Ethnicity in Novels

March 17th, 2010 • Kate

irishdanceshoesHappy St. Patrick’s Day to you all! I’m a proud half-Irish American, and so of course I’m wearing green today. (I debated green shoes for this post, but the ones above go better with the real reason behind my writing, as you’ll see below.)

We often talk a lot about ethnicity in novels, and how to correctly represent a racial perspective as writers. But besides wanting to read more amazing novels with non-Caucasian protagonists, I’d also love to see more novels where ethnicity — of whatever stripe — plays a part. To illustrate, a story about me.

When I went to high school, one of my best friends was a girl named Roseleen. We used to vacation together on spring breaks, down to Florida where her parents had a house, or up to Block Island. The youngest of four, with a rather sizable gap between her older brothers and sister and herself, both of Roseleen’s parents were Irish. Not Irish-American, like my mom, but emigrants from Ireland. Besides all the normal teen stuff she did, she also took Irish dance lessons (see the shoes above), and knew how to play the Irish harp.

To me, she always had such a strong connection to her heritage and showed it.

On a day like today, I feel particularly Irish myself. I know my Irish ancestors going back several generations — Delaneys and Currans and O’Connors and such — and proudly boasted on Twitter this morning that I have over 20 hours of Irish music in my iTunes library. I know how to make corned beef and soda bread, can do a passable jig, and know a few words of Irish to sprinkle into conversation. It’s not as strong a connection as Roseleen, but it means something to me.

So here’s my question to you: When you create your characters, do you think about where they come from? How does their heritage, their culture, their religion color their experience? If they’re just generic mutts, why? Was that a choice, or the lack of one? What does their background mean to them? (Bear in mind that “nothing” is an answer, but again, only if that’s the choice you made.)

I look forward to reading your comments!

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23 Responses to “Ethnicity in Novels”

  1. Mary Says:

    Happy Saint Patty's Day! Rockin' some Chieftans and Clannad today, myself. "She is handsome, she is pretty, she's the belle of Belfast city. She is courting 1-2-3. Please would you tell me who is she?" Now, all I need's a pint!

    Anyway, for me, it completely depends on the story and my character. My current MC is kind of a generic mutt but that's because she's not well-defined in her own mind, although I know her whole past. A previous MC was steeped in her culture and past, and it was reflected in the novel.

  2. Megan Says:

    Long-time lurker, first-time commenter.

    I was an Irish dancer for eight years as a teen (it was wonderful, I got to travel to Ireland and all over the US east coast for competitions and exhibitions) and as I type this, I am currently sipping Irish cream on ice : ). I, personally love stories in which heritage plays a large role in a character's identity. It adds a lot of detail and dimension that might otherwise have been absent. Right now, I'm working on a piece (of the YA persuasion) in which my character is mixed race, and her family is very connected to the irish part of her heritage. She even has one of those crazy Gaelic names with too many consonants in it.

    I don't always, however write characters that are so connected to their heritage, because the truth is, a lot of us aren't. Our great-grandparents came over and tried to blend in, bought microwaves and changed the spelling of their names. So a few generations down the line, the specifics of "the old country" are fuzzy and far-away.

    For example, while I latched on to the Irish part of my heritage, I also know that I'm part Slovakian. I know nothing about my family that came from there, except that my grandmother used to tell me it was a dirty little country and we didn't talk about them! Oh Gran. 🙂

    I only know a few words in Gaelic: Slainte and Pog Mo Thoin. Which is really all I need to know ;).

  3. Amy L. Sonnichsen Says:

    Even though I'm about as muttish as you get, I've always had a strong sense of connection to (and curiosity about) the land which gave me my maiden name (Pardini, if you're wondering, which is Italian). So, I kind of organically am interested in my characters' ethnicity, too. When I was little and writing my first novels, I always drew up detailed family trees to go with them because they were invariably about several generations of people and where they came from and how they lived. Sagas, actually. That fascination carries through into my work now, though I don't always mention those details on paper. But it's always there in my head.

    Great question, Daphne! And happy St. Patrick's Day!

  4. Karen Says:

    As an African American, I've incorporated other ethnicities in all of my writing. My current work is about a Cuban American girl who is second generation. While her parents speak Spanish, she does not. It's is a problem for some of the older Cuban people they know; that her parents never taught her. I tried to have a balance in what I thought a household would be like with Cuban parents who are kinda Americanized and a daughter who's really Americanized. I've incorported Spanish dialogue, Cuban food and other cultural things I picked up from living in Miami. The more I write, the more I want to add more things as I remember my time in Miami. It's so much fun when you can make things as authentic as possible.

