Characters and Diversity. Part 1 – RACE

Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today. I’m launching a new series, one that is focused on diversity. It seems a timely topic, and it’s also relevant to the development of our characters. My approach will be personal, and I hope your response will be as well. Let’s get started with the first segment — race.

From as far back as I can remember, I imagined myself the ugly duckling in a pond of beautiful swans. I grew up in the desert bordering Mexico and the area was 85% Latino and 10% other shades of brown. 5% of the population was and is white.

Most of my friends were brown-skinned and had gorgeous dark hair that glistened blue in the sunlight. I vividly recall sitting next to Maria on the school bus and being in awe of her shiny hair. The early morning light that poured through the bus windows made her glow.

I’d look down at my freckled arms and wish I was like Maria. Sometimes our arms would touch and even she would smile. “You’re so white,” she’d say, as she pressed her arm against mine. Her words were simply an observation, there was nothing critical meant. But in my heart, I registered, I’m different and that difference did not feel good at all.

Of course, my auburn hair made me feel even more like an outsider. Then again, it didn’t help when the sun came out. That’s when I became a chameleon and turned bright red. The blisters on my arms and shoulders drew shocked compassion from my friends, but for me, those painful sores were a constant reminder of my state. I was the ugly duckling.

Photo from Canva

A child just wants to be like everyone else. They want to be part of the group, the pack. They notice differences, but not in the ways adults do. In my case, I simply wanted brown skin. I tried – many times – to get a tan. It never happened. I was white, and nothing would change that fact, except a sunburn.

I had no concept of privilege or hierarchy other than brown skin was more beautiful than white. I could run as fast as the others, and I could play jacks as well as anyone, but, because I was white, I often felt that I didn’t belong. And so it was that the last seat in the classroom became my favorite hiding spot.

How about with you? Were you a minority as a child? Did you feel that you didn’t belong?

I bring this to your attention because a person’s judgments about race begin in childhood. We may not be reflective of this fact, but if we were to travel back to those early years, we’d discover this to be true. So, what does this say about our characters?

Photo from Canva

No two of us are the same. Our skin color may be similar, but it differs by shade. We may have grown up in the same neighborhood, but our experience of that world is affected by a multitude of factors. Even a slight difference in skin tone can have a notable impact. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions about including racial diversity in our characters:

  1. Avoid stereotypes. We’ve all heard them, and we’re all bored of them. Instead of relying on a generalized trait or behavior pattern, take the reader into the lives of your characters. Show them why your character thinks as he or she does and why they hate or love. Bring them back to the beginning, to those first determining moments when skin color became real.
  2. Avoid tokenism. We’ve seen enough of this on TV. If you include racial diversity in your story, dive deep and bring your characters alive. Make them real to the reader. Whether protagonist or antagonist or minor character, draw the reader into his or her skin. Help the reader feel the quality of that difference.
  3. Be honest with yourself. Identify your judgments about people or groups who look different from you. Be specific. We all have judgments. We’ve grown up with them. Ask this question – have I imposed my judgments on my characters?
  4. Do the necessary research. Try to fill in the holes of your own experience and seek constructive feedback.
  5. Write from the heart. When we write from a place of goodwill, we evoke understanding. The heart speaks a universal language — through tears, laughter, love, fear, and more. If we remain close to our hearts, others will join us.

That’s all for today, my friends. I hope the post was helpful in some small way. Next month, we’ll go deeper into this complicated topic. Till then, be well and find time to enjoy the sunshine.

93 thoughts on “Characters and Diversity. Part 1 – RACE

  1. Pingback: Finding the Inner Truth/Beauty in Yourself by Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide Traci Kenworth YA Author

  2. I’m so glad you SE peeps share links to previous posts! I missed this one!
    Diversity is something I feel I didn’t truly learn until later in life, at least in terms of race. My county had a bad reputation of being racist. Severely racist. I grew up in schools where white was the primary color I saw. I didn’t fully understand it then, but I knew something was not right. Later in life, I learned a lot of the truths and it broke my heart. Still does. I actually struggle watching certain films because of this.
    Knowing what I know now, I see diversity as such a beautiful thing. All the uniqueness that people bring to our world. And the adventures it can take our writing. Thank you for sharing on this tough subject, Gwen. As always, you’ve done a wonderful job with your examples and advice. ❤

