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How to Write Race

I joined the writing community last year, during a period of peaked interest for diverse and inclusive voices. However, it seemed to me there was some confusion between what white creators should/could and shouldn’t/couldn’t write about non-white characters.

While there was heavy focus on being diverse in writing, it seemed there wasn’t a clear understanding on how to do so. There was a grey area in which white creators seemed almost alienated through fear of not knowing how to ask questions without fear of offence. I felt this through conversations with other writers and readers, when either asking me to be a sensitivity reader or commenting on posts I’d made. They thanked me for answering their questions and my openness about racial inclusion allowed them to question with respect, but without apprehension.

Firstly, I’m not claiming to be the figurehead or point of reference to what will or will not be considered offensive to all Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) or even Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). This is simply my take on how all creators can work towards writing better characters outside of their own race. This piece will of course be heavy on the black experience as this is my background, but if my perspective can help other writers, both white and non-white, then that’s even better.

Being accountable for ones’ actions should always be a focus whether in writing or everyday life. The purpose of this blog is to highlight what I think are two major points to be considered when writing about race: intent and purpose.

Before going into that though, I can admit that as a black writer, I don’t worry about offending white readers with my work. This is largely because – whether admitted or not – there is a privilege in there seemingly being no way to damagingly depict white characters in a negative light, based solely on race. That bold part is important.

While non-white characters’ fight stereotypes that pigeon hole them into various roles, white characters can be ‘the dumb jock’ or ‘the slutty blonde’, for example, but those negative stereotypes don’t stop them being the hero of the story or have an ongoing negative impact on the white character that comes after them. They can always redeem themselves where unfortunately, the black teenage drug dealer or busty, lustful Latina cannot.

This is why it’s important to create more in depth, multi-faceted non-white characters but, how do we do this?

Let’s go back to the two main points then: intent and purpose. If choosing to include a character or characters from a race other than your own, try answering some of the questions below and see what takes shape:

  • What is your intention in creating this ethnic/racially diverse character?

  • What is their purpose in the story?

  • Are you trying to be inclusive for inclusive sake?

  • Do you feel personally inclined to include them or do you feel pressured into it?

  • Is there a cultural/world building element to including this person?

  • Will your story make an issue of their race in an ongoing negative light?

Depending on your answers, I suspect it will become pretty obvious whether your intent for this character is positively motivated or not. That’s not to say anyone ever has ill intent but if for example, your answer to the last question is yes and there is no real purpose for that, then you may need to re think your intent.

What I would hope, is that there are ethnically diverse characters in your stories simply because that’s the way your world is (if we’re talking Fantasy of course) and this character happens to display that. If so, great. If not, take a moment to think about your intentions for this character and the purpose for including them in your story.

If your intent is positive and justified both by your own thinking and that of your stories purpose/world building, a lot of your concerns might not actually be a problem. If, when writing about a white character, you never mention them going to the salon, why would you consider doing so for a black character and creating a scenario that a) might cause offence or b) makes no difference to the story?

You wouldn’t think this hard about it if the character was white, so if a certain element of their race/ethnicity does not further your story, then there’s no need to worry or include it. This isn’t to say that making references to cultural hairstyles or clothing or foods shouldn’t be done. In fact, it should be done, but in the same vein of thinking that you would have had with your white characters: as a standard; a norm that simply, is. Do the research to get it correct obviously but don’t overthink if you’re genuinely trying to be respectful to the race you’re trying to portray or that the inclusion serves a purpose that’s natural to your world.

Take me for example, I am writing a story in a country that is based on the Caribbean. As such, the people who live there are predominantly black. They are the majority and as such, immigration from other lands, would make any non-black character the minority. In this same country, my main characters are quite wealthy and employ a work force that consists of both working class natives and immigrants who, you guessed it, are not black. Does this mean as a black author, I have now intentionally made all the races that are not my own, the work force, the Other?

No, it doesn’t, because in this country that would be the normal way of things, since they are on a continent of black individuals who are the majority. The black elite don’t look down on the minority for any reason, their race is a non-factor. It just is. This can be true the other way around of course, but when ethnic characters are reduced to only these types of characters/stereotypes in a world where it’s possible for them to be literally anything else but you choose to make them inferior, then the problem persists.