  5. Sherrie Petersen Says:

    I'm actually trying to play with this right now. It's funny, because I always imagine my characters as mixed but it doesn't translate on the page because it's not something I think about on a daily basis. My parents are both immigrants, but I was born in Ohio so I just see myself as American and I think I've always been treated as American. So even though my background is very different from most kids from the heartland, it isn't really because growing up with them shaped me into the American I am.

    But, I also ate mangoes and sugar cane, spent summers on islands and didn't know the English words for many common phrases until I entered kindergarten. So, yeah, I was different. I guess my personal experience transfers to my characters when I write. I go more for the commonalities than the differences. I want to be able to show the ethnicity without being obvious because for me it's never been worth pointing out.

  6. Julie Polk Says:

    Ah, one of the questions ruling my life right now! My novel centers around a Lenape teenager, a murder, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. One reason I wanted to make my protag Lenape was because though the mountain where it’s set was in the center of what used to be a main Lenape region (in New York’s Hudson Valley), I heard no Lenape stories and or legends of the mountains, while I heard plenty about the Dutch and English settlers and their legends. I’m white, and my family’s been going to that mountain for four generations. That information gap started to really bother me; I wanted to learn more. And using MIDSUMMER opens the door to explore the Lenape and Elizabethan legends of the woods, to see what's similar and different, which I'm way excited about.

    But it does create this question of how I approach writing. Do I do the cultural research first so it can inform my character, or do I just write a character I love and hope I don’t create something flinch-inducingly off base? Since this is my first book I’m finishing a slam draft first because I’m afraid if I stop for research I’ll never finish at all, and I’ve done some basic historical research that’s been helpful, but I do still worry that I’ll write something that turns out to undermine the whole book after the fact. And I worry often that I'll fall into the trap of having people leaping about the woods in an overly fluffy-naturey way, which is a stereotype I want to avoid as much as the archaic wily-scalpy savage indian. For now, I just keep telling myself that that’s part of what a first draft is for. So if I get some stuff way wrong and wind up writing five drafts instead of four, or six instead of five, fine. I know it doesn’t help my writing to worry about this – but it does creep in, sometimes.

  7. Christina Says:

    This is such a great post especially since I'm writing a novel right now dealing with ethnicity issues. For me though, I see it from a different perspective in that at my school we get so many ethnic Koreans coming from the US to Korea (I live in Korea right now). The problem is that they are Americans, but ethnically Korean. And that is such a difficult situation to be thrust into. I loved the movie Shanghai Kiss because that is what so many of my students deal with! Great movie BTW!

  8. Mandy Says:

    I know for me, I never really thought much about my heritage except perhaps to be exasperated by it. I have a saying, all the greatest Polish people left Poland (examples: Marie Curie, Joseph Conrad, Chopin, etc). It wasn't until recently that I wondered how my Polish side of the family even came to America and its really a great story (involves foreign armies, desertion, and a girl willing to go to a new country alone). The other side of my family is made up of mutts. They came over on the Mayflower and married in with everyone else.

    When I was in high school, I had a lot of international, multi-ethnic friends which forced me to think more about culture and ethnicity. Now in grad school, I sit in a office where I am the only person who is an American citizen (surprisingly, all the others are French). How does this varied international experience affect my writing?

    I write fantasy, and it has forced me to think about the nations and cultures I write. I take the cultural tidbits I learn from everyone and create cultures that I hope seem real and authentic. I also have a tendency to write more races and varying cultures into my novels now, making the characters not all come from the same cultural backgrounds.

    Culture is a big part of who we are, even when our culture is the general American one.

    I'm also southern, which is another culture in itself. (Yes, that does make me a Polish GRITS, probably one of two in the world).

  9. Celsie Says:

    My work in progress only has 1 white MC. Well, two if you count the faerie-in-hiding. Well, when I started writing the story, the first main character was white. About halfway through the manuscript, I realized she wasn’t, and trying to make her one was causing me writer’s block. That MC has a strong connection with her Native American heritage, and a complicated relationship with her tribe. Her relationship with her mother is naturally even more complex.

    My only white girl deals with what upper-class white girls have to deal with. But her mother moves to France before the book opens. I think that addresses my love of travel more than trying to make her compete with the other characters. That and I needed the mother on another content. Anyways.

    Another of my characters stole the spotlight early on. She’s third generation Chinese, trying to find the balance between respecting her mother’s traditions while not (I mean this in the teen angst way) murdering her mother for not allowing her to date or study who or what she wants.

