Writing Ethnically Diverse Characters

For many, writing characters that are out of the author’s base of knowledge can seem scary. The term “stick to what you know” comes to mind. Unfortunately this can leave stories lacking diversity, or written in a way that romanticizes or incorrectly portrays a certain group of people. Just like one would research a setting to make sure all their facts are straight, it also makes sense to research when it comes to character qualities that the author cannot relate to.

This includes, but is not exclusive to:

  1. ethnic group
  2. language
  3. cultural norms

When reading, we often see that the main characters are caucasian. Studies have shown that in 2012 - just four years ago - 75% of main characters in children’s books were white. Writing only white characters isn’t the only issue, however, as a recently published book titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington portrays black people during slavery. As happy slaves. Let that sink in for a minute. The reality is that there are still mistakes made within the 25% of writing that does feature a person of color as a main character.

In order to remedy this I suggest looking at non-white face claims. Appreciate the beauty. When I begin mapping out characters for a story I find that I am unable to really get into it until I have pinned a face to the character in question. Being inspired by non-white face claims allows for writing to take a different direction; a path leading along to diversity. Do you find yourself inspired by the soft features of Korean people? The sharp, piercing gaze of Native women? The “on-fleek” makeup of Indian women? The regal and god-like look of black men? Mibbian the dalliance. has a list of diverse female faceclaims, I’ve gotten up a list of male Native American face claims, and there are plenty of off-site websites which supply diverse face claim information. Further it would make sense to ask yourself questions that pertain the the chosen ethnic background, and then do research.

Here are the top 3 commonly used groups, as observed through my years of reading, and some tips on how you can write them without tokenizing them.

Black Characters

Do they have roots in slavery? Immigration from places like Africa or Jamaica? Do they live in an area considered to be poor? Are they well-off with parents that worked hard to get to the top? Most importantly when you begin writing dialogue, are you writing your character as “uneducated” because they are black or do they speak in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) because of something home or school circumstances? If they don’t speak English at all, or speak English as a second language, what language do they speak? Patois, Haitian Creole? These are all things to consider when writing a black character. Black characters do not need to speak AAVE or be portrayed as uneducated simply because they are black. This is insulting and portrays a stereotype. This is a major reason why development and research need to be done. Black people don’t solely exist in the sphere of “ghetto neighborhoods” and the “streets of Brooklyn”.

AAVE: “We was runnin the streets when they rolled up on us and started shooting.”
Standard English: “We were just walking around when the car rolled up and they started shooting.”

It is important to be aware of habits and experiences when writing characters. If the circumstances of your character would lead to them speaking Standard English, this is something to keep in mind mind.

Indigenous Characters

What tribe are they from? Does their tribe have many members that speak their language, or is the language dying? Does your character speak their native language in addition to English? Do they live on a reservation, rural area, or in the city? When writing a Native American, First Nations, or otherwise Indigenous character many forgo research and opt for stereotypes. However, not all tribes have the same beliefs and not all Indigenous people act the same. While nature is important to many, it isn’t a “religion”. While alcoholism and drug addiction do run rampant, not all Indigenous people have that struggle. A common mistake in the portrayal of Indigenous characters is language. A Choctaw would not speak Ojibwe unless they are a Choctaw/Ojibwe mixed character, or have Ojibwe friends and have picked up basics of the language.

Incorrect: “Halito (Choctaw for hello), my name is Asia and I am Lakota - a fluent speaker of Ojibwe (language of the Ojibwe tribe), our language. Many of my friends are from the city but I’ve lived on the Unitah and Ouray Indian Reservation (Northern Ute Nation) my whole life.”
Correct: “My name is Asia and I am Lakota. Though I have lived on Rosebud Reservation for my whole life I have not learned my language.”

Outside of confusing tribal languages, it’s also important to research living places of your chosen tribe and also the name of their language. Don’t pull a Stephanie Meyer and change details that don’t need to be changed.

Asian Characters

Chinese is not Japanese and Japanese is not Korean and so on. You can also branch out to other Asian ethnic groups, because these three groups aren’t the only Asians in existence. (Pakistani or Indian, anyone?) When writing Asian characters, like with Black characters you need to decide if they are immigrants/from a line of immigrants or if they are living in their home country. If they are immigrants or from a line of immigrants, do they live in immigrant towns, small neighborhoods with large diversity, or have they gotten jobs and worked their way to the top? What are things like for their ethnic group in the place they are living? Do they speak the language of their country or the country they are from? Make sure to also differentiate between the dialect they are speaking. Additionally, if they immigrated, look at your chosen era; did they change their name to something “more American” or keep their birth name? These are just some of the questions to ask yourself.

Mythical Personality: Alec pondered his mate’s question for a few minutes, not sure of how many details he wanted to give away. “She’s really great, man,” he smirked. “She does all of the cleaning when I’m at work, and then when I come home she cooks. It’s great!”
Factual Personality: Alec pondered his mate’s question for a minute, not wanting to seem unimpressive. “Well we both work, of course, but she definitely puts in more hours and brings home most of the dough.”

Being aware of the stereotyping of Asians is also important. Not all Asian women are submissive and stay-at-home partners. Not all Asian men and children are good at science and maths with a vocabulary well beyond their schooling.

This is all to say that when you write a character that belongs to an ethnic background that you are not part of, research needs to be done. Cultural norms are also a big factor in the depth of your character. This may relate to things like Japanese-American people wearing house slippers at home, or behaviours of the country your character lives in like the French kissing cheeks when greeting. Cultural norms can house the character's origin and the behaviors of the location which they currently reside. Origin may often play a large role. One being family dynamic both in and out of the home, another being food that is enjoyed. “Like an African American character may not like saltfish or coco bread with beef patty, but a Jamaican one may.” (gracious;)

If the character’s origin country is different to their country of residence, they may be influenced by the traditions of both. For example, an Indigenous family immigrates to France where they have a child. This child may then grow up to love the music and dance of their tribe, but the food of France. A minority character being the minority where they are living may also play a part in the behaviors of the character. Part of writing a character of color is learning about both the ethnic background(s) and country(ies) of origin. While that sounds complicated and like a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be. Take some baby steps, maybe starting out with a character who comes from a family that fully assimilated to the country they currently reside. With this alone you can explore what your character will experience as a person of color just getting in touch with their roots; as you do research, so will your character.

The upset at poorly executed characters of color isn’t at the author for trying, but at the author for lack of simple research, changing of traditions and behaviors to benefit a white character, and even sometimes refusing to consult a cultural advisor. The above questions and suggestions should greatly help those interested in creating a more diverse story section here on Mibba.

*Thank you to gracious;, decay, Shatterheart, and balani for helping me to improve the content of this article.
*Intro image is my own art, as previously posted on my blog here

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