Writing character stereotypes

efflorescxnce

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Hey guys, one of my main characters is Asian and is written as an intelligent, rule-abiding person. I've recently read about writing racial stereotypes and I'm just curious if my character represents a racial stereotype and if it´s racist? I would really love some feedback on it, and whether I should change her ethnicity since it´s not very important to the story anyway.
 
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-K2-

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Are there no intelligent, law abiding Asians in this world? If so, then I'd say no, it's not racist.

Apply traits to all/most people of a race, especially when those traits are exaggerated and derogatory, then you might have something to worry about.

K2
 

efflorescxnce

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Are there no intelligent, law abiding Asians in this world? If so, then I'd say no, it's not racist.

Apply traits to all/most people of a race, especially when those traits are exaggerated and derogatory, then you might have something to worry about.

K2
Oh okay, thank you.
 

-K2-

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Oh okay, thank you.
Well, don't thank me yet...No matter how you form a character, someone will find fault. Just keep an eye on your own heart and spirit to guide your mind, ignore the detractors (but consider what they're saying to check yourself), and let them rend each other as they fight it out, instead of you.

K2
 

sule

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If your character is intelligent and rule-abiding for a reason other than the fact that they are Asian, I don't see a problem. Make sure you communicate that to the readers: the background of this character, what they value and why, and what motivating forces exist within them specifically that cause them to behave the way they do.
 

pyan

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What K2 says. I'm a bit confused here: it does rather sound as if you think it's racist to have an intelligent, rule-abiding Asian character...
 

sule

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A quick addendum: The problem I would have with stereotypes as a reader has less to do with them being offensive (although there are many offensive stereotypes to avoid) but more to do with them being a sign that the author hasn't put in enough work on their characters to build them past being the obvious thing (For example: in fantasy, these sorts of stereotypes would be things like: an old, wise wizard with a long white beard or a maniacal king). As a writer I'm more concerned with telling a story that is fresh and interesting and so if I find I'm writing a character who seems to fall into a trope or stereotype I'll have to sit back and ask myself, "Is this the way this character has to be?" And if the answer is yes, then I have to find something specific within that character that freshens them up or gives them their own reasons for being that way.

TL;DR: Many readers will see a character fall into a stereotype and assume the author is being lazy. To avoid this, share with them your character's background and inner life so that they see them as more than just a stereotype.
 

-K2-

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What K2 says. I'm a bit confused here: it does rather sound as if you think it's racist to have an intelligent, rule-abiding Asian character...
Well, in this day and age people have been made either hyper-vigilant--which is a good thing, pendulums of sentiment and all that. Without that extra, over the top effort, nothing changes. Eventually, it will swing to center again and how far it exceeds that toward the other extreme, lessened. Anywho... If you portray the 'race of Dorks' sweepingly stupid, you'll get blow-back. Portray them all as super-geniuses, you'll get blow back again--but--non-Dorks will claim you're pandering to them, and though some will demand unwarranted praise, that's JUST AS bias as the opposite.

Peoples is people. Granted, many stereotypes actually apply to a few, but it's when we apply them to everyone of a race or culture, or the cliche has been reduced to a slur, then it needs to be eliminated.

That said, portray A character as the opposite of a stereotype, and watch the hate-mail stack up. You can't win. Be fair, make an effort, and you can live with yourself.

K2
 

The Big Peat

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Pinch of salt as I don't know as much about this as I like -

I think the criticisms of portrayals of people with different ethnicities/sexualities/life experiences to the author start with

1) When there's just one character of said background, making them feel tokenistic and in some cases like the author is using them to represent all X

And get worse when

2) That character's (or characters') traits correspond to a huge degree with popular stereotypes of said character's background

And will reach their peak when

3) That character's (or characters') traits correspond hugely to offensive/harmful/incorrect stereotypes and/or they have views/customs/experiences that are majorly out of line with what the majority of people from that background experience

So - looking at your situation -

It sounds like you're probably not going to do 3.

