Category: writing with color

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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.

Happy research!

~ Alexa


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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.

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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 “Do’s of Writing People of Color” sub-series, founder Colette Aburime discusses how reading diversity will help us write diversity:

Writers write. They should also read. And if you plan on writing Characters of Color, you should read works by People of Color. More specifically, stuff from authors in that ethnic group. Consider this an important part of your research.

How do People of Color tell their tales, express culture, and represent themselves in story? You may find that—ope! We humans are quite alike in many regards.

It’s those key differences you should learn to add a touch of authenticity.

Whether it’s:

  • Haircare needs & styles
  • How we describe ourselves
  • Microaggressions: the ones we face & how we cope
  • How we incorporate, celebrate and balance culture
  • Fitting in at work and school

When the mods and I give advice on WritingwithColor, we speak mainly from our experiences. Don’t stop at just one book or blog. There are many more voices to hear. Seek plenty of stories by those you hope to represent.

Primary Resources:

  • Fiction – particularly in your story’s genre
  • Non-fiction
  • Blogs and vlogs
  • Articles
  • POC Profiles on WritingwithColor blog (reader submission-based experiences)
  • Autobiographies, diaries and memoirs – particularly in your story’s time period
  • Social media / message boards (Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit can be an open diary!)
  • Comment sections, reviews, and discussions from any number of these.

Remember your goal is to learn and to listen.

Tips:

  • Practice proper etiquette. When entering public or semi-private spaces, provide support without offering unasked-for sympathies or questions. “Thank you for sharing” is a good general way to show support. Or sometimes lurking is best. Regardless, make sure all commentary is welcome and appropriate.

For example: A Black girl venting about getting her hair pet by a coworker isn’t the time to ask “Well, why is it so wrong to do that?” Google is a good, dear friend!  

  • Keep an open mind. Some of these sources may share raw, intimate information. Truths that make you uncomfortable, told in ways that don’t sugarcoat or act nice about it. Time to forget yourself! A person’s personal experiences are seldom written to make others comfortable. Again, you’re here to listen and learn. And you will learn if you listen!
  • Support Authors of Color. When it comes to stories, support the author with a review. And if you liked it, recommend the book to others. You could also buy a copy or ask your library to carry it. 

It’s not all about oppression.

Something you’ll discover from reading our stories, particularly fiction; we want adventures! To fall in love, crack the cold case, and soar from the backs of dragons. Most of our lives are not 24/7 about The Struggle.

In any case, stories that let us play is part of escapism. Allow us these moments. When we’re ready for really tough stuff, we’ll seek the stories that deal specifically with those topics.

And don’t forget all the positive to neutral things. Food, holidays, traditions, music, get-togethers…

Overwhelmed?

Don’t get lost in the details. Not everything you learn will prove relevant to the story, but it could provide some background. In the same way giving your MC the favorite color yellow may never appear on the pages, it gives insight on who they are.

Organize to Success!

Chart your findings in a neat and easy to reference manner.

I’ve created this Character of Color Research Table (Google Doc) to give you a start. Make a copy and fill the chart with whatever information you see fit.

Now, pick up a great book by an Author of Color and get in some research!


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Colette Aburime is the founder of WritingWithColor, a writing advice blog focused on diversity. She studied creative and professional writing in college, and writes (or rather, dreams of writing) in her free time. Colette is a big fan of romance and fantasy and lives out her fairytale in a humble cottage in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. She spends happily ever after with her prince, plants, and a feisty cat. Check out WritingWithColor on Tumblr and Twitter.

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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 this post, Alexa White gives advice on finding the right voice for characters of color:

The #1 thing I tell people on Writing With Color when they provide a character for review is “this sounds like a white person.”

I don’t say it as a condemnation, but to provide a baseline for what people are working with. They are working from an environment where white narratives, white people, and white-majority countries are the only places deemed “worthy” of their history, culture, and physical location being explored.

As a result, most characters come across as white. Their thought patterns, mental framework, and values don’t feel like they reflect the realities of growing up as someone othered. There aren’t enough details, the priorities feel wrong, and the cultural touchstones are just not there.

Thankfully, the internet is very vast, and has provided people multiple ways to respectfully research everything you could need. Here are three basic steps (in no order) you can take to begin creating characters of color:

1: Listen in on social media

Key word: listen. The goal of this step is to familiarize yourself with communities that are speaking as if white people aren’t around. You can do this on any social media platform. 

How to find these communities can be tricky. A great place to start is going through Writing With Color’s tags meant to gain community commentary (NDN only), following activist accounts (black lives matter), and just generally searching “x activist” (googling Asian activism got me a Wikipedia article on Asian-American activism, with the name of multiple movements, activist organizations, and notable activists. Note: it’s very East Asian heavy, but you can tailor searches for specific groups by name).

The more you listen, the more you’ll start to see what conversations are a priority for these groups. And don’t stop at the big names! Smaller accounts are important to follow, to get the big picture.

