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Reconsidering my Protagonist's Race

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Amanita, Jun 15, 2015.

  1. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    There are plenty of general threads about diversity etc. but I don’t want to hijack them with a specific question about my character.
    I’ve been writing and re-writing the same story for a few years now and I’m still not finished. The main character has always remained the same, a girl in her late teens with brown skin. I’ve pictured her that way without thinking about it too much at first. As a child, I’ve read plenty of books with different POC protagonists and (unlike gender) it never made a difference to me. (Well, I’ve learned now that this is called “colour-blindness” and a bad thing but it’s what I grew up to believe was the right thing, this entire discussion is still rather confusing, I have to admit.)

    Since I’ve joined the English-language writing forum-world, I’ve come across all those race discussions, follow the blog “Writing with Color” and all of these gave me second thoughts.
    The character’s culture is slightly Indian based: gender roles and family traditions as well as dietary traditions are similar and she wears salwar sameez-like clothing. So far, my story generally doesn’t feature and religion but magic and other fantastical elements. By now, I think this would probably be considered offensive and cultural appropriation.
    There are quite a few plot points which would probably be considered offensive as well, if I asked “Writing with Color” about them. The character is optimistic and self-confident and relatively good at coping with difficult situations, she has a white teacher, makes white friends and wishes to protect her fellow students who include white people.
    The story won’t work if I change the things in the last paragraph and the cultural appropriation issue also remains which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be better to make the character white and her culture European-based.
    I’m writing in German, so my audience will be mainly white and if people normally are truly more likely to empathize with a protagonist of their own race, it might be better for this reason as well. It would also make more geographical sense cause at the moment, I have a tropical land next to moderate climate and no magic that affects weather.

    When I started this project, I used to be very interested in Indian culture, food and clothing and wished to travel there if I got the chance but I’ve realised now that this kind of interest is not appropriate and I’ve given up on those travel plans as well.
    Normally, I’m totally in the “write what you know”-camp where possible which would be another argument in favour of a European setting with familiar plants and seasons.
    At the same time, I simply picture the character this way and it’s very hard for me to imagine a white girl instead but it would probably work with time.

    Any thoughts?
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2015
  2. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    This isn't directed at you so don't take it personally. One thing I've observed on this site is the pervading mindset that creating characters who are white is this massive faux pas and that now people have to question whether or not it is good to have white characters in their stories. I find this absolutely absurd. Write whatever you want, to whatever audience you want and don't worry about whether or not you are doing something wrong by having white characters or writing to a primarily white audience. It's just fashionable PC BS.
  3. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Basing a character's culture on a real-world one or being interested in a real-world culture isn't appropriation, so I wouldn't worry if I were you. It only becomes appropriation when you use elements of a culture for superficial reasons like "Because it looks/sounds cool" and completely disregard the history and tradition behind them.

    You don't seem to be doing any of those things, so you're definitely on the right track! I think it's very cool that you have a POC main character and are conscientious about the issues with writing POC characters. That's a lot more than can be said for some people. Just keep up your writing, and make sure you keep researching how to make your POC character's story better. If you have the chance, talk to some people who belong to the culture you based hers on. Ask them how you can make this character true to her culture and values. If they have concerns about certain aspects of the story, be sure to respect their opinions and fix the problematic elements.

    Good luck!
    StoryTypewriter likes this.
  4. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    The term colour-blindness as I'm aware only applies to real-life situations. Like when people say 'I don't see race'. It's seen by some to be dismissive of culture and subtly racist in its implications ("I need to pretend you're not black to accept you as a person" etc.). The term, as far as I'm aware, has nothing to do with characters and their behaviours. There's no such thing as 'raced' behaviour.

    I personally was never convinced by arguments of cultural appropriation, but that's unimportant. From my experience I don't think people would have a problem with this type of setting, so long as the subject of your story isn't racist or stereotyping.

    Some people might read into this and see some questionable things, and they may well have a point. If you do wish to avoid this, a simple solution would be to make sure the MC is also surrounded by a vibrant and diverse cast, and not just white people.

    To me all this would accomplish is making your story less interesting and unique. I haven't honestly seen very many India-inspired settings, and I would push you to continue down that route. As for white people only being able to identify with white people, no. Yes, there probably are some racists out there who would have a problem with it, but f*ck them.

    As for the whole climate thing, that's small beans issue-wise. I'm sure you could solve that somehow.

    Inappropriate for you to have an interest in India future and want to travel there? I don't follow. Follow your dreams, man!
    StoryTypewriter and Nimue like this.
  5. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Just out of curiousity can you point me to a post on this site where anyone has said:

    a) creating white characters is a massive faux pas; or

    b) people should question whether or not it is a good idea to have white characters in their story?
    StoryTypewriter, Nimue and Mindfire like this.
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I question the very idea of cultural appropriation as it relates to literature. The entirety of human culture and experience should be open to you for whatever use you want in your stories.
    Mythopoet likes this.
  7. Russ

    Russ Istar

    I guess the big question is does her skin colour play or culture play an role in the story, or are they just window dressing?