    Like

  3. Pingback: Characters and Diversity. Part 3 – PHYSICAL ABILITY | Story Empire

  4. Thanks for the link to bring me back to part 1 which I somehow missed…
    Just last night I watched the newest “Persuasion” on Netfilx and, while the critics slammed it, I enjoyed it. Mostly because the whole cast of was mixed race and it was as natural as can be. No pointing out of races, no descrimination. Just all from the same species in different spices, so to speak. I appreciated it mostly for that. Like many have stated, it’s not that I don’t see race, I don’t want it to matter in the sense of respecting and loving each other for who we are.
    It’s funny. There were two blacks in my high school. It was a French private school. Now, when I have gone to visit, it is “United Nations” – lots of Asians, mostly because of adoptions. The town where I went to school is not what one would call diversified. When I got to college, it was an eye-openining experience. So very cool, to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Characters and Diversity. Part 2 – Wealth | Story Empire

  6. I love this post, Gwen! 🙂

    I grew up on a street with two Black families, two White families, a Hispanic family, a Native American family, and two Jewish families around the corner. It was a blast! I wouldn’t trade anything for my childhood. We had one of the larger yards and our house was called the United Nations because most of the kids always ended up in our yard. (It didn’t hurt that my Mom always had Hi-C juice boxes and Archway cookies on hand! 😀 ) I had some great friends that are still friends today and learned a lot about other cultures. It truly boggles my mind that race is so divisive now and people are judged by the color of their skin instead of the “content of their character.”

    Also, when including diversity in our writing, it helps to reach out to someone of that particular race or with a certain disability. While all experiences are different, they’ll be happy that you cared enough to get a true perspective for your character.

    Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an amazing and wonderful childhood you had, Felicia Denise! Thank you for sharing your experience and your beautiful mom with us. Your advice about reaching out to someone of a different race is excellent. If we take that step, we might be more authentic in our writing and find a friend. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Late, because we’ve been away, . Thoughtful and so truthful, sometimes painfully true*
    Growing up in an inner city very multicultural, multi-faith neighbourhood in the North of England, I often forget to detail ethnicity.
    I might know a character is wholly or part African, or Jewish, or any other, just honestly forget. Indicating without sounding contrived is a problem.
    Even first names might not help –

    the hair, the boiled lobster skin, the blisters, the factor 50 , wish Nigerian and Middle east ancestry showed more

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Esther, for your thoughtful comment. I often forget to bring in ethnicity as well. All the best to you. 🙂

      Like

  8. Wonderful and insightful post, Gwen 🙂 You really captured how kids don’t want to feel different. For me it was forever trying to become tan and wishing I wasn’t so tall. It is better to write from the heart and not allow the characters to be cut outs of what is expected and a good place to embrace our differences along the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Denise, for sharing so beautifully and poignantly. Your advice about not allowing the characters to be cutouts of the expected is right on! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Gwen, this is an interesting insight into your childhood. I have always been a minority in my specialised field of work. Most corporate financiers and corporate finance lawyers are men and they are generally a fairly arrogant bunch. I think it has moulded me into a much more aggressive person because I always have to fight to prove myself, fight to be heard, and fight for respect. Every job starts off as a fight and gradually it changes as things progress, and by the end I am accepted as I have a very good brain for this work. Interestingly, I feel I have enough of it and have been contemplating leaving my job later this year. Fighting is wearing. I didn’t capture this in my book, A Ghost and His Gold. Instead, I went for the step back in career that I may have preferred if I’d had the choice. I don’t have regrets about my job, but I do feel that the end is drawing near.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Pingback: Characters and Diversity. Part 1 – RACE – Nelsapy

  11. As usual, I’m late to the party. This post is spot on. Very in tune with the world today.

    I don’t believe in separating because of race. etc. Like so many of you, I have a diverse group of friends, from race to values. We were never taught to see color. At least I wasn’t. And I don’t. What I see is how people treat one another. We all have flaws.

