Does it matter if your novel is “Multicultural”?

I’ve been writing a bit about race and racism lately, but one thing I haven’t mentioned is how this could influence a novel. And, since my blog is primarily about writing, I figured it’s something worth discussing.

Many people feel that they need a racially diverse cast of characters to reach the modern reading audience. The inclusion of blacks, Hispanics, and gay characters is becoming the “politically-correct” thing to do, especially if one writes for the young adult market.

But, as I’ve discussed before, it can be difficult to “write what you know” and still be multicultural in your character demographics. What do I truly know, for instance, about being a black man, or black woman? What do I know about being biracial, Hispanic, Asian or anything else? How can I try to “be their voice” when they aren’t me, and I’m not them?

And reading books where my own race isn’t represented has never bothered me. I’ve read novels where most of the cast was French, or Spanish, or Asian, or Black, and I related to them in other ways, beyond our skin colors. I could share in their hopes and fears, and the fact that they didn’t look like me didn’t bother me.

College-Student-Discounts by JosephPatrick

But I was recently thinking about my fantasy series (still in the revision stage), and I realized that I don’t have a problem writing about a culturally diverse cast. I have characters with the fantasy equivalent of French, Indian, Native and English heritages, and I never felt I had to research “what it was like to be them.” I have characters with magical backgrounds, which are unresearchable in the real world, and yet they’re equally un-problematic.

So why is it that including a black main character makes me apprehensive?

I think it’s because I’ve read so many comments about how novelists are criticized for their black characters when they, themselves, are white. Readers seem to get upset if the black character is killed, or suffers, or doesn’t find love, and it’s made me concerned. How can I write a black character if he or she isn’t as free as all the other characters to suffer and die and win and lose? How can I create a believable story if he or she is locked in a box and can’t do certain things because there would be reader-backlash?

Even now, as I’m embarking on writing my first main character with a black heritage, I can feel the complications. The “I need to write carefully” threatening to swallow up creativity. I’m in dialogue with those who live with a similar heritage, just to make sure I’m accurately representing the details of who she is and how she’d live, what she’d face and how she’d feel, and I wonder if this added “burden” is why authors just avoid writing “what they don’t know.”

I know that there are those who complain that there aren’t enough multiracial main characters in fiction novels, but maybe the very reason we authors don’t write them is because we’re afraid of getting them wrong. We’d rather not write such characters at all than risk upsetting the very group we’re trying to include.

What do you think? Is it important to be multiracial or multicultural? How do you handle the “politically correct” expectations and still write a novel where every character gets to make choices, for good or bad?

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by JosephPatrick, Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Does it matter if your novel is “Multicultural”?

  1. For me, the question isn’t one of being someone else’s voice. There are plenty of brilliant, qualified minorities who are willing and able to use their own voices.
    What I want to do is present a vision of the world and my community in which minorities are welcome, respected, and valued. Particularly, if I’m writing for children (which I actually do, occasionally), the goal is more of an overall invitation–that there is a place for each child among the reader-ly, and in the community.

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    1. That’s a good point. Though, I meant more of being “their voice” in a story and representing what the minorities in your fictional world think and feel. I would never presume to speak for the real world minorities, for, as you pointed out, they have capable and qualified persons and need no “outside” representation.

      Do you feel that children do judge whether they’re welcome based on whether people who look like them are present? I don’t recall ever thinking that way, but, having been homeschooled, it is possible I was so used to reading stories about characters who weren’t like me (and went to school) that I stopped thinking that way.

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      1. How do children judge whether they’re welcome?
        I think that’s a complicated question. I’m not sure they immediately latch onto the same things that we would see as adults, but judging by the number of “princesses” running around, I’d say there’s definitely a visual component.
        I’d almost say it’s more… children see the world, and then they make guesses about what they need to fit in, whether it’s a particular accessory (Jelly shoes!) or behavior (grownups like quiet children) or an element of the way they look.

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  2. I actually had a post about the right and wrong ways to handle diversity in writing recently. Some of the points I discussed were:

    It’s pretty insulting if a character’s sole or primary identity is as “the [whatever] friend,” or is only shoehorned in there to try to have diversity.

    Unless it’s a historical in a certain setting or the main plot is about a culture clash, a story focused on prejudice seems cliché and depressing.

    When in doubt, ask someone who’s a member of that group for advice and help.

    Don’t just add someone of another race, religion, etc., to the cast because you think it’d be cool to have someone “exotic.” I was 100% guilty of that myself when I was younger, and now it just makes me cringe!

    Not all diverse characters need to be sweet and sympathetic for fear of offending someone. If someone’s a jerk, it’s because s/he’s a jerk, not because s/he’s a certain race, religion, or ethnic group.

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  3. I struggle a bit with this too. I have a book written from the perspective of a gay man. I’m a woman and straight. I often wonder if I have the authority to write from the perspective of a gay character – male or female. I’ve written purely from a male perspective and never questioned that. So, I’m still writing it because he’s my favourite character. Regardless of his gender or sexual orientation.

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