Sunday, May 11, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks WRITING MULTIRACIAL CHARACTERS by Rachelle Ayala #literature #writertip

The Multiracial Reality
The settings for my contemporary novels take place in California. If you’ve been to the San Francisco Bay area or Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, then you know that the local neighborhoods and schools are a true melting pot or salad bowl of people from many cultures and ethnic groups.

This is my reality growing up and living in the present. So when it comes to novel writing, I write multiracial characters because I live in a multicultural environment. I’m Asian American married to a Latino, but that should not limit me to writing only Asian American and Latino characters. As a writer, I am able to put myself in different situations and immerse myself to the cultural backgrounds of those around me. But most importantly, people are basically the same, and made to be one family, so writing characters across the spectrum of ethnicities is natural to me. Indeed, it would feel forced to homogenize my characters into a single type of background.

Are there any pitfalls to writing multiracial characters?
The number one area is in description. People in the United States are so sensitive to perceived racism that many authors are afraid to describe a person based on their ethnicity. You get coy references to almond shaped eyes, light tan skin tone, or maybe the wool-like hair. Wouldn’t it be neat if the characters could come out and be proud of their multiple identities and claim them? I was reading The Host by Stephanie Meyer, and I could picture the annoying Seeker being of Asian descent. Here is Ms. Meyer’s description:
“She was very small. If she had remained still, it would have taken me longer to notice her there beside the Healer. She didn’t draw the eye, a darkness in the bright room. She wore black from chin to wrists—a conservative suit with a silk turtleneck underneath. Her hair was black, too. It grew to her chin and was pushed back behind her ears. Her skin was darker than the Healer’s. Olive toned.” Meyer, Stephenie (2010-04-21). The Host: A Novel (Kindle Locations 455-458). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.
In many stories, we are often left with a guessing game. If the author leaves out racial and ethnic tags, the assumption is the character is white. But if the author puts it in, some may object and say it shouldn’t make a difference. Well, that’s the point. It shouldn’t make a difference, but in order not to be invisible on the printed page, I believe the author should make it part of the description so that the reader gets the entire picture of the world the author is describing.
The second pitfall is stereotyping. There are certain stereotypes everyone holds, for better or for worse. There are also certain cultural traits, maybe an emphasis on family or food, that are real. The key is to create your character as a multi-faceted individual without regard to whether they fit the culture or buck the trend. Portray your character realistically and don’t worry about what others may say. Your character is unique with flaws and good points. If you try too hard to clean up a character because you’re afraid of stereotyping, you run the risk of cardboard perfection. Interesting characters, like people, come from all different backgrounds and have their own annoying peeves. The more multi-dimensional they are, the less likely they will come across as stereotypical.
That’s it for the pitfalls. The rest is all enrichment. Make your novel full of fun and interesting people with serious problems, high stakes, conflict and tension first. Then add the spice of multiracial characters to enhance the richness of your story and truly reflect the world around us.

My contemporary novels all include multiracial main characters. Jennifer Cruz Jones is Puerto-Rican and Cajun. Maryanne Torres is Ohlone, Mexican, Irish, French, and Chinese, and Lucas Knight is African-American and Caucasian. Vera Custodio, Romeo Garcia, and Evie Sanchez are Filipino, and Carina Chen is Chinese. There's nothing in the storylines that require the characters to be what they are. The books are not about the common "ethnic" issues like immigration, racism, or obsessed with identity. They're simply stories of love, danger, suspense, growing up, and family. Regular people living extraordinary story lives. And at the end, that is what we all are. People who are different in the same way who cut across imagined boundaries and portray the many facets of contemporary life.

What are some of your favorite multicultural novels? Are the characters more or less memorable because of their multifaceted background? Do you think a novel with all-one-kind-of characters is realistic in today's North America, Europe, and Australia?

You can encourage authors to write more diverse books by reading them and tweeting them at hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to keep this movement going.

Next on my reading list is Americanah by Nigerian born author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. What are you reading next?



  1. Great post, Rachelle. I'm African American and my stories include a multiracial cast of characters. The heroines and heroines of my stories have all been different races and ethnicities thus far. I write about the kind of multiracial melting pot that has been my reality and that I'd like to see reflected more in literature and film.

    1. Hi Reese! Glad to meet you. I think when more of us step out of the boundaries the more stories there will be, and the less stereotypes. Chimamanda says the "single-story" is the stereotype.

  2. You're right. Many of us are afraid to write multicultural characters. We've seen what happens to people who "get it wrong" and we don't want to find ourselves in that hot seat. It's a shame, but that's how it is.

    1. Hi Suzie, so true too. The pitfalls. But the more stories there are, the less stereotyping. It's always hard to be the first one. Chimamanda says in her TED talk that she wrote a story where the father is abusive and someone asked her if all fathers of that type were abusive. Well, duh, of course not!

  3. Excellent post. I agree whole heartedly about needing more of these romances and being able to tell them without worrying about each word. Sensitivity is crucial for a well-told story. That said, I don't think the general population would be as concerned about an honest but thoughtful love story as some the 'watchdog' groups.