    My neck of the woods was mostly like me. There were a few of color, not many. We played with them all. When I went to college, my roommate was Pilipino, my suite mates African American and Jewish. I never felt out of place. Part of what fascinated me (and still does) is how everyone got along. What irritates me is how we try to find fault.

    I too have a story. While in college we all went to each others churches. I was appreciative as I wanted to know about other religions. As time went on, only my African American friend and I continued going to church together. I was Catholic, she was Southern Baptist. Our usual seats were in the back of the churches. During one sermon, the Southern Baptist Deacon singled me out and said, “You, white girl in the back, stand up…” I looked around, I was the only “white girl” in the church. Until then, I never noticed that. No one made me feel different until then. My friend was mortified. She apologized so many times. It didn’t stop me from attending services with her, but I did look around more.

    Discrimination, or the perception of it exists both ways. We only see what we choose to see.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Lots to like about this post. Having taught grades 2-6, it is interesting to observe children’s development. Younger kids are definitely less aware of differences. It is one of their sweetest and most redeeming qualities. Older elementary students are more aware of differences. They are the ones who most want to fit in by being the same. It goes way beyond skin color as older elementary students pay closer attention to affluence and dress. The saddest part of that for me is I think those things are learned behaviors. Younger children just want to be friends with everyone.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Pete. I so appreciate your comments. You’ve anticipated my next post, which is on financial diversity. I hope you’ll share your insights, as you have today because it will focus on a child’s awareness of the haves and the have-nots — at 4th grade. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  13. What a wonderful post, Gwen! Like you, I can’t tan to save my life, lol. In the small town I grew up in, the majority of residents were white – not much diversity at all. My sons have been fortunate to grow up in a wonderfully diverse city and have friends of different races, cultures, sexual orientation, etc. Much of what I read is young adult, and it’s been so exciting to see the amount of inclusion and representation increasing in books over the years.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This is going to be an awesome series, Gwen. I loved your story about wanting brown skin. I did too as a kid, though for different reasons – I was simply embarrassed to be white. Not to mention how beautiful dark skin is – my Crayola crayon color wasn’t honey-gold or tropical sunset or caramel candy or desert sand. It was “milk toast.” Who wants to be milk toast??? Aside from all that, I love your advice to dive deep into character and leave the shallow stereotypes behind. Readers want characters that are real and relatable and depth is how we get there. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Diana. Your series inspired mine. 😊 Through your posts, I started thinking about my experience of diversity and how it can help with character development. All the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. This is a wonderful post, Gwen. Your experiences are both unique and common: Unique for a white person in the U. S. during that time, yet common for a minority person during that era. You’ve sort of lived on both sides of the fence. I believe that true ugliness is something that comes from within. It is never an outward appearance. We are all created in the image of the Almighty. Therefore, nobody is ugly by appearance. It’s attitude, personality, and all those things inside that carry the potential for ugliness. There is only one race–the human race. Your tips for writing characters of color or ethnicity different from the author’s are spot on and insightful. I enjoyed learning more about your childhood experiences. Thank you for sharing those with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood, and ALL of us were on the outside looking in. Most of us were awkward. My elementary school was mostly white with a few Hispanic families. But I went to one of the first integrated middle schools in the city and the majority of the kids bussed in were black. I loved sports and made quite a few black friends playing basketball and volleyball. The difference I felt the most wasn’t because of color but because of money–the haves and the have-nots. The prosperous kids were never mean to me. I was brainy, and they treated me well. I was the one who felt insecure around them.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for sharing so personally, Judi. You’ve anticipated my next post because the focus will be financial diversity — the haves and the have-nots. Like you, I was treated well but nevertheless felt quite insecure. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I forgot to include anything about writing… That’s proof of how well your message resonated, Gwen.
    My “Dead of Winter” series is a big exception in this regard. I describe complexions and hair and eye color as a means of helping the reader visualize the multi-national fantasy world I built.
    Otherwise, I rarely mention a character’s skin. Why? Because I want every reader, no matter what their race, to be able to imagine themself in that character’s place. When I do give that kind of description, it’s for a precise purpose. For example in “Atonement, Tennessee” I give detailed descriptions of the Lacey character’s appearance. I make her sound like a Barbie doll, because I’m making a point of how mislead everyone is by her appearance.
    I’m not stating this as any sort of writing advice. It’s just what I do.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Hi Gwen. When I saw this post on a social media feed, I just had to drop what I was doing and read your thoughts on the subject.
    I had to chuckle about you being “so white,” because I’m that way too. When I get a sunburn, I’m even whiter than before when it goes away.
    While I was not in a racial or religious minority growing up, I was throughout 25 of my 30 years as an editor/writer. Particularly in the office building of my last ten years. I was chatting with a friend in the kitchenette, and several coworkers. The topic wasn’t related to race. There were several women there. I was the only one who looked like me. One woman walked past. “She white,” she sneered.
    The friend I was talking to looked up and replied “Teagan’s not white. She’s pink!” It broke that moment of tension and everyone laughed — including me. I liked her take on it.
    Hugs on the wing.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Gwen, this is a wonderful and timely post, and so beautifully expressed. It made me think of when I was a child and learned what prejudice was. I was very sickly as a child and spent some time in the hospital when I was about five or six. I vividly remember how I bonded with another child, my age, who was African-American. We played with each other every day and made plans to visit each other when we were discharged. One day, we were excited about something and were hugging each other and jumping up and down, like little kids do. One of my older relatives, a Great-Aunt, came in to visit me and screamed. She grabbed me and pulled me from the other little girl, and told me I should not play with her. I remember how upset and confused I was and how I cried. All children are like that – accepting others unconditionally until they are told not to. What a better world we’d have if we could let children show us the way. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Gwen!

