So in my writing group a few weeks ago we discussed how you go about choosing and then writing the ethnicity of your characters.  I was a little late to the group, but jumped right in with the conversation.  I felt like I had somewhat of a handle on the topic – I’d faced it when writing this first book.

Race can be very important in certain characters, and in this book certain characters’ ethnicities  play a very important role in defining who they are.  Others could be mentally recast by the reader and it wouldn’t make a difference.  Though sometimes being a Caucasian writer, it can be hard (at least for me) to figure out just how to let on that a character is “non-white”.  Just look at the foolishness that happened when The Hunger Games movie released.  With Rue described as having dark skin and brown hair, people still seemed floored when she wasn’t white.  Without having to go through all that drama all over again, I will say this: not everyone who believed she wasn’t white thought she was black.   I had one friend who thought that making her black and from the agricultural District was meant to symbolize that the Capitol had reinstituted slavery.  Then I had another that though that it was a reference to migrant workers and that Rue had been Hispanic.  Both valid answers.  But only one turned out to be correct as to the author’s intent.

So what else is there to do, then?  Never mention race?  Dance around it until I’m halfway through reading a 500 pg book before I realize that one of the two main characters is black??? Because I tell you what, that is super distracting.  We all cast the movies of the books we read in our own heads, and it’s really jarring to realize after 250 pages that you’ve been wrong the whole time.   Though I do understand the problem.  I had a minor character in this book who was black, with an African accent, and an African-themed name.  I think she’s awesome and strong and beautiful, but there is that fear that I’ll somehow been seen as racist unless I danced around the issue and implied rather than told you what she looked like.  Then, during about the one millionth rewrite I realized: just tell your audience what she looks like and move on.  She’s a black girl.  Deal with it.  I also have characters with Gypsy, Irish, Hispanic, Elvish, animal, and all kinds of other origins.  It helps define who they are, though admittedly to varying degrees.

And so it was when my writing group then asked, “If you changed the race of your main character, would it change your story,” I answered “Absolutely!”  My characters are half-Hispanic, half-Caucasian.  Take a couple of black kids, or Korean kids, European kids…whatever, and throw them in the same situation, they’d all react differently.  Because even if they were raised in the exact same location their entire lives, the way people perceive us changes how we view ourselves, for good or for bad.  ESPECIALLY in our teen years.

That said, I think I just hit a breakthrough in my next book.  I need my anti-girl-next-door character to be strong, sexy, NOT BLONDE, and vicious, but in a calm, understated sort of way.  I kept picturing this gorgeous Hispanic girl filling the role, but somehow could just not wrap my head around her without a lot of outward fire in her personality.  Then, while searching for clothing inspiration online, I figured it out: I needed to make her Japanese.  Same strong, sexy, viscous non-blonde I imagined, but now with a self-control that comes from centuries of culture and tradition.  She just fits better now.

In the moments I allow myself to think about the days when I might actually get published, I do worry sometimes how people will take things like what I’ve just said here and if I’ll end up getting boycotted because I’m so offensive.  And the answer is…probably.  Authors get boycotted all the time for all different kinds of things.  So if the worse thing I did was diversify my cast of characters and use their backgrounds to enrich and enhance them and make them more real to both me and my readers, then so be it.  We need more diversity in YA anyway.


P.S. There was a really cool YouTube video I wanted to include that was about The Hunger Games and racial diversity in YA, but I couldn’t find it.  It’s 3 minutes long, and discusses things like the study that discovered that in 775 YA novels surveyed, only 2% had African Americans on the cover.  Check out the artical (fascinating!) and let me know if you happen to find that video!