Posted On August 14, 2013 by Print This Post

Portraying Ethnic Characters with Dignity in Contemporary Romance – Vicki Essex

Help me welcome author Vicki Essex to Romance University! Vicki talks to us today about portraying an ethnic character in a romance novel. 

Vicki Essex headshotWhen 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

BTTGFDKnowing 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?

Stereotypes

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.

Tokenism

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?

Research

 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.

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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

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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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23 Responses to “Portraying Ethnic Characters with Dignity in Contemporary Romance – Vicki Essex”

  1. Thanks Vicki! The MC in my current WIP is fourth generation Chinese American and it’s a balance I’m trying to get right. I spend a lot of time reading, thinking and talking about! <3

    Posted by Sarah NIcolas | August 14, 2013, 7:53 am
  2. Morning Vicki!

    Great post! I have a character in my middle grade book – he’s based on a guy I used to work with. We asked (after we got to know him well) what ethnicity he was…he’d change it about once a week…Hawaiian, Spanish, Polynesian, etc. My character does the same…researching a bit on each background he chooses to make himself sound more believable. It’s all done in good fun, and hopefully with dignity as well. =)

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 14, 2013, 8:50 am
  3. Great article, Vicki, and excellent points for anyone writing a character with a particular viewpoint! I’ve written characters with mixed ethnicity (to echo my own), and even though I know the background and culture involved, I find myself walking a tightrope to make sure the details are right.

    Posted by Eilis Flynn | August 14, 2013, 9:32 am
    • It’s always a struggle, I think, because we take our personal experiences for granted. How we were raised culturally plays a huge part in shaping our personalities, so when we don’t give the reader enough background, we risk alienating them and making our characters less sympathetic.

      Posted by Vicki Essex | August 14, 2013, 10:04 am
  4. Fantastic post, Vicki!

    While diversity isn’t the theme of my stories, it is very much a part of any story I tell–and my brand. So it’s important to me to portray characters of other races and ethnicities in a way that is authentic and dignified. So many wonderful suggestions in your post. Bookmarking and sharing it.

    Posted by Reese Ryan | August 14, 2013, 11:36 am
    • Thanks Reese! The more I contemplated it, the more I realized this isn’t just about visible minorities, but any character in any situation. It made me think of Black Widow’s line in Marvel’s The Avengers: “Regimes fall every day. I tend not to weep over that, I’m Russian… or was.” It’s a line that says a lot about her character and cultural background and how that upbringing affects her now.

      Posted by Vicki Essex | August 14, 2013, 12:43 pm
  5. This is a great article! Way to address a tough issue and make it manageable.

    Posted by Jessica Flory | August 14, 2013, 12:20 pm
  6. Hi Vicki,

    It’s challenging to step out of a comfort zone and into another’s life experience. So many differences and similarities.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 14, 2013, 1:05 pm
  7. Hi,

    I enjoyed this post and your book very much. You wrote about this tough topic in a clear and succinct way, and it will be helpful to many writers I’m sure. Thank you!

    Posted by Piper | August 14, 2013, 6:29 pm
  8. “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.”

    Fabulous statement. A few months back I advertised a book on BookBub that did not have people depicted on the cover…I received some pretty vicious reviews from people who mentioned that they didn’t realize the characters were black…one reader accused me of “changing” the characters’ race mid-story, a ridiculous claim. (Fortunately, I received enough positive reviews not to feel discouraged.)

    I’m going to order your book now.

    Posted by Bettye Griffin | August 14, 2013, 10:33 pm
    • Ugh, that’s the worst. That they even wrote to you about it and complained tells you the kind of people out there. Sad, really, that some people can’t accept that the world is full of lots of different people and that we all have stories to tell. Thanks so much for your support!

