By Darlene Cah
I am a young Latina woman who sees Jesus’ face on a window shade in her apartment in the projects. I am an elderly male, Afro-American, Jazz bassist, who connects with a white mission woman in the audience through music. I am a white, lower middle-class, Italian-American woman who elopes with a powerful, wealthy man, but has recurring dreams of a happy life with her “fat husband.” I am a southern construction worker who invests all his and his wife’s savings in a bucking bull. I am a 25-year-old, Japanese woman, an abstract artist who befriends a middle-aged Cuban refugee. I am an urban pre-teen girl who witnesses a terrible crime; a rural pre-teen girl who is bullied, whose grandmother is a witch; a young, poverty-stricken Appalachian woman with more kids than she can afford to feed.
I am every one of these characters, and every one of them is me. Granted, in real life, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never convince anyone this middle-aged white woman, originally from New York City, now living in rural North Carolina is an elderly, Afro-American, male musician. Well, maybe the elderly part is not that much of a stretch! But as soon as this guy started to take shape on the page, I adored him, so I wrote from his heart.
As writers, we’re also actors. All of our characters grow from some part of us—the good, the dark, the ugly, the beautiful. We bring them to life through their emotions, their desires and their relationships. Naturally, a character relating to their world, reacting to their circumstances is influenced by their ethnicity, race, religion, values, socio-economic status, age, gender, sexual preference, and many other identity factors, and we must be conscious of, and sensitive to these facts. A trite story with shallow, overly stereotypical characters is not just bad writing; it’s downright insulting.
A quick note about stereotype: We all have particular traits that identify us as part of a group. Most times, we can have a good laugh at ourselves, as these customs make us feel included within our circle of family and friends. You’ll find more than a few memes on facebook poking fun at one ethnic custom or another in a good-natured way. From my own experience, if you stopped by our apartment when I was a kid, my Italian-American mother wouldn’t let you leave without having a snack. That snack would probably include a huge salad, spaghetti with meatballs, braciola, eggplant Parmigiana, followed by espresso, cannoli and sfogliatelle. Conversation would be loud and animated, with hands flying every which way! A stereotype? Absolutely. But it’s also real and a scene many can relate to, an immediate connection. However, not all stereotypes are well-intended. When a stereotype crosses the line into bigotry, hatefulness and cruelty, or it’s used as the sole definition of a character, it becomes harmful and just plain wrong. So proceed with great caution. You need to justify everything you include in your story. Every trait, action, custom your character engages in must be significant, whether it adds to his or her development, or moves the story forward.
Now back to our regularly scheduled blog:
When I started writing these stories I referred to above, (some are still in progress), I didn’t say, “Hmmmm, I’m going to create a Japanese character today!” She was just there. I knew what she was wearing, how she wore her hair, that she was an artist and her name: Shiraz. Her ethnicity was a blur, though I was leaning toward aloof, white hipster. When I put her into a scene with Alvaro, the Cuban dancer, he revealed to me, in a line of dialogue, that she was Japanese. Sounds all freaky-woo-woo-cosmic, right? It is! These crazy characters! You’d think it was their story! Sheesh! I spent hours, days, I don’t know how long, Googling Cuban and Japanese culture, history and customs, most of which, never made it into the story, but the research informed the characters—and it was really interesting! As I write a character that is different from me, I look beyond the surface, to their humanity, their nature, their soul, their weaknesses, joys, pains. I find the things I have in common, the emotions and actions that are universal as well as unique. I don’t want my readers to see just a caricature of, say, a Puerto Rican woman questioning her faith. I want them to become involved with the journey of a real woman struggling with her issues. Even if your character is a robot, look to their essence. You might find compassion, anger, jealousy, or a sense of humor. Who doesn’t love R2-D2 and C-3PO!
So go ahead and take a risk. Walk in someone else’s shoes, boots, sandals or paws. You just might learn something about yourself. Now I want a cannoli.