Don’t Bleach and Iron Your Work

Guest Post by Alica McKenna Johnson

Tips for Adding Diversity to Your Writing

1. I cheat. My YA series has many people from different cultural backgrounds and takes place in different countries. I have written it in 1st person. My MC is a female who was raised without an ethnic culture of her own, but was exposed to many cultures and lifestyles growing up in group homes in San Francisco. I don’t have to know how the other characters’ cultural background influences their perspective–I only have to know what they show my MC. And, yes, they do show cultural differences, but this is not as in depth as other POV’s need to be.

2. I read books written by people and about people from many different backgrounds. I also watch foreign and LGBT films. And, yes, a media portrayal of people from other countries isn’t necessarily a clear picture. Neither is my book. It’s a fantasy–a story of fiction, and the books and movies allow me to add little details that make my characters come through clearly. They also help me to break stereo types.

3. Basic research. I read travel books–specifically children’s books as they give a greater sense of culture flavor. I also watch travel shows–Bizarre Foods and No Reservations being two of my favorites.

4. I’ve taken classes on writing about people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Two of my favorites were How to Write Realistic Native American Characters and How to Write Realistic Gay Characters. I loved both of them and learned a lot! I learned what stereotypes are and what things are culturally true. I learned that, like everyone else, there is a huge range of personalities and backgrounds.

5. I’m not afraid to offend people. I don’t go out of my way to offend people, however, if I want my curvy blond to be panting for the sexy black waiter with the great round butt, then that’s what I’m going to do. That being said–I will do research and ask someone who is black to read my story and see what they think. Is every black person going to be happy? No, but I can’t make everyone happy anyway. There are white characters I don’t relate to at all. I ranted through the movie 30 Days of Night because I lived in Alaska and there were big technical errors–it happens. Tell your story, research, get advice, do your best, and write.

6. Not everyone grew up in a cultural household. I’m mostly German; you wouldn’t have any idea of that by watching my life. I have a friend who is Zuni. Going into her house gives you no sense of her cultural background and she grew up on a reservation and still practices the Zuni religion. I have a friend whose family is Italian. At Thanksgiving they have turkey, stuffing, smoked octopus, pasta, and pumpkin pie. You get a sense of her culture because that is how her family lives.

Just because your character has brown skin doesn’t mean they identify or were raised in an ethnic and cultural environment. You don’t have to be perfect, you can stay within the things you know and are comfortable with. Maybe your Chinese character has a Buddhist altar in their home and hates egg rolls. Mix it up!

7. We are all people. Under the bindis and jeans, bling and manicures, Chanel No. 5 and sandalwood, we are all people. We want to feel safe and loved and special. We want a home, a family, and to be happy. What that looks likes differs from one person to another. A home in the burbs with two kids and a dog can be the dream of an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, yet might be a nightmare for an Indian couple.

No matter what your skin color or who catches your eye, lust, longing, love they all feel the same. Does the shape of a mouth change the passion and nervousness of a first kiss?

8. It’s okay for them to have flaws. While stereotypes are wrong concerning everyone of a race, religion, or sexual orientation, some come from a problem, issue, or quirk that is common within that community. There is an alcohol problem among Native Americans; they also have a higher risk of diabetes. Not all Native American have either of these issues, but they are a concern within the Native American Community. Don’t believe me, go to tribal websites and see what programs and services they offer, many have drug and alcohol programs and some have nutrition/diabetes programs. People have to deal with drugs, alcohol, abuse, and gangs–it doesn’t matter what color they are, who they have sex with, or how much money they make. Having a character dealing with these issues doesn’t mean you are stereotyping them.

We are all people with stories to tell. So tell them. Be brave and see your characters uniqueness. Don’t Bleach and Iron your books, no one wants to read that. Delve into your creativity, your heart, and your mind. Imagine what life is like for someone else–you do it all the time–unless some of you really are vampires and werewolves.

And for those of you creating whole new worlds: there is no excuse for not having more diversity in your characters. You don’t have to deal with social issues in a steampunk alternate universe with dragons–just let that go and have people living together peacefully (well, except for the soul sucking demons).

For expanded versions of these tips, plus foreign film reviews to help you broaden your cultural knowledge, come to my blog at www.alicamckennajohnson.com.

Thanks, Alica!

6 thoughts on “Don’t Bleach and Iron Your Work

  1. Pingback: Two for Wednesday: Books by Eve and Powell | SJ Driscoll

  2. mgmillerbooks

    Love this. I use the term “whitewash”, but I guess it’s basically the same, huh? 😉 Stretching our boundaries is the only way we learn and grow and find empathy in others. Kudos to you, Alica, for daring. Your work sounds rich.

    1. alicamckennajohnson

      Thank you so much- whitewash is very common, but I wanted to add the straightening of gay characters that some agents are asking for. I think as writers we need to be willing to visualize that world for many people’s preservatives.

  3. Prudence MacLeod

    Don’t bleach and iron your books. I like that. Good advice, for, as you say, you can’t please everybody, and no matter what you do someone will surely choose to be offended. Rock on, and let your characters be human.

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