      Posted by Vicki Essex | August 15, 2013, 7:46 am
  9. Thanks for a really thought-provoking post, Vicki! It’s a tricky subject. I like my stories to have some ethnic diversity, but it’s difficult when my own background is culturally kind of bland. I worry about slipping into stereotypes when writing – I appreciate your tips!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 15, 2013, 12:01 am
    • The funny thing from my point of view is that YOU are the “exotic” one to me! 8 )

      I frequently consult my husband about certain aspects of white, North American culture because even though I was born in Canada, I grew up steeped in a cultural enclave in Chinatown, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure outside of my cultural group. Even my elementary and high schools were 60-70% Asian. It wasn’t till college that I fully comprehended I was part of an actual cultural minority.

      Posted by Vicki Essex | August 15, 2013, 7:52 am
  10. “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.”

    Fabulous statement. A few months back I advertised a book on BookBub that did not have people depicted on the cover…I received some pretty vicious reviews from people who mentioned that they didn’t realize the characters were black…one reader accused me of “changing” the characters’ race mid-story, a ridiculous claim. (Fortunately, I received enough positive reviews not to feel discouraged.)

    Your book sounds fascinating. I’m going to order it now.

    Posted by Bettye Griffin | August 15, 2013, 2:46 am
  11. Great post, Vicki! You are definitely right by saying how important it is to KNOW your character because it’s easy to come off as writing a caricature.

    Posted by Tamara | August 15, 2013, 10:38 am
  12. This is a great discussion on how to handle ethnic characters in fiction. However, where I mostly have trouble is when I have a non-white character who doesn’t have a really ethnic identity. How do you handle characters who are thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream – which, in the US, is no longer “white” culture? I don’t mind coming out and saying that someone’s black or Hispanic or whatever in describing their appearance, but then I feel as if I’ve made a point about their race or ethnicity that I didn’t intend to make; it was only supposed to be a physical characterization. Any advice on this?

    Posted by Lori Schafer | August 18, 2013, 10:01 am
    • Very interesting dilemma, Lori. I can understand your hesitation about pointing to a character’s ethnicity–or non-ethnicity–overtly, especially when it comes to a character who is third, fourth and beyond generation, supposedly assimilated into society.

      I recently read Some Like It Hot by Susan Andersen, where the heroine is black and the hero is white. At first, I had no clue until it was mentioned. It was with context, but then, as you read on, it never comes up again because race doesn’t play a huge role in the story. But once it was mentioned, I realized I had her fixed in my imagination and didn’t need to think about it again.

      That said, race, ethnicity and cultural identity should play a role in every character’s makeup. Not in a self-conscious way, but as a self-actualized part of their personality.

      If you’re only trying to deal with physical characterization, ask yourself how the character views herself, and how she thinks others view here. Does she yearn for different hair? Does she get her roots done regularly? What kind of physical insecurities does she have? What features is she proud of, and how does she or others compare herself to other members of her cultural group?

      An easy shortcut is to ensure a culturally indicative family name. Conversations and back story/internal dialog help a lot too. Often, no matter who the character is, you find an opportunity to make them a fish out of water–show how they don’t fit. This is a good place for that, too.

      Pretty much everyone I know, no matter how assimilated they are, is asked the same question at some point: “Where are you from? I mean, where are you REALLY from?” It’s not exactly that rude or insensitive sounding all the time–I ask it of people I’ve come to know better. A lot of other questions fall into that category because no matter how well people know you, they don’t KNOW you, and with the best intentions, just want to know a little more.

      Examples of questions I’ve received:
      What language do you speak at home? (Me: English)
      Are you flying home for the holidays? (Me: No. It’s an hour-long commute from work.)
      Who are you rooting for in the Olympics? (Me: The guy in second place.)

      This is all a roundabout way of saying race does play a role in how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves, even if it doesn’t matter, or we think it shouldn’t. Because as much as I feel like “part of the group” I will always be aware and be made aware of how I am an outsider, even among my cultural peers.

      Think of it as 50 Shades of Beige. Compare and contrast. That is the key.

      Posted by Vicki Essex | August 18, 2013, 9:35 pm

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