Face it, unless you’re an author-of-color, you probably don’t give much thought about the ethnicity of your characters unless it’s an integral part of your plot. But like Hollywood, you have to change your thinking.
James Patterson was one of the first best-selling white authors to write a black protagonist. Alex Cross is an every man, FBI agent, and hero of his own series, played by Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry in the movies. When asked why he decided to make Alex Cross African-American, Patterson responded:
It was important to me because at that time in our history, I just saw so much stimulus…I just felt that the portrayal of African-Americans was just stereotypical with a boom box on their shoulder and stuff like that. I hate that, it’s just ludicrous. So I wanted to create a hero, a larger than life African American who was educated and actually had a very powerful family life, very involved with his kids and particularly involved because his wife was dead. A good relationship with his grandmother, good relationship with the community and solve things more with his head than his fists.
In my book series, I decided to make Ryan’s deceased best friend and former partner, Jon Lange, black. I did this for several reasons: one, because the storyline was based on my experience of losing my BFF, Joanne. She was black. But secondly, because I realized that my recurring cast of characters was pretty homogeneous. White protagonist, white love-interest, white partner, white boss, white attorney, and so on.
So in my second novel of the series, I made more of a concerted effort to diversify. I had never mentioned Jon Lange’s ethnicity in my first book, Town Red, so when my editor read the second in the series, she said, “Woah, you never said Jon was black!” I replied that I never said he wasn’t. His race was not an issue until it was mentioned in the storyline.
In the fourth book, I needed to “cast” a new medical examiner. I decided to make her East Indian. Did it have anything to do with the storyline? No. But it adds a level of interest than just having a “whitewashed” cast. Maybe in a future book it will come into play, who knows? Or perhaps Dr. Nina Bhandari will have her own spin-off series!
I recommend you review your cast of characters as you’re writing. Ask yourself: could this character be Black? Asian? Native American? Or maybe put a female in a role that you had originally intended for a male. What about sexuality, could this character be gay? Why or why not? Mix it up! But a word of caution: don’t stereotype–that’s one of the worst mistakes a writer can make. This article from TheRoot.com answers the question of how to best write a person of color while being sensitive to the culture’s portrayal in fiction. Do your research and seek out multi-cultural pre-readers.
Looking back, I wish I had been more diverse when creating the main characters in my first novel because now I’m stuck with them. But we learn as we go, and now I make sure I make my fictional worlds are more representative of the real one.