2: Read #OwnVoices

The wonders of the internet have provided us with a whole hashtag that centralizes diverse authors as the authorities on their own stories. It’s a built-in reading list for so many groups, and it’s basically guaranteed that you’ll find a large collection of stories that match your demographic.

Reading stories by people of color will help combat the overflow of white-centered stories in mass media, which will in turn provide you with a different framework to work from. Details you hadn’t even thought of (like satin pillowcases for type 4 curly hair) will start to emerge, and you’ll get a window into how someone chose to present themselves (which is a big deal when closed religions start to come into effect, such as many Native religions).

Plus, you get to support authors of color along the way, and have a bunch of new stories to recommend!

3: Google every basic you can think of (and make sure the sources are reputable)

The literal only reason writing Europeans and white Americans is easier is because you’ve had their history spoon fed to you since kindergarten. You’re going to need to start from kindergarten level questions for your characters of color.

As alluded to multiple times in this post, the internet is full of content by people of color. You can find Japanese recipe blogs, Black makeup and hair YouTubers, Native fashion stores—the list is endless. So long as the source is someone from the group, chances are you’ll be getting something accurate.

By googling your questions, you can start to fill up the education cup without demanding any extra labor from people of color. We have already provided the labor for you. All you need to do is find it, and withhold the impulse to insert yourself into the narrative.

This isn’t about you. Learn to let it be about us, before you start writing. 

Good luck on your research quest!

~ Alexa White


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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.

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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 this post, founder Colette Aburime gives advice on how to begin incorporating diversity into your writing:

When you write with racial and ethnic diversity, you hear a lot about what to avoid. Now, it’s not without good reason. The road to good representation is paved with harmful stereotypes and worn-out depictions of People of Color. Advice-givers, like me and the rest of the folks at WritingwithColor, put up caution signs and leave the rest of the journey up to you.

Still, there are some do’s that make for both good writing and good representation.

Writers tend to think big. Our craft demands that we keep our brains fired up with ideas. 

I’m asking you to think small.

You wouldn’t set out to climb Mount Everest your first day as a climber. No way – you’d train first! It’d take loads of exercise, you might scale some indoor climbing walls, and perhaps stock up on wisdom to apply to your own form.

When approaching topics you have little experience with, no need to go the biggest you can go from the start. Train before tackling the full-length novel or dealing heavily in tough topics like racism. Start with a hill, not the mountain.

Benefits of starting small:

  • Smoother writing process. The writing process can be a bit stop-and-go if you’re, say, constantly checking that your Black character descriptions are on the right track. You’ll feel more focused if you’ve described Black characters countless times before. Get the stumbling out on the training grounds.
  • More confidence as a writer. The stakes of writing a group outside of your own can feel like mountains looming overhead. The more practice you have, even from writing snippets and scenes, the more confident you’ll become.
  • Better representation. With all that practice prose in, combined with research and feedback, your diverse writing will only get better. You’ll learn what works, doesn’t work, and tackle stereotypes and blunders early on.

Ways to start small:

  • Character profiles 
  • Character descriptions (physical and personality)
  • Dialogue
  • Third person POV
  • First person POV
  • Write a secondary Character of Color
  • Write a Protagonist of Color
  • Scene with CoC during an ordinary moment 
  • Scene of CoC during an emotional moment 
  • Scene of CoC facing a micro-aggression
  • Scene of CoC facing blatant racism or discrimination 
  • Scene that casually shows culture (e.g. dinner, clothing, family interaction)
  • Scene that prominently shows culture (e.g. holiday, cultural event)
  • Fan Fiction (Good source of feedback if published!)
  • Flash fiction
  • Short story

This list progresses from easier stuff to more complex means of practice. Try a variety of methods and practice as much as it takes to feel comfortable on a certain task. Exercise those diverse-writing muscles!

I’ve practiced a lot. Now what?

  1. Research what you’re writing. If you didn’t do it before or during writing, now’s the time to research. Check out those writing guides on describing skin tone and physical features, dialect and speech, handling stereotypes, and so on. Writingwithcolor is a good starting place! Check out the WWC FAQ and explore from there.
  2. Get feedback. Preferably from the groups you’re writing on. Again, Writingwithcolor is a resource for feedback but so are beta-readers, writing groups online and in-person, etc.
  3. Improve your practice pieces. Don’t lament too much on perfecting it but do apply research and feedback to polish them up. Remember the relevant advice for future reference.

It’s great that you’re writing with diversity! Now that you’ve got the small stuff out of the way, pull out those big plans you kept tucked in your back pocket. You’ll stumble a lot less with all the practice you’ve already clocked in.


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Colette Aburime is the founder of WritingWithColor, a writing advice blog focused on diversity. She studied creative and professional writing in college, and writes (or rather, dreams of writing) in her free time. Colette is a big fan of romance and fantasy and lives out her fairytale in a humble cottage in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. She spends happily ever after with her prince, plants, and a feisty cat. Check out WritingWithColor on Tumblr and Twitter.