Writing About My Character’s Race

I was going to write about the novel I’m working on in this post. Then I decided that I wanted to take a stab at writing about a decision I was struggling with until a particular controversy exploded online. You’ve probably heard by now about Hunger Games’ fans tweeting their racist rants about the casting of black actors in the movie. If you haven’t, go here and see if you don’t have an Invisible Man moment as I did.

As said in the previous post, the statistics are daunting for writers of color who want to make a living making books. There’s no denying that book-buyers don’t match the Census numbers: for now, most of them are Caucasian. In terms of my book, I’ll tell you that my lead is a Latina female and my male lead is Caucasian. A cynic will say I decided to ‘make’ the principal male character Caucasian because I wanted the chance to make my book more marketable.

Don’t believe me, but that’s not how it happened. My male-lead, Quinn, stepped forward long before I met my female character, Mercy (short for Mercedes). My imagination introduced me to my characters. In fact, I blame my fascination with history for introducing me to Quinn, an immortal boy who was born in Ireland shortly before the potato famine. I started writing the novel around October, and then attended New York’s SCBWI conference late January. That’s when I learned the stats that play like neon lights on my frontal cortex.

Funny enough, the problem I’ve had isn’t with Quinn, but with Mercy. Over the last few months, I’ve struggled with whether or not I should reveal Mercy’s skin color. Yes, I want to be successful. No, I don’t believe that a good book will be enough. I need to write REALLY well, and that means creating a page-turner. Why isn’t a good book enough? Think about it. Today, writers are being asked to do so much more: write a book with the potential for a movie tie-in, create a platform, land an agent, etc. What I don’t hear is ‘write about characters that are brown.’ Why is that? Is it because the big book publishers don’t believe book-buyers want to read about people like me? Are they right? I know much of the answer has to do with the lack of diversity within companies producing books. If you reflect the ‘mainstream’, what incentive do producers have to make books for people of color? Organizations like the National Association for Black Journalists, and the National Association for Hispanic Journalists have been nagging news companies to diversify their newsrooms for decades. I haven’t seen an equivalent yet for the book publishing industry.

So, I was still waffling on how to write about Mercy’s race when a friend sent me a link to White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games, a blog post written by Anna Holmes on The New Yorker.com. The part that resonated for me was in the last two paragraphs where Holmes talks to an expert about the white default. “(The)white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color. It takes vigilance—and self-awareness—to overcome.”

What this means for me is that I’m not going to hide my lead character’s race. Her color has shaped her. I know that fact too well. I needed a kick in the butt to see that if I am successful, I don’t want to make choices that are influenced by the possibility of money. Not only is that arrogant, but it’s a huge swipe against the girl I hope will someday read my book, and see herself in Mercy.

I know of at least one successful author who decided not to reveal a character’s race. The character isn’t a lead one, but is important enough to drive much of the story. I suspect that other authors make the same choice, but may not talk about it. Writing can be a lonely affair. I hope my honesty won’t bring out the trolls. Instead, I want to learn from others about the decisions they’ve struggled with.


6 comments on “Writing About My Character’s Race

  1. In my first novel, an important character is Latina and I describe her that way. In the novel I’m writing now, my lead male is white, although I don’t specifically describe his skin tone. His best friend and another girl are Latinas, another girl is black, and his spirit guide is Native American. Now that I think about it, the three boys–my lead, his friend, and an antagonist–are described to an extent, but I don’t mention skin color. I’ll have to ponder this further. Although I have a diverse cast of characters, I recently felt guilty that Aaron, my lead male, is white, while the important supporting characters are not. This made me think of the conversations had during the Oscars, The Hunger Games, and NY conference. Why isn’t my lead a person of color? Should I change him? I’m not opposed to altering Aaron, but I have always envisioned him a certain way. If I do change him, I want it to make sense within the story.

    • ycwrite says:

      Hi Cindy,

      The important thing here is that we force ourselves to think about the choices–conscious or not–we’re making as writers, and then learn to live with our choices. I’m glad this post helped start your thinking process. It’s yet another level of storytelling we need to add to our jobs, but a really important one.

  2. I am a follower of the idea that a writer should write what they feel is the best for them. In other words what makes you happy. What makes you love writing. Writing is another job for some, but also writing is a passion, a need, a way to express ourselves through storytelling. When writing becomes just a job for me, that’s the day I’ll stop writing.

    I understand that you feel you need to target high, but you need to consider something. The higher the target in terms of financial gains, the more moral compromises you’ll have to make. I am not just talking about skin colour in your story. I am talking about giving part of your soul away and abandoning it (and no I am not religious in the slightest).

    This my personal view, obviously. I am not published. I may never get published but I assure you I love writing. Personally I don’t care about success, movies, book signings or book sells. I’ll be happy if even one person reads something I wrote and finds in it a sliver that touched them. That’s all I care about. I write because it feels like something I should be doing and because I love it. Then again many people find me weird, so I’ll let you decide. 🙂

    • ycwrite says:

      Hi Natalie,

      You’ve achieved an ideal outlook on your writing. I really appreciate you sharing it with me, and anyone else who may come across your comments. As I embark on this journey, your opinion helps inform mine. So, thank you!

  3. Amiyra says:

    So does this mean your Latina character is darker skinned (Black) Latina or is she white Latina, mestizo, Asian descended Latina, Middle Eastern Latina? I’m curious because I notice in books and in media in general that Latina gets used as a racial designation and there is never further consideration for how she is shaped. Drives me nuts when I read books and I my heart starts to beat because I think I’m going to see myself in a character (which is not determined by their race or ethnicity, but when it is brought up in a book I go could she be like me, and then, oh no she’s really fair complected (white) with straight or straight/wavy hair and oh look green eyes thanks). I’m Cuban Latina and so is Gloria Estefan, but we aren’t the same.

    Sorry for the paragraph, but I am interested and I don’t want to be misunderstood.

    • ycwrite says:

      Hi Amiyra,

      Thank you very much for visiting my blog, and leaving a comment. I apologize for not replying sooner. I’ve had family visiting. Then, I went out of town. I’m glad for the down time because I needed to think about your question. I hope I’m able to give it the consideration it deserves.

      I understand your frustration. As you can tell from my picture on the About Me page, I don’t have light skin. I come from a family that has a hundred different hues. My mother is light-skinned, and my father is dark. My own daughter is so fair that she and I shock people who learn that I’m her mother. All that to say, I’m reluctant to say I will only write female characters that share my skin color.

      My current project features a boy who is fair-skinned and a girl who is Brown. I didn’t write my characters this way. They came to me. Still, if I had the time, I might find myself writing about characters who don’t look like me at all. If I did them justice and readers enjoyed the work, I want to believe I could write about anyone.

      I wish more writers of different hues chose writing as a career path. Of course, there’s the matter of whether or not publishers would give us a chance, but let’s say that wasn’t an issue. I want to think that if there were more writers like me who chose this path, then perhaps there would be a lot more stories to satisfy the need you and I have to see ourselves in books. (By the way, I don’t know the number of writers of color in the U.S. It’s been my personal experience that Caucasian writers outnumber the PoCs. The reasons for that are long and complicated.)

      I hope I’ve given you a thoughtful answer.

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