Writing People of Different Race, Religion, and/or Cultures: A Louse-y Guide

Good [whatever hour of day you’re in] everyone!

I’m back bigger and somewhat better than before, and today we’ll be talking about (you guessed it) writing people of different cultures and/or races.  So if you’re anything like the ol’ Louse, you may find yourself writing about these things– it doesn’t always have to be fictional writing, since anthropology requires you of this, and so does geography; but since this is a creative writing blog, this post will be focused more on fictional writing (open to script writers too).  Therefore, I’m just gonna give you all the lowdown from a (n amateur) writer’s perspective.

!!DISCLAIMER!! I’m not a published professional, and this particular topic may be sensitive to some, perhaps not at all to others.  But regardless, this is only one person’s insight of this sort of writing with the intention to provide tips and to start a discussion.  While I am a person of colour, that does not excuse me from being ignorant or wrong in some aspects.  Feel free to voice your concerns, corrections, or additional information by commenting below or via the contact form.

With that now out of the way, let’s carry on!

Mmkay?

Part 1: The ($0.05) Tips

While it is an eye opening experience writing about either a culture, race or religion, the silent rule will always stand: tread carefully.  I’ll start this post with some tips of the trade (aka common sense)

Tip #1: (screaming into a megaphone): Reseaaaaaaarcccchhh!!

Obviously, this is the most fundamental aspect when it comes to writing a particular group of people.  Whether you’re writing about modern day Greeks, Dominican Friars, or pre-Colonial Aztecs, you’re not going to pull these descriptions out of your backside.  This is all out of respect for the particular people you’re writing about.  If you want to be as accurate as possible, then a trip to the non-fiction section of the library is a good start.  Here are a few things that all end with the suffix “-graphy” to consider:

  • Geography: if your writing is set in another country.  While it’s entirely normal to create a fictional town, city, or area to make things a little easier, it won’t be entirely believable.  Look up lakes, mountain ranges, capital/significant cities, sites such as monuments, and important roads or routes.  Although Castle Rock doesn’t exist, author Stephen King mentions real places, uses vernacular, and vice versa (something I call Maine-isms).  Perhaps do a little research on the indigenous/local languages, and if you want, you can name your fictional place after a word.  Or, if you want to set your story in a real place, visit it if you can.  Otherwise, read up about the place of interest, or find blogs/vlogs or books so you can get a ‘feel’ of what that place is like.
  • Ethnography: a fancy word that describes writings by anthropologists that describe in detail aspects of the culture they researched.  They gather their information by being “on the inside” by living with the people, engaging in their customs and whatnot while actively observing and recording this information as they do.  But be cautious; while ethnographies intend to be neutral, academic texts designed to solely provide information about the particular group of people studied, there will always be some sort of bias present (it’s human nature, bro)– whether they sympathize with the people, or they antagonize them.  It may be very, very, subtle but it is still a bias, and something to take into consideration.
  • Biography: bonus points if it’s an autobiography.  Perhaps the best way to garner information is to read about the account of one’s life–their experiences, their senses and their thoughts.  Additionally, try to find other accounts that complement or even challenge the biography to see the bigger picture of the life you are portraying.  Documentaries of one’s life/experiences can also prove useful.

Tip #2: Be mindful and respectful, and remember you’re not going to get everything right

Sometimes we can get a little carried away with our stories and characters.  If you’re writing about someone that is of entirely different culture to you, be mindful.  You’re not always going to get every detail correct, and people want to be represented in a positive way.  While you write your story with good intentions, people may find fault in narrative, but that’s okay!  Remember Memoirs of a Geisha?  An American novelist wrote about what life was like as a traditional Japanese entertainer, but it was met with some backlash since geisha (particularly the geisha he based his work on) and others felt that the book was misrepresenting what it is truly like to be a geisha, and that it adds to the stereotypes and romanticism that orbits Japanese culture.  All the more so that the guy that wrote this novel is white and male, something that a geisha is not.  However, it is understandable that Arthur Golden wrote Memoirs with good intent and with a genuine interest in the culture, even going as far as to interview the retired geisha Mineko Iwasaki to gather information.

In short, be mindful of the culture/race/belief you’re writing about.  Rest assured, your work is a piece of fiction, and that you’re not expected to get literally every single detail correct, but it’s best to try and make it as authentic and faithful as you can.  It won’t be fair if someone from outside of your nation or faith would write a character based on misconceptions and poor research (us Aussies tend to roll our eyes about how Hollywood portrays Australians… like not all of us are a) hot surfers or b) outback adventurers.  THE IN-BETWEEN EXISTS!!!).

People should give you a little leeway if this is something new to you and may shrug off minor mistakes or imperfections, just as long as you represent the characters with respect and acknowledge that there may be readers that won’t agree with your portrayals.

