Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today. I’m launching a new series, one that is focused on diversity. It seems a timely topic, and it’s also relevant to the development of our characters. My approach will be personal, and I hope your response will be as well. Let’s get started with the first segment — race.
From as far back as I can remember, I imagined myself the ugly duckling in a pond of beautiful swans. I grew up in the desert bordering Mexico and the area was 85% Latino and 10% other shades of brown. 5% of the population was and is white.
Most of my friends were brown-skinned and had gorgeous dark hair that glistened blue in the sunlight. I vividly recall sitting next to Maria on the school bus and being in awe of her shiny hair. The early morning light that poured through the bus windows made her glow.
I’d look down at my freckled arms and wish I was like Maria. Sometimes our arms would touch and even she would smile. “You’re so white,” she’d say, as she pressed her arm against mine. Her words were simply an observation, there was nothing critical meant. But in my heart, I registered, I’m different and that difference did not feel good at all.
Of course, my auburn hair made me feel even more like an outsider. Then again, it didn’t help when the sun came out. That’s when I became a chameleon and turned bright red. The blisters on my arms and shoulders drew shocked compassion from my friends, but for me, those painful sores were a constant reminder of my state. I was the ugly duckling.
A child just wants to be like everyone else. They want to be part of the group, the pack. They notice differences, but not in the ways adults do. In my case, I simply wanted brown skin. I tried – many times – to get a tan. It never happened. I was white, and nothing would change that fact, except a sunburn.
I had no concept of privilege or hierarchy other than brown skin was more beautiful than white. I could run as fast as the others, and I could play jacks as well as anyone, but, because I was white, I often felt that I didn’t belong. And so it was that the last seat in the classroom became my favorite hiding spot.
How about with you? Were you a minority as a child? Did you feel that you didn’t belong?
I bring this to your attention because a person’s judgments about race begin in childhood. We may not be reflective of this fact, but if we were to travel back to those early years, we’d discover this to be true. So, what does this say about our characters?
No two of us are the same. Our skin color may be similar, but it differs by shade. We may have grown up in the same neighborhood, but our experience of that world is affected by a multitude of factors. Even a slight difference in skin tone can have a notable impact. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions about including racial diversity in our characters:
- Avoid stereotypes. We’ve all heard them, and we’re all bored of them. Instead of relying on a generalized trait or behavior pattern, take the reader into the lives of your characters. Show them why your character thinks as he or she does and why they hate or love. Bring them back to the beginning, to those first determining moments when skin color became real.
- Avoid tokenism. We’ve seen enough of this on TV. If you include racial diversity in your story, dive deep and bring your characters alive. Make them real to the reader. Whether protagonist or antagonist or minor character, draw the reader into his or her skin. Help the reader feel the quality of that difference.
- Be honest with yourself. Identify your judgments about people or groups who look different from you. Be specific. We all have judgments. We’ve grown up with them. Ask this question – have I imposed my judgments on my characters?
- Do the necessary research. Try to fill in the holes of your own experience and seek constructive feedback.
- Write from the heart. When we write from a place of goodwill, we evoke understanding. The heart speaks a universal language — through tears, laughter, love, fear, and more. If we remain close to our hearts, others will join us.
That’s all for today, my friends. I hope the post was helpful in some small way. Next month, we’ll go deeper into this complicated topic. Till then, be well and find time to enjoy the sunshine.