Help me welcome author Vicki Essex to Romance University! Vicki talks to us today about portraying an ethnic character in a romance novel.
When I first started my writing career, I knew I wanted to have a Chinese American main character in one of my books. I hadn’t seen many ethnic characters in contemporary romance and wanted to share my cultural experience with others while telling a universal love story.
In Back to the Good Fortune Diner, Tiffany Cheung is part of the only Chinese family in small town of Everville, New York. She’s always felt out of place, not just in town, but in her own home, as well. After losing her job in Manhattan, Tiffany finds herself back home working at her family’s small-town Chinese diner and feeling like the outsider she once was. When Chris Jamieson, her high school crush, needs her to tutor his son, it seems like the perfect temporary job. Except, Chris finally seems interested in her. But Tiffany’s not staying and nothing will stop her from getting back to her real life in the big city.
Despite my background, I found it challenging to portray a Chinese American heroine and her family in a way that preserved their customs and cultural values while still keeping it accessible to those who were not a part of the culture and while also trying create believable, sympathetic characters. I thought I’d share what I learned so that if you’re thinking about making your stories more culturally diverse—and you should!—then you can consider these points to help keep you out of the THAT’S RACIST zone.
Know Your Character
Knowing every detail—or at least, the major details—of your characters’ lives is vital to crafting your story. Consider these questions:
Family history: Where does your character’s family’s come from? How did they arrive in your current setting? What kind of situation did they leave? What are the differences between the lives they had and the lives they live now? How do they feel about it? Did they adjust and conform to their new lives, or did they cling to their old ways? What does your character know of all these details and how has it affected her?
Personal history: Where did your character grow up? How does she view her family and her cultural heritage? How has her culture helped or hindered her?
Generational gaps: How does your character interact with other members of her family or community? Are there differences in the way they view the world or face challenges that your character disagrees with? When they interact, how do they perceive each other?
Setting and situation: Where does your character work, live and go to school? Are there significant differences in the cultural makeup of each of these places? How does she fit in each of these situations? How is she treated by others in each of these situations? What kinds of challenges does she face in each situation? How does she deal with those challenges?
It should go without saying that you should avoid stereotypes of any kind, especially racial ones. Sure, some stereotypes may exist for a reason, but caricatures and over-the-top portrayals will earn you nothing but scorn. Do an internet search for “racist movie characters” and you’ll get an idea of what to avoid.
Think of ways that your characters defy the cultural stereotypes. Compare and contrast with characters who have those qualities who aren’t of the same cultural background. For example, if you have a character who is cheap, bring up an instance where they would spend more money; or contrast them with a character who spends extravagantly, or one who is even cheaper. Make us understand why they are the way they are, rather than point to cultural background as the explanation.
While “token” characters might help make your world seem more diverse, it’s important that those characters play a role in the story. To avoid creating characters who are simply tokens, ask yourself, can this character have more going on? How will their cultural experiences affect your protagonists’ lives, if at all? How do they contribute to the overall plot?
On that same note, ask yourself whether you need to point to the character’s race at all. Do you need to say, “John Jackson, who was black”? Again, consider the setting and the context. Think about the differences between an encounter with a New York City cab driver if, for instance, your character was from the deep South, versus her being from Paris, France. Try to find other subtle ways to demonstrate a character’s race by framing her in other characters’ points of view.
Frustratingly, too-subtle descriptions might garner backlash the way Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games did when the film was released and the characters Rue and Thresh were “revealed” as black. Even though the book was fairly clear about their race, there is a general assumption among the reading public that the “default” race of any character you read about is white. The racist outrage that ensued highlighted the systemic problem with readers’ literary imaginations and the entertainment media’s bias toward non-ethnic stories and characters.
Fetishes and Fevers
Fetishization is something I avidly try to avoid in romance except to compare and contrast. There is nothing more squicky to me than a character who has a “fever” or who commodifies a particular racial trait—skin tone, body type, eye shape or color, accents, and so forth. Excluding these details may seem to leave little left to talk about in the realm of physical attraction, but I don’t think anyone wants to be objectified or appreciated solely for their race or body.
Avoid belabored descriptions that point to the character’s particular racial features. I also particularly dislike the word “exotic” to describe someone from another background. It’s a throwaway word that simply means “different” but tells us nothing about the character. As with any character in romance, what is it about him/her that attracts the opposite sex?
Where do you go to research authenticity? Friends who belong to a particular cultural group are an excellent resource, but if you’re not well acquainted with them, opening a dialog about race can be tricky and you might come off sounding ignorant and, frankly, racist. Example: do not ask your Korean coworker “do you eat dog?” as an opener. Make sure they’re okay with talking about it. Explain why you have these questions. Frame them in the context of your story by openly telling them about your character. And do not assume that one kind of person is the same as another: it’s easy to make assumptions and hard to earn forgiveness.
That said, do your research. There are lots of websites, blogs and independent magazines dedicated to politics and pop culture in various ethnic groups. You can learn a lot about the racial issues and challenges these groups face. Being aware of your own preconceptions and biases, your community’s diversity or lack thereof, and society’s treatment of different cultures will go a long way to helping you create real, sympathetic, racially diverse characters.
If you have questions for Vicki on researching or writing an ethnic character – feel free to ask!
Join us on Friday for a lesson on Scene Structure by Miranda Liasson
Bio: Vicki Essex is a Chinese Canadian born and bred in Toronto. She writes for Harlequin Superromance. Her second book, Back to the Good Fortune Diner, is available wherever you buy ebooks. Her third book, In Her Corner, will be available March 2014. Visit her at www.vickiessex.com, and follow her on www.facebook.com/vickiessexauthor and on Twitter @vickiessex.
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