What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

Or perhaps I should call this one what I do when I realize all my protagonists are white. Nah, that’s less catchy, but I’ll clarify now that this is what I do. I’m hardly a Multicultural Writing Expert. These are the tricks I use for the kind of writing I tend to do. I’m putting them up here in part because I think others might find them helpful, and in part because I’m hoping other people will have some more ideas that I might find useful.

I should also go into a little bit into my rationale for caring in the first place, because that has a huge bearing on my process. I belong to the school of thought that says that stories play a role in how we form our ideas about the world around us. If those stories all have white protagonists and only have people of color as villains and one dimensional tertiary colors, that helps bolster racist ways of seeing the world, while being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable. I believe the stories we tell have more power to change minds than all the workplace mandated sensitivity trainings, for the simple reason that people come to stories open hearted, while they go through workshops watching the clock for a chance to escape. However, I believe that for stories to have their full impact, they must be believed. To be believed, they must feel real. For that reason, I think painstakingly ensuring every story has one black person, one Asian person, one Native American person, and so on is ineffective. At one point that approach was a step forward, but these days its just cloying and obvious, and nearly as easy for the audience to dismiss as those sensitivity trainings. Stories should not feel like I deigned to put some POC characters in, or like I grudgingly chopped out a space for them in deference to political correctness. Those should feel natural, so the audience hardly notices they are there. One day, we should get to a point where lacking diversity is as jarring and noticeable to readers as having diversity was to readers fifty years ago.

1. Think about the setting. Which races are germane to the setting, and which are rarer but still plausible? Something in the Medieval England countryside, probably doesn’t need any characters who aren’t white. Japanese characters won’t fit into any story outside of Japan, from 1635 to 1868. They had a strict isolationist policy. On the flip side, though, there are many settings that we think of as less diverse than they necessarily are. Note how I said Medieval countryside in the first example? The ports and major cities were a different story. Plenty of Spaniards, Italians and Moors made their way there, as merchants, diplomats, sailors, mercenaries, and so on. The American Old West also gets very inaccurately whitewashed. In the Southwest, much of the territory was recently acquired from Spain and Mexico, so a high percentage of the population was Hispanic, just as it is today. Furthermore, the new territories were popular destinations for freed or escaped slaves. A quarter of all cowboys were black.

2. Think about cultures. I have a basic rule; I don’t have to be intimately familiar with a culture to write a character who belongs to the race associated with it, but I do need intimate familiarity to write a character who identifies strongly with that culture. Real people exist along a spectrum when it comes to culture. We belong to many groups, and we usually identify more strongly with one group than another. You don’t have to know everything about Hispanic culture to write a person who is Hispanic; nobody will think its implausible if you write a person who happens to be Hispanic but identifies primarily as a tremendous geek. On the other hand, trying to write a culture without some experience with it is like trying to draw a portrait going only off of secondhand descriptions. No matter how great an artist you are, you never seem to end up with anything better than a caricature.

Those two steps together give me an idea of which races I should be looking to add into my story. That in turn helps avoid tokenism. Saying, “okay, if I add one black, one Asian and one Hispanic character, hopefully no one will yell at me,” looks contrived. Saying, “Cleveland really should have more black people,” is just being realistic. The rest of the steps help me decide which characters to change.

3. How clear is my sense of each character? When I write, I like the characters to feel alive in my head. Some writers complain about their characters taking over the story, changing its direction. I’m almost disappointed when they don’t. So if I have a strong character who has been very assertive about who they are, I’ve learned to avoid messing with that. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even changing a character’s hair color can make them lose a certain vividness in my mind. This can be a problem as I’m looking for characters to change races. On the other hand, it can also be an advantage. Sometimes my characters are being less lively than I want them to be. Either they aren’t coming to life, or they have come to life, but become characters I’m less interested in writing. These characters are the first on the block to change race. The new race doesn’t change who they are as people, fundamentally; rather, giving them a new face, and often a new name, also gives my own mind the flexibility to solve some deeper character problems. I come out with a cast that is more diverse, and also just better.

4. Deal with stereotypes. Obviously, if making a character a particular race would also make them into a stereotype, don’t make that character that race. However, this is most likely to be a problem if only the low ranking, tertiary characters are being made minorities, which itself is an issue. Major characters are supposed to be fleshed out and complex. A character whose only noteworthy traits are being smart and Asian is a stereotype. A character who was always good at school but particularly loves astronomy and lies awake stargazing and wondering about alien life, whose passion eventually took him to Astronaut Camp where he has begun actively wondering about his odds of becoming a real astronaut, because he really wants it, but so do many kids and only a handful become astronauts (but then again somebody will get to do it and why shouldn’t it be him?), and meanwhile he is having a summer romance with this girl who is allergic to peanut butter which is driving him crazy because peanut butter is his favorite food ever, which is leading him to wonder whether this is proof that he really loves her because he is making a sacrifice, or proving that he doesn’t because if he really loved her he could give it up without any trouble… that character isn’t a stereotype, even if he happens to be Asian.