Tip #3: Stop watching your back and have fun! 

Despite my first two tips suggesting to tip-toe carefully, writing won’t be any fun if you’re constantly worried that your representations may not be accurate enough.  Be happy that you’re learning about something new, and we don’t always have to “write what we know”, despite the advice thrown about.  Additionally, be genuine with your words.  Don’t worry about backlash or nitpicking from your audience– until it happens.

Maybe you are writing this story because you are genuinely interested in the culture/race/religion and wanted to write something about it, or you want to transport yourself in some other person’s shoes.  Write and at the same time learn, and be proud of what you’re creating!

Part 2: Here’s a Few Issues that the PC Police Will Confront You With (aka how to not appear ignorant and rub readers the wrong way)

This is a more detailed offshoot to Tip #2, and here, some issues that may arise from writing about human aspects that are very much different to what we’re used to.  As writers, we have access to as much creativity  we want– some of us even use ‘artistic licence’ to make things more interesting.  Adding a faith or culture can be a way to add some sort of ‘depth’ (for lack of better word) to characters, but its best to write fully rounded characters with traits that don’t just revolve around their race/religion/culture, otherwise our portrayals may become a topic of controversy. However, whether we intend to or not, we may end up doing some of these things:

Stereotyping

stereotype

Yeah, this is the biggie that the PC Police may chase us down for.  There are both positive and negative stereotypes, but using stereotypes is often looked down upon whether they are good or bad. I’ll make an example out of one of the stories that I plan on writing. The characters are both Jewish (a young man and his mother), but I have to be careful with using the Jewish Mother trope since I may end up turning my characters (unfairly) into caricatures– and I don’t want that to happen, and my story isn’t going to read like a stand-up. So, we got to follow Tip #1 thoroughly to minimize any misrepresentations. It is also good to be mindful when describing characters; think about the words you’ll use. Some adjectives may come off as insensitive.  But remember that your audience aren’t dumb; they’re not going to believe some of these stereotypes unless they’re bigoted, so if you re-read your story and it appears that you’ve unintentionally described someone in a stereotypical way, acknowledge that you did this by accident and forgive yourself.  But, if you get called out by someone on your blog or other social media, don’t get defensive and instead be honest; address this issue professionally, and apologize (and no, not that “sorry you reacted that way, but it’s my story and I like it this way blah blah blah”.  Be empathic to your audience).

While some stereotypes are known to have some truth behind them, many others have a negative stigma attached to them that are based on ignorance and discrimination, and people may use these stereotypes against a particular group. Therefore, when beginning to work on a character, be sure that they don’t fit a negative stereotype/caricature.

Demonizing

demonizing

This one may crop up if you’re writing action/war/history narratives. Our dear protagonist is obviously touted to be the good person in the story, but what if the enemy maybe entirely different physically and culturally? Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t write rivals or foes that are different to what you or I are, but don’t just reduce the antagonists to mere ‘bad guys’. The antagonists in question have a cause to what they’re doing. Now, in no way am I sympathizing with the baddies, but a risk that you or I may run into is dehumanizing the enemies and are therefore further antagonized; all the more so if they are of different background to us. Actually, the purpose of this point is to make sure that the antagonists are more than just bland ‘2D’ cutouts of what an antagonist should be. There is a long list of tropes/characters often used in this particular genre, such as savages, Axis Power soldiers, drug cartels and radical extremists. They make readers feel angered and disgusted by what they are/were doing. We’re also further removed from the antagonists due to the language barrier (I could count how many WWII films that involve actors speaking in google translate German). Therefore, these antagonists are very much to different to what we’re used to, and thus easier to despise.

Just like the protagonists, the antagonists have their own motives, families, and personal goals. They shouldn’t be created just for the sole purpose of being evil and being the ‘Other’ (postcolonial theory, anyone?). Yes, while these foes are most likely designed to be defeated or killed off, it may come off a little insensitive by killing the ‘savages’ who may only be protecting their land. There are some literary theories that go hand in hand with this point, and I think I should delve into this more in a future post.   But I’ll digress here and say that I’m aware that there are very malevolent people that are responsible for a lot of wrong doings and tragedies in both the past and the present.  If you were to write a story in which the antagonists have done something entirely despicable and inhumane that intends to shock, disgust, and unsettle your readers, then by all means write your antagonists as evil as you want, but don’t attribute their maleficence to their religion, race, or culture.  Instead, their cause of misdemeanor can be due to them being misguided, brainwashed, or they may be pathologically disturbed.  

