• Published a book you want to tell us about? Uploaded a YouTube video you want to share?

    Normally you'll need 100 posts to self-promote, but with an upgraded membership you can do so with your first post.

    Find out more here: Become a Supporting Member

Writing about race and culture

Dragonlady

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 4, 2007
Messages
99
Do you write about races that you aren't a representative of? I have some fantasy races and non human peoples, but there is a land I've not fleshed out yet - it is basically just a name - I always envisaged its native people as black. I'm white. Having much more awareness of race issues, I'm not really sure how to do the fleshing out. I have a story idea with a military side, and creating a fictitious dark skinned people who are at least slightly cast as the 'baddies' makes me very uneasy. I'm not sure whether to create one state, a n umber of neighbouring states, warring tribes or a combination .

The male protagonist has a military role and is from the slightly democratic oligarchy to the north, a well fleshed out nation with largely olive skinned natives that I've written about before. The rulers of this country think they're doing a really good job, and life is way better under them. They're not as right as they think they are, and I'm happy for a military campaign to have a big learning exercise along these lines.

Any thoughts on this welcome, especially the race side. I'm tentative about writing about that which I know very little about but I'm aware fantasy needs more diversity.
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
2,239
First off, I think you're starting with fairly good intentions. You're uneasy, which is good, because it means you're aware that you're treading on fragile ground and want to do the right thing.


Second the advice you're going to get over and over is

A) Do Your Research. If you want to portray a culture with real life echoes, you need to know about that real life echo.

B) Get Outside Help. Unsure as to whether your portrayal will offend black people? Have black people read it. Talk to them about what unintentional bits of portrayals of black people offend them, ask what they think is missed.

And you will get this advice over and over because it's the heart and soul of it.


Third... I said fairly good intentions because, well, some bits of what you wrote made me raise my eyebrows.

And those bits are where you talk about adding them because you believe fantasy needs diversity and where this culture's black and you've not got anything else on them.

Yes, fantasy needs more diversity. But it needs the diversity of passion and knowledge and reverence, not the diversity of "Well we need more diversity".

Why is this culture dark skinned? What about it makes you believe it'll make a great story? I think you need to find answers to this if you really want to make it both respectful and something that readers want to read.

And, honestly, if the answers to those questions are "I don't know", then maybe you should go back to the drawing board and find something you are passionate about to put there. That, or hit the books a lot until you find something that makes you think "Wow! I want to pay homage to that!"
 

Stephen Palmer

author of novels
Supporter
Joined
Dec 22, 2009
Messages
4,435
Location
Shropshire
You absolutely must not be taken in by the current wave of identity politics, which is basically a way of telling people they can't empathise with others not like them. You can - that's what authors do, that's what actors do. I didn't think twice about writing Muezzinland, which has as its three leads a trio of black women. Why the hell should I be told that I can't imagine a gay person, or an African?
But... not only can you imagine other races, you should. We have enough disenchantment and fracturing as it is - it's up to artistic types to imagine, to empathise, to bring together.
Do it!
 

Dragonlady

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 4, 2007
Messages
99
Thanks, the big peat, loads of good thoughts there. Essentially I'm working with a world that was created when I was in my teens, and looking at it with older more mature eyes. Many aspects of it I love and can really run with now. I'll have to think carefully about whether the Khians need a change of skin colour. I find creation from scratch so much harder than when things have naturally evolved, I shall have to work out what would be good to read next and what sort of neighbour I want them to be.
 

Phyrebrat

ba-Ba-ba-brat
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,284
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
Just be mindful and sensitive. As Peat said your caution indicates you’re thus inclined.

Is this the story you mentioned in the other thread? The one about rewriting something that was written a long time ago?

ph
 

Dan Jones

Free Omar!
Supporter
Joined
Nov 14, 2014
Messages
2,769
Location
Here, Now
I agree with Peat. And Phyrebrat. And Stephen.

On a basic level people enjoy stories that are in some way about them. Writing about different types of people, as Stephen says, ought to be the bread and butter of the writer / artist.

Ultimately it comes to remembering that what defines people are their actions, their beliefs, and their thoughts, not their skin colour. Sure, that may be relevant depending on the environmental context in which they find themselves, but if you write about any character, they have to be believable.

