. Personal meanings thereof. In other words, oriented times five: to persons, times, places, situations, and events. Or oriented times six, SPICED, to Setting (time, place, and situation), Plot (goals and problems opposing goals), Idea (theme), Character, Event, and Discourse (narrative point of view and voice, etc.).

I recently evaluated a narrative that poked uncalled-for fun at heavyset people. I didn't feel it was socially sensitive because it made negative sweeping generalizations about obese persons. If it had been personally specific to an individual it wouldn't have been as offensive, if at all. As it was, it was stereo-typing based on archetype modeling, a flat and static stock character type used solely for ironic comic effect.
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Re: Writing Race

Postby Imogene » 09 Oct 2011, 20:54

Beethovenfan wrote:Hi Imogen.
Hmm, you know, I'm not quite sure I understand exactly what you're asking.


Sorry! I guess it got away from me. First and foremost I was worried about whether it was okay that my character was of a culture that I've never personally interacted with.

But otherwise, I'm actually portraying an array of cultures, ethnicities, ages, classes in my novel simply because I want to--although not in a "Crash" movie kind of way, promise! It's more like the show Community or Parks & Rec (I know they're TV shows, bear with me), that have a diverse cast of characters, picked on purpose to touch upon (but not focus on) race, gender, and age differences. And I do think it matters to include race in books the same way television now has (although in a style close to how polymath outlines)--to brush against the subject of race without it needing to be the whole theme. It's like, I love books like Harry Potter, and I LOVE how she had characters that were different races with significant connections to the plot (in DA there are several, and then there's Kingsley Shacklebolt and Lee Jordan who are written as characters rather than stereotypes) without their race being a big deal AT ALL (barring Pansy's one comment about Angelina Johnson's dreads). I'd love to go even more diverse, that's all.
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Re: Writing Race

Postby polymath » 09 Oct 2011, 21:45

The spectrum of human bigotry is not so much off limits as it merits careful regard. For credibility and autheticity's sakes, and for well-rounded character portrayals, reporting the human condition demands revelation of the flaws and frailties of otherwise noble-minded characters. A principle of thumb that serves me well when writing outside my cohort community--a very narrowly defined group of one, actually--is to be specific to an individual. No sweeping generalizations about subcultural groups.

Here's something recently overheard said by a self-defined, supposedly socially enlightened person.
"I have many minority friends. My husband is one, actually. They're as human as normal people."
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Re: Writing Race

Postby Sommer Leigh » 10 Oct 2011, 05:28

I have a couple of answers to this, and it really depends on the book which one I'd go with.

1) It is always always always ok to show different races and cultures in fiction. I think it scares writers who are not of that race and culture, but it shouldn't. Do historical writers know what it was like to live in 1834? Do male writers write female characters and do female writers write male characters? Do paranormal romance writers know what it is like to be a vampire first hand? No, of course not, and like all of these things, to write a different race and culture than your own, it takes research. Lots of research and a maybe even some immersion to get a handle on the authenticity of voice.

2) If the character's race and culture is part of the story, part of a major theme or plot, then make sure you do lots and lots of good, in depth research and feel very comfortable with it before you even start writing/editing/rewriting.

3) If it isn't a part of the theme or plot, don't make it a big deal in the story. If, let's say, the character is Chinese American, and that's just what she is without any real tie to the plot or themes, going on and on about her background and culture would be a waste. Authors with white characters don't make a point to remind readers of how white the character is, and it can feel very forced to remind the readers they are reading a diverse story. Let the fact of their race or culture come into play naturally when it is necessary, and not more than that. If they eat a certain type of food - or don't eat a certain type of food - if they wear certain clothes or pray a certain number of times a day. These are things that work their way in naturally, since it might be part of the character's every day life. But I wouldn't make a huge deal of it.

Author Jessica Spotswood has a wonderful article on her blog about writing diversity into a novel even if we have no experience with it. I love love love what she says here: http://www.jessicaspotswood.com/blog/2011/09/29/on-writing-diversity/
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Re: Writing Race

Postby dios4vida » 10 Oct 2011, 08:33

Sommer said just about everything I was gonna say, so I'll just 'ditto' Sommer's post as great advice. :)
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Re: Writing Race

Postby Chantelle.S. » 11 Oct 2011, 20:14

Pretty much what everyone else said, with emphasis on the topic of research.