So to conclude, well-rounded antagonists will make your story all the more engaging, complex, and less flat. A suggestion would be a confrontation between the protagonists and the antagonists (yeah, yeah, it’s cliche) discussing their differences and motives prior to the climactic showdown.  So, to end my ramble, I’ll say this: be careful with your portrayal of antagonists since they are humans and not just objects of evil and destruction, nor are they conditioned that way because of their race/religion/culture.

Fetishizing

fetishizing

Ah, this is the one we’ve all been waiting for. This might be the opposite of demonizing, but it still can be just as bad. When we fetishize something/someone, we tend to reduce it to a mere object of our desire. How do we do this? Simply by ignoring what is there in actuality and viewing the thing/person with a lens that we constructed from our desires/standards/assumptions. In the case of humans (or technically, characters), one giveaway sign that we may be fetishizing someone is the description. Say, we have a male character who is black and incredibly handsome. If I were to describe him with words such as ‘chocolate’, ‘sensual’ and ‘exotic’, what does that tell you about me? Am I racist?  Creepy?  Why is this so?  All because of the choice of adjectives.  Fetishizing ties in with stereotyping, and while it isn’t intended to demonize anyone, people that are the focus of this fetishization may feel uncomfortable.  Now let’s go back and ponder why my choice of description for this characters not A-Ok.  By using words like chocolate, sensual, and exotic, I am merely dehumanizing this character– I’m not talking about him like he’s a human; I’ve taken away his human traits and see him as more of an ‘image’ or ‘object’.  He could be charming, he could be hilarious, or he might be sensitive to criticism, but this isn’t explored because I’m only describing him at face value– and this is a twisted form of face value because my lens are warped.

Another example of this is how Asian women are portrayed in literature.  They always seem to have ‘almond’ eyes and ‘lightly tanned’ skin (or snow white, depending where the story is set or the ethnicity of the character) and long, glorious, straight black hair.  They are either one of two things: they are either a submissive, quiet, ultra-feminine woman that pretty much crosses the line of naivety, or they’re scheming, dominant ‘dragon ladies’.  Add in the fact that these two types of literary Asian women are both seductive in different ways.  Often (but not always), they end up with the white male protagonist.  Damn.  As a gal with medium olive skin, short wavy hair, and with an attitude, I do feel some sort of annoyance whenever an Asian female character is portrayed this way.  Nowadays, there are better depictions of people of colour in media, but the underlying tropes are still prevalent.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re attracted to a set of features that an ethnicity or race has, or there are particular aspects of a culture or religion that we genuinely admire and are interested in.  But when we fetishize these things, we’re reducing the true value of them and also disrespecting them.  So, be mindful that you don’t come off that way; if you want to describe a skin colour in a respectful manner, you can have a read of Writing With Color‘s guide on how to do this (I use this myself), and there are many other resources online you can find; for example, typing in ‘how to write people of different races’ into the google search bar will give you endless results.  Same goes for ‘how to write Muslim/Buddhist/faith-of-your-choice characters’.  Also, refer to Tip #1 of this blog post.

Oh, and Louse, what about LGBT characters?  Where do they fit in?  They get misrepresented in literature too, y’know!  

Answer: they are people of all different backgrounds, but from what I’ve observed, there is a strong, definite culture that they have, especially in this day and age it’s much more acceptable to be a LGBT person.  In Australia, we have the annual Mardi Gras, and particularly in my city, there is a flourishing gay community that often organizes events and get-togethers, and have their own monthly magazine.  However, in other parts of the world, being homosexual, trans, or queer is taboo and there are dire consequences if one is outed.  So, refer to the $0.05 tips that make up the first half of this post– literally everything written down here can be applied when writing LGBT characters.  Most important of all, just do the research– ask people that are in the community or look online.

Conclusion (congrats on making it this far)

I’m going to wrap this up right here.  Hopefully, this gives you some sort of idea on how to write characters of different race, religion, or culture respectfully.  I’ll reiterate that this is only one person’s view on this topic, and it’s best to go around and gather information and advice from other people (especially ones that have better experience in writing about this topic).  This isn’t a strict do’s and don’t’s post or how to write a specific way, because it is up to you as a writer to go about your writing process; this post is merely a bunch of suggestions.  Basically, the take home lesson is to try not to appear ignorant about another race/culture/religion.  As always, this is just to minimize or avoid backlash from readers (but you can’t impress everyone).  But, just because you’re writing about Nazis, doesn’t mean you are one, though people may make the assumption that your writing reflects you as a person– but that’s not necessarily true!

Again, have fun, get learning, and hope you’ll do well with your writing pursuits.  If you’ve got anything to add or if you want to share your own views or concerns, leave a comment below.  So, let’s continue on this literary journey, and keep on reading and writing!  Have a lovely day, wherever you are.

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