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Writing a Character From a People Group Not Your Own

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Tue Feb 25, 2014 3:01 am
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eldEr says...

Writing Those People for Those Who Are Not

More and more, the world is demanding casts of characters that are diverse. People who had no voice a decade ago are making themselves heard, and accompanying the rush of social revolution is a natural curiosity. In the realm of writing, this manifests as writers wanting to add these characters to their works. The general concern, however, seems to be "but how do I write [x]?"

Honestly, the biggest, most overlooked part of writing any minority when you yourself are part of a majority is simply:
Write them as a person.

Write them like you'd write anyone else- hopefully with a distinct personality, unique interests, and humanity. The best way to avoid writing carbon-copy, stereotyped and two-dimensional minorities (or even characters that aren't a part of your own people group in general) is to completely ignore the fact that they're a minority or a different group of people while you're building their personality. Once the general personality is built, the most important step is research.

Research the group's history, and remember to go broad (nation-wise, even globally), and then narrow it down to the area your character is from (ie: if your character is from Nebraska, also research their history in that area and the surrounding area).

Next, research current events surrounding the people.

Next, find personal accounts. Read from online forums dedicated to your character's people group. Read first-hand stories and interviews. An awesome place to find people for interviews (make sure they know why you're asking questions, and respect when they say when/if certain questions are overstepping the "too personal" boundary) is, seriously, the internet. As long as you make your intentions clear, most people would love to answer any questions that you may have.

After you've gathered your information, make minor tweaks and corresponding additions to your character's view of their own nook of the world, their religious views (not always relevant to which group they're a part of, but the group will have influence on it), their outlook on life, and how easy the rest of the world makes it for them to function in day-to-day life (basically: look at how oppression and repression effects the individuals. Statistics are helpful!) You should also incorporate certain aspects into your character's lifestyle (be very careful to avoid stereotyped lifestyles, because these are quite often exaggerated by the media/majorities, or just flat-out untrue). Your research should not, however, have a massive impact on your character's actual personality. People are individuals, and each functions differently from the others, and that's a truth regardless of what people group you're in.

Now, in a bit more detail:

Writing PoC for White Folk

Basically: Write them as a person first, without thought to their skin colour. Seriously, the melanin:red dye ratio in your cells has nothing to do with your personality. Then go on to do your research and apply it accordingly. Be aware of the stereotypes associated with that specific group, and make sure to avoid turning a character into those stereotypes.

Also, the world is not split into "black people" and "white people." There's an entire spectrum of colour between the two, and an entire spectrum of people between "European-American" and "African-American." Having a black person alongside your white MC does not automatically make your work diverse or inclusive (it especially depends on how you treat that secondary black character).

Two extremely overlooked groups in the media seem to be Native Americans/Metis people, and Asian people. Also, Asia is not just Japan and China, and it is especially not just China. It includes generally overlooked areas such as the Philippines, India and the Middle East. And not all Asian-Americans run Asian food places or are martial arts spy masters for your enemies. In the same way, 'Native American' does not consist of one giant group of people. There are different tribes/nations, and make sure that you actually get down to specifics and research that specific group of Native American's history and beliefs and societal structure.

In any case, do not overlook the effects of modern-day racial oppression (which is largely at work all over the globe), and do not treat your PoC character like they're anything less than a white character. And do not let their skin colour dictate which role they'll play in your work (main character, antagonist, protagonist, secondary characters or otherwise).

Also, placing one culture's custom into another culture, or putting a custom that doesn't exist within their culture into their culture, is very taboo, and quite offensive. It's strongly advisable to disregard everything the media's thrown at you about customs and dress.

Writing GBLT&c for Heterosexuals and cis-Gendered Folk

Basically: Write them as a person first, without thought to their sexuality or gender. Give them personalities and hopes and aspirations and goals and all of the things that you'd give anyone else. Next comes the research. Get into their history, and the laws regarding what they can and can't do based on State or country. The best places to get information and first-hand knowledge are: GBLPTQAA online forums, and your local pride center (almost all urban communities, and even some rural communities, will have at least one).

