I’m trying to put into…

I'm trying to put into words some of the ideas I have about writing, for this writing book. It's hard, especially for the political material, where I often want to go off into many pages of explanation and discussion of subtle points, but I also want to confine the sections into short pieces that are easy to digest. It's not a theory book, after all -- it's meant to be a practical writing guide. If you have thoughts on the below (as writers, or readers), would be interested in hearing them. Eventually, I'll need critiquers for the whole book, but I think I'm still at least a few months away from that.

NOTE: There's a piece at the beginning of the book about why you might want more diverse characters in your fiction. So by the time people get to this piece, they've presumably agreed that they're interested in trying to write fiction with visibly diverse characters (in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) -- otherwise, they would have put down the book already. :-)


Ethnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color -- or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn't possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It's a strange blind spot in the cultural dialogue, and it's misleading and damaging to erase white peoples' ethnic background. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier to see ethnic issues as people of color issues, something white folks don't have to pay as much attention to. It leaves the responsibility of being aware of and engaging with ethnicity on the people of color, when really, the responsibilty belongs to every human being.

When I'm editing an anthology, I'm always startled by how many characters in submitted stories are generic white. The generic part is important there -- they're not just white, but some vague version of white that lends no interest to the character or the story. As a first stage in creating more vivid characters, I ask simply that you give your white characters some specificity in their whiteness. They could be immigrants from Ireland, or third-generation Polish-American, or in this country so long that they're not sure exactly what all of their ethnicities are, but they do know that their great-grandmother left Germany when Hitler came to power, because she didn't approve of his politics. And she took a few Jewish friends with her, and eventually married one of them. That's a lot more interesting and more specific a character than the generic white one. Whatever the color of your own skin, you as a writer can take on the job of giving your white characters an ethnic background -- or more than one.

The second step is to write people of color as characters. A lot of writers are hesitant to take this on -- white writers are worried about writing people of color, and even people of color become hesitant about writing other people of color. I feel some of this too -- in particular, I worry about writing black American characters. I worry about getting it wrong, being offensive, contributing to damaging cultural stereotypes, making people mad at me. But if you're going to write well, you have to get past those fears. Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right.

So here are two rules for you to test yourself on, from this point forward in your writing:

a) If you're writing a white character, make sure they aren't generic white. Give them an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do mention it -- it's not enough for you, the author, to know their history. Unless the reader gets an intimation of it as well, that character might as well be generic white.

b) If you're writing a white character, and if there's no good reason for them to be white, change their ethnicity. This one's harder than it looks, because it's surprisingly easy to come up with reasons that seem good on the surface. But really poke at them, and try to figure out if it's possible to change the ethnicity without compromising the story you're trying to tell. Who knows? It might make your story more complex, more interesting -- it might make that story better.


1. This one's simple. Take a story or scene you've already written, and change the ethnicity of the protagonist. Don't just do an edit in a computer file -- retype the entire story, with that change in place, and make sure it's present in the story. See if it changes your tale.

5 thoughts on “I’m trying to put into…”

  1. How to ask this without feeling stupid?….

    I think I am generic white. In my family, it’s vaguely thought that some great-grandparents came from Germany. Maybe one of the four came from England. But I grew up with no German or British traditions of any kind…. just suburbia New Jersey, which is pretty darn boring. So I’m not sure I could give myself ethnic or cultural history in a story. Is the bare fact that “my grandparents probably came from….” my ethnic/cultural history? Since it has little to no bearing on my actual life, it doesn’t feel genuine. Do you think it’s possible that a lot of, say, 4th- or higher generation Caucasian Americans really don’t have an ethnic history? Or is their ethnic history just “vaguely Western European”….

    Sorry that I’m rather ignorant about these things. I didn’t grow up with anyone around me talking or thinking about it. It’s kind of discouraging, actually.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I wish I could remember her name, but there’s a poet in the Bay Area who does great poetry around being suburban white.

    Leaving aside the whole parents/grandparents/etc. thing, don’t you think your white background, living in suburban New Jersey, maybe in a mostly-white neighborhood, is different from that of someone from an equally white neighborhood in, say, Minnesota? (I’m reminded of a classmate at Clarion, Leah Cutter, who cooked us Minnesota comfort food — ‘salad’ made with canned fruit and jello, casserole with potato chips baked on the top) Or from a white person in the city in L.A., living in the midst of lots of Hispanics, Asians, blacks?

    Your ethnic history can be as recent as simply New Jersey, America — it doesn’t have to necessarily bring in countries from four generations ago. The key is to be specific and concrete in the details of what it’s like to be white in your part of New Jersey.

    Look at the specifics of the food you and your family eat — that’s often a great way in. Who lives around you? How comfortable are you and your family with people of color?

    And even the lack of ethnicity can be, in a sense, a version of ethnicity. Do you feel excluded by the term ‘ethnic’? Do you ever wish that you spoke German, or that your family observed British traditions at the holidays? Or if not, then are you bewildered by race/ethnic politics, feeling left out of the conversation? That’s a position too, in its own way.

    Does any of this help? Should I put any of it in the piece?

  3. You could probably elide give them an ethnic and cultural history to just give them a history and it would be major advice for 90% of writers.

    Though they’d probably misunderstand what you meant by the word history.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Part of the problem with the book is that I currently have it set up to have separate sections on ethnicity, class, gender, etc. — and I’m trying not to just repeat what is essentially ‘give them a history’ for all the sections. :-/

    I’d like there to be specifically useful elements in each identity section, in addition to the general rule….

  5. This is interesting. I grew up being told that I was mostly English, but Black Dutch and a bit of Cherokee on my paternal grandmothers side. I never knew what Black Dutch was, although I knew which relatives it applied to. We were inordinately proud of the Cherokee part, even though it was miniscule (1/32, IIRC) and we did not know anyone who was culturally Cherokee.

    I suppose Black Dutch is most likely some sort of German, but I do not know.

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