    Liked by 2 people

    • My goodness, Maura, that is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing. Yes, if we could only let children show us the way, we’d have a better world. 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  20. What a wonderful topic for a series, Gwen, and I look forward to your posts. I was a misfit and outcast as a child because of the religion my parents chose to embrace. I didn’t even notice the difference until I arrived in Junior High, then I began to hate that I had to wear long dresses while all the other girls wore short ones. And wrapping my long hair into a tight bun every day became another part of my appearance I hated and made me different. I wanted to fit in so badly. I wanted to wear shorts and play in the gym with the other kids. I wanted to see a movie. I wanted to live what I perceived as a normal life. Those early experiences affected some decisions I’d make as a young adult, decisions that could have ended horribly. Thank goodness for Guardian Angels. These experiences have also bled over into my characters and allows me to understand a deep-seated need to be a part of something, to be on the inside looking out, instead of the outside looking in. Thank you for sharing this sensitive subject, Gwen!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jan, for sharing so personally. Being out the outside is a painful burden for a child. You’ve emerged strong and beautiful through this unwanted gift. Thank goodness, as you wrote, for Guardian Angels. 😊

      Like

  21. Facinating topic, Gwen, and interesting that you can see things from the perspective of the minority and the inferiority that accompanied that. Being able to get inside someone else’s skin is so important for a writer and helps prevent those sterotypes that you mention. Racism is a deep-rooted and instinctive response in some people but I’m convinced it’s tipped into a minority view today. It’s still significant but the balance is changing. When Obama spoke, I saw an intelligent and compassionate man and was unaware of his colour unless someone mentioned it. It’s like someone who has a disfigurement – initially you’re aware of it and then the person inside is all you see and it’s a surprise when someone comments on it. Emotions are complex things and being able to authentically represent a character brings them fully to life. You’ve got me thinking, Gwen! ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much, Trish. I believe you are right about racism tipping into a minority view. The media would have us think otherwise, but the masses of people see as you describe. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right about the media. Nothing like juicy story to drive sales or advertising. It’s the silent majority that make this world a better, kinder place. ❤

        Liked by 2 people

  22. The timing of this post is perfect. I work with a wide variety of races. Most of us are in agreement that the media and politicians are destroying race relations in our country. We work together every day with love and respect for each other. We don’t judge one another by skin color. Your suggestions are spot on…particularly number five. xo

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Excellent post, Gwen and very timely. I was in the “majority” where I grew up. We had one or two Hispanic families that lived in town and whose kids attended school. I was in third grade when desegregation of schools came. I recall my second grade teacher (a dear lady with a kind heart) telling us at the end of school that we should not be prejudiced against the black children and call them names. She told us not to judge them by the color of their skin. In Junior High school one of my best friends is black. Although we haven’t been in touch in the last several years, I’ll never forget her, and I love her dearly.

