Share Your Process Of Creating Characters Across Cultures Or Class

Crossing boundaries of culture, race, and class to create characters can be tricky, but as fantasy/romance author Mary Anne Mohanraj thoughtfully points out, "You will get it wrong. This is what you should do."

Children's book author A.C.E. Bauer makes the case that we can't include a character of a different race without seeing that "it's not like choosing the color of her hair."

It always helps to learn from one another's mistakes and processes, so I'm seeking input from my fellow writers. Here are my questions, and they apply to historical, contemporary, dystopian, and fantasy novels:
  1. When you crossed boundaries of power (cultural, racial, economic) to create characters, what behind-the-scenes homework did you do (research, interviews, etc.)?
  2. Did your editor ask for more research or tweaks when it came to issues of race, culture, or class? If so, when and why?
There are no right or wrong answers — basically, I'm looking for tips that we might all find useful. I'd love to compile comments, so share titles, release dates, and publishers of published works, and working titles of books-in-progress. Thanks!


Jeannie Lin said…
Great topic!

I had a nice discussion of depicting surface culture versus deep culture on the Ron Empress blog:

Now I'm off to read up on your links.
Jeannie Lin said…
Looking at the questions above: I wanted to add a note about my editor, because she's a rock star. And Harlequin as a publisher takes a lot of flack. When discussing one of my projects, my editor mentioned how she'd been reading up on Asian literature and watching film. My problem constantly is that I want to be subtle and distance my characters. I do that on purpose -- I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing, but I don't think it's authentic for characters to reveal themselves outright. No one is THAT in tune with their feelings or that willing to admit it, even to themselves. It's the worst when I portray Asian males. My editor pointed out that it seems to be a common practice in Asian lit. That it seems almost too rude to go too deep into a character's motivation and emotions. But in romance, deep emotion is key, right? So we went through several rounds of edits with me working to keep the authentic tone and feel that I wanted and my editor working to make the story accessible and enjoyable for mainstream genre readers. No racebending, no requests for more or less cultural detail. Just a navigation and negotiation on both sides to bring out the story. I have a lot of respect for her because of that.
suzi w. said…
As a white woman who grew up overseas (Germany, Honduras, Brazil when I was teeny tiny) this is one of the hardest things I find about writing. How do you write about a subculture that doesn't have good language descriptors?

I have read each link you've tweeted this morning, and while right now I'm writing non-fiction, time and place and "deep culture" are important there too.

Jeannine Atkins said…
What great questions, Mitali: thank you for asking, as always.

Whether I’m moving across centuries or cultures, I usually find a way in through details. For me that means lots of reading and looking at pictures. When my first picture book, Aani and the Tree Huggers, was accepted by Lee and Low, my editor asked if I’d been to India. I had not, but took her question as a compliment to my scouring of pictures to know the sorts of plants and trees that grew south of the Himalayas, imagining their sounds and smells. I researched customs and blended in my own fears and feelings about beloved trees.

Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and their Daughters (Holt, 2010) is about three mother-daughter pairs with histories of covered wagons and farms, cotton plantations, and an academic family in Poland. I wanted to show what they had in common as well as what was different, so again, I read a lot about the particular families, the places they came from, and some social history. Yes, there’s so much you can get wrong, and I think it’s best to move forward with humility and a sense of the importance of trying to find connections. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s hands must have been roughed from saws and hoes, Madam Walker’s from years of doing laundry then tending hair, and Marie Curie’s fingertips were burned from radium. Moving from what I learned about breakfasts, clothing, views from windows, my questions became more universal: how does it feel to turn thirteen? How can you leave someone you love?
Mitali Perkins said…
So helpful, thanks, Jeannie and Jeannine. (If the next comment comes from someone named Jean, I'll get spooked.)
Jean Reidy said…
Just to spook you, Mitali,I had to post here. But I'll also be following the comments with interest. I'm wondering how writers avoid stereotypes when creating characters that cross cultures or class. Thanks for opening this discussion.
beckylevine said…
I can't answer the editor question (yet!), but the research has been amazing. I am probably doing way too much, without the filtering ability I'd like to have, but I'm trying to find possibilities as well as certainties. There are facts and there are data, but I find myself responding to the one case in 100 where the people took a different route, made a less-typical choice. And I want, somehow, to get those choices in as well as the more common, more known ideas about cultures & people in the past.

