How do I write a character with a different ethnicity than mine?

A lot of people have asked me this and they assume I know the reason because I have what people have been calling “a diverse cast” in my web comic HMS Crock Doctor. To be honest, it’s not very diverse. All the characters have artistic minds that are expressed in different ways, and not every human is artistic. If I were to really have a diverse cast, there would be at least one soul in there who appreciates math.

What people mean, then, is that I have a cast that does not solely feature people of European descent.

The issue a lot of white writers have presented to me is that they fear they’ll do something wrong and people will label them as a racist because they haven’t correctly represented the character. Thus they tend to stick to what they know, which is writing/drawing/creating white characters. There is nothing wrong with creating white characters, and many non-white authors are able to easily portray white characters. This is because, especially in the western world, we tend to get a lot of white main characters, which means we will be empathizing with them, understanding them, and being invited into their world. I will admit, when sitting down and thinking of a character, my default tends to be a white male protagonist. This is the default many of us fall into because it’s what we’re used to seeing. I’m hoping within the next few years that will change.

Again, there is nothing wrong with a white protagonist. Many white characters have won our hearts and many belong to extraordinary works of art. However, western culture and a western way of thinking is only one aspect of humanity, and though we shall never be done exploring it, it’s important to explore other aspects of humanity as well. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all the same at the core; we just grew up in different places.

When writing a character with a different ethnicity than your own (and this goes for writing any character at all, really), you must find a way to connect with them emotionallyEvery person has the capacity to love, to feel loss, to rage, to feel ashamed; we all just express it in different ways. If you can find a way to connect with this character, you’ll find that you have more in common than you think.

I’ll use my character Sridar Williams as an example. I’m a young 20-something lesbian Caucasian from the 21st century, who talks to more people on the internet than she does in person. What on earth could I have in common with a 40-something overweight half-caste Indian/English Victorian who fights vampires for a living?
And has a magnificent mustache, by the way. Observe it:
Because you're worth it.
(Wow, that’s depressing. I was hoping to upload a new drawing of him, but apparently my comic has taken such a hiatus, I can’t even draw the characters anymore. Ho hum.)

Anyway, I had to find ways to identify with this character. Growing up a half-caste in Victorian England was riddled with misfortune, most of this including racism. Though I have never been discriminated against for being half Indian in Victorian England, I could ask myself,

“Have I ever been made fun of for how I look?” Yes.

“Have I ever been ashamed to be of my ethnicity?” Yes.

“Have I ever felt alone and judged in a crowd?” Yes.

These are the steps you take when establishing an emotional connection with your character.

When writing someone of a different ethnicity, different gender, or a different time period, it’s extremely important to do some research into the topic. In Sridar’s case, his father is Indian, a translator on a British ship that constantly travels between India and England. I could dig into my father’s military deployments and how much I’d miss him when he was gone. The importance of this (and again, this is for any character you write) is gifting your character with a genuine emotion so that their problems ring true and your audience can empathize with them more.

Being that his father is Indian, Sridar’s real last name is Kulkarni. Now this has been done before by some half-castes, not all, but it was Sridar’s personal choice to change his surname to Williams, as he thought it would help him to get a better job. He therefore signs his name as S. Williams, which passes for a British name. Having grown up in England and speaking with a British accent, he rages at the fact that he is accepted by neither group. For the Indians, he is too English, and for the English, he is “black”. Dig deeper and you’ll find that a common slur towards Indians in 19th century England was “black dog,” thus, how would this affect Sridar? He would balk against it at first, but after hearing it so many times, it would begin to eat at him and parts of him would sub consciously begin to believe it. Thus he would avoid any sort of behavior that likens him to a dog.

Further research indicated that many half-castes were given scholarships at Cambridge University in the 19th century, if any of them were shown to be bright and contain a lot of potential. Sridar is a very bright individual, and if I wanted him to be able to become a knight as he is in the story, he’d have to begin his ascent through society, and a scholarship seemed like the best idea. It especially worked because I always pictured him with a Cambridge accent, which he no doubt would have adopted, as it is how the rich kids spoke, and he’d likely want to hide his real roots (which also ties in with his name change).

Thus a huge theme with him seems to be hiding his true self. Going along with that theme, I figured he needed a way to vent his frustration, and thus not only takes to the violence of his occupation as vampire hunter, but also keeps a journal which he fills with drawings. His inspiration at the time was likely William Blake, and hence that is probably why he changed his name to Williams. And of course, because he hides himself, it’s very likely no one even knows he can draw.

Now, based on research and empathy, we begin to see a character emerge.

While I will admit Sridar’s mentality is very English, and thus I am able to identify with it more, and that he has an artistic mind, something I can certainly comprehend, writing a character of a different ethnicity is not as difficult as writing a character with a different mentality than yours. Again, writing somebody like a math nerd into my comic would be infinitely more difficult than writing Sridar, even if the geek was white.

Keep in mind while writing that we are all the same; we all just wear different shells. Do your research into the culture, the time period, whatever prepares you, and make an emotional connection with your character. Make many. Imagine yourself in that situation, with that background, with those parents, with this body, these expectations, this concept of beauty, this sense of loss, and you’ll be surprised how many connections you make. Or maybe you won’t. Because we’re all human.

Duh.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. BillionSix says:

    It seems like a strange question, to be honest. Yeah, it takes some empathy to write a different ethnicity, but you could say the say thing about writing for a character of a different gender, age, or sexual orientation.

    1. This is very true, and the same kind of approach can be applied to all of those. In fact, I recommend this approach for every character, to include those whose ethnicity, gender, age, or time period you share. I’m just going off of what I’ve been frequently asked by other writers, and I hope it was helpful. :)

  2. Bearly~ says:

    (Basil likes math :3)
    Loved reading this! I thought it was really thought out and a good example on how to handle such a sensitive subject. I also noticed that what you’ve stated can be true for any charcter a person creates! It was great to read this. Thanks for writing it :)

    1. (That’s true, lol. Notice how he’s underdeveloped? XD) Thanks so much, love. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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