How to write people of colour and ‘the other’

How to write people of colour

Don’t be afraid to put people of colour at the centre of your drama.

This is a follow-up article to the one I wrote about avoiding black stereotypes in fiction. Thanks for reading and your comments. As promised, I’m attempting to put together a practical guide to writing people of colour, however, a lot of this advice applies to anyone writing the other, such as men writing women, also writing about disabled or non-cis characters if you are neither of these things. I’m half black, so I will use black examples because it’s the perspective I know most about, but even then, as a bi-racial person with a western neutral upbringing, there are aspects of black culture I don’t know or understand or haven’t experienced, directly.

  • Begin and End with Character: Black and brown people are as nuanced as white people. They are not saintly or evil. Similarly, a scar or terrible accident doesn’t turn you into a crazed villain, intent on world domination, as any Bond villain would have you believe. Watch out for trying to over-compensate for past tropes by turning your characters of colour into one dimensional, good people, who are passive and liked by everyone, but don’t actually do anything. Start by focusing on their character, not their race by making them interesting, giving them motivations and secrets and then bringing in elements of their culture or background, as a flavour, not their be all and end all.
  • Describing Race: I don’t tend to describe my main characters, but if you do, please don’t use food to describe a character’s skin. Coffee, honey, toffee, walnut and definitely not cocoa or chocolate – these are cliche’s that POC are tired of and can be
    how to write black characters

    Belle – the story of a bi-racial girl in British aristocracy. Dir. Amma Asante.

    offensive, as many these foods are grown on plantations and come with connotations of slavery. Also, avoid almond-shaped to describe an Asian character’s eyes. White people never get described in these terms. A white character is never described as cauliflower or mayonaise white and steamed salmon hued, with the only exception being milky or creamy, which both infer purity. Do you really need to describe skin colour or an Asian person’s eye shape? Hair is a good indicator for black people, if you really must go into physical specifics. However, unless their looks are central to the plot, focus on character – how they think, how others react to them and why. There is more to ethnicity than physical appearance. If the most interesting thing about your characters is the way they look, you’re in trouble.

  • Beware Vernacular: Relying on an accent or the way a character speaks can be an easy (or lazy) way to indicate ethnicity. Black American and Jamaican slang  is often used as a shorthand to indicate race and all too often it becomes offensive, with overuse of “hell, naw” or “wah gwan”.  If you are going to use distinct speech patterns, don’t appropriate things you’ve seen in films, as people may not actually speak like that. Remember that people from different places, speak differently, even if they are all black or Asian, to use sweeping terms. For instance, Jamaican patois is Jamaican and won’t be used by someone from Barbados or Tobago – do your research. Plus, some white people have adopted black American and Caribbean slang, so this isn’t necessarily an indicator of race as much as it once was.
  • Avoid ‘othering’: The idea of ‘the other’ is treating anyone outside the perceived ‘norm’ (white, straight, cis, non-disabled) as extraordinary. Do not have a white
    how to write black characters

    Rich white woman travels to the ‘mystical east’ to find herself. Eat, Pray, Love film.

    character marvel at how exotic and interesting a different culture is or a disabled character seen as brave just for getting out of the house. A religion that’s different to yours is not something for you to present as fantasy, complete with your cultural prejudices and assumptions. Voodoo is a real religion, so don’t just throw it into your book because it’s cool. To avoid othering, you need to step out of your own experience and be in the centre of your character’s world, where perhaps Christianity is the other or sleepy suburbs don’t seem comforting and safe, but a bit sanitised and alien. Look at your world from a different perspective. Take time to read about the cultures you want to borrow from and  treat them with respect.

