Can White Fiction Authors Write Minority Characters?
By Wil Forbis
January 5th, 2020
Recently, I dug up a project I started several years back: a horror novel that I had brought to a state of being readable but not much else. The larger story was there but the text needed a lot of cleaning up. As such I've spent parts of the past two months engaged in a rewriting effort designed to get the book to the point of being readable by the general public.
Much of this effort is comprised of cleaning up typos, grammar, etc. But it's also about thinking through the plot and descriptions of the characters. While engaged in that process, I realized one thing: most of my major characters were white. (Now is a good time to note that I am white.)
Is this a problem? On one hand, white people do tend to travel in the circles of other white people; it's not outlandish to envision a group of Caucasians who have little interaction with other racial or ethnic groups. In fact, I often find something a little phony about the groups of friends you see on well-intentioned television shows, groups made up of single representatives of every major identity type (Black, gay, Hispanic, disabled, etc.)
Having said that, there's no doubt that many parts of the world are very diverse. My story is set in a modern metropolitan city and one would presume it would have a plethora of different groups interacting with each other. A story should reflect reality.
There's a more mercenary reason for writing a racially diverse cast of characters. As an author, you don't want to alienate non-white readers who are tired of stories that don't include them. To do so is to leave money on the table.
However, in my readings on this general topic I've come across two counter arguments to white authors writing non-white characters. They are:
- White people can't write authentic non-white characters
This argument states that the experience of being a racial minority in first world nations like the United States or nations of Europe is so fundamentally different from being white that white authors can never understand it and thus can never write believable characters who have that experience.
- White people who write non-white characters are "stealing stories"
This argument might allow that white people can create convincing narratives about non-white characters, but, in the interest of fairness, those narratives should be told by non-white authors. The overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry keeps non-white voices at arm's length. (Or so the argument goes.)
I'm not going to address that second point in this article (it's more of a moral question than a pragmatic one) but I will say that I'm sympathetic to it though I doubt it would stop me from writing a non-white protagonist if it were the only concern I was considering. That might not be fair of me, but life's not fair.
To this first point about authenticity, I believe there's some truth to it. If I came across a narrative about, say, a black man raised on the mean streets of Baltimore and learned that it was written by a white woman from Iowa City, I'd be dubious of the story's verisimilitude. Having said that, I do think it's possible that a white writer can capture some semblance of a non-white character's reality. (Of course, ironically one could argue that I would have no way of knowing what is true in such a case, being that I'm white.)
There's a couple additional wrinkles here. No one can seriously argue that white fiction writers should avoid non-white characters entirely---that would result in fundamentally unrealistic fiction. Rather, I think the argument is that white writers shouldn't attempt to have protagonists or major characters who aren't white. And here I would say that if you're an author going for realism you do need to tread carefully and really research the kinds of people you are attempting to write about to capture their (to use an expression I find pompous and academic) "lived experience."
But how strictly should we enforce these kinds of norms? I generally agree that a white, male, 40-something author like myself would struggle to write an authentic protagonist who is black, female and bisexual. But what about a protagonist who is white, male, 40-something but also somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum? Could I write that character? Or how about someone who's basically like me but from a completely different financial class, either very rich or very poor. Could I write that character? How tightly do we draw the lines here?
Of course, capturing reality is not what all fiction attempts to do. There's a lot of plot driven genre fiction that is not trying to be zealously truthful or literary. I'm talking about writers like Tami Hoag, Dean Koontz and such. I've read their books and loved some of them (despite what I said here) but I never feel like the characters are particularly real. Their personalities are driven by the needs of the plot in the same way that teenagers in a horror movie need to explore the house of the infamous serial killer just because. Those characters don't always make sense but they move the story forward. All of them, whatever their race, feel somewhat inauthentic. And we readers forgive this because we understand there's a different set of rules used to judge such fiction.
In the weeks that I've been thinking about this topic I've read a couple suspense novels and observed their approach. One of then, an old Robin Cook novel called "Terminal", was dated. All the Hispanics were pretty much women-oogling sleazeballs and the one Black guy was of the "hired muscle" stereotype you often saw at work in narratives from the 80s and 90s. In the book's defense, it was genre fiction and none of the characters rang particularly true (not a bad plot though.)
The second novel, "Trapped", was written by best selling ebook author J.A Konrath. The story features several Black characters, all of whom are in the "troubled street youth" mold. Konrath dives right in and lets his characters speak in an urban vernacular---lots of "true dat" and "you be fronting, dog?" It sounds a bit off to me ears, but not distractingly so. (Part of the problem with characters talking in street jive is that whatever expressions you use are going to be out of date within a year.) And again, Konrath is not writing "so real it hurts" literary fiction. I will say that "Trapped" is definitely a page turner.
So what have I done with my novel? I considered avoiding the issue of race entirely by just not stating a character's race and letting readers fill in the blanks. But that didn't feel right so I've tended to intimate a character's race but not directly state it. I might mention and character is "dark-skinned" but not say that they are black. (The reader might infer they're Hispanic or Filipino and that's fine.) I've implied that the mother of my lead has a Spanish-speaking heritage but gone no further.
These sort of technique is admittedly a bit of a cop out and nonetheless wouldn't spare me the wrath of a committed social justice warrior but I feel it strikes a good balance while society figures out the rules on this particular issue.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.com
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.