We are humans, and we have an amazing ability to sympathise with other people in a variety of situations, regardless of race, colour, creed, geography etc - that's because we all experience conflicts of the heart and mind, fears, doubts and lusts, setbacks and triumphs. I will not use the word "empathise" because I think it's too often misused - empathy only comes from understanding a person's experience based on a shared point of reference. Can I empathise with a Syrian refugee forced to flee their home? No. But I can sympathise with them? Yes, because I understand it would be awful to have to go through that. I don't need to experience that to know that. On the other hand, I can empathise with people who've suffered bereavements, or who have had their children hospitalised, for example, because I have that point of reference.

Phyrebrat and I have both written frequently non-white characters, despite both being white.

The point is that people's points of reference occasionally but rarely overlap. Paint sympathetic characters and your world will work. But using a formulaic list like: olive skinned = good, white = imperialists, black = military or whatever just seems cack-handed and lazy. So just take care!
 
  • Like
Reactions: OHB

thaddeus6th

Well-Known Member
Joined
Sep 15, 2007
Messages
6,460
Location
UK, Yorkshire
Yes.

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger (which I'll get back to at some point...) is set in alternate history ancient China. I really like three of the four great Chinese classics (Outlaws of the Marsh, Three Kingdoms, and Journey to the West); the fast-pace and twisting plots are fantastic, and I wanted to write something in a similar, albeit much smaller, vein.

I think it'd be a great shame to impose segregation on what people can and can't write. I wouldn't want Americans to feel they couldn't write about Elizabethan England, or the Japanese to really like King Arthur but feel unable to write about that era.

Liking other cultures and sharing them is a very good thing. Fencing them off unless you tick the right demographic boxes is something that's beyond me.
 

Dragonlady

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 4, 2007
Messages
99
Pyrebat, it's not the same story, but it is in the same world. Thaddeus6th, I wouldn't want to fence anything else off either, but there's a series of fantasy books written by an author from the US where I have to remember it's 'that London' rather than London, it doesn't really feel like London, though it has a consistent feel with the city. Contrast that with Ben Aaronvitch's writing about London - it's clear he really knows it. Likewise, his portrayal of race is really authentic as much of it is taken from his own experiences. I have some big thinking to do. My original racial distinction was inspired purely by real world geography and I'm not sure that's a good enough reason.. I'm thinking about changing it round to a series of neighbouring city states, which still leaves room for introducing more racially diverse cultures later should I choose to.
 

drmatteri

Member
Joined
Dec 11, 2018
Messages
13
Location
California
I agree with everything said so far and would like to add that Kazuo Ishiguro is a famous British author who was born in Japan. His screenplay The Remains of the Day is considered a classic because it was well-written and accurately represented British culture and mannerisms of the 1930s. It may not be SF&F, but I believe this is another example of how writers can write about other races and cultures as long as it is done respectfully.
 

Cathbad

Level 30 Geek Master
Joined
Dec 9, 2015
Messages
9,010
Location
Everywhere.
I wish I could write (different) races like James Patterson: Even though it was clearly stated in the first few books, I han't actually realized Alex Cross was a Afican American until the first movie came out! Though I attribute my ignorance partially on the fact most police thrillers have a white protagonist, I also realize tht the way Patterson wrote the character made his race of little matter - as it shouldn't matter.
 

Dragonlady

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 4, 2007
Messages
99
I wish I could write (different) races like James Patterson: Even though it was clearly stated in the first few books, I han't actually realized Alex Cross was a Afican American until the first movie came out! Though I attribute my ignorance partially on the fact most police thrillers have a white protagonist, I also realize tht the way Patterson wrote the character made his race of little matter - as it shouldn't matter.
You remind me of the Rivers of London books!
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
2,239
Thanks, the big peat, loads of good thoughts there. Essentially I'm working with a world that was created when I was in my teens, and looking at it with older more mature eyes. Many aspects of it I love and can really run with now. I'll have to think carefully about whether the Khians need a change of skin colour. I find creation from scratch so much harder than when things have naturally evolved, I shall have to work out what would be good to read next and what sort of neighbour I want them to be.
What sort of world is it? Do you have themes that you try to build in? That might guide your next steps. If you've got a world that's very historically accurate, look at African history. If you've got a world with a lot of invented cultures, maybe pick some traits that would bring them into conflict and build a culture around them.

And are you aiming for a bad vs good/right vs wrong approach, or a tribe vs tribe/us vs them/protagonist vs antagonist approach? Because that'll change a lot. If its the latter, you're on a lot safer ground, as many antagonists are admirable. Hell, some books show two warring cultures with protagonists on both sides - Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan is a great example.
 