    I’ve become interested in the Native American heritage the past several years and plan to include some as main characters in my books. My hope is that I do them justice and treat them with the respect they deserve.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Joan, for sharing as you have. Much of my work in Higher Ed focused on diversity. I realize now that my interest and great love were shaped by my early experiences. It’s part of who I am. During these crazy times, we all need to take a deep breath and see through the heart. I look forward to reading your upcoming books. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Pingback: Characters and Diversity. Part 1 – RACE | Legends of Windemere

  25. Excellent post, Gwen. I experienced being different as a child, but due to physical differences other than skin colour. I’m sure you’ll be covering some of those in future posts on this topic. I’m looking forward to this series! I don’t tend to see or take notice of a person’s outward appearance. I’m much, much more interested in who they are, rather than “what”. I agree absolutely with your thoughts on exposure to attitudes, and either being a minority or majority, at a young age and how that shapes us. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing, Gwen 💕🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much, Harmony. Diversity is a complex topic, and I’ll cover many aspects. During these trying times, I can only hope we can focus on “who”, as you beautifully mention. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  26. This is a timely and important topic. I think (no, I KNOW) kids learn about racial differences from adults. When I was growing up, I didn’t give it any thought. My friends were my friends. I didn’t care what they looked like, and they didn’t care what I looked like. (Yes, I had friends of color, yet none of us kids thought about it.) But I remember VIVIDLY meeting the family of a very blond-haired boyfriend. His aunt made a snide comment behind my back (though I suspect she intended me to overhear, and I did) about “dark Italians” and not wanting her nephew to be with one. It was the first I experienced any kind of bigotry. But I was lucky. Many people who came to the US from my family’s region of Italy (as southern as it gets) were persecuted when they got here. My grandparents and great-grandparents had some ugly experiences. I’m grateful I didn’t live through those times. I feel for anyone who’s ever made to feel bad because of where they came from/what they look like.

    When I became an adult, I thought things were better. Maybe I was just isolated, because the news tells me differently.

    My daughter married a Peruvian who also has Chinese heritage. They already have a child. (And this grandma hopes for more!) Is it wrong that I don’t see my son-in-law’s race? Or my granddaughter’s? Some people say that is wrong, that we should see race. But it’s not that I don’t “see” the difference in color. I just don’t care. I’m far more interested in my son-in-law’s character than his skin color. And I’m fascinated by the differences in our cultures, as well as amazed at how many similarities there are.

    I wrote a series (no longer published) that had a diverse cast, and I relied heavily on my son-in-law’s experiences (as some of the story was set in Peru and some of the characters were Chinese). You know what? Their culture differed from ours a bit, but people are people. We’re not different from each other in the ways that matter most. And as I prefer to write character-driven fiction, I found all the characters easy to write because anger is anger, fear is fear, joy is joy. I think it did okay with making my characters realistic. The series was favorably received. As I move forward with my fiction, I’m pretty sure I’ll treat my characters the same way I did in that saga.

    I’m sorry for the long-winded response, and I may have gone off topic. (I may have upset some readers, and if I did, I apologize.) But this is a great subject to consider. I’m looking forward to seeing what others say. (And I’m looking forward to the rest of your series.) Thanks, Gwen.

    Liked by 8 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing as you have, Staci. My family is quite diverse, like yours. One brother married a Cuban, and another one married a Hispanic. My youngest sister married a Hispanic as well. I could go on. My parents strongly believed that every person is beloved and they never allowed any derogative comments. The formative years are so important, as you’ve powerfully shown us in your story. 🤗

      Liked by 3 people

    • I’m so pleased you liked the post, Sarah. My youngest sister recently shared her story with me, which was almost identical to mine. I guess I wasn’t the only one. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s