Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Characterization of Diversity

Today on All Things Writing we welcome an amazing guest blogger: Carolyn Evans-Dean. I absolutely love this piece she's written for us and hope she'll be our guest again!--Mary Ann

As a child of the 1970’s, I grew up in a world where minority characters were based upon widely held biases about culture. That decade ushered in a host of award-winning media firsts, which included the creation of more culturally diverse characters on television and cinema. Shows like What’s Happening, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Different Strokes and Chico & the Man are a few that featured minorities in leading roles. Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned programs were sitcoms and serious depictions of minorities were few and far between. While the appearance of minority actors on the tube was considered to be a step in the right direction by some, others were enraged by the stereotypes that were perpetuated.

For Asian-American women, the roles were limited to bland, servant-type characters that lacked depth. The men were relegated to delivering Chinese food. While the actor might really be Japanese, there was no attempt at cultural accuracy. Unfortunately, Hollywood believed that Asians were interchangeable.

Native Americans were portrayed as heathens and the cast of most western films featured bronzed Caucasians wearing mismatched tribal accoutrements to depict the indigenous people that stood between real Americans and their manifest destiny. Once again, Hollywood demonstrated that it held no regard for authentic minority characters.

As a result, very few television programs were deemed to be acceptable for viewing in my childhood home. I was an avid reader, instead. In literature, the offerings were equally abysmal and it was difficult for my parents to find books that depicted even a single African-American character. When they did find one, the character was either offensive or more of a shadow of a person. It was particularly important to them to provide positive role models that looked like us, as we were the only African-American family for miles.

Given the media portrayals, it is no wonder that many minorities took umbrage with the images on the screen and felt alienated by the industry. The American Dream was revealed each night during primetime, but it didn’t include people that were outside of the Anglo ideal.

With few exceptions, the literary world wasn’t much different. In the late 1980’s, I recall entering a drugstore to pick up a few things. Next to the usual Harlequin-type books, I spotted a new series. It was clad in earth tones and the intertwined black couple on the cover compelled me to make the purchase. I’d never seen an African American romance novel before and was quite eager to crack it open. Serious disappointment set in when I realized that beyond the racy cover, the characters were culturally bankrupt. There was nothing that identified them as having had any sort of black experience. It was essentially a one dimensional blackwashing of a book without any real thought to developing characters that were plausible.

As writers, we need to be culturally aware of the characters that we create. If we opt to create a character of color for no other reason than to lend the appearance of diversity, it isn’t much better than making a conscious decision to exclude one.

So…how do we decide when to include a minority character and more importantly, how do we craft the character in a manner that is realistic? The answer is simple: Write about things that are within your sphere of personal knowledge.

Take the time to learn about the culture of the characters that you wish to create. There is accurate information to be found on the internet, on cable channels or in books. Of course, my favorite method of learning about culture is to dive in! Many communities offer cultural and religious festivals which can be great places to become immersed in the music, food and history of the various groups of people that comprise the melting pot of America. Once you’ve stepped outside the confines of your usual places and spaces, your writing is enriched.

Diversity can bring something special to a story. It can provide a perspective that is unique to a group of people with a shared set of experiences. For the reader that is outside of that experience, it is a window into something that they’ve never been privy to before.

Harper Lee was exceptional at creating characters. In To Kill A Mockingbird, she effectively captured the mood of the American South in the 1930’s. Jem, Scout and Atticus are cozy characters to slip into and their speech patterns and dialogue are authentic, rather than stilted. African American characters are portrayed with depth and infinite understanding of the Jim Crow era. The secret to her success was that the characters were familiar to her. Ms. Lee grew up in a rural town setting and patterned the characters after people that she knew intimately. They weren’t created out of thin air or based upon assumptions.

Does this mean that writers should yammer incessantly about a character’s ethnicity to ensure that the reader doesn’t forget? Absolutely not! Instead, allow the story to reveal itself.

-Select a setting that is appropriate for the story.

-Grant the character time to reflect on past experiences through a comparison to the present situation.

-Include a few foreign words into the dialogue with a translation, where appropriate.

-Minimize the use of slang, unless you are confident that it is being used in context and can be conveyed in a manner that isn’t disruptive or offensive to the reader.

- Connect a story to culture through the use of appropriate clothing, poetry, music, dance, history, scent and food references.

-Use psychology. Allow your character to be injured or scarred by their past experiences.

-Allow your character to laugh at his or her culture. We all laugh at ourselves from time to time.

-Consider addressing widely held biases about the culture. The origin of a stereotype can be interesting to explore and a writer is in the unique position of educating a captive audience.

-Accept that your characterization will not be acceptable to all members of the minority group that your character identifies with. Every human on the planet has a unique set of experiences and unless your character was raised in an urban/rural/wealthy/poor/functional/dysfunctional/single parent/dual parent household, you will be unable to please them all!

If you develop the personality before you attempt to write, you will find that a well-rounded character emerges.  A character with a “walk-on” role in your book should have a backstory, even if you opt to never write it. Keeping the backstory in mind will assist you in creating well-rounded characters, not caricatures. You might even find that you enjoy your peripheral characters enough to devote a novel to expound on their story at a later date.

When it all comes together, you will be able to effectively nurture a well-developed cast that will keep your readers engaged and clamoring for more.

Carolyn Evans-Dean is a freelance agricultural writer and women’s contemporary novelist from Central New York. She enjoys channeling the voices in her head to bring a unique and diverse cast of characters to her readers. She is currently working feverishly to finish the third installment of the light apocalyptic series, Bystander: A Tale of the End of the World as SHE Knew It! Click the link below to sneak a peek at Bystander on

You can connect with Carolyn online through the following social media venues where she enthusiastically engages in conversations about agriculture, cooking from scratch, self-sufficiency and common sense emergency preparedness:


  1. Great article. I like that you open it up at least in part to the idea of any writer working in any hue of the so-called rainbow. For what it's worth, the one thing we still don't see enough of is people writing about the mixed race grouping. It's starting to come out, but not enough. The dynamics there and the turmoil are so ripe for drama.

    Love your bulleted suggestions. Also, most of all, the issue of time and letting the story reveal itself. More power to you. You have the right mindset for writing truth.