In this age of absolutes and extreme opinions, it can be terrifying to write good, diverse characters…
…all the more reason for you to write them.
Right now, writing about other cultures and backgrounds feels like a minefield. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you cause real damage to your readers?
It doesn’t have to be so scary. In fact, writing diverse characters can be one of the most eye-opening, rewarding experiences for any writer – and when it’s done right, readers of all backgrounds will appreciate your effort. After all, there’s nothing like identifying with the heroes of a book.
Should you write characters from outside your own background or culture?
So, how do you do it?
These guidelines will enable you to respectfully portray “other” characters – without making them plain, boring, or predictable. In this article, I’ll give you a few guidelines to navigate through the minefield.
Should You Write Characters from other Backgrounds and Cultures?
My gut reaction to this is “Yes, obviously!”
But the answer isn’t so obvious to everyone, so let’s dig in:
- I’m a male.
- I’m heterosexual.
- I’m white (mostly).
And I’m incredibly fortunate to live in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.
Most of my friends look, sound, and come from entirely different backgrounds than me. They naturally enter my stories – because I believe in writing what you care about.
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There are 3 Reasons Why You Should Write “Other” Characters
- We’re all in this together. Here’s what I hope: several hundred years from now, most people will be X/15ths of another race – and the word “race” will dissolve into meaninglessness.
- Differences create interesting interactions. They can create a lot of realistic conflict between characters. Many romance novels hinge on the differences in a character’s background.
- You’ll become a better writer… and a better human. By stretching your imagination (and your empathy) to include people from other backgrounds, you’ll gain a stronger appreciation for them – not only in your writing, but hopefully in real life too.
So, how do you do it?
How do you write them in a way that enriches your stories – without horribly offending other cultures?
1. Why You MUST Talk to the “Other” Demographic
Let’s say you want to write an Australian character – but you’ve never met an Australian.
Your Australian character should at least start with a seed of truth.
Talk to some people from Australia:
- Facebook Writing Groups
- Online Writing Forums or websites
- Ask your connections in real life if they know of any Australians who might be willing to answer your questions.
Before you talk to them: study up on the differences between their lives and your own.
Then, you’ll be prepared to ask them useful questions:
- What’s different between your life and mind?
- What do people get wrong about Australians?
- What do you struggle with because of your Australian-ness?
2. Remember to Write the Individual
The only thing all Australians have in common is that they live (or used to live) in the same country.
That’s where the generalizations should end.
You are writing an individual, not “the entire population of ‘Straya jammed into a single human body.”
Your living, breathing, fictional Australian will have…
- and Experiences
…that are absolutely unique to them.
Build your Australian hero out like you would any other hero:
- What was their defining moment?
- How is their relationship with their family?
- What are their signature physical characteristics?
- What do they want, and what is stopping them from getting it?
3. Will You Ignore the “Stereotype Struggle?”
Sometimes, stereotypes – or rather, other people’s perceptions of your characters will affect their daily lives.
For example, this poor
Australian New Zealander:
Ask Yourself About the Stereotype Struggle:
Is your character treated differently because of where they come from, or who they are?
How do they react?
The conflict generated by external perceptions (that is, how your character is percieved by the world of your story) is a great way to develop your characters.
Find the main point of tension between their demographic, and other demographics in the story.
For example, I’m writing a science fiction novel set several hundred years from now. Racial issues have disappeared, but poverty/wealth issues have reached a boiling point.
One point of tension centers on quality of life, and the lack of opportunities to improve your situation. This allows me to build a spectrum for all of my characters, and explore how their relationships grow when I throw them all into the same spaceship.
4. Have You Read What They Wrote?
I’ve never met an Australian pioneer from the 1800’s.
And I’m probably not going to find them on Facebook.
Reading about them is my only chance to get to know them. Even if you can talk to them in real life, you should take any chance possible to read about your demographic.
Why It’s Important to Read Content Created by the Group Itself.
I’d be doing Australia a huge disservice if I only read books with titles like:
“Australia: One Great, Big, Stinking Penal Colony.”
Probably written by some snooty England aristocrat.
The fictional Englander, in this completely hypothetical situation, is going to give you the worst, most-biased opinion of Australians. I’m pretty sure this is how stereotypes are born.
You must hear the Australians’ side of things.
You want to hear what they love, what struggles they face, and how they see themselves.
5. How Beta Readers from Your Demographic will Fix (Almost) Everything
Beta readers will tell you if they find anything:
- not workable
- Or just flat-out wrong
For example, my Australian Beta Reader might be able to tell me that it’s unreasonable to have my Australian character say “Shrimp on the barbie” 46 times in one chapter.
Or maybe not. I’ll ask my Beta Readers and find out…
Embrace Characters from Other Backgrounds
How do you know can create “other” characters in a respectful, well-written way?
One very simple test:
Write a villain of another demographic.
If they are compelling and hateful because of their deeds – and not because of what makes them different – you pass.
Diversity is interesting.
Hopefully, these tools will allow you to create captivating characters who come from different walks of life.
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