Tips on How to Include Diverse Characters into Your Stories

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In 1998 I sold my first novel. Wow, that seems like a lifetime ago, and it kind of was. The novel was sold to Kensington Publishing when I was writing under a different pseudonym. I was contracted to write Latino romances for a new romance line Kensington was going to launch. The editor of this exciting new line of books made a statement that got her a lot of attention, and that was that she only wanted Latina writers writing for the line.

It was controversial because the publisher, through this editor, was saying that writers had to be of a certain ethnicity to write authentically and accurately about that group. As writers, we’re supposed to be able to write about anything. We don’t have to be a man to write a male character for example. We don’t have to be 15 to write a YA character. We don’t have to be lawyers to write a convincing character who is a lawyer. But the editor of this line of novels was saying that it was different when you were talking about ethnic groups. You had to be Latino to write Latino characters.

Was the publisher correct? What do you think?

Can Writers of One Ethnic Group Every Really Understand Another?

One thing that I believe is that it’s not easy put ourselves into the mindset of another ethnic group and see the world through their eyes, and to write a character who is not a stereotype.

But can it be done? Sure. If the writer has experience with the group. If the writer researches well. If the writer has people from that ethnic group read and critique the work. If the writer does her job and is sensitive, I think writers can portray a realistic character of any race and ethnicity.

Can we also get it completely wrong and offend people we were trying to celebrate and lift up? Absolutely.

But if we are truly fiction writers, it’s our job to put ourselves into each character’s head and try to understand what motivates the character and how he or she sees life. This is for any character, but especially a character of a different ethnicity or race from us. The key here is that we need to understand what motivates that character, not an entire group.

I don’t know why Kensington was adamant about having only Latina writers. Maybe because these were the first of these type of books (Latino Romances), and they didn’t want to turn-off the Latino community by getting it wrong? Maybe they didn’t have many Latino writers and wanted to diversify, and what better way to bring in Latino writers than to have a line of books that featured Latino characters. Honestly, I don’t know why they made that decision. I only know that many people were upset.

I didn’t think then and I don’t think now that non-Latino writers should have been upset. Sometimes, we have to step back and let people and groups develop and grow as they choose without outside interference.

But I do think now, so many years later, that we understand each other better all the time. We live in a diverse country and have more in common with each other than ever before. I think non-Latino writers today would do a much better job writing Latino character than they might have back then. Part of this reason is that Latino writers have had the opportunity to write their own stories the way they see it. And readers have had the opportunity to read it.

My advice?

* Know What You’re Talking About

My advice to you if you want to write about a group you are not a part of is to know what you are talking about. You do not have to be a member of that group, but you have to understand it.

This means understand the culture specifically — Latinos for example are not all the same, neither are Asians. The country they are from will define the population’s attitudes, beliefs, language, and so much more. So, understand and research the specific culture before writing about it.

Understand the group’s history and politics. Maybe even understand their literary background and history.

And at the same time, remember that when writing about a character, that character does not represent his or her entire race or ethnicity. They are individuals who may or may not agree with everything that group thinks. Characters have their own personalities. They have their own family structures. If they are American, they may have more traditional American values and beliefs than others from their ethnic group.

The best way to write about a real person (your character) is to know what you are talking about. If a character is going to deviate from their culture, you must able to explain why and show that.

* Remember to Include Details About Generational Differences

Ethnic minorities can differ significantly from one generation to another. The effect of immigration can shape parents and grandparents in ways that are unique, and younger generations may not completely understand that.

Younger generations also will likely have a different education from older generations. This is true for all groups, but if parents or grandparents were educated in another country or not traditionally educated at all, this will have a major effect in the beliefs and values of younger members of a group.

* Write About the Topic or Story not the Ethnic Group

Probably the most important point to remember is that you are writing a story. Let’s say you’re writing a legal thriller and the hero is a member of an ethnic group different than yours; the point of the book is not the ethnicity. The story, the plot, the theme, the ARC of the character and his transformation is what is important.

Focus on the topic or the story, not the ethnic group.

But get the details about the character’s ethnicity correct.

* Have a Good Reason for Choosing that Character

Lastly, I would say to have a good reason why that character must be a member of a specific ethnic group. Why do you want to write about that specific ethnic group, or why must your character be a member of that group?

Sometimes, I wish I could make my novels more diverse. However, I know my limitations and if I’m not willing to spend the time to do what I mention here — the research, the truly understanding of that group, etc., I choose not to write about what I don’t know.

My characters are Latino and Anglo-American. I’ve had secondary characters of other ethnicities, but they are walk on characters. I don’t have to dig deep and write detailed scenes with them, so I can add a more realist mix of characters to represent real life.

We live in great times with a population that is closely connected. My hope is that we continue to know and understand each other better and better. Writers have the unique ability to make the world smaller, to expose all of us to each other, and I love that about being a writer and a reader.

Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write the novel of your heart? Consider taking one of Julia’s beginning writing or publishing courses.

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