  • Colour-blind Characters: If you have one POC in your story, the other characters will notice. Don’t create a colour-blind world, because that doesn’t exist. If your main char is black, then they may only refer to another character’s race if it’s different to their own.
  • Brown is Not Homogeneous: Africa is not a country and Japan, China and Korea are not interchangeable places with geisha, fans and dragons.Similarly, not all black people think the same thing. Minority communities don’t have hive minds, they are made up of individuals. For instance, some Indians see western pop stars sporting bindis as cultural appropriation, whilst others see it as a positive aspect of multiculturalism. Create interesting characters and take time to find out about their culture, so that you can use it to enrich your story and do your characters justice.
  • All About the Hair:  You may not recognise the importance of hair for black women – it’s political, social and don’t touch it. You cannot run your fingers through a black woman’s hair and she wouldn’t want you to. It goes frizzy in the damp or hot, humid climates. As children, many black girls will have gone through the painful ritual of their mother detangling their hair and probably braiding it up. There is currently a big movement towards natural hair, which means choosing to stop using chemical straighteners and working with the natural texture. This is a powerful moment of acceptance of black beauty and rejection of aspiration to the western ideal of straight, flowing locks, plus it’s easier, cheaper and better for your hair. Consider also, a black woman with natural hair (or anyone with locks or braids) may be deemed to look unprofessional and meet resistance. Black hair is complicated, but there are lots of places to find out how it works.Check out Chris Rock’s documentary film Good Hair as a starting point.
  • Research is Your Friend: Don’t learn about black people or other minorities from mainstream media. You can’t watch the news or films and TV to learn about black or Asian or other marginalised communities because they are all filtered through the dominant, western culture i.e. white, middleclass and male. Research, research, research. Search out media written by the community you want to represent and head to youtube and other social media channels and even go to real world places in the outside, offline world.
  • Don’t Let Fear Stop You: You will suck, the first time you try to write a character that’s outside your usual frame of reference. Just be okay with that, seek advice and try to be better. You may also meet people who say white people shouldn’t write POC or you may come across anger and points of view that make you defensive. Be prepared to be challenged, listen and absorb. Should white people write non-white characters? Absolutely, if it serves their story, rather than just fulfilling a diversity quota to appease some liberal guilt, because readers can tell the difference. However, if writers weren’t allowed to write characters beyond their own experience, we’d have no science fiction or fantasy and we’d be reading the same stories over and over. Don’t stop trying just because it’s hard or because people say you can’t or shouldn’t. Writing is hard and this is just another part of writing.

If anyone has additions, corrections or other perspectives, please email them or add them in the comments.

Research resources:

  •  Orientalism by Edward Said – a critical study of western representation of ‘the East’ and Asian cultures.
  • Writing With Colour on tumblr is a great source of advice and feedback for writers.
  • Media Diversified features writers of colour on topical and cultural issues. See also Gal Dem.
  • #blacktwitter – check this hashtag to see what’s trending in that community.
  • Watch Good Hair
  • Writers of colour to read – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun),  Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) , Maya Angelou, Zadie Smith (NW), James Baldwin, Haruki Murakami, Vikram Seth, Tan Twang Eng and a list of Asian writers in 2016. Too many to mention.
  • Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama – a look at race and identity

Have you got any recommendations for research resources, things to add to the list and writers of colour or from other groups? Please share in the comments.





6 thoughts on “How to write people of colour and ‘the other’

  1. This is an important topic and a decent attempt to help authors write about people unlike (and, as you pointed out, very much like) themselves. I would prefer a less all-inclusive approach to one sentence in the section about hair. Not all black girls have tangly hair, so I suggest:

    As children, many black girls will have gone through the painful ritual of their mothers detangling their hair and probably braiding it up.

    Your mentioning braiding reminded me of the many days my mother took down my braids, brushed my hair and rebraided it while I read my lessons to her every morning. Thanks for generating that warm memory! (We can never know completely what our words might provoke for readers.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and the comment. You’re right, that is better, as some girls don’t have hair long enough to tangle.
      I share your memory – I definitely had tangles, which were yanked out 😉


  2. This is very helpful for me. I appreciated your last article and expressed an interest in just this advice. I am encouraged that I am managing to do some of the right things. And recognize I have areas to work on. Perhaps one area that I avoided as being a bit risky for someone of privileged was racism and bigotry. Me (white guy) writing about the conflicts a woman of color would face seemed like it would be unintentionally ironic. I have some experience with the challenges of class and economics so I am more comfortable dealing with those conflicts. I have revision to do. Perhaps I will try to take on some of those other challenges.

    Thanks for the follow up post and I look forward to more.

    Liked by 1 person

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