Readers have spoken: they want more diversity in fiction. And writers are stepping up, but it can be hard to write about someone who’s different than you. Careful research is the key to avoiding misrepresentation, which causes harm to the very identities being portrayed and creates fallout for well-meaning writers when they’re called out by readers.
For this reason, we’re running a series of posts on avoiding stereotypes in fiction. Written by a diverse cast of talented authors, each post highlights a different people group—the common stereotypes to avoid and how to write those characters realistically. We hope this series arms you with the knowledge and tools to write characters you may have been reluctant to write before—ones that will take your story to the next level.
By: Hyacinthe M. Miller
Where to begin a conversation about stereotypes of People of Color (POC)? This is a fraught topic. For clarity, let’s start with a definition for this term:
People of Color: Applying to non-White racial or ethnic groups; generally used as an alternative to the term ‘visible minority.’
Be aware, though, that some members of ethnic and racial groups take issue with being lumped together as POCs rather than being treated as unique. Others, however, embrace Racialized or POC as terms of solidarity and empowerment.
As writers, we have a role to play in ensuring that the worlds we create are representative of the broad spectrum of personalities, identities, traits, cultures and races in our communities. Whether we’re talking protagonists, villains, or supporting characters, let’s keep them entertaining, fully formed and authentic. What do I mean by ‘authentic’? Believable, realistic, genuine individuals. Mind you, that’s a best practice for any character you create, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about some of the common stereotypes that have been used in portrayals of Racialized People.
There are numerous examples in print and visual media, where women are portrayed as aggressive, outspoken, shrill, helpless or downright cranky. In real life, we experience a variety of emotions – let your characters show them as well.
These male counterparts careen through life ignoring social norms, raging at ‘the Man’ or unspecified targets, taking personal risks, committing crimes, or abusing those who get in their way. Male and female stereotypes use similar gestures and language to convey a limited range of emotions – the steely-eyed stare, a swaggering insolence, or a know-it-all attitude that invariably lands them in trouble.
The opposite is the submissive, ‘seen but not heard’ person of color of any gender who invariably is struggling against adversity but who is a noble role model because they carry on. Maids, doormen, taxi drivers, teachers, nurses and restaurant workers are common occupations.
Portraying racialized women as attractive but tough (using their wiles and weaponry to fight injustice) devalues them. A male protagonist like Black private detective John Shaft, described as a ‘sex machine’, harks back to the trope of Black men being randy and predatory.
The Phoenix from the Ashes
Performers, athletes, or professionals are often portrayed as rising up from poverty to fame or as promiscuous, hard-edged rule-breakers. This ignores the reality that most people of color are also soccer moms, bankers, and emergency service providers working hard and living ordinary lives.
Straw Character Caricatures
These cartoonish depictions of gangbangers, career criminals, barbers and hairdressers who always have the last word, the whore with the heart of gold, the struggling single mom, the sharp-tongued taxi driver, the weary, hard-working racialized father or the deadbeat dad, the wise-cracking sidekick, flamboyant roommate, spunky girlfriend, or plucky survivor are stale tropes. The common denominator of each is lack of nuance.
What To Do
Rest assured, it is acceptable to write about racialized characters. Wouldn’t your fictional world be monochromatic and boring if you didn’t? Yes, complexion, ethnicity, physique and hairdo help define an individual, but if you take away those external identifiers and still have a realistic human being, you’ve done your job. Applying your skills to build worlds that include a range of well-crafted characters enriches the final product. We’re unique individuals trying to live our best lives.
What about, ‘write what you know’? Research and learn about the diversity of cultures, religions, and races. Leave assumptions at the curb. Join inclusive organizations. Ask respectful questions. Read the works of authors of color. Dig beyond the obvious to show your character’s true identity.
What Not to Do
Don’t avoid describing someone’s race, but make sure you’re accurate, e.g., a broad nose, small ears and full lips could describe a person of Asian or African heritage. Say, ‘Amir, a young man from Bangalore’, or ‘Tasha, a tall Black woman from Manchester’. Use names that identify their ethnic origin. Keep in mind, though, that with the globalization of relationships, someone called Sue-Lin Mackenzie could be a mixed-race woman of Korean/Scottish descent.
Don’t describe us using food terms. Instead of chocolate, almond or coffee, say, ‘light brown’ or ‘dark brown complexion’. Be aware that the word ‘Brown’ is often used by people of Southeast Asian heritage (Russell Peters).
Don’t focus on externals Iike hair styles, complexion, or physical appearance. As with any other character, include descriptors that are relevant.
Don’t be patronizing. Unless it’s relevant, describing a Black person or person of color as ‘articulate’ implies there was no expectation that they had mastered the English language.
- Everyone has biases, whether about cars, food, or music.
- Words can wound. They have history and power. Choose carefully.
- Clothing as costume, artifacts and symbols can contribute to a rich, scenic world or they can stigmatize, e.g., tattoos and piercings, head coverings, jewelry, behavior, and speech.