But you might do 1 or 2.

What other traits does this character have? What is their Asian heritage? What's their background? Are they the only Asian in the story? What's the story about?

Having a story with an Asian MC who is intelligent and rule-abiding is not bad in and of itself. But it might be in conjunction with other mistakes.
 

tinkerdan

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Racism is a funny thing-funny peculiar rather than something to laugh about.
Your best bet is to take the character and write them as though they are-insert whatever your nationality-and then try writing them as intelligent and law abiding(or trustworthy).

Also if it is important that the character has to be Asian--then your greatest concern is what it is that drives you to believe that and how well your portrayal of that fits with real Asians--I would be more concerned about that than about them being intelligent and law abiding.

How have you gone about portraying your character as Asian?
 

CTRandall

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I'm a little struck by your description of the character as "Asian". You need to have a better understanding of your character's culture--Vietnamese? Japanese? Han Chinese? A minority culture within mainland China? etc., etc. There are hundreds of distinct cultures across Asia--more, if you include diaspora populations in Europe, the US and South America. If this is a main character, do some research into a couple of different cultures.

You mention that the ethnicity isn't important to the story but this kind of research can help you flesh out the character. I'm not saying that you have to get every aspect of the culture right or that you have to make it central to the story. Having some knowledge of a specific culture, however, gives you new tools to consider how the character will react to different situations. This is the kind of thing that can make a character feel unique, rather than a simple stereotype.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Seconded. Just write your character with regard to what your story needs them to be, and nothing else. Brandon Sanderson talks about the trouble he had writing female characters, back when he tried too hard to make them smart and capable, and ended up making them completely one-dimensional. Focusing too much on what your character ought to be, rather than what would make for the best story, is just dangerous for you. People are far, far more than their ethnicity, and if you concentrate on that in their characterization too much, then you leave out the things that really influence character--culture, religion, relationships, situation.

Here are some thoughts, though. As an Asian, did your character grow up in whichever country they're native to, or did they grow up in a more Western society? You might try researching, at least a little, the general culture of their country, the norms and expectations people from there would have experienced, and how their views on life would have been influenced by that, or at least by contact with that kind of culture in their family. You'll get far more useful development for your character that way than by wondering if writing a rule-abiding Asian character is racist!

And now that I've typed that sentence, it sounds really strange. With the going assumption that you would rather not be racist, does that mean you cannot write any rule-abiding Asian characters? :oops:

[Edit: Here's a tidbit you may already know! In Vietnamese culture, it's actually considered the courteous thing to do to pass things to each other with both hands instead of simply one--cups, food, any of that. It's supposed to show thoughtfulness, and most of all respect, which is something the Vietnamese culture values greatly, especially respect to older people. It's what they teach to their children. And it's knowing and incorporating that sort of detail which can allow you to quite uncontroversially explore the differences between various cultures. Much more than worrying about any of the weird stereotypes out there!]
 

Steve Harrison

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If the character's ethnicity isn't important to the story, I would question why you need her to be Asian, given the work involved in developing her with accuracy and authenticity. But as Asian people from everywhere in Asia can be intelligent and rule abiding - the same as all races and nationalities - I don't see anything stereotypical or racist in writing her that way.

I haven't written any main characters outside my own ethnicity as yet, because each time I considered doing so, I felt it would have been tokenistic.
However, I do have a future project in mind that will feature a Sudanese woman as one of the main ensemble characters. I will approach her the same as any other character, in that she's human and therefore the same as anyone else emotionally and intellectually, but then research how she was shaped by her culture and experience to hopefully make her authentic and believable.

It will be a difficult challenge, but while I don't think there's anything at all wrong with writers writing outside their own ethnicity or gender, I do think it very important to get it right.
 

efflorescxnce

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What K2 says. I'm a bit confused here: it does rather sound as if you think it's racist to have an intelligent, rule-abiding Asian character...
No, I just saw someone on another forum say that writing stereotypes could be considered racist. (such as the stereotype that Asians are good at math and generally smart) I just didn't want to write something that could offend someone or write a flat character.