In recent times, we have been inundated with books, movies and television shows that include black characters only shown in a position of servitude or as barbarians. Take my favourite show of all time, Game of Thrones. The high-born Westerosi are all well-to-do white people while the savages are the Dothraki and the Braavosi etc. who rape, pillage and enslave their own. Even the Dornish, while princes in their own right, were seen as different because they had sexual relationships outside of marriage that weren’t frowned upon or that their bastard children were not considered abominations as the predominantly white Westerosi were prone to do. Most recently, in Shadow & Bone, Alina Starkov was changed to be of Shu heritage (Chinese in the Grishaverse) and the rest of the show was focused on the fact that she was the Other and no one liked her for it. What is the real purpose of this?

Yes, there are cultures that do things differently or what many would consider savage; but when including these types of nations in your own works, consider making them all types of races because savagery and enslavement, despite what history might tell us, is not only reserved for ethnic minorities.

You only have to look to Vikings or the Roman Empire for instances of enslavement and barbarianism of white individuals, to know that the premise is not restricted to the Other and so your writing shouldn’t portray this either, unless, there is a specific or historically motivated purpose and intent for doing so. If in your medieval inspired – but not meant to be completely historically or demographically accurate – world there are slaves and some of these happen to be black and your intent is to display the far-reaching hand of a tyrannical figure who is taking over the world and enslaving all people; this can be justified; this has purpose. If, however, in your world the only people who are enslaved or are seen as barbaric or Other are the black and brown people, this is now the issue.

Take Sarah J. Maas’, Throne of Glass series. She wrote a princess named Nehemia who was described as what we would perceive as black from a country called Eyllwe. They were the majority of the people that were held in the salt mines/slave camps of Endovier. The King of Adarlan is a tyrant, enslaving the entire continent, so why was it only Eyllwe citizens who were shown in this light?

Again, in Sarah’s A Court of Thorn’s and Roses series, there are two Courts: Summer and Day that have populations generally considered to be black. While no enslavement or barbarism over here, there is however no real character development or purpose for them other than being lovers of main cast members and a figurative place to crash when the main characters need allies. While not as sinister as slavery, it’s still a problem that these characters are reduced to supporting roles only. The same can be said for Amren, typically depicted as East Asian. She is known to be incredibly powerful but hardly ever displays this in relation to her white counter parts.

By creating characters who descend from a multitude of areas – if that is the type of story you are writing – you can open your world up to endless possibilities of racial diversity that will enrich your writing for the better. Thinking about your intentions and purposes can only create a better understanding of your work so don’t be worried about asking the required questions. If I needed to know about Irish folklore after intensive research and had an Irish friend I could ask, I would. Creators shouldn’t feel scared about asking others how to create if they want to give the best out of their work.

Throughout this piece, I have used heavy words that might make some people feel uncomfortable. The fact this may be the case is my concern in the first place; that these topics are hard to discuss but if trying to better your narratives from both sides then they shouldn’t be.

In short, do the research, ask the questions and have pure intent and justifiable purpose to your writing when being inclusive. While doing this, make sure to write about situations that you fully understand and have an affiliation with. Special foods, family pressures, cultural attire or traditions, are all cross-culture elements that can be experienced by anyone. The effects of police brutality against Blacks and politically fuelled hate crimes against Asians, cannot.

Meet Charlotte Murphy

Charlotte is a British author and Brand Ambassador of The Writer Community. Born and raised in South West London, Charlotte has been reading since she was three years old. Her love of reading eventually morphed into creating her own stories and she has finally taken the leap to releasing her work to the world. After studying English and Creative Writing at Brunel University back in 2007, and working consistently within corporate environments, Charlotte's first three novels - The Antonides Legacy - and its prequel Genesis of Dragons are now available. A project fifteen years in the making, Charlotte hopes that the Legacy books will be able to reach out to an audience who appreciate excitement, simplicity and diversity in their choice of books. Charlotte is currently working on a new novel set in the same world as The Antonides Legacy called Wolves of Duty. Part of a duology, Charlotte hopes to gain agent representation through #PitMad in Summer 2021

You can connect with Charlotte on Instagram @charliauthor and listen to her podcast Books 'n' Shit.

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