Aug 22, 2011

Ethnicity

Sorry for being absent over the weekend. It was my birthday on Saturday so I took a few days off from blogging and writing. Back to the grindstone now, though!

Ireland, for the most part, is very mono-ethnic. Sure, we have a fair number of immigrants, and people of other ethnicities than Caucasian, but we just don't have the same diversity of people seen in England or the United States. Even those immigrants we do have mostly started arriving only over the course of the last twenty years, so as a nation we're still learning how to adjust to the presence of other cultures. As a result, I've spent my life having very few friends who weren't Caucasian and born in Ireland.

I sometimes feel like this has left me at a disadvantage when it comes to my writing. I have little direct experience with other cultures aside from the time I've spent in Italy, so this can limit my comfort in protraying people from cultures outside my own. This could be one reason I enjoy setting my books in America, because we're so saturated by American culture anyway. It's more comfortable to use that setting since everyone usually knows what to expect, and examples of cultural differences there are very easy to research.

What I've also found is that I don't instincitively create characters who aren't white. Sometimes when creating a particular character, the idea might come to me use an alternative ethnicity, or I may choose to do it because it fits the story better, but often the majority of my characters are, in my head if not specified in the text, white.

I get honestly concerned that my books could turn into the Charge of the White Brigade if I'm not careful. But on the other hand, I don't want to seem like I'm adding in black, Chinese, or Jewish characters just for the sake of seeming to be diverse, and then failing to represent their cultures appropriately.

I know I'm probably worried for nothing, and particularly in fantasy I can show only the parts of a culture I'm definitely familiar with and not risk losing out on depth of character, but this is just one of those things that gets to me from time to time.

What about you? Do you find yourself with any habits regarding ethnicity or background? Do you find them a problem? Are there any other things you worry about getting right when writing? Or, does it bother you when certain ethnicities don't show up as often in fiction?

10 comments:

  1. Great post, Paul (as always!), and an excellent question. I've been wrestling with this very problem myself. While I live in a multi-ethnic country & community, I don't necessarily think to specify ethnicity when writing characters. Doing so actually feels cumbersome to me, as if I'm trying too hard to be politically correct. Perhaps it's because I don't remark on ethnicity with real people and so don't think to do so with my characters -- they're all just people in my head. I'd be curious to know how readers feel about this issue, and if writers of other ethnic backgrounds struggle with it as well.

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  2. Writing fiction based on the City of Heroes Universe, I find the backdrop of a large US Metropolis has given me the incentive to look into other ethnicities and cultures and experiment with writing them.

    The main one I can think of is an ice manipulating character called Quickfrost. Out of costume, he's Jacob Dalmers. Tall, quiet and rather concise in his way of speaking. He enjoys cooking for his girlfriend, tending a small window garden and working on cars. He's also got a thing for documentaries.

    Oh, and he's black.

    When writing him, I've made sure to look into civil rights and everything, but I find the main thing for me is not letting their ethnicity being their defining feature, and not playing to excessive stereotype.

    His race is a part of him, but it's not the whole of him. The issue of racism does come up sometimes. He's sensitive to it as he's been affected by it in the past. His previous girlfriend's parents (Hispanic as I recall) forced her to split up with him on account of his race (and not the fact that he's a glowing blue eyed walking freezer), and he's a little sensitive to some of the cultural conceptions regarding him, as a black man, dating a white woman.

    Other than that though, he's just a guy who's many things and just happens to be black. Just like Jonathan and Amanda Wong are people who just happen to be Chinese Praetorians (though Jonathan in any case is quite proud of his culture, but considering China is an irradiated, infested wasteland in the alternative dimension of Praetoria, a will to keep alive traditions is rather understandable). And Adrian is a guy who likes murder mysteries and Sesame Street.

    And also happens to be an eight foot tall, heavily armoured android. Who wears sweaters and waistcoats.

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  3. I love this post Paul, it's honest and a very good question. I have to agree with the past two, the second in particular. Race, like sexuality (The other issue I've heard people have issues with in this context) is part of you but not your defining quality. I think as your characters are alive to you when your writing you should go with how they appear to you. If one day you feel that a character is black or gay or anything else then write it. You have to have confidence in yourself and what you write or it won't work. You cannot change where or how you grew up, but I bet if you wanted to go find out about different cultures for writing people would be very happy to help! It could also be very interesting and inspirational! Good luck with it!!

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  4. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you......lalala
    I haven't faced this yet, but it is an important issue. There is huge controversy over The Help because a white woman wrote in a black voice about living in the segregated south of the 1960s.
    Karen

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  5. Nothing is more annoying than including the token brown person or gay person just to have "diversity" and be "politically correct." We see this all the time in TV and movies but I expect literature to be more realistic and honest, with authors writing what they know. If that means all white, all African-American, all Mexican or all Jewish characters-- so what? That's why I love to read, I get a window into different worlds.

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  6. Over at Story Games[1], there was some discussion a while ago about games set in historical periods, and the idea of "history panic" emerged. With some discussion, we realized that it was really culture panic, triggered by historical distance. I think that this is relevant, but I can't make all the connections in my current state of awake.

    [1] http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=14202

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  7. Great questions. Gives us something to think about.
    www.rebeccabany.com

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  8. These videos are theoretically about video-games but they generally apply to games and stories in general. You may have seen them already but if not and diversity is something you're thinking about they're definitely worth watching.
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2175-Diversity
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2520-Sexual-Diversity
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2868-True-Female-Characters
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/3633-Race-in-Games

    Oh, sorry I missed your birthday party btw, family stuff happened.

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  9. Belated birthday wishes!

    Great post!
    I'll differ to the comments before me - they all seem to reflect my own thoughts on this topic - no sense in restating what was so eloquently stated before me!

    Write your characters as you see them and they will always do your story justice!

    Cheers, Jenny

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  10. lindapoitevin: I know what you mean. I think trying too hard to be PC is a bad idea, it comes across as false. Oddly, one of my crit partners felt one of my characters came across as Indian, or at least mixed-race, and I hadn't given any details of her skin tone.

    Ellen De Tarrier: I like that. Race is a part of him, not all of him. I'll keep that in mind.

    cliodhnab: Well it helps that I love learning about other cultures and histories. I do worry though that, no matter how much I learn in an academic sense, without first-hand experience I may not manage to pull it off.

    Karen Walker: I can see why that would cause controversy. I mean, I write in worlds that have strong fantasy elements, so I can pull back on the significance of real-world cultural differences in the face of vampires and demons, but I don't want to push my luck.

    KarenG: That's a good viewpoint. To let the story matter more than the background of the characters.

    Kit: I think I get what you mean. Once something is outside our own experiences, we're a lot more concerned with making sure we get it right. If it's part of our day to day life, we're more comfortable making changes, or mistakes.

    Rebecca: Thanks!

    Zounds: I love the Extra Credits series. Thanks for sharing the links to those topics!

    Jenny: Thanks. I'll keep that in mind.

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