Writing Diverse Characters Different from those Inherent to the Author
July 1, 2015
By Christine Kohler
In 1985, my first four fiction children’s books were published by Concordia Publishing House in a series called Growing up Christian. Those contemporary stories for ages 5-9 tackled social problems, such as attitudes toward disabled people and illness. My main character in two stories is Jennifer, who is white, and her best friend and neighbor is a black boy, Curtis. Their families do activities together at school and in the community. I broke barriers in several categories in the Christian market before terms such multi-culturalism and diversity were even used in children’s literature.
DIVERSE CHARACTERS AND CULTURES
Nearly 30 years later my debut novel, NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, was published by Merit Press in 2014. This YA-crossover historical novel, set on Guam during the Vietnam war era, has all non-Caucasian characters (except for a history teacher with a very minor role). Most of the characters are Chamorros—indigenous Pacific Islanders in the Marianas—or Japanese, or hapa-Chamorro and Japanese. (Hapa is a Hawaiian term for part, or mixed race.)
In NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, Kiko’s grandfather, Tatan, has lytico bodig, a disease similar to dementia (Alzheimer’s) and Parkinson’s disease. For simplification in the story, I refer to it as a type of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and gave Tatan the symptoms of that disease. Also, Kiko’s mother and the WWII Japanese solider hiding in the jungle both have PTSD. So, you can see that 30 years later I am still writing diverse, multi-cultural social problem stories.
WHEN CAUCASIAN AUTHORS WRITE DIVERSE CHARACTERS
However, my books are frequently excluded from official “We Need Diverse Books” campaign lists because I am Caucasian and not classified as “a diverse author.” It has been said on diversity panels that writers who write outside of their own culture are disrespectful to those whom they are writing about. I disagree, if the writer holds two key elements—experience and research—that can create authenticity in writing about people of other ethnicities, cultures, religions, genders, and physical conditions. (I am a graduate of the University of Hawaii and lived and worked in Japan and Guam, plus traveling to other Pacific Island and Asian countries for nearly a decade.)
HOW TO AVOID OFFENDING
What is most objectionable, even offensive, to all writers, editors, and readers is stereo-typing any character of any ethnicity, culture, or physical condition. Stereo-typing comes from lack of research or experience in knowing people of that ethnicity, culture, etc. As writers we should always strive to write dimensional characters. The best characters spring from the writer’s keen observations of people in their natural environment.
HOW TO WRITE OUTSIDE AUTHOR'S INHERENT MAKE-UP
If writers restrict themselves to only writing about characters just like them, then they could not write an opposite gender character, or a historical or foreign character and place, or—say the writer is a goody-two-shoes genuinely nice person—a villain or anti-hero. Like any character outside of the writer’s personal experience, the writer starts with research. The less personal experience the writer has with a character different in any way from the writer, and setting and culture foreign to what the writer has experienced, calls for deeper research.
Don’t restrict your research to internet and books. Go on a field trip. Researching food can be yummy. Attending services in a mosque, temple, synagogue, or church can be mind-broadening and inspirational. Volunteering at hospitals and homeless shelters can be humbling and soul-enriching. If you read NO SURRENDER SOLDIER you can tell I lived on Guam. I ate at fiestas, walked in the boonies (jungle) at Talofofo, prayed at novenas, shopped at Tumon, swam in the ocean. One of the only things I did not do that I wrote about was butcher a pig. That was pure research. (But as a child I did skin rabbits and gut fish.)
WRITING ABOUT DEMENTIA
As for writing about dementia, and the family dynamics caring for a grandparent with dementia, while in graduate school I did media relations at a geriatrics center that specialized in Alzheimer’s care. Besides visiting the Alzheimer’s unit, I attended caregiver gatherings and educational meetings for caregivers. I observed dementia residents in pet therapy, and a religion study. I interviewed caregivers who shared their life stories living with parents and grandparents who have dementia.
Besides the two keys of gaining experience and do research, my last advice to writers writing outside of their inherent ethnicity, culture, physical abilities, religion, etc. is to be open and sensitive. Mostly sensitive! Be sensitive to those you are representing in your characters. Reflecting diversity is more than differences one sees on the outside in customs or behaviors. It is often a completely different mindset, one that a writer may never fully understand unless she adopts that culture as her own. Take for instance the practice of taking one’s shoes off at the door. A white or black American might think it’s to keep the carpets clean in the house. But an Asian views it as taking your shoes off because inside the temple or house you are walking on holy ground. See how the mindset is different? But a writer wouldn’t know that unless he had adopted that culture. So be sensitive.
COMMONALITIES IN HUMANITY
After you have done all of these things—experience, research, be open and sensitive—then write from the depth of emotion—from love to suffering--that we share in humanity.