If that makes sense. :)
Irene Latham said…
Hi Mitali - this is a subject near and dear to my heart! With LEAVING GEE'S BEND I did not get any pressure/demand for more research, but I sure heaped that pressure on myself. I believe writing across culture is one way to create a more empathetic, compassionate world -- but it's not an easy road! A guiding force for me continues to be writer Julius Lester. I blogged about it here:
Rich Michelson said…
Hi Mitali, Are you coming to the SCBWI New England Conference? This is what I will be talking about, and I'd love you to be part of the conversation.
My workshop: What is a writer to do if you are interested in exploring cultural traditions outside of your own? Are you celebrating or exploiting, and where is the border between the two? Using my books and those of others, we’ll talk about authors being type-cast, unintentional racism; and the thin line between stereotype and truth.
Natalie said…
Mitali, your post is timely for me as I work on my second round of revisions for my debut middle grade novel, FLYING THE DRAGON, to be published next July by Charlesbridge.

One of my main characters is a boy from Japan, and the other is a Japanese-American girl. While I lived in Japan for 2 years, I certainly don't consider myself an expert on Japanese culture, and definitely not an expert in the Japanese language. I've drawn some of my characters' emotions from my ESL students who come from all over the world, and have tapped my own childhood memories of what it felt like to move from place to place (including one foreign country). The feeling of being the new kid and wanting to fit in is something that kids from all cultures feel.

But in order to get the Japanese cultural details right in my manuscript, I've asked two Japanese women who now live in the U.S. to read through my manuscript. I've been pleased with the things I've gotten right, and filled with relief at the things they've caught that, thankfully, will never make it to print. No matter how much I research (and I'm talking hours and hours and hours), I don't think there's any substitute for handing your manuscript over to someone who comes from the culture about which you're writing.

Mary Anne Mohanraj's words ring true to me: "Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right."

Here's hoping I'll get it right.
Amy Jarecki said…
I wrote a book about an ancient Fremont Indian. I visited archaeological sites, and got my hands on every book I could find about them (not much), then I researched the descendant tribes, the Ute, Paiute and Hopi. Once that was done I developed the fictional Nahchee Nation. Http://
kiperoo said…
Thanks for this great post, Mitali, and thanks to everyone who commented for your stories and links too. I was lucky enough to attend the Diversity in YA event in Boston last week, where this topic came up, and the two things I took away from it where 1) the importance of research -- like Natalie said, getting someone of that culture to read your work is especially important and 2) don't be afraid to try, even if you are white and straight, to include characters from diverse backgrounds.
Thanks again for posting about this!
Blessy said…
What a great blog post, Mitali. I’ve enjoyed reading your novels. I might be a bit late in adding my two cents here, but I just joined the blogosphere.

I’ve been working on a multicultural, young adult fantasy (2½ years ago). When I started graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I had the opportunity to work with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Uma Krishnaswami, and Julie Larios on my WIP. As of now, I’m in the process of revising and working on completing my 4th Draft.

Though I’m not published yet, here’s what I’ve learned. World-building and creating the culture are key to a successful fantasy. Born and raised in the US, and as a daughter of immigrant parents from India, I had the opportunity to travel to different countries at a young age. I was able to portray different cultures in my stories. A story can only be made authentic if the research is done well. Read everything you can get your hands on, take a look at photographs, etc. Understand your characters are human beings with similar hopes and dreams. It’s important to have someone of the culture you’re trying to portray review/critique your story. I’ve learned readers are smart, and they’ll catch anything that doesn’t make sense or hold true.

I am a writer who outlines. Plotting allows me to see the entire story from beginning to end. Knowing these plots will change with every draft and every revision is part of the writing process. I usually decide on the content and figure out what the story is about, have some idea of my main characters and their desires, and know where the story is headed. Writing up a plot outline gives me the flexibility to move several scenes around until they read logically. With this initial structure in place, I find it saves me a lot of time as I’m writing.

I’ll be covering my writing process in more detail on my blog: as a part of FAQ Fridays, if you are interested.