Monday, November 08, 2010

Don't Label Your Characters

In the last couple of years, I've been working hard on the rewrites of the novel I want to start pitching to agents in 2011. But, it wasn't until this summer that a crit partner pointed out that the way I described certain characters could, just possibly, border on racist.

When I read that, I was appalled. Me? A racist? Couldn't possibly be the case! But when I started looking at what he said and the areas he pointed it out in, the more I saw he could be right. How could I miss this?

In the October 2010 edition of The Writer, Lynn Capehart has an insightful piece just on this topic. In part, she states:

As fiction writers, we can show support for racial equality--or inequality--by the way we describe our characters, or, as is too often the case, the way we don't describe them. Many white writers, for instance, will be surprised to learn that they may be inadvertently supporting inequality by how they use race in describing people of color, as compared to white characters.
These writers, you see, will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn't white.
The more I've pondered not just this statement, but the entire article, the more I think she's right. I can even think of some examples from books I've read by New York Times bestselling authors.

I've seen it in my own writing. In one of my projects, my main character's best friend as well as a business associate are black. Most of the rest of my cast are white (not all, but quite a bit.) Unless I mention how pale one of my characters is, I usually don't mention their race. I do, however, make note of those that aren't white.

There are white writers who let the reader figure out a character's race from subtle descriptive clues. Others don't bother with clues but still manage to convey the information. ... But as a rule, it would be nice if either everyone's race gets mentioned, or no one's does.
The last part of the statement rings out "pipe dream" to me. It would be nice if I had some chocolate to eat right now. But, the first part is what I'm honing in on. Subtle descriptive clues. What does that look like?

While Ms. Capehart didn't give an example in her article I would think of as good, I can think of a few of my own. For instance, in Homebody, I have a character named Tyrone. Some people have said that just by his name, they can tell he's African-American. But, I don't want to leave that to conjecture just based on his name, but I don't want to use labels either (more on that in a minute.) In one scene, I describe him as "NBA-sized". In another scene, he drags his hand through his close-cropped dark curls. While these descriptions could, possibly, be viewed as Caucasian, my bet is that won't be the case.

So, I've just illustrated descriptions (I hope!), what's a label and why shouldn't we use it? As Ms. Capehart relates, she was reading a story that originally ran in The New Yorker.
In the story, when two police officers enter a house, the white one is described without resorting to race, while the other is labeled "a Puerto Rican cop".
Can you see the difference? It's a crutch. How much ingenuity does it take to whip out a label? None. How much time would it take to describe the "Puerto Rican cop"? Maybe a minute. Wouldn't that minute be time well-invested in your story, and maybe, just maybe, help it stand out from the crowd? As Ms. Capehart states:
Writers are supposed to look at the world and blend their observations into their prose.
So, my challenge to you is to look closer at your characters (and the real-life people around you.) Don't give them short shrift. Give them the description they deserve--no matter their gender, race, color, or creed.

How can you improve your current work-in-progress to eliminate labels--both ethnic and non?

Until next time,


Unknown said...

Ultimately, I think this subject falls under the show-don't-tell category. It's important to indicate, to at least some extent, a character's appearance - particularly if readers might otherwise assume he looks differently than he does. As a reader, it's always frustrating to have a preconceived image of a character blasted out of the water late in the book. So if a character is of any particular race that the reader wouldn't necessarily assume him to be, I think it's important to indicate his race early. However, there are definitely more interesting and evocative ways to do so than just mentioning race.

Unknown said...

Exactly. Thanks, K.M.!

Kim said...

Outside of the name "Tyrone" I didn't get any particular race from your description. Mentioning that his "ebony brown skin" or complexion, without outright saying he's Black would work for me. I personally see nothing wrong with mentioning race. I write with mainly Black characters in all hues, and the description is the easiest way out. Or try comparing them to a famous person, like "as stunning as Beyonce."

Cameron said...

I dunno - I recently had a scene introducing two cops, one white, one black. I identified them as such, partially to draw a contrast between them. The other officer at the scene I envision as black, but I never really mentioned it.

Unknown said...

@Kim, I agree there's nothing wrong with mentioning it, however the point of the article I referenced was about not labeling characters. I like your idea about comparisons, though I'd worry about dating my work that way. Sure, most people know who Beyoncé is today, but will they in 10 years?

@Cameron, that was the other solution mentioned by the writer of the article--just stating things outright for all characters. To me, that seems more cumbersome and clunky. But, that may just be me.

Thanks to both of you for stopping in!

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