    If they play a role then stick with them. If they don't then do what you like.

    My experience with German speaking people is that they are very interested in people of colour and quite interested in different cultures. IIRC they just put a prayer room or Mosque in Allianz stadium for Bayern Munich.
  8. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    Except, literally no one is saying this. Where did you even get this idea? It's such a bizarre claim. Encouraging people to think outside the box in regard to character ethnicity is not the same as declaring the creation of white characters a "massive faux pas". Whence cometh all these straw men?
  9. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Thank you for taking the time to answer.

    Unfortunately, talking to people in real life is difficult because there are very few Indian people living here in my region of Germany and none I’m close enough with for this kind of thing. At my university classes, the only people who belong to a different race (I’ve seen this terminology often enough now but can’t really get comfortable with it because using the term “race” for humans is or at least used to be during my school days considered inappropriate here.) are Chinese. Online critics would probably be the only chance of this.

    She greatly cares about her family and friends as well as her home town and her main reason to leave for the mainly white country is keeping not only herself but also them save because she’s attracting the attention of both law enforcement and the villain organisation due to her magic. Her love interest is from her country as well. They meet for the first time at the beginning of the story and later on, she’ll meet him and his mentor again.
    I’ve considered making her mentor POC as well but wasn’t very happy with it. He’s pretty ruthless and definitely not the “White saviour”-type. He only agrees to mentor her because she looks like causing less trouble than the other potential candidate.

    Well, this one is pretty tough to answer. It definitely influences her character and her way of interacting with the world but the plot could probably work without it, I haven’t thought the alternatives completely through yet, though. The conflicts during the magic training are mainly related to class and as an in-world thing element rather than race though. The prejudice that does exist is more ethnicity-related than race-related. Also due to my upbringing, I’ve always identified as German rather than white.

    The very rough story outline is as follows: MC uses her magic in a way that draws plenty of attention and is chased by both villains and police. Due to some bad experiences with the police, she tries to escape them as well not knowing that they only want to take her to their local (secret) magic training facility.
    A friend of her mother’s with connections to the other country takes her to a woman she knows there, they also find out about her magic and have her trained.
    Afterwards, she’s spending some time at the magic training with mainly (but not only) white people before things turn more dire and she meets with a group of people from different countries and backgrounds including her love interest, his mentor, a friend of her mother’s and this woman’s son who go on a quest to stop the villain. Not the most original plotline I admit but I think the details make it so.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2015
    Tom likes this.
  10. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Just write the story the way you want to write it. When it comes to politics (racial or otherwise), you can't please everyone.
    That's my advice anyways.
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  11. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Pretty much this.

    How on earth is an interest in Indian culture inappropriate? Has someone told you that? To the very idea that interest in a culture other than your own could be a bad thing I say, "Fie!"
  12. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I would agree that the solution that I'd go for is to include not only white people around her. My reasoning is that if she's the only person of color in the area, she might feel like less of a well-rounded character who fits in until something bad happens, and more of a novelty. I think that is where this might upset people. I'm only thinking of this in terms of what people will criticize and I think if you have the only POC in the area as your MC, and she stands out because of her "difference" (meaning magic) it could compound the issue of her being different. That might not resonate to people who have felt "different".

    I'm not any kind of authority on how people feel, especially regarding race, but if it were me, I'd have a nice mix of ethnicities in the area and have this character be just another girl, with white friends and mixed-race friends, and friends from traditional ethnic families, and let her magic be the thing that sets her apart from everyone else.

    Best wishes.

    P.S. I would think there's a wealth of knowledge to be found on the internet and travel programs that can help you with a few cultural things to flavor your story. Gordon Ramsey did a world travel where he tried cultural traditional cuisine from all over the world and it was really good. You got to see the people who live in yurts in Mongolia and eat sheep testicles in milk, sure, but you also got to see them have a family gathering and the traditional instruments and some really interesting customs that we rarely hear about internationally. I'd recommend it. he did a good trip to India and the food they prepared was amazing. Anyways, look for shows in the UK because they do a lot of travel to India and have really embraced a lot of Indian food and culture. In fact, the national dish is a curry.

    Idiot Abroad is another show that shows cultures and while it's a bit gag-ish in ways, it's amusing and you certainly get to see some things you don't see in the more "glorified" travel programs.
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  13. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

    Amanita, I'm very sad to hear you're being discouraged from an interest in other cultures and in writing characters of colour. That is not at all what encouraging diversity should be about! To my mind - though admittedly I am also white, English-speaking and on the lucky side of colonialial history - genuine interest in other cultures is always appropriate and indeed good, as long as you appreciate that this isn't a sight-seeing or performance thing, it's a way other people live, with all the significance, history and context that comes along with that.

