22 July 2011

Racist Characters in Fiction

Everywhere I visit on the internet, looking for interested readers of fiction, I find more and more would be writers asking this odd question, "Is my main character a racist?"


Or, "Is my secondary main character being sexist in this scene?"

Again, what?!

In fiction, you're not going to write a believable story if you (the author) tip-toe around social problems, trying to keep your characters politically correct. Besides, no character should be without flaws. The world…bad, hero…good. That's just boring.

My heroes are more anti-heroic. Give me someone flawed and give me that opportunity to make their character arc believable. Let me redeem that character in some way, show the reader that this flaw can give more depth to the story and develop my character more than any 6 foot 2 Adonis with the moral code of a Saint.

I don't want to read about perfect characters who love people regardless of color or creed. I want that atheist, gun toting, racist bastard of a character of mine to go on a journey and discover things about him that end up changing his life for the better.

I don't want the God loving, Kumbaya singing, save the world from its own demise characters making me draft a story around them and their perfect little selves. Does this make sense? Why am I finding so many writers mulling over this? Are these things paralyzing today's young writers? I hope to hell it isn't.

We build characters that kill and maim. We build characters that cheat on their spouses, rape their neighbors, commit blasphemy, but oh wait...my character is a racist. Really? Oh my goodness, she made that white soldier character call that Vietnamese girl character a gook. May as well put down that pen now and end your writing career before it even got started.

Do you think this is a normal reaction from readers of fiction? If so, you shouldn't be writing fiction, because your work is probably not going to feed the family, you know? I'm not saying all your characters must be flawed, racist, bigoted assholes. But entertainment is entertainment and you should stop worrying about possibly offending someone.

Truth hurts, yes, but it has to be present in fiction or you'll never make your stories believable.

And, everyone lived happily ever after, right? We all know that's not true.

What are your thoughts? Do you hold back on your character flaws when it comes to racism or sexism? Why or why not?


  1. It is normal for a racist to SCREAM RACIST.

  2. I have to admit, I don't normally write racist characters. I'm generally pretty good at making well-rounded characters, but I just can't get into a racist person's head. It's like trying to read Greek.

    However, your point is very much taken -- it can be boiled down to "If your characters are all good, they're boring". Just as my early antagonists were pure villains, my early protagonists were brave, smart, emotionally stable, and always nice to everyone except the antagonist.

    In my first novel to finally get published, "Storm Chaser", my male protagonist starts out by arresting my heroine -- on a charge that proves to be false, a mistake he makes largely because of his assumption that all photographers and anyone from California must automatically be bad. Chance is a good guy at heart -- but if he wasn't flawed, the story never would have gotten off the ground to begin with.

  3. Thank you, Mark. I appreciate responses like this one, because you have published material and you know what works. Conflict is a must in fiction, obviously. Link me where I can purchase a copy of "Storm Chaser" please! :)

  4. Hey Diane,
    Long time no talk. I finally come up for air to find that you've got some interesting dilemmas going on here. Maybe it's because I'm a fruit cocktail (yep, new imagery) already, the concept of making any character a racist would be self defeating, because all of my characters would have to beat themselves up. I'd rather have someone else do the job for them.

    Frankly, I've yet to write a socially correct character, and probably wouldn't know how. I'm torn apart by life, so naturally my stories and their participants are broken as well. My last attempt at a mushy love story involved sword fighting in a war. My characters aren't racist because they're usually worse. Kind of solves that dilemma for me.

    It's amazing what you miss when you forget to check in with writer's forums. Maybe that's not a bad thing? Words are calling, so back to my writing. Great topic as usual! Good to talk with you again. :)

  5. Thank you for the thoughts, Carolyn! Sword fighting in a war, indeed. :)

    My thoughts exactly, if my characters are doing all sorts of evil things, being racist is the last of anyone's worries, at least should be.

  6. Hey Diane,

    I came here after reading your comment on my blog. I understand your frustration and am in total agreement with it. Now, I can't blame those poor writers who chose to burden themselves with being politically correct.

    The truth is, we live in a society in which many people abuse the race card, or the sex card, or the religion car --no matter which one it is, any group that is often discriminated against has those extremists who see wrongdoing in every shadow. That in turn scares people who don't want to be labelled racists, or sexists, or intolerant. And they go too far in the opposite direction--they censure themselves. It is sad, but unfortunately unavoidable.

    Anyway, I don't want to write a novel in your comments section, so let me stop here, and congratulate you on this nice blog.

    1. Thank you! I'm sorry that I'm just getting to this, but I never received an email notification that a comment was made on this blog entry.

      I understand what you're saying here. We shy away from what the media has produced, this sort of bubble where we all live and if you so much as implicate something, even in fiction, OH NO, THE WORLD IS GOING TO END. You know what, it's already ending, a slow painful death, suffocating those who wish to live fuller, happier lives.

      Feel the fear and do it anyway (it's a book I'm reading). :)

      Take care and stop by as much as you like.

  7. I personally ignore critiques that are so devoid of content, that racism is just about all they say about it. You would have better luck working with an actual professional editor, and this kind of comments usually come from beta readers.

  8. I wouldnt exactly burden myself with being politically correct, if non writer trolls did not leave one or five line comments about my characters being politically incorrect.

    And whats crazy is, I was writing about a feral child, not even a black child, but a boy who was raised by wolves. people can twist just about anything as being racist.

    1. When you're looking for something, you'll eventually find it, even when it's not there. Likewise, if you rightly find a character is racist or sexist, kudos to the author for developing a character so vividly real, because though we want to believe racism and sexism do not exist, they are still very much out there in our society.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.


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