Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writing POC Characters by Christa Tomlinson

Today I want to talk about People of Color characters because there was a big to-do this week about a YA book that appears to paint POC characters in an unflattering light. (I say appears because I haven’t read the book. But going by the blurb, I can understand why people aren’t loving the story’s premise.) I’m not going to talk about the specifics of that book or the arguments taking place around it. It’s not in the genre I write and there are already multiple posts and tweet threads on the topic. What I do want to talk about is writing POC characters in general. 

There are two issues here. Some writers don’t want / are afraid to write a POC character because they aren’t sure they will do it right. And then there are writers who write POC characters without considering that their portrayal might be offensive or hurtful to a member of that race or ethnicity. This post is to help with both of those issues. I don’t want anyone to avoid writing an amazing story featuring a gorgeous POC MC. I want to see those men!  

First and foremost, please don’t use stereotypes, especially those that are harmful. For example, if you’re writing Black or Hispanic MCs, think long and hard before you make him a prisoner or a gangster. If you’re writing a Black woman, she doesn’t have to be loud and sassy, or worse, angry. If you’re writing an Asian man, he doesn’t have to be a submissive bottom who is really good at math. Your readers don’t want to open your book and see the most negative thing about their cultural group when they just read ten other books that also mentioned that exact same negative thing. It hurts. It makes us tired. And it makes us decide not to give you any more of our book budget. Think outside those stereotypical boxes. How do you do this? WRITE POC CHARACTERS LIKE ANY OTHER CHARACTER. 

I read and enjoyed Morticia Knight’s Building Bonds. She mentions that he’s an attractive Black man who is a Dom. She doesn’t really get too much into any other details. And that’s a-ok. Seriously. Just think of it as describing what hair or eye color a non-POC character would have. He doesn’t need to have a dozen other identifiers to drive the point home that he’s Black or Southeast Asian or Hispanic.
When I’m writing a book and my characters are white I don’t think of stereotypes like he must like country music, watch NASCAR and eat green bean casserole. I think of what makes that character who he is. Do the same thing when writing someone who is Asian or Middle Eastern or Canadian First Nations. Now, if you do want to write a story that delves into the culture of a specific group DO YOUR RESEARCH. 

If you were writing a story where Greek gods found themselves living as pioneers on the old Western frontier, what would you do? You’d research the Greek pantheon of gods, look up what it was like to live in the old West, and then you’d write your story. Do the same thing when writing a story featuring minority characters. And just like you wouldn’t throw every fact you read about Greek gods and the old West in your story without determining why you’re using that fact, do the same thing when writing cultures besides your own. For example, yes it’s true, many Black women don’t like when people touch our hair. But unless there’s a reason for making that point that is integral to the story, leave it out. Don’t write POC characters who are cardboard cutout representatives. Cardboard characters are always boring. 

And oh god, the dialogue in stories featuring minorities, especially urban minorities. Two things come to mind here. There was a book that made a brew-ha-ha last year because the author had the characters speaking in some hilariously strange and overly complicated version of Ebonics. No. Just no. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read an accent throughout an entire book.

If I were to read a Highland romance where everything the MC said was written in dialect I would toss that sucker in the trash. That’s too much for the brain to decipher without losing the flow of the story. Just give me a couple of lasses, drop the occasional ‘G’ at the end of a word and move on. If you’re writing an urban MC, mention that he has an accent. Maybe even toss in a slang word or two. That’s all that’s necessary to get the point across. 

You might also consider if your POC character even needs to use slang. If you’re writing an older Hispanic man who is a school teacher, he may not have slang words in his vocabulary. Again, think about what makes that character who he is, instead of going for that cookie cutter stereotype.  

But if you’re going to use slang, for the love of mocking reviews, please make sure you’re getting the spelling and usage correct. Last week, a journalist wrote coat-switching instead of code-switching* and I laughed so hard at the tweets about his goof that I had tears in my eyes. So ask. Start with Google. Hell, you can even try Urban Dictionary. Ask a friend. If they say no, they don’t want to help you, don’t get mad. Maybe they don’t know a lot of slang (I admit that I don’t) or they just don’t want to be “the ethnic girl that always has to explain ethnic culture to everyone” and that’s okay. Ask someone else. Post in the MM Romance Writers Group for help. I’m sure someone there will be able to answer your questions, or point you to someone who can. You can even reach out to me for African American culture information if you’d like. 

And then when you’ve got that beautiful book with your beautiful POC MCs ready to go, pass it off to a beta reader or two who is a member of whatever group you wrote about. Ask them for honest feedback and LISTEN to that feedback. If they tell you a plot point or description made them uncomfortable, really consider if it’s something you might want to delete or rewrite. Don’t just perch on that “it’s my story and I have to tell the story within me” high horse. Is it worth alienating a group of readers for writing a Black man who has kids he doesn’t support? If you want to die on that stereotype hill and get dragged on Twitter, go ahead. But if you want to write a story featuring characters that multiple groups can love and make their book boyfriends, take that feedback into consideration. 

The goal of this post isn’t to make anyone feel bad for anything they may have already written or deter a writer from creating a POC character. Far from it. Some people may think non-POC can’t write POC characters, but I’m not one of them. I think we need to have more minority characters. And yes, I do believe they can be written by authors who aren’t minorities. Because let’s be honest, the majority of m/m romance authors are women. So that means we had to do research to write about gay men and make sure we’re presenting their stories with compassionate consideration, yeah? That’s all us ethnic/POC/minority readers are asking for, a little bit of consideration.

Thanks for reading! And if you're looking for m/m stories with POC characters, check out my Bad Boys Need Love Too Series.

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 *Code-switching is when a person switches back and forth between urban/casual vernacular and “proper” speech. Think of it as the difference in the way you’d talk with your friends versus the way you talk with your boss. Most people who code-switch do it so quickly and naturally we’re not even aware of it.

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