    I have two Vietnamese girls in foster care, an African American family, and a Hispanic mother and daughter in my cast. All have equally thought out backgrounds which motivate them as the events of the novel transpire.

    I normally don’t have such a varied cast in my novels, but there is usually a second or third generation Asian girl. Mainly because those were the girls who befriended me in public school. I don’t know enough about Russian culture to pay homage to those friends, but I feel a little more comfortable talking about cultures I’ve studied or heard about for the past 10 years.

    As my story’s set in a yoga dance studio, I wanted to reflect the way anyone can come into an exercise or dance class and find a sense of community. And because when you add culture and heritage into a story, you’re giving the characters something to talk about, fight about, or otherwise keep the story going when you need to fill in the blank spaces between Main Events.

    The faerie in hiding by the way looks like a 15 year old with red dreadlocks.

  10. Bethany Says:

    As a Black American (which translates to: put a bunch of cultures in the bag and shake), my work very often portrays Black Americans. As a Soc major, it speaks directly to their non-whiteness in those books that involve social commentary. Then it's just a small matter of trying to keep it out of bookstore ghettos, keeping the cover unwhite-washed and being considered accessible. That may all sound quite pessimistic to an author who doesn't have to worry about it but when it's real life, you deal with it.

  11. Mechelle Fogelsong Says:

    I write YA fiction.

    I have a great BETA reader, who I met at a writer's conference. It's strange, though. Every time I use a sentence like, "She did the Black-girl diva head-bob thing", my BETA reader wants to change it. Am I being derogatory to describe some action or appearance as being associated with a certain ethnic group? Do I sound racist? Or is my BETA reader overly sensitive, because I'm a white writer?

    I see that a couple of the previous comments were written by African American writers. Please give me your insight, especially. Thanks!

  12. Chantal Kirkland Says:

    When I read, I am drawn to characters that don't have a specific heritage or ethnicity spelled-out. I try to do this in my writing, too. I really feel like the reader can connect with the character more readily when they can imagine pieces of themselves (including ethnicity or heritage) in the character. But, I also write YA paranormal and fantasy–neither genre of which is particularly specific to the character's heritage (unless that's part of my world building) or ethnicity (which could also be part world building, but hey, whatever).

  13. Abby Stevens Says:

    I only make a choice about my characters' ethnicity if it is important. For instance, my MC's mother is Irish, as in, from Ireland. That's important obviously, and not necessary to spell out because you learn on the first page that Maggie's mom is Irish. Her mother's side of the family plays an important role in the novel, so I have a family tree going back two generations on that side.

    But Maggie's father is just a mutt white dude. He's from a family that would probably bolster the small amount of English blood in their veins because it makes them seem more WASPy, which to them equals upperclass, but her dad's heritage would never need to be mentioned in my book.

    My novel takes place mostly in Ireland, so culture, more than ethnicity, becomes my concern for most of the story. The sequel I am planning, however, takes place mostly in America, in a place with a lot of diversity, so ethnicity would become more important, though still just a side note to the overall story.

  14. Sue Harrison Says:

    My first novels are about the Aleut people and set in ancient Alaska. One of the books, Mother Earth Father Sky, was fortunate enough to go to auction, and it eventually landed with Doubleday. One of the pre-auction rejections came from an executive (of another company) who quipped, "Who wants to read about a bunch of Eskimos?" Some people just don't get it. He didn't. Poor guy.

  15. Liss Thomas Says:

    Interestingly I have a mixture of ethnic backgrounds in my writings. My YA fantasy revolves around a young Caucasian girl who is drawn into the fantasy world. There are characters there that have certain ethnic qualities, if not the physical appearance.

    As an African American writer, I tend to mix it up a lot and since I'm married to a Caucasian male, I also tend to mix the relationships.

    For Michelle – "Black-girl diva head-bob thing", I don't even know what that means, so maybe it's not just the beta reader. It sounds too forced. maybe it's a ghetto thing, or just a diva thing in general. Don't know. But I don't get offended to easily and it doesn't offend.

  16. Peter Dudley Says:

    I spent many, many weeks of vacation on Block Island as a lad. I probably logged 3,200 miles of bike riding. Climbed up and down the bluffs, counted jellyfish from the rail of the ferry, loved the raw honey and honeycomb we bought, and wanted to buy every kitschy souvenir in the Old Harbor souvenir shop. I think I may even still have a map of the island, one of those printed on the yellowed paper, supposed to look very old. Ah, memories. (This would all have been in the early and mid 70s.)