CTRandall

I have my very own plant pot!
Supporter
Joined
Jan 4, 2018
Messages
590
Location
North-east England
Working in fantasy gives you a lot of freedom to create peoples that blend and mix real-world racial identities. You still have to be careful and The Big Peat's advice about getting beta-readers from a range of backgrounds/identities is spot on.

It sounds as though you are really looking at geographical, political and cultural differences between your races. If that's the case, play down differences in physical appearance and play up differences in language, clothing styles, customs and social norms. Try writing accents or unique turns of phrase into different characters (not always easy but start with just a few simple phrases or quirks). Have different cultures use different materials for clothing (fur, linen, silk) or building materials (hides, wood, stone, clay brick), with different types of patterns (images of plants and animals vs. abstract designs) and colours (earth tones vs. vibrant dyes). Have different reactions to social status (precise rules about dealing with lower/higher status people vs. most people treated similarly regardless of status) and different measures of wealth (gold means little, animals mean a lot).

Define your cultures like this, rather than in terms of physical appearance or real-world stereotypes, and you'll go a long way towards defusing potential offense while creating something fresh and imaginative.
 

The Bluestocking

Bloody Mary in Blue
Joined
Feb 20, 2014
Messages
1,385
Location
The Afterlife
First off, I think you're starting with fairly good intentions. You're uneasy, which is good, because it means you're aware that you're treading on fragile ground and want to do the right thing.


Second the advice you're going to get over and over is

A) Do Your Research. If you want to portray a culture with real life echoes, you need to know about that real life echo.

B) Get Outside Help. Unsure as to whether your portrayal will offend black people? Have black people read it. Talk to them about what unintentional bits of portrayals of black people offend them, ask what they think is missed.

And you will get this advice over and over because it's the heart and soul of it.


Third... I said fairly good intentions because, well, some bits of what you wrote made me raise my eyebrows.

And those bits are where you talk about adding them because you believe fantasy needs diversity and where this culture's black and you've not got anything else on them.

Yes, fantasy needs more diversity. But it needs the diversity of passion and knowledge and reverence, not the diversity of "Well we need more diversity".

Why is this culture dark skinned? What about it makes you believe it'll make a great story? I think you need to find answers to this if you really want to make it both respectful and something that readers want to read.

And, honestly, if the answers to those questions are "I don't know", then maybe you should go back to the drawing board and find something you are passionate about to put there. That, or hit the books a lot until you find something that makes you think "Wow! I want to pay homage to that!"
Everything that @The Big Peat said.

And if you need more guidance/tips, here's a recent thread where a variation of what you're asking was discussed extensively:

I'd appreciate if anyone can help let me know if my story is offensive
 

The Bluestocking

Bloody Mary in Blue
Joined
Feb 20, 2014
Messages
1,385
Location
The Afterlife
And are you aiming for a bad vs good/right vs wrong approach, or a tribe vs tribe/us vs them/protagonist vs antagonist approach? Because that'll change a lot. If its the latter, you're on a lot safer ground, as many antagonists are admirable. Hell, some books show two warring cultures with protagonists on both sides - Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan is a great example.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the absolute king of writing historical fantasy set in or based on cultures very different from his own... and getting it right because of the intensity of his research and the care that he takes with characterisation.
 

tinkerdan

∞<Q-Satis
Joined
Dec 10, 2012
Messages
4,013
Location
x² + y² = r²:when x~∞
Write all your characters like people--that means the character of the character is derived from somewhere inside the character. You can paint the color on them after, in the narrative, based on your fictitious races; that way there should be a fair amount of equity of bad and good throughout the various races. If you do want to craft some sort of racial evil then I'd suggest you find some other defining psychological, sociological or biological characteristic that transcends color and might somehow make sense that they would act as they do.

Otherwise evil comes in all sorts of shapes.
I'm not evil because I'm blue.
I'm not blue because I'm evil.
I'm just evil; I happen to be blue.
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
2,239
I think something that the advice about writing characters of different ethnicities/cultures just as if they are people/you can't even tell they're of a different ethnicity misses is that when people talk about the need for diversity in fantasy, or the celebration of different cultures, is that they're looking for something that acknowledges our differences and celebrates how that culture isn't the same. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but it is.

There's a book, Londonstani, which I only know of about from reviews and critical comments. Some love its depiction of 2nd-3rd generation South Asian immigrants in London, but I've seen criticism from ethnic minorities that the language doesn't feel right, or there's a bias as to who speaks in dialect and who doesn't, and so on.

