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Writing the Ethnic Romance

©1996 by Robyn Amos
This article may not be reprinted or distributed without the author's permission.


As a writer of African-American romance, I learned very quickly that there are many pitfalls that must be avoided when approaching the ethnic romance. In the middle of writing my first book, I was once asked, "What makes these characters ethnic? I don't really see that they're any different from other characters." I had to smile at this, because, essentially, your ethnic characters are not going to be very different from other characters. Their appearances, speech patterns, personalities, and cultural backgrounds will be influenced by their ethnicity, but hopefully they will not be defined by it. In this particular situation, I responded with the answer that my characters could only reflect my knowledge of what it is to be African-American. It's easier to write about a particular ethnic group if you have personal knowledge of that group, but keep in mind that these characters are still individuals. Your ethnic characters are not expected to speak for or represent all members of that group. When planning your ethnic heroes and heroines, think of their ethnicity as one of the facets in a diamond. Just as that facet needs a myriad of other facets to sparkle, your character's ethnicity must work with a variety of other characteristics to form a believable, 3-dimensional character.

In the creation of ethnic characters, it's easy to fall into stereotypes--all the characteristics many people assume belong to a particular ethnic group. And now, in a time of being "Politically Correct" it's also very easy to fall into the opposite trap--creating characters that behave exactly the opposite of all the common stereotypes for an ethnic group. Unfortunately, this technique will make your characters appear just as one-dimensional as they would have if you'd used stereotypes. Creating real characters that your readers will relate to, no matter what they're ethnic background, is a balancing act. You need to incorporate enough of the elements that will allow your readers to identify the ethnic group, without stripping them of their individuality. With this balancing act in mind, I will explore four basic elements of characterization--appearance, speech pattern, personality, and cultural background.


The description of your character's appearance is generally your reader's first clue that they are reading an ethnic romance, but it takes more than just naming skin tones and hair textures to make the characters believable. The first step is to visualize your characters. You want to give your readers a clear physical description. Decide on the general appearance--is he the well-dressed corporate-type? Is she the conservative intellectual type? How does he or she dress? Many Asians, Indians or Africans in America don't wear their tradition native dress on a daily basis, but if your characters do, make sure you give them the proper motivation. Once you have a mental picture you can describe him or her to your audience.

Introducing character description can be done in several ways. Many feel it's best for your reader to see your main character for the first time through someone else's eyes. Most people don't think of themselves as having full burgundy lips the color of dark cherries or sexy eyes that glow like burning coals. But other characters might think these things quite naturally. It's also common to sprinkle in a few characteristics at a time rather than dropping the entire description in at once.

Now the big question, how do you describe complexion? Often non-ethnic books have used terms like milky white, alabaster, peaches and cream, or porcelain. Common terms for African-Americans are honey, cafe au lait, and caramel. These are not the only options available to you because skin comes in a variety of shades ranging from, pale champagne to dark mahogany. Try not to use the same colors to describe everyone; skin tones vary within races. For new ideas, I've found it helpful to look in cosmetic catalogues under foundation colors because the skin tones are already named. Hair textures can be curly, frizzy, wavy, or so straight it barely holds a curl. Tell your readers about facial features and body structure.

Now that you've taken care of the basics, you're not done yet. As I mentioned earlier, there's more to making a believable ethnic character than just an accurate physical description. You need to give your character's an idea of what it is like to be the person wearing this skin. Have your heroine get a run in her stockings right before a board meeting and struggle to find the right shade in a small convenience store—flesh tone isn't likely to work. What accessories does your heroine use when she styles her hair in the morning? Does she have low maintenance bone-straight hair, or does she conduct and orchestra of curling irons, blow dryers, and hair sprays? Whatever examples you choose, make sure your readers feel like they are walking in your characters shoes, not just watching from a far.

Speech Patterns

Real people have a distinct manner of speaking, and your characters will be more believable if they do as well.

Be careful not to overuse slang—it can be outdated or cryptic--dialect, which can be distracting, or accents for the same reason. Each character should have a different voice. And remember that even if your character is conservative, everyone uses a different tone when speaking to friends or family they would typically use at the office. Paying attention to these kinds of details will make your character's dialogue ring true.


Your character's distinct traits should be consistent throughout your novel. Personality is shown through a character's

  • likes and dislikes, such as movies, foods, and colors,
  • background, which includes upbringing, siblings, parents, friendships, and where they were raised,
  • relationships with friends, family and acquaintances and romantic history and experiences,
  • occupations, hobbies, bad habits, and temperament,
  • desires, motivations, ambitions, dreams and their ability to make them happen as well as hardships and their ability to overcome them.

Exploring each of these elements through your character's point of view will enrich your novel and make your ethnic characters three-dimensional.

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