Friday, December 14, 2012

Ethnic Characters

Years ago I heard this advice from two writers: white authors shouldn't feature major characters who were Native American or African American because they don't "get" them. (The first writer was Native American, the other African American.) The mandate kind of surprised me, since I'd started in publishing writing ethnic heroes and heroines, and I'd read plenty of books I'd loved featuring characters of a different ethnicity than the authors.

For whatever reason, those opinions stuck with me for a long time, until I'd written the last of my Southern Knights/Serenity Street series, when a reader asked if I would make a particular character the heroine of her own story and give her the happily-ever-after she deserved. I kind of stumbled around in an answer, until the reader said, "You're hesitating because she's black, aren't you?"

I admitted that I'd been told by other authors that I shouldn't do ethnic heroes or heroines, and she laughed. "I'm black," she said, "and I'm asking you to write this black woman's story."

She went on to point out that, regardless of bad advice, I did write black characters; they were just secondary characters. She reminded me that, first and foremost, heroes and heroines were people. Forget the color of their skin: at their core, they were men and women who hoped and tried and won and failed and were lonely and happy and angry and loved or neglected. They had dreams; they had disappointments. Nail the emotions, she said. That was what readers wanted. The rest would follow.

Though I haven't written that final Serenity Street book, I did take the woman's advice to heart. I learned that, basically, writing a character of a particular ethnic background is no different than a character from a specific geographic background or even a character in a particular occupation. I've read books set in my home state of Oklahoma where it's apparent the author thinks we're all cowboys or Indians, uneducated or oil-wealthy, living in log cabins or soddies or mansions. I've read books with Southern characters who are caricatures from Gone with the Wind  or Hee-Haw. I've read books with a military background where even the basic terminology, ranks, ideas, are miles off the mark.

And I've read books written by people who have never set foot in my state but nailed the characters. Who haven't gotten closer to the South than looking at a map but write as if they grew up in Macon or Charleston or Raleigh. Whose only interaction with a police office has been talking their way out of a speeding ticket but who write cops so believable, you'd think they either were cops themselves or were married to one.

The key is research. We don't have to be murderers to be able to write people who are. We don't need to be white, black, Indian, cowboy, soldier, cop, schoolteacher, Christian, atheist, Jew, mother, father, child to be able to write characters who are. We need to research the backgrounds of our characters, though. We need to know them, inside and out. We need to do them justice.


  1. Marilyn--
    Write on! Couldn't resist the pun. I still want you to write that last Serenity Street story!

    1. I would love to write Shawntae's story. I may need to make time to go back, reread all the books, then squeeze her into my schedule.

  2. If I had to name the secret you discovered, I'd call it empathetic writing. You've perfected the ability to put yourself in the character's place. You fit your toes inside their toes, and slip your spirit into who they are.
    We get to experience their emotions with them, which is why you're such a success, and why so many of us look forward to every book you write.
    That woman was right . . . nail the emotion. You do.

    1. Empathetic writing -- I like that! I like your description of it, too. Thank you!

      I don't know if it's because I was so shy as a kid that I spent a lot of time observing other people, or because I'm so emotional myself that you name it, I've experienced it intensely forever. (I think I just described myself as a drama queen, lol.) But the emotion is the easiest part for me. Sometimes it wears me out, but it's almost always easier for me to write an emotional book than a suspense/thriller/mystery.

  3. I just saw this post. Seriously? I consider it racist that someone believes you can't write ethnic characters. I adored Anamarie. Robbie? Not so much until she shook him up. He was a PIA in previous books. I also believe I remember her sweetly pregnant in a later book? Have to look that up. A talented writer who has thoroughly researched their work has every right to develop any character. What about authors of the sci-fi or horror genre'? And the whole vampire craze (hope that is so over)? No one tells them they shouldn't write their characters. Those of color or mixed heritage, such as my granddaughter, have a right to have an abundance of literary characters to enjoy. Oops. Rant over.

    1. Feel free to rant any time, Deb. I'm glad you liked Anamaria. She was one of those special characters who just sort of occupy my head. I could see/hear her in every one of her scenes. She was pregnant later; she and Robbie have a son named Will and a daughter named Gloriana.

      And thank you. Now that I've gotten that limitation out of my head for good, I intend to continue having all kinds of characters in my books, just as there are all kinds of people in my life.