I know the struggle. As a white writer, it was difficult for the longest time in terms of writing POC (people of color) characters without being a person of color myself. After tedious hours of research, I have found answers, and I now feel I have a lot to offer in terms of what descriptors to use and what not to use.
Why Is Writing POC Characters Important?
I love The Lord of the Rings as much as the next fantasy junkie, but as I grow and learn, I find it odd that Middle Earth lacked diversity. Sure, they had races. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and the like, but when it came to POCs, something was missing.
Obviously, I might be nitpicking, since Tolkien was a legend of a much different time, but times have changed, and we need to change with it. Including POC characters adds an immersive element to your story because people of all colors exist in the real world. Remember, a key statement: Representation Matters. Your readers are diverse, so make sure your story is, too!
Not to mention, if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, and you have a POC character that has super powers, or magic, or anything inhuman about them that allows them to be a hero, you’re creating another idol for those readers to look up to and to connect with. As authors, we have the gift of providing these fictional icons and should create some for everyone. Look at Blade, Luke Cage, or Black Panther. Stan Lee paved the way for creating a diverse cast of characters in a MUCH different time. Shout out to the queen, Storm, from X-Men, for throwing out her back carrying that whole academy of mutants!
Avoid the “Token” Character.
If you’re going to have a diverse cast of heroes in your story, make sure you stick by it. Don’t have one black character in a sea of Caucasian influence. I’m willing to bet your friend group has variety and diversity within it, and the group of friends, heroes, or enemies in your story should, as well.
Tokenism is defined as the minimal effort of representation for “minority” groups. There might be a black side character who helps the white heroes, or the one gay character who has no romantic story line and is just gay because the author said so.
The best way I found to avoid this is to represent more than one group. I get it, your cast is limited, especially if you’re writing in a series. Your first installment is bound to have very few prominent characters unless you’re tackling a style comparable to George R. R. Martin. In this case, I found it best to represent a couple of groups. Maybe your protagonist is white, her best friend is of Spanish descent, and her mentor is African. As long as you don’t have one minority character in a world of white men, you’re doing fine.
Avoid Food Descriptors Like the Plague
People are exactly that: people. They are not food, and they are not drinks. Now, I’m far from perfect, and in the early drafts of my novel I did exactly this. It wasn’t until it randomly dawned on me, and I thought, “Hey, I would hate to be compared to sliced bread, or vanilla, and I doubt other groups are fond of this, either.”
Avoid words like “chocolate,” “mocha,” “toasted,” or “coffee.” These words are good for describing objects, not people. Also note, avoid “sun kissed,” “tanned,” and “bronzed.” Those are more than acceptable for Caucasian characters, but black people are not sun kissed. They did not get their tan or color from being out in the sun.
Use words like “umber,” (a personal favorite of mine because it’s enticing and beautiful), “sepia,” “taupe,” “tawny,” and “russet.” Feel free to add a descriptive adjective, but avoid being redundant in the process.
“The girl’s auburn hair complimented her dark, russet skin,” is great because russet, on its own, is a burnt red. However, switch russet with umber, and you have unneeded repetition. Umber is already a pretty dark color, so I would switch dark with some other words such as “a rich umber.” Words and descriptions like this are especially important in high fantasy novels where terms like “black” or cultural terms such as “African American” and “Hispanic” may not exist.
It’s also important to note that, if you’re going to describe the skin color of a POC character, you need to do the same with your white characters, as well. WAY too often, do I see a white character’s description be everything but the skin and POCs’ descriptions be JUST the skin.
Make Sure These Characters Have Just As Much Depth As The Others.
Now, this goes without saying since ALL your characters should have depth. So, why would I restate an obvious point in regard to these characters?
Far too often, and in any genre, the most interesting characteristic about the POC character is solely the fact that they’re black, or Hispanic, or Asian. I’ve read a lot of published authors who will take the white hero and give them the sun, but they have their minority friend sidekick. This is also a form of tokenism, which, and I can’t stress this enough, NEEDS to be avoided.
My protagonist is a white woman, and one of the characters in her story is a black man. However, he isn’t her sidekick. SHE works for HIM. He’s a leader, and he comes from a rich history that has a complicated backstory. Make sure your POC characters do the same. People are always more than their skin color. Martin Luther King wasn’t just a black man. He was an activist, a minister, and most importantly, he was a fighter. Storm wasn’t just a black woman. She was a hero, a teacher, and the “mom” of the mutant academy. Depth, for any character, is key.
The best way to do all this is to avoid social norms and stereotypes. Make a very conscious effort not to use the cliché characteristics society has painted these groups into. This applies to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Now, please note, this doesn’t apply to historic fiction or biopic fiction, in which a character might be struggling to make a life for themselves, while combating the stereotypes the world sees them in. Even then, don’t let the characters perpetuate the stereotype themselves.
Ask your peers!
The biggest thing that helped me research this issue was turning to my friends of the different groups and asking their opinions. Now, let me preface that they all said the same thing: “We. Are. Not. FOOD!” All my conversations started like this, so that told me this was an even BIGGER deal than what I read online. At a certain point, it sounded like a broken record, but that just goes to show how tired they are of what the deemed a lazy description.
No one can tell you how to represent and describe a minority group better than someone from the groups themselves. I never asked a white person to tell me how to write a POC character. Well, I did in my earlier years. The answer I got was “I always thought ‘mocha’ was a pretty word.” Ugh. Again, broken record: Do not do that! Your friends are there to help, and in a world where representation is craved, they WILL help you.
I feel like it’s my duty to pick out the main take away from all of this: If you plan to have a diverse cast of characters, then these aren’t just suggestions. They’re what you need to do to be better. Not to mention, people will respect you as an author if you successfully dish this out in your book, and what author doesn’t like to be commended for his or her or their writing? What author doesn’t like to get a shout-out regarding being inclusive? Don’t let the fear of accusations of pandering get you down; all you’re doing is being realistic. Apply these to you WIP and use it to write your best book!
About the Writer
Kota Lovett is a fantasy author. He currently lives in the Chicago Suburbs with his Fiancé, Jacob, and their cat and dog.