Which brings me to another thing I think about. Just as in my previous writing about gender, a person’s race might not define how they behave, but it will affect how people around them think of them. So I don’t only think about how to avoid making stereotypical characters. I also consider which characters will interact in interesting ways with the stereotypes society might hold about them. Once, for example, I had a love interest who everyone thought was stupid and troublesome. He was considered a bad boy by nearly everyone. Part of the love story revolved around the protagonist realizing that he was actually a very nice guy, and intelligent. He had ADHD and some other learning disabilities that were diagnosed late. By the time they had, he had already gotten a reputation among his teachers. He, in turn, had developed a sense that his teachers would always be less patient with him, and had a certain distrust of authority at school, which is why he continued to butt heads with his teachers, but in other contexts he was actually very sweet and responsible. Initially he was white, but I realized that the stereotypes young black men often have to deal with fit very neatly with his backstory. I’ve actually seen this dynamic at work in one of the elementary schools I used to work at; the white teacher expects the black boy to be trouble, and so has less patience with him when he is trouble. He in turn realizes she isn’t expecting his best behavior, and so gives up trying to please her, which she takes as confirmation that she was right all along, and the cycle continues. So in that case, even though the character was fine as a white person, I changed him.

5. Top characters get changed first. While writing minorities of all sorts has improved over the years, an issue that remains is that even when non-white characters exist, they are almost never the protagonist. If I can change the protagonist’s race, I do. I also look to love interests and deuteragonists, characters who are the protagonists of major subplots and narrators. What I try to avoid is the black best friend problem, where everything important to the story is done by white characters and then the one non-white role is taken by someone whose role is just to listen to the white protagonist whine. Best friends might be important to the protagonist, but that is different from being important to the story. Characters important to the story are the ones whose actions significantly alter the course of it, or who are profoundly shaped by the course of the story. If a character’s primary role is providing commentary, or getting rescued, or giving aid in a way that doesn’t require them to put in real effort or make a significant sacrifice, they are really just ambulatory plot devices. If those are the only characters I’m changing, I’m not doing it right, and I need to take another look at my truly important characters.

So, what do the rest of you think? How do you approach diversity in your casts?

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6 thoughts on “What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

    1. Crap, my iPad posted that comment before I was done. As I was saying, I haven’t given too much thought to how my characters’ races are related to the setting of my novel aside from it being a post-apocalyptic setting where the ozone layer is nearly destroyed. Taking that under consideration, most of the characters would probably have darker skin. It’s also important to consider that after hundreds of years and a diminished gene pool, there may not be as much variation in skin tone and facial features.

      …Not sure how to portray this in my novel, since my protagonist isn’t aware that such differences once existed.

      Thanks for posting this! You’ve given me something to consider while revising my first three chapters and backstories.

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      1. I’m glad you found this helpful. I haven’t given as much thought to how to handle futuristic/alternate universe settings, because worldbuilding is one of my big weaknesses. I rely on the crutch of settings that are either real world or closely based on it. Good luck with your story!

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  1. “…being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable.”

    I believe that not caring about race, makes racism untenable. I think any effort devoted toward including or excluding a race, from any situation, is inherently racist. Just write the story. You’re who you are (I’m assuming white), you have your culture, your background, and your beliefs. There’s no reason to feel ashamed about that, and writing all white characters all the live long day is perfectly fine. When you start walking on eggshells for another race, for anyone, then the situation becomes unnatural, and things devolve from there. Do what feels natural, and if you’re a kind person–perhaps as silly as that sounds–no harm can come from you or anything you create.

    I, for one, am offended that for some reason it’s unacceptable to write all white characters. Who cares? I’m white, if I want to write white characters, I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. Everyone in China is Chinese, ethnically and culturally, and they don’t feel bad about writing novels where everyone is Chinese. Why, when we live in the most multicultural and diverse country in the history of the world, do we still feel guilty for having anything that’s exclusively white?

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I should clarify that I’m not doing this out of guilt. At times when I was a child I felt uncomfortable when being educated about the uglier parts of US history, but I continued to educate myself anyway, and I realized the guilt was silly.

      My ancestors were racist. My ancestors persecuted Native Americans, denied opportunities to immigrants despite being descended from immigrants a few generations ago, and kept black slaves. The last two I am guessing based on sheer probability, but the last one I know for a fact. I am a direct descendant of the owner of one of the largest plantations in colonial America. None of those facts say anything about me as a person. It is only what I do that determines who I am.

      However, I still live in a country that tends to disproportionately favor whites. We are on the verge of becoming a pluralty, rather than a majority, in this country, yet the vast majority of powerful positions are still held by white men. I think it is willfully fatuous to look at that and say, “You know what the best thing I can possibly do about this? Absolutely nothing. Choosing to include non-white people in areas where they have historically been excluded would be making decisions based on their race, and that’s racist.” I had no control over what the world was made to be before I arrived here, but I do have decisions to make about what actions I will take to shape it now that I am here.

      Now, if you really feel you would prefer to only write white characters, I am not stopping you. Nobody is forcing you to follow any of the ideas I came up with, just as nobody was forcing me. Sometimes I do things just because, after some thought, I’ve decided they would be good things to do. I do believe that writing non-white characters will help make the world less sucky, and I also have found that there are ways to use the process to improve my stories overall. As long as I feel that writing non-white characters is a good thing to do, beneficial for both the world at large and my stories in particular, I will continue to do it, no coercion needed.

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