Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 25, 2010

Adding An Ethnic Character To Your Story

After reading Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl, I started thinking how I have avoided creating characters of different cultures in my stories.  I have friends from many different backgrounds and other countries, so why haven’t I included them in my mix of characters? 

First, I don’t see them as different.  Oh, yes most have the telltale signs of English being their second language, but I would never try to reproduce that.  I know I couldn’t do it well.  Other than that and maybe the color of their skin, which I don’t notice, they seem just like me.  But certainly a writer could add depth to a character if they could include the flavor of a different cultures background in their writing. 

Take a minute to read Nisi’s article on how to do just that.  She has a lot of great ideas to help make that happen. 

Here is an excerpt:

If you want to go beyond the level of just assigning different skin tones and heritages to random characters, you’re going to have to do some research. Because yes, all people are the same, but they’re also quite different. For now, we’ll set aside the argument that race is an artificial construct, and concentrate on how someone outside a minority group can gain enough knowledge of the group’s common traits to realistically represent one of its members.

Reading’s a very non-confrontational way to do this. Be sure, though, if you choose this route, to use as many primary sources as possible. If researching a story about first contact between a stranded explorer from Aldeberan and a runaway slave, for example, you’d do much better reading The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The latter is an important and moving book. But not only is it a work of fiction, it was written by a non-slave; therefore it’s a step further removed from the authentic experience you need.

Websites on minority culture abound. Any half-decent search engine will bring up a freighter’s worth of URLs on African-Americans, for instance, and at least a line or two on lesser-known groups.

For a less cerebral approach, check out nearby ethnic history museums. Art collections, historical dioramas, anthropological displays and so on can provide you with strong visuals. Some are interactive, and allow you to pick up a few aural and tactile sensations as well. For locations, look under “Museums” in the yellow pages, or consult a travel guide for your area.

When it comes to finding more contemporary material, magazines help. I also strongly recommend shopping trips, night-clubbing and restaurant hopping. Take a walk on the wild side. Do you feel like a tourist? Uncomfortable? Well, you are one, and you need to know what it’s like to be conspicuous. If your character’s a minority, she or he will be quite familiar with the sensation. Bruce Sterling once told me that alienation is an essential part of any science fiction writer’s education, and I agree.

Perhaps you have friends of other cultural backgrounds. Talk to them. Explain what you’re trying to do. Even though no one is a certified representative of their own ethnic group, they can let you know when something you propose is totally out of whack. And they can point you to sources of specific info.

If you’re thinking of approaching someone who’s more an acquaintance than a friend, offer to buy them lunch, or dinner, and make the interaction a formal interview. This is what you’d do with anyone else you wanted to pump for valuable data. Cultural background is data. If you want it, and you don’t have it, it’s valuable; treat it that way.

Click here to read the full article.

“Transracial Writing for the Sincere” is available in print from Aqueduct Press as part of the Tiptree Special Mention book  Writing the Other, a guide to developing characters of varying backgrounds by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. 

Nisi Shawl’s story collection Filter House won the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award and was nominated for a 2009 World Fantasy Award. She received a second 2009 World Fantasy Award nomination for her novella “Good Boy.”

Shawl is the coeditor, with Dr. Rebecca Holden, of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (forthcoming). Her reviews and essays appear in the Seattle Times and Ms. Magazine, and she has contributed to Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction. Shawl is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which she attended in 1992.

Hope this gives you something to think about. 

Talk tomorrow,



  1. This is excellent info, Kathy. Thank you for posting it!

    One thing that always stood out to me about the way J.K. Rowling incorporated different ethnic backgrounds in “Harry Potter” was very simple, and it worked for what she was doing: their personalities were never depicted as any different by their ethnicity and, if it weren’t for their names, there was no other way to detect one as different from another. She always focused on each character’s personality traits as individuals and there was no line drawn in that way. Her most prominent line was drawn between to the factions of magic and the bigotry due to that. So she successfully addressed the issue of prejudice without even bringing race into it, yet made the same valuable point.
    Just something I wanted to point out 🙂


  2. Nice article, Kathy, many thanks! Mitali Perkins has a great list of “10 tips to writing race” that I always refer people to:
    You also might be interested in a recent post I wrote on racism in classic children’s books (ie. how NOT to write race? but now that it’s written that way, what do we do?)

    —Sayantani DasGupta 🙂


  3. Brilliant, and as you, I had never considered this before. Thank you so much for sharing it. I’ll be sure to pass this along to my writing group because I know they’ll be interested.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: