©1996 by Robyn Amos
This article may not be reprinted or distributed without the
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.
Real people have a distinct manner of speaking,
and your characters will be more believable if they do as
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,
- 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.