    As to ethnicity–only occasionally has it been something to consider in my stories. Now, however, I find myself writing something new for me, and race does play a role, though not in the traditional sense. The cultural background of all the characters does indeed play a critical role and is in large part at the heart of the story's theme.

  17. Catherine Says:

    Great topic, and yes I do think about their history/ethnicity/culture. Or rather, my characters 'tell' me who or what they are….

    I interview my characters – literally. I pretend I am sitting across from the character and ask all sorts of questions about their lives. During the interview, the question of cultural identity always comes up. I don't really think about it too much – I just go with what comes out during the interview. Example – my protag in my first novel is Irish Catholic. Now, he's also a vampire so that might seem funny or something most people wouldn't consider. But, for whatever reason – that's what popped into my head when I first interviewed him. As I wrote the novel, his background guided the way he responded to certain situations. Same with other characters – cultural identity became very important in terms of their names, dialog, reactions to events, etc.

    Another one of my vampires is British. Don't know why, but I think Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is too blame. I'm drawn to the English. 🙂

    My background is in Sociology, so perhaps that is one reason the cultural and ethnic aspect is so important to my characters.

    Again, great question!

    Cat

  18. Derrick Camardo Says:

    Wow. This hits home. I actually went with the generic mutt on purpose. I wanted my character to be "invisible" on the outside. In fact–and I don't know if this is bad of me–for the first time, I didn't give my MC a physical discription.

    However, I do have the supporting character having native Hawaiian roots. Quite a bit of research for a supporting character. I almost thought about switching it with my MC… almost.

  19. Camelia Says:

    Hello everyone and Happy belated St. Patrick! (My son's name is Patrick, though we are not Irish. I just love the name and its meaning)

    Glad Daphne brought up this topic because of my heritage and how it influences what I write. I moved to the US almost seven years ago and started writing about a year ago after perfecting my English. I was born and raised in Romania, lived all over Europe before moving to Arizona.

    I could choose to write about vampires (since I come from Dracula's land, right?) but I prefer contemporary romance with multicultural heroes.

    My first novel's heroes are Romanian and Italian and the plot happens in Romania. I found interesting trying to bring them together and describe that in English. It has been quite a journey for me to finish the novel and to know that I was able to put together over 70k to form a manuscript, it's a huge accomplishment. My second novel brings together an American officer and a Romanian doctor, both involved in the Iraqi war. My third one has as protagonist a Romanian immigrant in the US…. and so on…

    I guess for me it is important where my heroes come from, their heritage, upbringings, native language, etc. It makes them unique and describing their journeys in English ads a bit of "spice" to their nature.

    Thanks for reading my post and thanks once again to Daphne for the great topic. Happy weekend!

  20. Karen Says:

    This is a follow up for Mechelle: I don't think you're being racists by the "black girl diva head-bob thing" but I certainly think it could offend some people. I instantly knew what you meant by the phrase, but I think you can save yourself a lot of trouble as well as serve your story better by simply saying something like, "she rolled her neck with attitude" or even simply saying, "she did the diva head-bob thing." The world is so sensitive now, why risk offending part of your audience? In the end, it's your story and you have to feel satisfied with it. Hope that helps!

  21. Ish Says:

    I find that writing from a racial perspective can be a lot like writing a particular locality. I would tread very carefully in trying to explore a different culture than your own. For example, I am in the process of writing a work of historical fiction set in a Nazi work camp in Austria. In addition to all of the legwork I've been doing about the actual history and national culture, some of the greatest challenges have been in understanding the characters' mindsets. For example, I read "The Jewish Enemy" in order to get into the head of my SS-TV officer and have read everything from "This is my God" to "Kaddish" to "Voices: Remembering the Holocaust" to understand the personal voice and cultural experience of my Jewish character.

  22. Donna Gambale Says:

    I'm pretty late coming into this discussion, but I loved reading about everyone's inclusions of ethnicity. Personally, in my multiple POV YA novel, I have a main character who's half-Polish and half-Cuban — she looks traditionally Polish (blonde, blue-eyed) but identifies with her Cuban side. She begins dating someone who's black, but his race is a non-issue. Another MC has religious issues stemming from cultural heritage — she was raised Jewish like her mother, but her father's Roman Catholic with a strictly religious Italian family. My third MC looks like a generic mutt, but her heritage is partly unknown because she's a donor baby.

  23. Mechelle Fogelsong Says:

    Thanks Liss and Karen for your feedback.