One of my novels (in the fantasy genre) has a very very wide range of cultures and races in it eg. my Baronians are inspired by black-skinned people, my Argiles are inspired by coloured people (we call them Capies back home), my Coors are inspired by the Asian population, and my Derenvarians are inspired by fair skinned people. Every race takes a couple of traits own to that specific race, but other than that, it's the country they live in that makes up their values and cultures.

For example, the traits I've taken for my Baronian race are aside from the dark skin, their pudginess, their stubborness, and their love of bright bold colours. I incorporate things I've learnt from their culture such as the way they move, the way they speak, and the way they think. (I'm not saying all black people are overweight, I'm just going on what I know and what I've perceived). But I put reason behind every detail I describe - the reader only knows that they are 'big' because they live in the kingdom that supplies the rest of their world with food, a.k.a. the land of Life. Nothing is mentioned that doesn't serve some kind of purpose in the story.
The same with my Coors, they've got yellow skin, narrow black eyes, are experts at strategy, definitely a race you don't want against you. But they're also the most peaceful and mild-mannered people of their world. Plus I just HAD to work someway into the novel to get some good use of katanas. I have a love for the sword, and it would be kinda random to have a Baronian walking around with a katana with no explanation whatsoever aside from the author wanted it.

Then there's also the little controversial thing called 'religion' tossed into the mix. Some believe blindly, some have doubts, some are non-believers (such as my secondary character). The one thing that they all have in common (aside from having two legs and two arms and such humanoid things) is their responsibility to maintain the balance of their world. Everything is connected to everything else - if one thing keels over, it will have a domino effect that could be catastrophic. Or something. But religion is a whole other ballgame.

The only advice I can give you on how to write race is to do it with love. You have a friend from the same race as the character you're writing, so you can get up close and personal with their culture. Go have dinner at her place with her family. Ask her how she sees the world, or what she thinks of certain topics. Find out what traditions her family have, and what values they strive for. If you can get a general feel of the race, you can get into your character's head so much easier. You have to be connected to your main character if you want other people to connect to the character.
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Re: Writing Race

Postby Kristin » 28 Oct 2011, 00:09

Paolo Bacigalupi handles race well in Ship Breaker.
Last edited by Kristin on 30 Dec 2011, 03:52, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Writing Race

Postby polymath » 28 Oct 2011, 06:53

Socially insensitive depictions of stereotypes come up in narratives during workshops in which I've participated, quite a few actually. A few I've commented on didn't seem decorously appropriate and then I was soundly chastised for imposing my viewpoint on others' creations. So I reflected long and deep on what was off, off with the narratives and off with my position.

In some instances it's been ethnicity at issue, others body appearance; for example, obesity or disabiliity or disfigurement. In others it's been lifestyle, gender, sex, age, socio-economic status on the hot seat; in short, external identity markers, physical appearances.

Looking at the various insensitive depictions, I've examined what in my estimation was off. For each circumstance I felt uncomfortable from identity groups stereotyped by negative evaluations. This identity group has these characteristic idiosyncrasies in common, preconceived faults, that one those idiosyncrasies; some for comedic effect, schadenfreude, some for dehumanizing effect, some for reinforcing social exclusion, shunning, some for emotional appeals (pathos) that fall short of full-realization.

The negative depictions in every case faulted identifiable identity groups' through preconceived notions of social impropriety rather than individuals'. Socially sensitive yet negative depictions artfully narrow faults specific to individuals in praise-worthy narratives I've read; or otherwise, they respect and celebrate unique identities, individual identities.

The shortcomings I've concluded are not from the fault depictions, per se, but from sweeping generalizations about identity groups' preconceived faults. My shortcoming in finding fault with the questionable depictions wasn't so much that I felt they were potentially offensive depictions for their stereotyping but from not realizing they weren't sufficiently specific to individuals to justify their negativity. Nor artful; in other words, they were flat, one-dimensional, underdeveloped depictions.
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