January 18, 2010

In Honor of Dr. King

I’ve been reading some interesting posts about writing race recently. Great stuff on the Rejectionist’s "Homework for White Folks" post, which has wonderful links, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s great TED talk about the dangers of the single story.

I couldn’t agree more. So many great points. Writing is an act of empathy, and we should try to populate our stories with characters from all backgrounds. Sure, it takes courage to write someone of a different race, and there is a huge responsibility that goes along with it. No stereotypes! Check out the posts ~ they say it so much better than I can.

Which brings me to what I was thinking: Do your best for that character, no matter what his or her background. A white character is not white. Her mother’s mother immigrated from Quebec to northern Montana and got pregnant when she was fifteen and had to give her daughter up. Her father is from very proper British stock who immigrated to New York when it was still a colony, who then over the generations migrated west, first to Tennessee, then to Colorado, then to Santa Fe.

All these things work together to help create this individual you’re creating. All this contributes to who she is, and you should know this about your character. The fact that your character’s mother was abandoned when she was little made her cling tightly to those she loved, so your character felt crushed as a child. Or, conversely, her mother was afraid to count on anyone and, though she didn’t abandon her physically, emotionally she wasn’t there for her daughter.

Even if your character is yourself, you should have some metacognition about your own background and how it contributes to who you are.

Same way with jobs: you should know what your character does for a living and how closely that affects them. Maybe he is a doctor and sees the whole world as a disease to be cured. Maybe he refuses to hold down a job because he has a thing about authority that informs his whole life.

The same with race. You should know that your character’s father’s family came from Japan and her grandfather fought for his country while his loved ones were in relocation camps. Or that her great great great great grandmother was brought from what is now Nigeria to be a slave but ended up working in saloons in California when her owner, the great great great great grandfather, went broke, fell in love with her, and moved West.

And none of this necessarily shows up on the page. But it bubbles up in the fiction and makes for richer writing. It creates nuance and depth, as well as suggests metaphors.

A final note: Watch your own tics. Don’t make all your white characters good and all your French characters bad. Conversely, don’t make all you multiracial characters noble and your white characters evil. Flesh ‘em out, Dr. Frankenstein. Make ‘em both good and bad.

I say this all as a reminder to myself.

What I’m Reading Today: Getting caught up on some blog reading and also some New York Times.

PS It’s been a banner week. Another request for a partial on the novel! Thank you, universe!

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