Writers are supposed to go beyond their surroundings, and create worlds unlike those they’ve faced in life. That means writing about places they’ve never been to, jobs they’ve never held, situations they’ve never been in and hopefully would never be in.
This also includes creating characters very much unlike them – including those of a different ethnic, racial or religious background.
As authors we have to portray the fact that our countries are more multicultural than ever before, particularly in the United States. I’m sure British, Canadian and over nationalities know that it is really a folly to have all-white characters in our books. Unless it is in a rural area with few industries that doesn’t often attract racial minorities, but that is not always the case.
When I wrote my book, I knew I could not have all my characters to be white. It just doesn’t make sense to do that. However, to be honest, I also knew I couldn’t create a major character who was not of European descent. Not because I was afraid of not being able to sell my book because of the fewer white characters. Not because I was afraid of some racist disliking my book. And not because I harbor any prejudiced views myself.
I chose not to write a major minority character because I truly do not know what it is like to be a minority in the United States. I understand anyone who isn’t white – or even Christian or heterosexual – has had a lot of difficulty in this country. But I could never know what it is like to be a minority because I did not live that life. I could read every single book about living as an minority in America, but I still could never fully walk in the shoes of someone who is black, gay, Jewish, Muslim, Asian, and so on.
If I were to try to write minority main characters, I really don’t think I can portray their lives and mindsets accurately, and therefore, I didn’t do my job as an author. It is almost like writing what you know. Even though writers are supposed to break that age-old suggestion, I believe it shouldn’t be done if you cannot do it well.
That being said, I don’t think an author shouldn’t at least write secondary or minor characters who are not white. In my book, I had one of my protagonist’s roommates, and close friend, be a Mexican-American. I also had one of the vampires be biracial. Perhaps I should’ve created more ethnic characters, but I plan to do that in the follow-ups, but we’ll get to that later.
I admit, though, I was nervous about the way I portrayed Monica Alejandrez, the Hispanic character. I wondered if I was subconsciously giving in to any stereotypes about Mexican-Americans. I don’t think I did, and I haven’t received any complaints. But that’s the anxiety with writing about something that is very sensitive to many people. Racial, ethnic and religious issues are very controversial and sensitive. Just the fact that I had a Hispanic character and a half-black, half-white character might be seen as a huge statement. If anything, the only statement I made is acknowledging that white people are not the only ones in America; there are many other races and cultures here. That may be huge to some, but to me, it was all matter-of-fact.
I also admit to being a little nervous about how I portrayed Claire McCormick’s other best friend, Samantha DiCarlo, an Italian-American. I made her outspoken and even a bit loud. She may seem a bit too blunt for some, but she was brave enough to confront Claire’s evil vampire boyfriend at one point. Was I giving into Italian stereotypes? I probably was, though I haven’t received any complaints. Then again, I grew up in an area that had a large Italian-American population where 90% of my elementary class was of Italian background. Maybe seeing this culture as it is gave me a good observation. But again, I’m not Italian, so maybe I wrongly gave into stereotypes.
It is a huge challenge to write about characters who are not of the same racial, ethnic and religious background as your own. Unless you’ve had a good access to those cultures, it is very difficult to do a good job at creating characters who are much different from you. That is my experience, anyway. I could be dead wrong or worrying about nothing.
If you are a writer, how do you approach creating characters not of your background? If you are a reader, how do you feel about this topic?