A quick addendum: The problem I would have with stereotypes as a reader has less to do with them being offensive (although there are many offensive stereotypes to avoid) but more to do with them being a sign that the author hasn't put in enough work on their characters to build them past being the obvious thing (For example: in fantasy, these sorts of stereotypes would be things like: an old, wise wizard with a long white beard or a maniacal king). As a writer I'm more concerned with telling a story that is fresh and interesting and so if I find I'm writing a character who seems to fall into a trope or stereotype I'll have to sit back and ask myself, "Is this the way this character has to be?" And if the answer is yes, then I have to find something specific within that character that freshens them up or gives them their own reasons for being that way.

TL;DR: Many readers will see a character fall into a stereotype and assume the author is being lazy. To avoid this, share with them your character's background and inner life so that they see them as more than just a stereotype.
Thank you so much, I will try to give her a bit more depth and a background story to make her a more interesting character.

If the character's ethnicity isn't important to the story, I would question why you need her to be Asian, given the work involved in developing her with accuracy and authenticity. But as Asian people from everywhere in Asia can be intelligent and rule abiding - the same as all races and nationalities - I don't see anything stereotypical or racist in writing her that way.

I haven't written any main characters outside my own ethnicity as yet, because each time I considered doing so, I felt it would have been tokenistic.
However, I do have a future project in mind that will feature a Sudanese woman as one of the main ensemble characters. I will approach her the same as any other character, in that she's human and therefore the same as anyone else emotionally and intellectually, but then research how she was shaped by her culture and experience to hopefully make her authentic and believable.

It will be a difficult challenge, but while I don't think there's anything at all wrong with writers writing outside their own ethnicity or gender, I do think it very important to get it right.
Good luck with your writing! The reason I made her Asian is that she´s from a country in my world, where a lot of people are Asian, so it made sense to write her Asian as well. It´s not THAT important to the story, but it comes back to her background a bit.

Pinch of salt as I don't know as much about this as I like -

I think the criticisms of portrayals of people with different ethnicities/sexualities/life experiences to the author start with

1) When there's just one character of said background, making them feel tokenistic and in some cases like the author is using them to represent all X

And get worse when

2) That character's (or characters') traits correspond to a huge degree with popular stereotypes of said character's background

And will reach their peak when

3) That character's (or characters') traits correspond hugely to offensive/harmful/incorrect stereotypes and/or they have views/customs/experiences that are majorly out of line with what the majority of people from that background experience

So - looking at your situation -

It sounds like you're probably not going to do 3.

But you might do 1 or 2.

What other traits does this character have? What is their Asian heritage? What's their background? Are they the only Asian in the story? What's the story about?

Having a story with an Asian MC who is intelligent and rule-abiding is not bad in and of itself. But it might be in conjunction with other mistakes.
I will try to avoid this and give her a bit more depth. She´s the only Asian character that appears a lot at the moment, but I'm planning to write more character and possibly her family in the second book.

How have you gone about portraying your character as Asian?
It mainly comes from the world where she´s from and since her family is Asian as well, so it made sense writing her as an Asian.

Here's a tidbit you may already know! In Vietnamese culture, it's actually considered the courteous thing to do to pass things to each other with both hands instead of simply one--cups, food, any of that. It's supposed to show thoughtfulness, and most of all respect, which is something the Vietnamese culture values greatly, especially respect to older people. It's what they teach to their children. And it's knowing and incorporating that sort of detail which can allow you to quite uncontroversially explore the differences between various cultures. Much more than worrying about any of the weird stereotypes out there!]
That sounds like a really nice detail. I'm going to add that in my story for sure. As I'm reading all the replies in this thread, I will try to research the ethnicities of all my characters more to give them more depth. My main concern as to why I even posted this thread was that for example, in the Harry Potter books the Indian character Padma and Parvati Patil, as well as Cho Chang, are one big stereotype and J.K Rowling has been criticized as writing them this way and even giving Cho the most stereotypical name ever, so I am trying to avoid this kinda thing happening when writing my characters.
 