And if you write about characters of a different culture without considering the effects that their culture plays on them, the risk of not being quite right is something you run.

Of course, if you make the characters all about their culture, then you also run the risk of having them be stereotypes and that's not good either. Its a fine balance.
 

Phyrebrat

ba-Ba-ba-brat
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
4,284
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
I think something that the advice about writing characters of different ethnicities/cultures just as if they are people/you can't even tell they're of a different ethnicity misses is that when people talk about the need for diversity in fantasy, or the celebration of different cultures, is that they're looking for something that acknowledges our differences and celebrates how that culture isn't the same. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but it is.
This^

There's a book, Londonstani, which I only know of about from reviews and critical comments. Some love its depiction of 2nd-3rd generation South Asian immigrants in London, but I've seen criticism from ethnic minorities that the language doesn't feel right, or there's a bias as to who speaks in dialect and who doesn't, and so on.
I really enjoyed Londonstani and it's so long ago I read it I can barely recall the arc. What is pertinent to this thread, though, I think is: even as an Anglo Saxon mutt, with all the attendant privileges my whiteness and maleness affords me, I'm pretty knowledgeable of what the black experience is for contemporary Londoners and suburban/ruralites. This is because of my exposure to it through my job and partner. The term 'black' as opposed to Afro-Caribbean is nuanced. There are very different approaches to life and experiences in life that Caribbean heritage Brits have in contrast to African heritage Brits. Not only nuanced, though but strongly different, and also containing their own inter-cultural struggles against and with each other.

However:

Ask me about the South East Asian experience and my knowledge is patchy and insufficient to write about with any depth or understanding - and this despite living in East London, spending ten years learning Kathak from Bangladeshi's and attending countless festivals/being embraced.

Furthermore, when it comes to the term "Asian's" I'm still unsure about how to discern when someone is talking of Indian Asians or Chinese Asians. And amongst those (Chinese Asians) who prefer the term Oriental, or just Asian (I've had countless contradictory answers from Chinese heritage people when I've asked if Oriental is an offensive descriptor). And that is just the UK. What happens when your book's published in The States?

It's important to realise that whatever you do, you'll make assumptions -sometimes offensive, sometimes trivial - as well as your successes. The key is dialogue and research. And of course, sensitivity.

Hope I didn't throw the thread off-course, just wanted to highlight the complex nuances that will prevent anyone from writing empirically about any culture outside of their own.

pH
 

The Bluestocking

Bloody Mary in Blue
Joined
Feb 20, 2014
Messages
1,385
Location
The Afterlife
This^

Furthermore, when it comes to the term "Asian's" I'm still unsure about how to discern when someone is talking of Indian Asians or Chinese Asians. And amongst those (Chinese Asians) who prefer the term Oriental, or just Asian (I've had countless contradictory answers from Chinese heritage people when I've asked if Oriental is an offensive descriptor). And that is just the UK. What happens when your book's published in The States?

pH
Well, not "Chinese Asians" but East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese) and then there are Southeast Asians (Malays, Indonesians etc), Central Asians (Tibetan, Mongolian, all the Stans etc). In the UK, when people say "Asian" it usually means "South Asian" (ethnicities from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan). I lived in England long enough to have filled out a census and the categories closest to my ethnicity are "Asian" and "Chinese" (which I ticked) with everyone else lumped into "Other".

In the U.S., when someone says "Asian", they usually mean "East Asian" (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese).

I'm guessing that "Asian" is used as a shorthand to cover the most common Asian groups (according to region of origin) in both countries.

And if anyone EVER calls me "Oriental", I will tell them that I am not a rug or any other decorative inanimate object. "Asian" is fine. "East Asian" also fine (since I'm ethnic Chinese). "Southeast Asian" also kinda okay (since I grew up in the region). "Chinese" = precise and therefore much better. In the London branch of my family, my cousins are all British-born Chinese (BBC, as the in-joke goes).

But "Oriental"? That colonialist, racist term will make me want to take a stick and beat whoever calls me that on the head with it. The British Empire is no more, yo! It's not the Victorian period anymore!

Anyway, back on topic:

If writing a book where there are various Asian ethnicities, just name the ethnicity correctly and it'll be fine. Using the blanket term "Asian" is confusing all around - Asia is such a huge continent and different countries in the West seem to define "Asian" differently (if only for census or media shorthand purposes).
 
Last edited:
Top