How To

Tips On Writing A Character of Color

1. Don’t. Just kidding. I’m beyond excited that you want to embark upon this exciting task of creating a person who does not physically resemble you in the slightest. Some writers say that you should write what you know but I believe the place of not knowing is where pure creativity can really emerge. Now don’t get too happy yet. You have a lot of responsibility ahead of you so now’s not the time to be lazy. Do I have your attention yet? Yeah? Good. Let’s get started—for real this time.

2. What is the character’s purpose? You must seriously ask yourself this question before pressing a pen to page. What is your character going to be doing in this story? Is he/she simply going to be a background character because if so, you have to go back to the drawing board and brainstorm. You want to be as original as you can, right? Of course you do. Do not create a character of color who does not have a unique voice or as complex of a history as your main protagonist. But if the character of color, or CoC as I’d like to call it, is your main character, then you have even more work to do and questions to ask yourself.

3. Take a good look at your environment. Are you predominately surrounded by people who look just like yourself? Are your conversations with those unlike you relegated to short greetings or small chat when said person is providing you a service? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you’re going to have to step outside of your comfort zone, both physically and psychologically. In order to get a glimpse of who you want to write about, you have to place yourself within his or her context. Get a feel for how your subject communicates both through words and gestures. Pay attention to any idiosyncrasies. Remember: no matter how “weird” you think any of these observations are, these things are what make a person who he/she is. And furthermore, you better get comfortable with the oddities of people of color, whether you’re white or a PoC yourself. It’s not easy being marginalized. Every part of that kind of a person’s identity is often misconstrued as being outside of the norm.

4. Learn to be uncomfortable. You may come across some situations that may unravel something to which you’ve been culturally conditioned to ignore or outright reject. Don’t run from it. Accept this learning experience. Consider the confusion and irritation as growing pains for your artistic evolution. Remember, you cannot define yourself without the “other.” As you question your subject, question yourself as well. Get into solitude to really have a heart-to-heart with yourself and get some self awareness.

5. Research. If you want to write a Chinese character, for example, read up on some classic Chinese works, not for outright imitation, but for support. You need to have a foundation and it’s best to do that by reading works from those who you want to write about in your own stories. This stage will not only help your story but also your standing as a reader and creator.

6. Accept trial and error. As you’re writing, you may revisit certain passages and discover that you made the mistake of relying on classic stereotypes or racist/prejudiced rhetoric. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Un-learning is a process. It’s not easy writing a world in which CoCs can flourish when the real world tries to restrict them from doing so. Don’t worry. You’re trying and you’re aware, which is more progress than plenty of other people have been making in their own personal lives.

7. You can never tell the “right” story and that’s okay. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did a TED Talk on the danger of a singular story. When a singular story is esteemed as the end-all-be-all, other stories are hidden and their characters are erased from the literary landscape. But even with the multiplicity of stories, there will still be new dilemmas to dissect and intricacies to unravel as we mature and our culture shifts. Don’t be concerned with creating a perfect CoC. Instead, make him or her real. Make that CoC hypocritical and as mind-boggling as you can because when you do this, you afford that CoC the chance to partake in the human condition, which is the most just thing for a writer to do. You will never impress everyone but what you can do is learn about the reception of your work so that you can find out how your readers work along different wavelengths of consciousness that may give you a glimpse into their own personal backgrounds. What this absorption will do for you is expand your mind, open your heart, and broaden the range of your pen.

Now go ahead and make some magic.


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