The most overlooked groups here are: Non-binary genders (detailed in the linked article), the asexual/aromantic spectrum (also detailed in the linked article), and bisexual people. Those with the most representation in media are white, cis gay men.

If you're writing a transsexual character, make sure that you do heavy research on the medical procedures that are involved. Brush up on the length of time hormone treatments take to work, and the variations from person to person. Make sure that you're aware of how the surgeries work, and be aware that not all transsexual people will undergo all reassignment surgeries (though some do).

Be very, very aware of stereotypes here. Of course, it's perfectly fine to have a "camp" gay man, or a butch lesbian, or any other "typical" GBLPTQAA type. However, the typical aspect of choice should be a trait, or a couple of traits, not the entire makeup of the character.

Spoiler! :
the aforementioned "linked article" isn't actually linked because it's not done yet. COMING SOON TO A RESOURCES FORUM NEAR YOU...

Writing Physically & Mentally Disabled Characters for Fully Able People

Again: Write them as a person first. Give them the fundamentals of what makes them them, and then do your research and add as necessary. Researching disabilities for characters who have them is especially important, as many disabilities involve the use of specialized equipment and/or medical treatments/physical therapy. Also, first-hand accounts are pretty invaluable, in this case.

When writing a disabled character, there are a few things to be especially aware of: 1) they are not charity cases. Yes, there are certain things that many people with disabilities need help with, and no, those things should not be overlooked. But they are people with their own personal level of independence and pride.
2) at the same time, there are challenges that a disabled person will face that an abled person will not. These shouldn't be ignored, because it is, essentially, belittling the person. Also, keep in mind that a lot of these extra challenges can be attributed to societal expectations, dehumanization and oppression
3) not all disabled people want to be 'fixed'. In fact, it would seem that very, very few do. There's a lot of controversy over this topic from what I've seen of it, but not every deaf character will undergo a surgery to be able to hear again as soon as the opportunity arises. The same goes for blind people, or for people with mental disabilities (such as learning disabilities). There are those who do choose this path however, and they still deserve respect. (for example, I have a deaf character who refuses to undergo surgery when the opportunity arises, because he doesn't feel that he needs it. I have another deaf character in a totally different work, however, that does end up undergoing corrective surgery).

Another important thing to keep in mind: Disabilities should not be added for the sake of giving your character a "cute quirk". Disabilities are not 'cute quirks,' and should never be treated as such.

Writing Mental Illnesses for Those Without

As with any other character: personality first, then research the snot out of the mental illness your character has. Don't do a skim-over of a couple watered down articles on chronic depression or general anxiety disorder. Hit the books, read up as much as you can, and be aware of treatments aside from medications, severity levels, and sub-illnesses. OCD does not mean a character who keeps everything ridiculously clean and organized. Schizophrenic does not mean axe murderer (nor does psychosis, psychopathy or sociopathy). Panic disorder does not mean sobbing fits ever once and a while. Depression is not a cute thing meant to endear a character, nor is anxiety. Self harm is not a fashion statement. Eating disorders are not a fashion statement.

When writing a character with a mental illness, understand that that character is still a person. That person will have a life and aspirations and interests and pet peeves just as anyone else would. However, mental illness can cause a hostile takeover of said life, and it doesn't deplete the character's humanity, but in severe cases, it can repress it for a while.

Never, ever write a mental illness as a cute quirk or underestimate how incredibly devastating they can be, and never, ever underestimate the strength of someone who battles mental illness on a daily basis. Know your stuff, and know your stuff well. Pull away from generalized ideas of things (ideas such as: "PTSD just consists of a series of flashbacks," when flashbacks have different ways of manifesting. It can also cause serious depression and a pretty much constant anxiety. "OCD means that someone is incredibly orderly," when it really involves rituals or a series of rituals that a person feels that they have to follow every single day, or something terrible will happen. "Schizophrenia means that you suffer terrible hallucinations and probably kill people," when there are different kinds of schizophrenia, and generally speaking, people undergoing treatment for schizophrenia live normal lives).

