On writing: race and the universal

I write about outsiders, mainly — characters who, in one way or another, are cut off from humanity at large, often in ways that aren’t obvious.

Take Danny, for instance, in my supernatural story Always Mine. He’s 15, plays for his high school lacrosse team, and he fits in well enough at school. He’s a good looking white suburban kid. Nothing wrong with his life, right? No, except that his mother is physically abusive and depressive, and his father is deployed to Iraq during the height of the conflict. He is alienated in ways that are hidden, even to himself. That makes it easy for him to fall for Tina, the new girl next door, who uses her Ouija board for not-so-good purposes.

As with Danny, many of my protagonists have been white (and male), in part because that has been my experience, so it’s easy to climb into that skin. But I enjoy writing heroes who are neither of those. Take Randy Velazquez. He’s the star of my book The Last Conquistador. His Hispanic heritage is vital to the story, but for him, it’s just a mundane fact of his life. He doesn’t strongly identify with it, and he doesn’t have the time for it to be an issue, between trying to track down his pregnant runaway girlfriend and dodging a creepy demon.

And a story I’m working on now centers around a 14-year-old Chinese-American girl, Mina. Her ethnic background is secondary to the story. So how do I, as a white guy, approach writing Hispanic or Native American or Asian or African-American characters? Simple, actually. I write them as human beings. My philosophy in writing any character is to get to their common human essence first, and then go from there.

But there seems to be a lot of reluctance to do this, especially in the world of movies and television. Too often nonwhite actors play roles that can only be played by nonwhite actors. It’s rare that you get a Will Smith in I Am Legend. That’s a shame for all of us, because it limits all of our imaginations.

A fellow Jersey City writer, Madhuri Blaylock, wrote a great novel titled The Sanctum: Book One: The Girl. It’s a paranormal thriller that follows Dev, a half angel/half demon teenage girl who is kick-ass. Dev, in a matter-of-factly way, is African American. Blaylock scored a hit with Dev because she wrote her from a place of universal experience. There is no preaching or educating, just entertaining. In a lot of ways, Dev reminded me of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games in that she was 100% relatable. You do not have to be female, black or a teenager to follow Dev as she fights the forces of the Sanctum. Plus, her love interest Wyatt is white; it’s about time we’re moving past the point of interracial relationships being any kind of issue. I highly recommend checking out this thrilling book.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there’s a place–even a need–for stories unique to gender, culture, age, race, sexuality and religion. But there’s also a need for people who are any or all of the above to be universally relatable. None of those qualities should matter all that much in our day-to-day lives. As writers we can make it so, at least in our fictional worlds.

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