Writing Black Characters

I’m not sure how much I’ve told you in terms of specifics about the characters in my thesis. Probably nothing because in general I like to keep everything about my stories a secret until I’m satisfied with them. But I will say this: my main characters are black.  Race does not determine my characters’ personality attributes, but I wanted them, on some level, to be able to relate to me and relate to a largely  underrepresented (and inaccurately portrayed) population of people.

In the United States we have this normalization of the white character.  If you start reading a story, and there are no pictures of people on the cover of the book, or no mention of race, you will automatically assume that character is white.  Why wouldn’t they be, right? It annoys me, sometimes, that I have to mention how dark the character’s skin is, or the curly-coily texture of their hair, or describe some other distinguishing feature that makes them “black,” when in fact, race is irrelevant to the journey the character must experience.  Still, if I want to give a voice to those invisible, black characters, I have to deliberately make them so.  Black characters will never be normalized in any genre of American Literature except in that Urban/African American Interest that I’m not too fond of.

That being said, I have very few models of “normal” black characters written by authors of any race. Nor have I found stellar advice on how to write amazing black characters whose race isn’t their most distinguishing feature. (The most recent character  I can think of now is Rue, from the Hunger Games. Granted she isn’t a main character, but I bet you didn’t even realize she was black until you saw the film, did you?)

And then, there are all these rules for portraying black characters. Skin color, hair texture, and dialect, to name a few, always matter. Why??!! Because many people on the internet are worried about appearing racist or racially insensitive.  I can’t blame them because there are no prototypes. For instance you can’t use words like “nappy” (especially if you’re white) because somebody will be offended.  And that may be true, but I think we are missing the point here.

I think the challenge with portraying race, without it being a story about race, is that many non-white people (and characters) have had their race influence their life experiences and perceptions about the world.  That’s simply a difficult fact to get around.  But you have to remember, not every story is about race.  The love story you may be trying to tell may have nothing to do with race. The story of a young woman trying to repair the relationship with her mother also may have little or nothing to do with race. I struggle, sometimes, not to make it about race if I don’t think race is an important factor.

So here is my advice to black writers, or any writers of color (white people, this may help you too, but no guarantees). Think about the last time you were writing or telling a story about yourself, and the moral or punchline had nothing to do with race. Remember how you portrayed your actions, the things you said, how you reacted to them, and what was going on in your environment that you responded to? You weren’t thinking about being a “person of color” the whole time, were you? You were thinking about yourself and the situation.  You were just a person with a particular problem, just like any other person with their particular problem.  You portray a black character the same way you’d portray any other character: as a person who just happens to be black.

If you find that your mind is so enmeshed in stereotypes, and you have no other perception of black people then the pitiful stereotypes seen on American TV, watch the UK TV show, Misfits, watch the web series Awkward Black Girl, and the Unwritten Rules.   Watching these shows has given me a bit more confidence as a black writer portraying “normal” black characters. Despite almost every movie, play or TV show we’ve seen in American history, there can be “normal” black characters. Beware, if you are uncomfortable with black women being portrayed as beautiful, strong, intelligent and attractive to men of all races, stay away. Yet, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, maybe these shows can inspire you too.

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