Writing Women for Those Who Are a Man

Women are actually people. They have personalities and strengths and weaknesses and goals and dreams of their own, just like men do. If you have a hard time writing someone of the opposite gender, take a deep breath and ask yourself about the ones you know. How do they act? What are they like? Do you have any internalized ideas about them that may be caused by subtle sexist residue? How does the media portray them? Next, ask yourself how you or one of your dude-friends behaves. Obviously, men and women are different, and it's actually more demeaning to write your she-character the exact same way you'd write a he-character (thus implying that there's something inferior about the way a woman would act). You can, however, draw influence from this.

Also an important note: dude, women have personalities. They're not all the same, I promise. And they're not kicking around to serve as walking sticks, doormats, or toys for the men of the world. Walk alongside and help men, yes, but that's what men do for women, too. The two sides of the gender spectrum help each other.

Internalized Prejudices

It doesn't matter who you are, or how accepting you think you may be, everyone has internalized ideas and prejudices against people who are not like themselves. So how do you get around those? Duh, you totally ignore them. Try to recognize them before you write your character. If someone from that group tells you that something about your character demeans that group, listen to them, fix what needs to be fixed, and don't get offended about it. That's it.

Valuable Resources

tvtropes is actually one of the greatest websites to find overdone cliches of every people group. If your character just so happens to be a trope, then that's fine. Make sure that you're aware of what makes that trope not good, and avoid those aspects of it. Generally speaking, this applies when your character is a cookie-cutter trope and has no other substance. If that's the case, you need to round your character out a little more.

As previously stated, online forums are an awesome place to start, because you'll have multiple first-hand accounts of what the people go through and the Little Societal Things that you probably overlook, simply because everyone can't be aware of everything.


Recognize that people are people and that they should be written as such, and figure out how any group of people have to act in order to survive. That's most of what goes into any character.

If anyone has any questions, or anything to add or correct (I don't fit under all the groups previously mentioned), by all means, do so.

Good day and happy writing!

got trans?

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Thu Feb 27, 2014 5:52 am
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Arcticus says...

And not all Asian-Americans run Asian food places or are martial arts spy masters for your enemies.

A fine example. There are many other similar stereotypes prevalent in popular media which need to be examined.

Also, I like how you begin each section of the article with "write them as a person first". I find this very important. Regardless of the bias a writer may have due to his/her experience with a particular people group, I think it is very decent to present characters as a living reality just like any ordinary person, instead of making them look alien. In any case, presenting a people group as overly fantastic does no good. Even though the writer may have the best intentions, he/she may sometimes be unknowingly promoting a stereotype, and all I know about stereotyping is that it's no good. So - extreme care.

Enjoyed reading your article, by the way.
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Thu Feb 27, 2014 6:32 am
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Snoink says...

...this makes me want to edit my story, with the disabled man in it. He is really creepy though, and because of his disability, he has power issues in which he will pretty much do everything he can to be in power -- even if it's not a good thing.

One part which would make this tutorial even better is a section about writing from a different religious perspective. Which you kind of do, when you talk about prejudices, etc., but sometimes I cringe when I see people write about religions that they clearly know jack diddly squat about.
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Thu Feb 27, 2014 2:55 pm
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eldEr says...

Religions! I could probably tack a section on about that too, because wow I know what you mean xD I'll get that done. Um. Eventually.

got trans?

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Sat Mar 01, 2014 6:43 pm
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fire_of_dawn says...

Bravo, Isha! I think this can also be applied to writing anthropomorphic or animal characters- do research, not just make use of stereotypes.
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Laure says...

This is alarming, I've been reading your articles for almost 30 minuts straight. O.o

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