An Appropriate Conscience: Writing Black Characters

I think about things. I’m an older white author from Yorkshire. But the stories which come to me aren’t often set in Yorkshire, though it does happen. They begin as stories of strangers in strange places. Those strangers start to become fleshed-out characters – and then, occasionally, they turn out to be black characters.

I tend to write through vision. Nothing mystical – I mean that I ‘see’ a story inside my head – usually a character, sometimes a snapshot scene, or a place where something is going to happen. And that shows me who is the natural narrator or protagonist. If I go against that, by levering in a different main character, the story usually goes horribly wrong and has to be scrapped.

Last year, I was in a bad mood with certain pieces of early 20th Century weird and historical fiction I’d been reading. A few good, or even great plots, but the most appalling caricatures of non-white people. Specific stories of Edgar Wallace and H P Lovecraft spring to mind, though there are many tales by those two which I admire.

In response I wrote a story, wisely or not, about a group of black African villagers facing a sort of Lovecraftian horror in the 1920s. Why wouldn’t they react as any human beings, using their smarts, their best resources, their local knowledge and such equipment as they had to meet such a threat? What made an intelligent African villager less able to face mind-numbing horror than anyone else? Nothing, it seemed to me.

There’s no such thing as a generic African villager, obviously. So I drew on an area I’d read more about than others, the colonial Igbo territories in Eastern Nigeria. I tried to reflect reality as best I could within what was essentially a weird horror story – a fantasy, mixing real and invented geography. I’m sure I got some of it wrong, but that one was an attempt to ‘balance the scales’.

writing black characters: zora neale hurston
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: zora neale hurston

I’ve written other black characters, mostly set in the 1920s and 1930s with specific backgrounds (hence the photos used here). I didn’t do it because they were ‘exotic’. I wasn’t trying to shoe-horn black characters into stories to gain credit or look cool. As I say, I’m an ageing Yorkshireman – too late for that.

The ideas came to me, in the same way that a Victorian mill tragedy with supernatural overtones (and an entirely white cast) might come to me the next day. Some I squash as too far beyond my knowledge, too inappropriate. Others I try. And I’ve really pondered about it.

I am not entirely dim. I think there are genuine issues when you do this sort of thing. I’ve also heard the counter-argument that all writing is made-up stuff, and you should just write whatever you want, with whoever you want in it. People can challenge me about my views – I’m an open, interested participant, not an immovable object.

In so many stories the default position is to use white characters, even white middle-class characters. It’s the safe option, and an unchallenging, non-inclusive one that gives little thought to a wider world. I find it boring after a while, unless there’s an obvious reason due to setting (and there can be). Is it true that  white middle class writers should only delve into their own kind?

A black woman in a roadhouse in 1927 is as human and complex as a white guy in a townhouse in 2017. If I’m any sort of writer, I should be able to learn and empathise with both. They should both be potential protagonists or antagonists.

langston hughes
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: langston hughes

So I don’t believe that it’s inherently wrong to write about characters and cultures outside of your direct experience. It isn’t inherently wrong for white people to write black characters (or Han Chinese, or Inuit ones). But it is more demanding, and it should be. Its purpose has to be exploratory, not exploitative, because there certainly is such a thing as cultural mangling.

I see cultural mangling as grabbing trinkets from other cultures and putting them on white characters – or equally bad, on cardboard black characters – because it looks good, without any thought. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that the more marginalised, oppressed or disenfranchised the culture/group, the more it’s better for the words to come from its own members, in one way or another.

It is wrong to do this sort of thing without holding yourself responsible for what you produce. Whenever you write about someone you don’t know, someone who has experiences different from our own, you risk creating a stereotype. You risk taking a facile look at a person, a culture or a situation which you don’t fully understand. If you really mess it up, then it becomes either offensive or ludicrous. On the other hand, to not try at all…

black writers and thinkers between the wars: alan leroy locke
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: alain leroy locke (wikipedia, fair use)

It goes much further than skin colour, of course. Black African isn’t the same as Black American, Black Caribbean or Black British, though they may share root concerns and histories. A female IT manager in Britain may not have had the same experiences as a male teacher in Detroit, or a cop in Lagos.

I once made the mistake of chatting about religion to the amiable (black) father of one of my kid’s friends. Turned out he was a conservative, rampant Islamophobe, amongst other things. Skin colour/racial identity was the least of the barriers between us. The refugee Iraqi greengrocer up the road didn’t know the viewpoint of a Shia militiaman in Basra, or a Kurdish woman in Northern Iraq. And my local Indian off-license guy said he didn’t understand people from Pakistan, had no empathy with them.

There was plenty to learn from them, but each was a human being, not a ‘representative’ for others in different circumstances.

