Do you feel obligated to write black characters? This may strike some readers as an odd question, but as black writers you feel a certain amount of social pressure as you approach your art. I know a few black writers who go out of their way to never write or describe black characters either because “race doesn’t matter” in their stories or due to marketing/connecting with their audience concerns. It’s a topic that I know many of us have wrestled with.

Lawanna: No, but I do. Familiarity, you know? We have so many different types of stories to be told. I have ones that have been set in 1800s Senegambia and 1600s Illinois, for instance. So many stories are just waiting to be discovered. Black folks didn’t just pop up on the scene in the 20th century.

Brandon: I do feel a certain amount of responsibility to write about my culture and history. If I’m not going to do it, who is? And it’s not a burden at all–it’s a chance to open people’s eyes, show them that black people have the same needs, desires, joys, and fears as anyone else. And it’s a chance for black readers to see their own lives reflected in fiction, in all their wonder and glory–something that has largely been denied us since we’ve been in America. (Look at any popular novel published before 1950 and see how often black folk are featured as three-dimensional characters . . . go ahead, you’ll be looking for a LONG time.) However, I DON’T consider myself a spokesperson for all black people, the mouthpiece of black America or any of that nonsense. I’m writing as an individual, with my own biases, likes, loves, dislikes, and opinions.

Wrath: Nope. I write what I feel. Always. I would never force a character to be Black just because I am. When I wrote Succulent Prey I made the character white because statistically it was more likely that the personality I was describing would be white than black. Most serial killers are middle or working-class white men in their late twenties to early forties. The only reason to make him Black would have been out of some misguided sense of social responsibility which would have just felt artificial and dishonest to me.

Michelle: No. Although in my mind’s eye most of my characters are black or multiracial, a lot of times I will write characters with minimal description. If a reader is going to project his/her own experience onto my story, he/she can view the character however he/she wants. When I do describe a black character more specifically, it’s because it’s important to the theme or setting of the story.

So when crafting your black characters, do you worry about stereotypes? How much does this weigh on your mind when you sit down to write dialogue using Black English Dialect (Ebonics)?

Michelle: I do worry about stereotypes. I don’t use Ebonics or whatever the modern equivalent to “jive” might be, because that’s not my experience and it rings false to me. This might also be why we don’t get a lot of horror stories set in a black, urban environment. Writers who don’t have that experience (and I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt) don’t want to go there because they don’t want to slip into stereotypes. Writers who do have that experience perhaps aren’t writing horror, or are struggling to market that experience to a broader audience. I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, which is also why I haven’t (yet) tried to write a character from another culture. But I’ve learned there’s always somebody out there with something ignorant to say (“that character’s black? really? she doesn’t *sound* black..”), so for me it just comes down to writing what seems right at the time. And I will do “research,” which means whenever I’m out (or sometimes I go out specifically for this) I listen to the group I need to feel comfortable writing about. It’s a limited method, but eventually I’ll base my forays into writing about other cultures on this, and not what I see on TV or in movies.

Wrath: I write Black characters the same way I write white characters. I reference people I know or have met with similar backgrounds and I try to put myself in their shoes and react as I would if I were them. If I’m writing about someone who displays many stereotypical behaviors I’ll put those behaviors in there but even stereotypes have to have depth. They still have to be multi-dimensional.

I have always had a problem with the over-use of dialect. I hate to read it so I don’t typically write it. There are many slang words that have become part of the American English lexicon and so I feel free to use those words but I’d never sit in front of the TV watching Rap City trying to find cool new slang words to put in my writing in order to keep it real. I don’t think it ever needs to go that far.

L.R.: I do worry about this, because, if I’m writing a stereotype that’s related to race, I’m being lazy and ignorant. That’s not to say I won’t use a stereotype in a story, but, if I am, I like to think it’s for a purpose that serves that particular story and it’s not just a shortcut to get through a difficult piece.

L.A.: I write dialogue (never narrative) and internal POV the way people really speak. Some of my characters speak in Ebonics, some speak in trailer park slang, southern drawls, wherever they are from. If you try to make them not sound true to where you’ve set them, then that’s a disservice to the reality of the character. My old grandmother never used “Ebonics,” but she would say “honeychile” and “suga” in a minute. Those things are like spices and add flavor. Otherwise the writing is stilted.

Brandon: I approach it with as much honesty as I can muster. Some black people are good, some are evil, most are a blending of grays. I aim to show all of that in my work. I use some of [B.E.D.], when the characters warrant it, but I tend to stay away from too much of it, because it can be hard to write dialect that will be easily understood by a wide body of readers. I strive for clarity of meaning at all times.

L.R.: This should only be done on a character by character basis, and conservatively then. I had a professor tell me one time that, when it comes to writing, one hair on an ice cream is enough. I had to think about it to get it, but, what it basically comes down to is, you can use a bit of dialect to establish how a character speaks and, if you’re skillful, you don’t have to beat the reader over the head with it to the point where they have to decode it.

Linda: I see the world as a mix of international characters, not just black or white. I’m such a mix of genetics: African, American-Indian, Caucasian and yet I’m no more or less human than the next person. I like to mix up the characters I write; if I
just wrote a main character that is female I’ll try to write a male character. I don’t worry about stereotypes, I try to write believable characters. Male or female, no matter what nationality. I have the same feeling about using Ebonics; I use dialogue that works for the characters.

I ride the NY subway to work every day from the Bronx to Manhattan and hear how teenagers talk. I’m fascinated by the rhythm of their speech, their interaction with each other and subtly others around them. There’s a wonderful rush of young energy that says LOOK AT ME. I can see others repelled by the energy, some are amused.

Do you have similar concerns when it comes to how you approach writing characters of other cultures?

Linda: It’s been said we should write what we know; I like to also write what I don’t know. I find it stretches my imagination. My husband and I have a huge library of books about other cultures (mostly his books). One of my favorite poems I wrote was inspired by a chapter on Mami Wata, an African goddesses. I love reading about other cultures. My story in Dark Matter is about the rainforest tribe, Yanomami, which I’ve tried to obtain every book in English on them since I’m writing a science-fiction novel inspired by their culture. I used a book on Navaho language for my vampire story in Dark Thirst and did a lot of reading about voodoo and magic for my stories in Dark Dreams I and II. Now with the net it’s even easier to read about other cultures.

Lawanna: Other cultures are just people too. Human nature isn’t different, just our appearances. You write them like you’d write anyone else. Do your research and get your voice right.

Wrath: I model them after people I know who are from that culture. If I am completely unfamiliar with that particular culture I just don’t go there. I know a lot of Thais. I have spent time in Thailand, so I would feel comfortable writing about someone from Thailand. I’d feel comfortable writing about Mexicans, Fillipinos, and White folks. I would have a hard time writing about a Nigerian or a Pakistani because my experience with people from those cultures has been so limited. You can’t just pick up a documentary or read a book and think you are going to accurately portray someone from that culture. What you will most likely wind up with is a stereotype or someone who acts more like some culture you do understand and bares little resemblance to the culture you are trying to portray. So why bother?

[to be continued …]

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The Black Horror Writers Round-Table Discussion Guide:

Black Horror Writers I – A Little Help from My Friends
Black Horror Writers II – Defining Ourselves
Black Horror Writers III – The Black Market?
Black Horror Writers IV – What We Do
Black Horror Writers V – Black Characters
Black Horror Writers VI – The “N” Word and Other Obstacles

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