There Be Pitfalls Here
I have trouble when writing people of different ethnicities, just like I have a problem with setting stories in places I haven’t been to. If you read every word of every story I’ve ever written, you might wonder at the complete lack of multi-ethnic main characters. There’s a reason so many of my stories are either set in Canada, a vague fictional town, or fantasyland. As I mentioned in Getting Your Setting Right, how inaccurate is a writer allowed to be, before readers won’t forgive them anymore?
And ethnicity is a pretty important thing to get right, since ethnicities have been stereotyped all over the place, and people have even written about other people without realizing they’re perpetuating stereotypes.
It might be less of a big deal if I stereotype Americans or French or something – sure, everyone in that country might hate me, but I could probably go on writing. But if I pull out an inaccurate or insensitive portrayal of an ethnicity that has historically been discriminated against, that’s a whole other story. Besides all that, I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes about people, even accidentally.
All of which makes me a little nervous to explicitly describe a character as being of one ethnicity or another. My main worry, I guess, is my own ignorance. In the history profession, historians have huge arguments over who’s allowed to write the history of peoples that have been discriminated against. Can anyone do it, or just members of a culture? This came about because history was so often written from a Caucasian perspective, by historians who thought they were being fair and accurate, but only revealed their biases. For example, writing the whole history as a story of doom and gloom and continual oppression by colonialists, without describing any of the strengths of that culture. See, the issue is these historians thought they were accurate, but they really weren’t able to get themselves into the heads of people so different from themselves. And I can see the same issues arising in fiction.
Now, it’s hard to say only First Nations people can write novels with Native characters in them, or whichever ethnicity you want to talk about, because maybe then not enough of these stories get written. But writers who write them are taking a risk. We have to be humble when trying to get inside the head of someone who might have a different. And I guess I have humbled myself out of writing these at the moment. Part of being a writer is stretching yourself and getting inside the heads of people other than you, so this might not be the best thing. All the same, I’m not going to write until I feel I can portray something relatively accurately.
After all, it’s common enough for movie and TV writers to insert flat characters just for the sake of looking more ethnically diverse – see TVtropes’ pages on “Token Minority” and “Five-Token Band.” If the characters are there just for looks, and aren’t developed at all, this seems a little pointless to me. The other pitfall is to make the only important thing about the character their ethnic background. If everyone in your story is specifically labelled as being from one ethnic group or another, you risk reducing your characters to mere categories. I liked how JK Rowling managed to make it clear that Hogwarts was not a 100% British school, but she didn’t feel the need to describe Cho Chang (for example) as having an Asian background. This is one way of handling it, though it’s true most of these characters were not major characters in Harry Potter.
So, there are several pitfalls to experimenting with characters of different ethnicities. I think it’s good for writers to consider for a while exactly how they’re going to deal with these before they start. What about you – how would you approach writing about characters with different ethnicities? Or when reading, have you noticed authors doing this well, or poorly?