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Vladd67

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No, I just saw someone on another forum say that writing stereotypes could be considered racist. (such as the stereotype that Asians are good at math and generally smart) I just didn't want to write something that could offend someone or write a flat character.
In this day and age someone somewhere will find something to be offended by, apparently even time is owned by white people.
 

CTRandall

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apparently even time is owned by white people
Actually, seconds, minutes and hours are divided into groups of 60 (and multiples of 6) because that was an easy way for the ancient Sumerians to write numbers in cuneiform. Those ancient Sumerians are the ultimate time-colonialists. Fight the power and go time-decimal!
 

Wayne Mack

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Personally, I would keep the character as an Asian female even if it is not important to the story. I like to envision a more inclusive world, so bring in additional nationalities, ethnicities, whatever. Perhaps the best way to avoid the stereotype trap is to make sure a character's cultural background *does not* dictate the character's position in society or how the character reacts to situations. Go ahead and include a wide range of nationalities and let them be doctors, lawyers, or homeless; and do not feel that you must first do deep background research on culture just have a minority or different character.
 

Kerrybuchanan

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I'm currently writing a crime novel in which one of the main characters is a young female detective whose father is from the Indian subcontinent, and her mother is from Northern Ireland. I have tried to use a light touch to reveal her ancestry, but otherwise just tried to to depict her like any other Northern Irish female trying to make her way up the promotion ladder in a job where sectarianism, racism and sexism were once rife. It's her gender as much as her skin tone that is making her feel she has to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to get recognition, and any mistakes she makes (she gets knocked out by a burglar when she accesses a property without asking for back-up, because she thinks she'll be judged to be too cautious) are blamed on her gender rather than her inexperience and lack of support from senior officers.

I also have an elderly Afro-Carribean female sergeant in the same book, who has survived for decades in the force by growing a thick hide and making herself indispensable to those above her.

Both characters are based on real people I knew/know who have faced similar challenges, though not in the police, and not in Northern Ireland. I hope I've managed to write them as Northern Irish women with added targets painted on them rather than as racial/gender stereotypes, but I won't know how successful I've been until the first book is released later this year...

In general, my advice about writing characters who are different to you, the writer, is to research like mad, and when you've finished writing, then editing, get someone from that background to sensitivity-read where possible. The same advice goes for writing a character with a disability/chronic illness.
 

The Big Peat

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Seconded. Just write your character with regard to what your story needs them to be, and nothing else. Brandon Sanderson talks about the trouble he had writing female characters, back when he tried too hard to make them smart and capable, and ended up making them completely one-dimensional. Focusing too much on what your character ought to be, rather than what would make for the best story, is just dangerous for you. People are far, far more than their ethnicity, and if you concentrate on that in their characterization too much, then you leave out the things that really influence character--culture, religion, relationships, situation.
While I agree with a lot of this, I'd point out there's a risk that if the writer follows this, there's a chance they arrive at the end of the story having written the character to suit the story and realising they've put in a bunch of stereotypes. I'm not sure what the solution is - other than having a good awareness of stereotypes and occasionally taking stock - as deliberately writing to make a character X and not Y does indeed have risks. But there's risks on both sides.
 

HareBrain

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Actually, seconds, minutes and hours are divided into groups of 60 (and multiples of 6) because that was an easy way for the ancient Sumerians to write numbers in cuneiform.
They used six as the basis of their numerical system in homage to their gods, who were the remnants of an alien race of super-psychics with six fingers on each hand. These occasionally interbred with humans, which is why people born with an extra finger or stump are often thought of as being witches.

Protocol insists I put a winkie emoji here so you "know" I'm not being serious. ;)
 
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