Congratulations, you’re writing a story with a diverse set of characters. This is a great thing and needs to be supported. A fear of political correctness mustn’t stop writers from creating characters from other races, religions or walks of life. Writing from beyond your own experience takes a little bit more thought and work, but that’s our job, right?
The first step to writing non-white characters is understanding the mistakes of the past. So here’s my checklist for avoiding the most common black character stereotypes:
- Angry Black Woman/man: This character is often angry for no reason and there for comic effect. We get the pursed lipped, finger clicking, head wobbling ‘sassy’ black woman, who bursts into the scene and then disappears after we’ve finished laughing. The haranguing wife/mother/grandmother all feature. Then the black man is the loud, swearing, angry figure, who may seem violent and threatening. The angry black person trope reduces these characters to emotions without reason. They’re just complaining and threatening. It’s a way of preventing black characters from having a valid opinion and just putting their anger down to having an ‘attitude’, rather than listening to what they have to say or giving the characters depth beyond their ethhnicity. Tara from Trueblood plays into this stereotype.
- The slave: There’s often a tendency to make black people tragic figures who can only be there to represent the suffering of ‘their people’. They soldier on
against adversity, quietly suffering, but showing noble strength of spirit. Whilst slavery is a tale that needs to be told, if these are the only stories black people get to be part of, we are never seen as part of the present or even the future. Lupito Nyong’o became a Hollywood darling after her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, but we haven’t seen her face in a film since. She’s been relegated to voice acting in Star Wars and Jungle Book (no comment). Is she too dark to be Ryan Gosling’s love interest or compete for the next Jennifer Lawrence role?
- The comic relief: This character is usually reduced to catch phrases, such as, “aww, hell naw”, “sheeet” and “dayum”. Unable to step into the shoes of the hero, the black character is reduced to an amusing sidekick, which plays into the racist minstrels stereotype of yesteryear – all wide-eyed and flappy-mouthed. The most recent offender is the Ghost Busters reboot, which has a cast of white women playing physicists and scientific experts in their field. The lone black character is an expert in ‘the streets’ and proceeds to amuse us with her urban slang and loud exclamations of surprise. There is no nuance here.
- The drug dealer, hood, gangster: News flash – not all black people are born in the hood and have experience of poverty, gang culture, drug dealing and hip-hop. There is a black middle-class, which means some of us are doctors, lawyers, journalists and everything in-between. If you need a streetwise character in your story, don’t default to black because it’s been done and paints just one black experience.
- The athlete: The black athlete plays into the preconception that black people have a natural physical aptitude for sport. Not only does this stem from a racist assumption that white people are intelligent and black people are physical specimens, but it also suggests that black people rely on being naturally sporty, while white people work hard to become champions. Often the black athlete character is trying to get ahead through sport, their only way out of the ‘ghetto’, but they are hindered by their childhood friends who are involved in gangs and guns. See point 4.
- ‘Police Chief/nurse: Whilst the professor, scientist or therapist is unlikely to be black, we are allowed to play the nurse or police chief. These characters often combine the angry black man/woman aspect, shouting at the hero to get things done and moving the plot on, rather than being actual characters. Anything more intellectually demanding or seemingly middle class than these public sector roles are often beyond black characters. US television is the worst for this one and I’ve read articles from British black actors who say although they get more work in the US, they are reduced to certain roles, police chief or detective being the highest honour.
- Blind Faith: This character is often a loud believer in ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’, almost to the point of superstition. Anything beyond the everyday is declared as the work of the devil and needs loud praising of the lord. Although the church may play a significant role in some parts of the black community, black people are capable of having faith without shouting about it and waving a tambourine at the ceiling.
- Magical Negro: Whilst many of the above tropes lend themselves to screenwriting, particularly, the magical negro is an easy one to slip into novels because
they can sit in fantasy, sci-fi or even contemporary settings. This character is almost saintly in their wisdom and sits around waiting for the white hero to cross their path. Then, for no reason at all, they bestow wisdom upon the white protagonist, helping them fulfill their destiny and then either die or disappear. This character plays into the idea that black people (Native Americans suffer this trope even more) have some deep ties to the ‘ancient ways’, suggesting an inherent tribal or shamanic magical connection to the earth or the universe or some shit. Just no, people. For examples, check out Stephen King’s The Green Mile and The Shining – he loves them mystical negroes. Avoid by giving black characters with magic their own arc and motivation, beyond helping the white protagonist. Even better make the black magic user the central character – yay!
- Extravagant Gay Man: This one is a favourite of 80s films. The black gay man is often extravagant, loud and there for comic effect. This character dresses flamboyantly, displays ‘feminine’ traits, such as a love of hair and make-up, with excessive emotional highs and lows, as well as bitchy one-liners. The larger than life black gay man can also show some magical negro traits, offering help to the white lead out of the goodness of their heart. See the film Mannequin for a prime example. This trope works by softening the black male, who is often seen as a sexual threat, by feminising them, making them more palatable and harmless fun. It’s a problematic character for so many reasons, playing into racial and gay stereotypes at the same time. Also see Fifth Element.
Most of these tropes are seen in film and TV, but that’s only because POC (people of colour) are largely absent from fiction. However, it’s good to recognise the mistakes of one form, so that we can avoid them in our own and have fun creating characters of colour who are the heroes of their own story. Plus we have to be prepared for when Hollywood comes calling with a film contract, right?
For more support on writing POC, check this blog. It has advice, articles and offers feedback for writers on how to deal with their non-white characters, proving that support is more helpful than constant criticism.