Last Tuesday on the Write Stuff — #Authors Respond to Questions of Writing Diverse Characters

QuestionOn Tuesday, we talked to my oh- so-cool friend Unoma Nwankwor,  a Nigerian author who fuses faith, romance and African spice. To get some thoughts on what authors think about the topic, I posed a question:

Should authors write characters outside their own cultural experience or should the publishing industry support diverse authors writing about their own ethnic and cultural experiences?

I read a few of the comments on the show but I couldn’t get to most of them. So I told all who participated I’d share their responses in this blog post.  Perhaps you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

Should ‪#‎Authors write characters outside their own cultural experience or should the publishing industry support diverse authors writing about their own ethnic and cultural experiences? Weigh in below and I’ll read your response on the show

Anthony  It’s your story. You should do them as you feel needed.

Vanessa  (Mableton, GA) Interesting question. I write historical romance so everything I write about is outside of my cultural experience by about 215 years, give or take a decade. If an author does very good research, giving true voice to the characters in context of history, culture, and environment, then that is a story worthy to be told, regardless of the race or culture of the author.

Jenny ( Ankey, IA) They say “write what you know”, but I think it can be great. If you plan to create a character outside of your own cultural experiences, however, you simply *must* do your homework. There are so many aspects of culture that we sometimes don’t even think about. Body language. Vernacular. Foods. Greetings and other social cues. All of these things are a part of culture and must be taken into consideration.

As an American missionary who has worked with British teammates in two countries in Latin America, I’ve learned quite a bit about this in the last few years. So, for example, when I read books or watch movies featuring British, Costa Rican, or Mexican characters, and the author has written them from a typical American bias, it’s painful to read (and sometimes a bit insulting)

TK  (Troy, Alabama) It depends on your target audience and genre. I generally write outside of my cultural and incorporate foreign languages for the characters within my own cultural demographic. But only if the plot is driven that way. On the positive side, being diversified helps you reach a larger audience. I speak this from experience.

April  ( Green Cove Springs, FL ) I believe a good author can put themselves in the shoes of the character, with proper research, to give their story a real bond with the reader. We all know Stephen King is white but he has succeeded in writing many different characters as if he has experienced his stories in some aspects. A good writer can do all of the above.

Dean (Maplewood, MN) So… only vampires should write vampire novels? wink emoticon .Randy Alcorn is a white middle class male, yet he has crafted such vivid and realistic African American characters, that some black readers thought that he was African American, too… until they saw his photo on the back cover of his books

Rikki  (Beaverton,Oregon)I do, but I always get someone of that demographic to beta read the book and make changes to make the character sound believable.

brad (Rockford, MI) We go into fiction expecting the characters to have some degree of diversity, whether in personality or sex or occupation, etc. In fact, we would pan a novel in which all the characters were little carbon copies of the author. Cultural and racial diversity enriches almost any story, I feel, and not only those written by white authors either. If we could get publishers to do anything, all the exciting works wouldn’t be coming out of the indie publishing world these days. Therefore, if minority authors want their unique voices heard, they need only to jump in.

Carole  (New York) I seriously had problems writing about Black culture because I never really connected to it. Then I managed it. Not sure if i could do it again though. So it’s really culture…not race.

Sheila  (Detroit, MI) you must research your character, cannot write about what you do not know or experienced…at times you may want your reader to feel the characters if possible

Piper  (Atlanta, GA) To answer your first question, I agree completely with Shelia. Research is crucial. Far too many writers approach the creation of characters outside of their own culture with blinders of arrogance on, when humility and a learning curve are needed instead. As your second question, POC authors have been “jumping in” to the traditional publishing pool for some time–only to be greeted by a very cool welcome. The rise of self-publishing has potentially allowed for some thawing to occur. 2016 should be interesting to see in how traditional publishing reacts to the changes that have happened in self-publishing and the emergence of strong niche markets.

Sarah  (Haven, CT)The fantasy genre gives authors the freedom to explore cultures, and the idea of cultures encountering each other, except too many have blond haired blue eyed protagonists.

I believe writers NEED to write outside their race, culture, ethnicity, etc. if only for practice. Male writers need to practice writing women, female writers, men. An author has the amazing opportunity to expand a person’s understanding of the world. How can we truly do that if we keep our own understanding narrow?

Jenny  Something else to pay attention to when creating characters is setting. Especially if the setting is a place that actually exists. After spending a year living in San Jose, Costa Rica for language school, my husband and I were stunned to watch “Jurassic Park” again and realize that the San Jose, Costa Rica they depicted toward the beginning of the movie looked ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like the real San Jose. In that movie, it’s on the coast. In reality, it’s about 4 hours inland on either side. You’d have thought major movie producers would’ve paid closer attention to that “small” detail. ;-D

(I know that doesn’t relate to culture, per se, but if you’re going to depict a character from another cultural place, you’d better describe it accurately.)

Terri (Baltimore, MD) There is a great need for diversity in publishing industry. The most effective way to accomplish that is the question. I think that divisivation can happen in two ways: the industry publishing more authors of color and the industry publishing more books with featuring main characters of color. As far as writing diversely, I try to write the world I see around me. I consider that world authentic. In my world, I interact with people from all cultural backgrounds on a regular basis. I also write my characters for the story. I don’t try and force a race on someone just for diversity sake.


What do you think? Should you only ‘stick to your own’ or ‘branch out?’

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