Common Mistakes Made when Writing about Diverse Characters
Updated: Jul 22
I've been asked what are some common mistakes writers make when writing about diverse characters. I've mentioned some before, but I wanted to address these three.
1. Lack of description. Simply addressing a character by their ethnicity is not enough. Black, Asian, Latino, Mexican, or other ethnic titles are weak ways to introduce characters of color.
FYI, I learned that the term Hispanics is commonly used in the eastern parts of the United States, whereas the term Latinos is used in the western portion. (I would love to hear someone's thoughts on this.)
The bottom line is show don’t tell. Include identifying cultural traits which could include hair textures, foods, clothing styles to name a few.
2. Do not use food to describe skin tones. Here are some ways to identify skin tones without using food descriptions:
Light, sometimes pale skin, at times with freckles and can burn in the sun
Golden, golden brown, light golden, medium golden, dark golden
"Her sun-kissed skin deepened her brown complexion to give an exotic look." (How's that for a phrase?)
Medium-dark, red undertones
Dark brown (colors pop on this skin tone, so bring in bright colors to help with the description)
Deep shades of brown, deepest brown
3. Use of Dialect. DON'T. Dis, dat, dem are very offensive. Allow phrasing of words to identify the individual, not dialect or the dropping of "g" at the end of a word. On the flip side, be careful not to be too formal. Make sure the dialogue matches your characters.
Here are two ways to describe an African American mom sitting at the dinner table with her sons.
"Mother, why must I eat my green beans when my older brother Charles does not?"
"Robert, please eat your green been as I have instructed you to."
"Charles said he will not eat his," Robert said.
Mother looked at Charles. "Yes, he will."
Charles took a bite of his green beans.
I may have over emphasized, but this is way too formal and does not match the characters.
"Mama, how come I have to eat my beans. Charles’ ain’t."
"Ain’t isn’t a word," Mama said.
Mama looked across the table. Her dark brown eyes connected with the lighter ones of her eldest son. "Ain’t is not a word," she said.
Charles lowered his head. Color flushed his cheeks causing his freckles to be more pronounced. "Yes, Ma’am." He took a bite of his green beans.
Let me ask, how do you describe your ethnic characters?