- Competent sensitivity readers serve a role but remember, you are getting a single perspective that may not align with the lived experiences of all your diverse characters.
- Writing multi-dimensional characters requires an open mind, accuracy, and kindness. Diverse cultural perspectives can literally bring color to your writing via family events or celebrations. Whether your characters are funny or sad, strong or weak, forgettable or memorable, your readers will resonate with their authenticity.
Writing With Color: Posts on Describing People of Color
Ten Tips on Writing Race in Novels
The Do’s of Writing People of Color: Describe Your Characters
Writing Characters of Different Races and Ethnicities
Other posts in this series:
Avoiding Female Character Stereotypes
Avoiding LGBTQ+ Character Stereotypes
Avoiding Religious Character Stereotypes
Avoiding Mental Health Character Stereotypes
Discussion is encouraged, but please keep it courteous. Let’s not call out authors for past mistakes, and let’s do keep an open mind. By listening to and respecting each person’s experiences and perspectives, we can better write the stories and characters readers want to see.
Hyacinthe M. Miller is an award-winning author of short stories, contemporary women’s fiction and non-fiction. She’s been published in Borealis magazine, Herotica 7, Whispered Words, and Allucinor, The Elements of Romance anthologies. Her debut novel, Kenora Reinvented, (Investigations, Mystery and Seasoned Romance) was published in 2019. Current WIPs include The Fifth Man, book two of the Kenora & Jake series, and a literary memoir.
Hyacinthe is Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, a member of Toronto Sisters in Crime and The Writers Union of Canada and is a founding member and Past President of the Writers Community of York Region. Check out Hyacinthe’s blog, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook page.
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Late to the party but thanks for sharing this. These are vital writing lessons best learned BEFORE committing that error to page. I can’t wait to post it for Writer Wednesday.
Thanks for mentioning this very interesting topic. Even if i am not a writer, it is good to know how to handle this. Best wishes, Michael
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thanks for this thoughtful post and so many amazing resources, Hyacinthe!
I love your reminder that words can wound. It’s important to do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Christina K Gross says
Ms Miller, thank you for your informative post. Becca, don’t forget to include in your “Avoiding Stereotypes in Fiction” posts one on the racialization and stigmatization of People Not of Color – PNOC – the white minority of the world who suffer the same racism, indignities, and stereotyping from POC (cracker, honky, oreo, white privilege, superior attitude, etc.). In all fairness and clarity, as a best practice let’s hear what you have to say about common misrepresentations vs. authenticity in describing PNOC.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Hi, Christina. Thanks for chiming in. As you can guess, there’s no way for this series to be comprehensive; there are just too many people groups to cover. And Angela and I sadly don’t have the time to write all the other entries that could be included. But we’re open to people writing posts on other people groups to be added to the series. We just ask for #ownvoices authors——those who are part of the people group being highlighted——to write each post so we can get firsthand accounts and experiences. And of course we’d have our standard guidelines for any guest posters to adhere to. If you’re interested in writing a post in our series, check those out guidelines and reach out with a request to post. Thank you!
Christina K Gross says
“. . . there’s no way for this series to be comprehensive; there are just too many people groups to cover. And Angela and I sadly don’t have the time to write all the other entries that could be included.”
Hi Becca. There are only two “people groups” I asked you to include in your “Avoiding Stereotypes in Fiction” series:
POC = People of Color (this article)
PNOC = People Not of Color (not yet addressed)
I feel that you skirted over this unfortunate dichotomy “which causes harm to the very identities being portrayed.” There are common stereotypes against PNOC that writers of fiction should avoid.
Thank you again for your superb posts and Thesaurus Series of books.
Christina K Gross
Karen Carr says
This is interesting. As a black woman, it has been pretty much part of my life to describe skin color as food — dark chocolate or smooth as chocolate or coffee color. But this may be done as one person looking at another, and typically of the same race. Not that I do all the time, but there are many times when I will. I never saw it as a negative. I also will mention hair styles and types, because that is what I notice when I look at people — no matter the race.
Perhaps it is because I am older (in my 60’s) and the culture I grew up in was different, but I wasn’t offended by these things, so I wouldn’t have thought them to offend others.
Kimberley Cornwell says
As an African-American woman, I want to applaud your essay, Hyacinthe! Your counsel is so on point. Well done!
G. J. Jolly says
Diversity is a hard one for me as a writer because I normally don’t look for the differences of ethnic and cultural groups. My life is full of diversity as it is because of blood relatives in my family. I’ve never thought of the diversified differences as being pronounced. To me, they are just quirks in the people I love.
Unless the story’s theme is about diversity, I believe the uniqueness of the characters should be treated as individual mannerism and not lumped together.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I really appreciate you stepping in to write about this topic, Hyacinthe. We appreciate your perspective, knowledge, and compassion!