    All of that should also be borne in mind when considering including non-white characters and settings in your writing. The key things to remember are to be thoughtful and considerate about the cultures - don't just pick some bits without considering what they mean - and to think about how character tropes and relationships might be interpreted. For instance, a brown girl with a white teacher strikes me as potentially troubling because it has overtones of the "white man's burden", or the idea that brown people are less civilised/enlightened/intelligent and need white guidance and education. But there are ways of working with that relationship within the scope of your story that can acknowledge and diffuse that potential concern. You just need to be aware of all of that. And prepared to mess up and, if that is the case, listen and use that feedback to do better next time.

    I encourage you to engage and persevere with this, because I think diversity in the stories we read and write is so important to improve the humanity and empathy of all of us.
    Nimue likes this.
  14. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    The search for cultural appropriators, on Writing With Color and elsewhere, reminds me a lot of the search for fake geek girls. "Okay, you're Japanese, so you can write about Japanese people. And you live in Japan, so we'll let you off with a warning, but never forget you're a baka gaijin who knows nothing. Oh, you just like katanas? Shun! Shun!"

    There are people in this world who are brown-skinned, pink-skinned, off-white-skinned, kind of bronze-ish . . .Write what feels right for your characters. I've written a character who was small and dark just to emphasize how she blended into shadows, and one who was drained of all color because she looked like a ghost. I've written a bitter black/Native American teenage runaway with a grudge against "progress," two Mexican lovers who shared a common language the other characters didn't speak, and a heavily mixed-raced youth whose cat-eared hat hides the impossibly poofy Afro of Doom. (And a Frenchwoman, because I found a French name that I thought fit well with her plot trajectory.) I've gotten yelled at once or twice, but I once got yelled at for green-skinned characters because someone thought they were an offensive stereotype of Native Americans (though an Apache reader didn't see that at all.)

    Edit: To be clear, I absolutely believe cultural appropriation is a thing. Just look at the mess over the recent comedy Aloha, or that Native American comedy with Adam Sandler where a bunch of Native American actors walked off the set.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2015
    X Equestris likes this.
  15. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    Yeah, cultural appropriation is a thing, but most of the people throwing it around have absolutely zero idea what it actually means. If someone can handle a culture respectfully, why does it matter who or what they are? Not to mention that some of the people throwing the term around ignore actual culture and focus on race.

    As far as the topic of the thread goes, make sure your cast is diverse. That way your protagonist isn't token.
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Your claim is a big leap from what anyone has said. But even so, with all the very active debates that we've had on this topic, I'm completely lost for how anyone can claim any kind of extreme position like that is a "pervading mindset" at Mythic Scribes.
  17. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I understand the need for varied casts and I like writing lots of different types. I will say though, I don't think it's a requirement of good storytelling. Rather, diverse casts add to stories where they work. I prefer those types.

    As an example, if I wrote a story about an early Cromagnum tribe supplanting a Neanderthals (Just an example. I'm no expert on early man), I may not be able to write a very diverse cast. Or, my diversity choices would be more limited than a seafaring epic.

    Back on point....

    One of my current POVs hails from a culture inspired by East Indian cultures too. I've been fortunate in life experience to work and befriend many Indian people from all over the world (India, England, Kenya, U.S., etc.). But, my character culture is a fantasy culture only inspired by East Indians. There will be differences from our reality. It's my fantasy world.

    If that's improper cultural appropriation, it doesn't really bother me. First, I'd never disrespect or malign someone's culture, quite the contrary. I have a great deal of cultural interest and respect. But, it's my story. It's my vision of a character. If someone doesn't like it, I really don't care. They can write their own story & portray what they want how they wish.

    I won't be told what in human history I have a right to use, or that I'm confined to some box. The entirety of the human experience and its complete history is mine to use as source material.
  18. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

    Absolutely. BUT do the people whose experiences you are making use of also have equal ability to tell their own stories? (Genuine books on shelves connecting with wide readership ability, not the ability to have their stories sought out by dedicated parties.) If not, you run the risk of being taken by a readership as speaking for those people even if that was not your intention. And if you're speaking incorrectly or incompletely or stereotypically, the problem is much bigger, because that can be all the audience sees of that culture, and therefore what they think is truth.

    Added to that is the fact that in some cultures, the right to tell stories is not universal. In Aboriginal Australian cultures, for instance, just because someone has told you a story does not give you the right to tell that story to someone else. Story-telling goes along with the respect and role of Elders, and needs to be earned.
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    That's the fault/problem of the reader who misconstrues the work, not the author.

    Yes, but I'm not part of that culture. If I want to write about them, I will, and I don't feel bound by their cultural practices in determining whether or not I can do so. That just doesn't make sense to me as a writer. And what if you want to criticize a culture in your writing? That would be difficult if you had to defer to them at the same time.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I'm remembering Memoirs of a Geisha, and that makes me think there's some truth to this as a concept. It's ironic because the closer you are to portraying the actual culture, the more likely your story is to be taken as a serious representation of that culture.

    But I don't really see how that's supposed to be actionable. There's no way to represent a distant, different culture exactly right if you haven't grown up in it. It doesn't sound like a problem you can really fix.

    And is that really a question for fantasy writers, which doesn't claim to portray real world cultures to begin with?
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2015

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