Even limited knowledge can’t protect you from misunderstanding and misrepresentation. But if you write outside your own life, you can employ empathy, imagination – and research – to try and bridge some of the gap. When I write black characters, I try to consider historical or cultural aspects which might have impacted on them, as well as the human strengths and weaknesses we might share. Things which I’ve never directly encountered, and which shouldn’t be just made up. I’d do the same if I suddenly ‘saw’ an Inuit story in my head.

countee cullen
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: countee cullen

It’s a matter of respect. Respect for the culture, group, or person you’re writing about, and for the reader. Which leads to another aspect of my argument. It’s incredibly important that black creators produce black characters. I’m not just talking politically here – I have two personal reasons for saying it.

Firstly, I have a family with younger members in it. Were they black, I would want them to grow up seeing black people amongst their role models. I would want them to read books and watch films which had exciting or moving black characters with whom they could identify.

Ideally, I would want them to have role models of all colours and genders/identities, but I would want them to have this chance, especially when young. Which means there has to be good, easily available SF, fantasy and weird fiction, with black writers’ faces on the back cover – and black characters on the front cover. And hey, those kids might want to write themselves one day.

Secondly, I write (mostly) in the field of strange fiction. I want to read unusual stories, different stories, and the best way to do that is to be able to see tales from many, many different creators. There will be takes on the weird which need a black writer to explore properly, bringing a different perspective and history than mine. And as suggested above, there will be stories I’ve thought up that might only work if written by a black writer. As a writer and as a reader I want that diversity.

I take this aspect of my own work seriously, and so I want to be better informed. The very process of including black characters has taken me to places I’ve never been. It’s exposed me to aspects of black history and experiences which I might not have encountered otherwise. It’s a growth thing.

My opinion isn’t that valuable. It’s here because I have the space to express it, and because it does have a bearing on my fiction. You can learn more than I can ever capture through actually reading or buying weird and speculative fiction by black authors. Through finding out about the reality of black history. And by giving support to people who are helping further things like black SF, fantasy and steamfunk in an exciting way.

I believe that we can move beyond our own lives and potentially write characters of many different creeds, colours and cultures – if we’re willing to learn. Even to learn when we probably shouldn’t do it. And admit that sometimes we’ll get it wrong. We can try, with good heart and with effort, to write out the characters who come to us.


END-NOTE: I’ve read a lot of articles related to the above – on cultural celebration, cultural appropriation and the kitchen sink. It’s possible to have your head explode trying to navigate it all. ‘Writing the Other’ by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward is useful to get your mind working if you’re a writer.

Balogun Ojetade’s blog is always a great source of news on black creators, https://chroniclesofharriet.com, and Milton Davis, also in the States, does a lot of energetic creatorism.  We try to regularly feature cool work by non-white creators here. Because it’s fun, not because we preach…


P.S. greydogtales is on holiday until the weekend, so we look forward to seeing you in a few days.

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10 thoughts on “An Appropriate Conscience: Writing Black Characters”

  1. Nice article, thanks. I have always tried to thin k of my characters as people first and then develop their personal characteristics and quirks from that premise.

  2. Well, reading about other cultures and races will only give you a limited insight. Race and cultural issues are infinitely complex, so an authors best tools are observation and interaction whenever possible, I’d argue.

    But as someone who’s had the opportunity to travel a fair bit around the world and meet all sorts of people, I’m often struck by the commonality we all have and the ability – in certain cases – to cut through cultural and racial barriers in a split second with like-minded individuals. Good article!

  3. From a middle aged, white, female academic in the US, who comes to your blog as a companion of retired racing greyhounds and a lurcher, and who studies the representation of race and unequal power relations through architecture & landscapes, very well put.

    1. I appreciate that, thanks. It’s been on my mind for some time, and I wanted to get it out there. Fiction isn’t just a one way thing where you bear no responsibility for what you write. Now I can go and be Lurcher-man for a few days. 🙂

  4. I do think that one is well-advised to have at least one beta reader who belongs to that minority or ethnic group — just to keep the story character honest and fairly represented. But I also think it is a good thing and an interesting sign of the times if white writers are discovering wonderful characters of color emerging from their writing uncontrived– like at long last we are SEEING the whole wonderful smorgasbord of the world, our families, our friends, and our potential audience.

  5. It’s tricky. There were complaints recently about the decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the guru who trains Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Dr. Strange’ – in the original version the character was Asian. The director grumbled that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Using an Asian actor would have left him wide open to charges of stereotyping a la the oriental mystic; using Tilda Swinton made him guilty of white-washing. And you’ve probably heard all about Lionel Shriver on the same subject (and the subsequent reaction).

    I always reckoned ‘American Gods’ walked a very fine line in this regard. The mc is big and scary and called ‘Shadow’ – but in the book, Gaiman never specifies his ethnicity. If he’d said outright the character was black, then he’d leave himself wide open to propagating a stereotype. On the other hand, if readers were to *assume* the mc was black….well, that wouldn’t be Gaiman’s problem, would it?

  6. My protagonist is Creole from the Treme and In my first draft, I attempted to capture the beauty of the accents from NOLA. When all the (white) members of my crit group told me how great it was, it confirmed my fears that I had, in fact, wrote some “Amos and Andy,” s…tuff. I sat in my car and hand-wrote revisions before I even left the crit group. Thanks for sharing this.

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