Writing the Other – be wary but do not fear

Yesterday, I rage tweeted. Yet another author I liked wrote Asian characters in such a way as to make me want to spork myself.

Today, someone mentioned feeling twitchy about writing POC characters and I decided to get out my soap box.

First, the reason behind the rage tweeting:

It wasn’t anything particularly egregious.

It was just …literally …evil Chinese dragon shifter lady who tries to invade hero’s territory and killed indiscriminately and her kinsman who didn’t understand the concept of “asking” permission to settle somewhere before burning everything to the ground. Asking, was apparently something completely foreign to these dragon shifters.


What’s the big deal, Katje? I mean, the villains must be played by someone, right? It’s nothing personal.

No, it’s nothing personal — and that’s perhaps the problem.

I’ve read more than 1400 books in 2015. I know this because I’ve bought 1350 books in 2015 and that’s not counting the KU books I’ve read.

I’ve sighted Asian characters maybe ten, eleven times in more than 1400 books and I can tell you precisely the roles these characters had.

  1. fragile, demure, meek types who are seemingly just there to show off how much more capable the heroine is
  2. the nerdy goody two shoes girl-next-door-except-not-really-because-she-never-gets-a-guy sidekick
  3. the evil dragon lady who is either a murderous villain or a femme-fatale who aids the main mastermind
  4. the tiny twig-like bitch-whore other woman who just can’t get the message that the hero is taken
  5. the crazy mastermind who clearly didn’t get enough maternal love as a kid and who is just balls to the walls insane


No, it’s not personal, but maybe it ought to be.

I read paranormal and fantasy, guys. When entire worlds are populated with white shifters and white vampires and all things melanin-challenged, I think we have a slight problem.

The question I ask is: are you guys really going to tell me, with a straight face, that it’s easier for you to write about mythological creatures than brown people?

If so, the implication is that authors who can’t or won’t write non-white characters do so because they factually find it harder to identify with brown people than demons/shifters/angels.

Awesome. It really is personal, or should be. Any one who makes a living off their imagination who claim that should probably go out and try to experience something different. Find a friend. Ask Google for help. Ask Twitter for help. Find a crit partner who has first-hand experience/knowledge. This isn’t that hard. It really isn’t. Some of you come up with entire worlds/cultures/languages – please don’t tell me that trying to write a brown person is more involved than that.

Yes, there’s a bit more to “lose” and I’ll get back to that later, for but for now, in short:

Honestly, at this point, for me the bar for writing Asian women is set very, very low: don’t write an Asian character that fits those 5 roles and you’re mostly good.

Try thinking of us as actual people with actual feelings and a legit backstory and history and I think you’re mostly there.

About things to lose. Like respect and so forth. Someone mentioned appropriation. I’ve thought about appropriation. It’s a tricksy thing, yes, but the thing is, no one can really truly hit the nail on the head. I’ve explored how someone who identifies as Asian can write a story that makes me cringe (but wasn’t wrong) and how someone who doesn’t identify as Asian can write an Asian-descent character that is so spot on it hurt my heart, and how someone else did something and it flopped for me (but it wasn’t wrong).

You’re not going to write anything that will make everyone happy. This is fact. If you write a brown character, someone will tell you that you did it wrong. Someone might complain they’re brown in the first place. But the thing to remember is – I’ve written a Chinese person who is me and I’ve had people tell me that such a person doesn’t exist.

Well, I do.

The thing is:

A lot of it doesn’t actually matter. Much like a lie, the construct of a character only really becomes unbelievable when you start throwing in extraneous, stupid details that make the reader sit up and pay attention.

Contrary to what people might think, the world of Phoenix Chosen isn’t particularly historically accurate and nor is it supposed to be. I’ve mixed elements of wish and fact and history and extrapolation and a lot of my own feels about ancient China into Estyria’s experience. Once I leave the capital and go to the grasslands, I’ll be relying on more feels, wiki, what I’ve seen and read in textbooks, and be mixing accordingly.

So I’m not doing it “right” either, for a given definition of right and wrong.

I’m a fantasy writer – not a historical fiction writer. If I really wanted to be historically accurate, I wouldn’t be writing magic into everything in the first place.

What matters is the attitude brought to the table – are you genuinely interested in this culture, this area of the world, and are you interested in how that land and the history and everything about it shapes the characters and how they interact with the world?

Are you doing research, making your own feels, creating a world, rather than simply taking a white world and throwing in some Asian for flavor? (Yes, Firefly, I’m looking straaaaight at you.)

Are your characters actually products of the rich and varied and conflicted culture/history, or are they just Americans who use funny language? (the number of historicals/regencies I’ve read where the heroine is clearly a product of my time is boggling)

The thing is, it’s not supposed to be intimidating. I’m not saying go forth and do ten million hours of research before you sit down and create your character.

If you’re sufficiently interested in the world, that research will happen organically, without pain. If you live and breathe your character as a part of you, then their development should also occur painlessly.

It boils down to true interest or no. So long as you’re sincere, there shouldn’t be a problem.

Authors who actually enjoy the vagaries of polite Society in Regency England will get the details right. Others who dabble won’t. Fill in the blank other culture is much the same.

And no, you won’t get everything right, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t rocket science. (and the next book/time will come easier, I promise)

Also, as I’ve said before, some times it’s not about getting it right or perfect (both things being mostly impossible), but it’s about throwing more fish in the barren sea. Right now there isn’t enough fish, so it’s more likely that any one interpretation of something will rub someone the wrong way. When I see six mentions of Asian women in any given year through normal reading and not cherry-picking for POC heroines, the problematic bits stand out more. Whereas, if there were a thousand different portrayals of Asian women, I’m not going to notice/whine about the irritating stereotypical ones as much.

TL;DR: don’t worry. be happy. write the brown characters you want to write if you want to write ’em. and if you don’t want to write ’em, I really want to know why not.





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