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I am working on a book. I am aware that, being a white guy, I always perceive characters as white men. I want to push myself into building a character that is black.

My problem is that most of the people in my world are white. The blacks friends that I have live in white communities and have adapted that culture.

I do have a really good Chinese friend, but don't "feel" a Chinese character in the world I created.

My concern is that I don't want to write someone with black skin who has a white character. I want to create a character who is black and has worked hard and is accomplished in their career.

How do I find this character's voice? Making black friends just to create this character seems shallow as does searching for a friend based on their color.

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    I think making a friend of a different race is a noble goal, even if the immediate motivation is research. Just don't drop the person like a hot potato once the writing is finished. // Conversely, it may be that there are people willing to be interviewed for a book, as long as it's presented honestly and in an up-front manner, whether or not that goes on to become a real friendship or not. // Unfortunately friendships across race often don't just happen "by themselves." Someone --or really, both people --have to take some effort to overcome those boundaries. – Chris Sunami Apr 11 '18 at 19:28
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    Read up on Steven Barnes. He's written quite a bit about being black, the Black community, racism, and has written quite a few diverse characters. stevenbarneslife.wordpress.com/2018/10/03/a-pair-of-questions Also, read up on the difference between "black" (skin color/genetics) and "Black" (culture). – J.D. Ray Oct 9 '18 at 19:39
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Is your black character living in a world like the one your black friends live in, or a more immersively black culture, or...?

I think it's definitely a mistake to assume the character will be different just because of skin colour (unless you're talking about frequency of sunscreen application or something). You can't just write "a black character", you have to write a black character in a certain culture and context. If you're writing optimistic scifi, the character's race may not have any effect whatsoever on how he sees the world or himself or how others see him. If you're writing a historical, race will probably have even more of an influence than it does most places today.

So part of writing the character will definitely be figuring out how that character fits into his setting. If you're writing a contemporary novel with a character whose racial identity is a big part of his life (for better or worse), you'll need to do some research. Don't think of black culture as a monolith - figure out where your character is from, how he was raised, and who he spends time with, and then do some reading (fiction or non-fiction, poetry, lyrics, whatever) produced by people with similar backgrounds. What influenced those people, and how will those same influences affect your character.

Writing from a different POV needs a bit more thought, but I think it's really rewarding and worthwhile when done right. Good luck with it!

  • The character is from a black lower middle class culture. I was really impressed with the movie "Something New" because of the way it showed an upper middle class black culture. His culture isn't important to the story, but I want to make sure the character's voice is right. – Thom Oct 13 '15 at 12:35
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    I don't think you can get the voice right without looking at his culture, so in that way, his culture IS important to the story, right? Everyone's culture is important to the story, because culture will be what often determines how characters behave. – Kate S. Oct 14 '15 at 10:35
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I really appreciate this question, because as a black person who reads a lot of writing by white authors, I've found that very few do a good job with their black characters, and many do a very poor job. Michael Chabon is the only well-known white author who easily comes to mind as creating black characters that read as authentic (to me).

I'm not sure there's a shortcut to writing characters that will read as authentic to someone of that culture other than to actually take the time to get to know someone of that culture AND to try to see the world from his or her viewpoint. The key problem is that many people --writers included --are heavily (although usually not consciously) invested in NOT seeing the world from the minority viewpoint.

With that said, being forced to adapt to majority-white cultural setting is a typical experience for most American and European black people. I think if you took the time to try to really understand the experience of even your seemingly assimilated black friends, you would find that their world and experience is very different from yours, even though you might expect it to be the same. For instance, you both might be at the same party, but if he is the only black person there, it is a different party for him than for you.

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    Thanks for the great feedback. I will give it much thought. Have you read any of the Spenser books by Robert B. Parker? I wonder how you feel about his black character Hawk. – Thom Oct 13 '15 at 12:37
  • @TheThom - I haven't read anything by Parker. Perhaps I will check those out. – Chris Sunami Oct 19 '15 at 19:56
  • "The Judas Goat" would be a fun one to read while seeing his interactions with a character he will become very close too. – Thom Oct 20 '15 at 19:09
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Note: By complete coincidence, I recently had a chance to attend a Q & A session with author Michael Chabon --who I referenced in my prior answer as a white author who does a good job writing black characters-- and I took the opportunity to ask him this question. I had originally edited this into my original answer, but it's really a separate answer, from a difference source.

Chabon said that (in addition to having grown up in an well-integrated community) the biggest prep work he did for writing the black characters in Telegraph Avenue was to read a lot of work by black authors, and to imitate the way they approached their black characters (in preference to the way white authors typically approach black characters).

One of the biggest "lessons learned" he cited (and I'm really paraphrasing and interpreting here!) is that being black is normalized in black authors' works, problematized in white authors' works. In other words, the black character in the black author's book is not thinking about being black unless there is some specific reason to do so (because to her it is not an intrinsically exceptional condition of existence). She is also not thinking about race in general, or about white people in particular, unless there is some valid reason for her to do so.

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I think you need to be more specific about your character. Simply being black does not give someone a certain personality.

Instead of focusing on the color of their skin, you should think about their childhood, the environment in which they were raised, and the environment in which they now reside. Then their ethnicity would play a more important role than just seeming like "I needed a black guy for this story".

Developing this background of the character will also allow you to more easily see the world through their eyes. Then, all you need to do is reveal that world to the reader.

If you do this for all of your characters, I would imagine the authenticity would handle itself.

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Maybe this will help: I, a middle-aged white man, once wrote a story narrated by a 24-yr-old woman. I did that by writing her as just a person. My readers pointed out things that made her sound male, and I tweaked those, but I didn't go to any great effort to make her sound like a young woman, I just wrote her as a person.

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    I agree that that's a lot of it. People are people. You give me an idea, though, maybe I just need to find readers of color. – Thom Oct 12 '15 at 14:49
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    I think writing individuals rather than types is a crucial first step, but if you're writing a character whose experience is very different from yours, it may not be enough. – Chris Sunami Oct 12 '15 at 18:52
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Find a black person that is similar to the character that you want to create, or alternatively, create a character that's similar to someone you actually know.

I did the latter, and asked the person what he would say in such-and-such a situation, and the character was quite "authentic."

African Americans won't necessarily feel differently than other people in a given situation. But they may act or express themselves differently, because they are a part of a different subculture.

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