Diversity makes stories better, plain and simple. This year, we’ve partnered with the good folks at Writing With Color to get some advice on how to write stories populated with people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. In the second part of her sub-series “Properly Coded,” Alexa White discusses how to create backstories for characters of color:
Now that we’ve covered how to research to create your characters, it’s time to work on creating the appropriate character backstory. If you don’t spend the time figuring out how a person’s upbringing shaped their worldview, you’ll end up writing yourself in a different wig every time.
You can’t just assume that people will have come out of the same experiences the way you did. You have to account for how their demographics shaped the perception of those around them, which in turn shaped their perception of the world.
You should have some idea of how this cycle from your research (covered in part 1). If you don’t feel like you have a general sense of it, work through these exercises and do more specialized searching.
1: Fill out their frame of reference
“Frame of reference” is a fancy way of saying what they expect to happen in any given situation. It’s basically what your lived experience tells you will happen, what to expect, and how people will generally treat you.
Spoiler: it’s going to include expecting microaggressions.
However, you want to do things other than include microaggressions. You’ll want to create things like what’s comforting, their most familiar communication style, their idea of good and evil, and a whole bunch of things. You basically want to create a unique-to-them lens that they see the world through, while also acknowledging that their lens will be made of what was around them.
Were they a Black family in an almost-all-white neighborhood after a generational climb to the middle class (a la Fresh Prince)? Indigenous in a cultural center with freedom to practice traditions? Seventh generation in the country they call home, but still seen as outsiders because of a white default? All of these will shape how they see the world, and you should research accordingly.
2: Come up with a few formative experiences
Positive or negative, everyone has a few points in their life that change them.
Leslie Odom Junior talks about the teacher at his school who brought him into the world of orating, that led him to realize the power of words. This, in turn, lead him to believe in Hamilton with such dedication, because it was his culture and he could speak from his own experience on stage.
Take some time and try to piece together what made the character who they are today. Reading the first book that featured themselves as a protagonist? Their parents refusing to let them compromise themselves and their cultural identity because of ignorance? The way they celebrated a cultural holiday every year with their community, all the flavours that come to mean happiness on their tongue?
You don’t have to come up with a lot. Just one or two things that sparked something is all you need.
3: Do this for the characters’ parents/guardians, as well
If only to figure out the full scope of how your characters would have been raised. Whether you’re writing fantasy, modern times, or even far in the future sci-fi, knowing how parents experienced the world will go a long way to figure out how they shaped their children.
You’ll want to do the above two steps for at least one generation back in order to avoid stereotyping the parents. So many toxic tropes for characters of color exist in the parental sphere, from desexualisation, to overly-strict, to abandoning, to assuming all things white are the best. The reality is much richer, much more dynamic, and full of possibilities to give your characters a sense of lineage.
You’ll notice I was very positive with the examples above. That’s because these steps are designed to force you away from tragic/negative stereotypes and towards people. People of co lour have their own lived experiences, and stories about them need to respect everything they experienced in their upbringing.
Alexa White, also known as Mod Lesya on Writing with Color, is a Mohawk two spirit person from Southern Ontario, who joined Writing with Color to help educate others. A lifelong lover of storytelling, she dedicates her focus to making characters feel like they come from whatever setting they’re supposed to exist in. If she is not found writing, she is playing with her cat, cooking, or drawing.