How Right Do Your Characters Have to Be?

How Right Do Your Characters Have to Be?
Or, who are you going to upset or offend with this book?
Terry Odell

Clichés are to be avoided, they tell us. So are stereotypes. (Still haven’t figured out who “they” is, but my grandfather apparently knew them well, as they were always making mistakes he’d get blamed for.)

But a cliché can provide a shortcut to understanding or visualizing a scene, and a stereotype might offer a shortcut to getting a handle on a character. Nothing is all good or all bad.

Publishers are looking for diversity these days. I’m going out on a limb here and saying very few of us belong to more than a small number of different ‘groups.’ Gender, ethnicity, religion, age. If we want diversity in our books, we’re going to be writing about people different from ourselves.

How do we get it “right?” Is there even a “right?” Can we say all golden retrievers are happy, people-loving dogs? Are all Staffordshire terriers dangerous? Same goes for people. Yet we categorize and generalize.

Years and years ago, my mom became good friends with our next-door neighbor. The two of them went to the beach one day, and the neighbor found out my mom was Jewish. She was surprised—maybe even shocked. Her words: “I’d never have thought you were Jewish. You’re so nice.” The neighbor wasn’t from Los Angeles, where we lived, and her exposure to diversity was obviously limited. Her perceptions were ruled by her experience. I still wonder if she and my mom would have been friends had the neighbor known at their first meeting that my mom was Jewish.

In my Mapleton books, Sam and Rose Kretzer are Jewish, and I’m sure many people think some of their behaviors are wrong. They’re bringing their own perceptions and experiences, and making generalizations. Rose is a conglomerate of many of my relatives. Trying to get a Jewish character right is next to impossible, one simple reason being there are so many different sects or denominations, and there’s diversity within each.

Today, there are warnings about getting diverse characters right to the point that some authors are hiring sensitivity readers, or at least running pertinent sections by members of whatever group their character belongs to. I have a trans character in one of my Mapleton books, and I approached a trans author to make sure I got it right. Was it right for everyone? I don’t know. I haven’t seen any negative comments, so maybe I did. Also, the character was a minor one, and didn’t have a lot of page time.

I do know that after my first few books, which were (and still are because I’m not updating them) populated predominantly by white cis characters, I began including more diversity. Would I ever try a protagonist who’s substantially different from me? Other than writing males, I don’t think so. There’s too much to get wrong, and too many people who are offended by mistakes.

Something as simple as age is another thing to try to get right (which is what sparked the idea for this post).

I get the New York Times’ daily digest in my email, and a headline saying It’s Fun to Be Alive’: 13 Older Photographers Show Us Their Work — and Themselves piqued my interest, so I opened it. Older, eh? I’m older than most of them. I’m not pretending to be any age other than mine, but it’s being put into a box that’s the problem.

A while back, I agreed to read a chapter that was giving an author acquaintance trouble. He’d included a secondary character who I’m sure was meant to be a mood-lightener. Stereotypical elderly woman. Hairnet, orthopedic shoes, walking stick, thick glasses—the works. Her age? 65. I came down fairly hard on the author for that one. I’m ten-plus years older than that character, and that kind of a stereotype bugs the heck out of me.

That, for me, is what we as authors need to consider when we’re creating and describing any character, be it their age, gender, ethnicity, religion, dietary habits—the list is endless. And these days, people are eager to jump down your throat if your description deviates in the slightest from their perception.

What about you, TKZers? How do you get things right for your characters? Or don’t you care how readers will perceive them because you’ll never please everyone?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

41 thoughts on “How Right Do Your Characters Have to Be?

  1. That’s a tough one. I’m from California and I’m used to working around folks from lots of different races and backgrounds. I try my best to use my interactions with them as I create characters who are Black, East Indian, Mexican, etc. I don’t know if I get it “right,” but I haven’t gotten any hate mail. Yet!

  2. I remember showing my mother a video of “old people” sitting down at a piano in a waiting room and playing, along with a Victor Borge type comedic twist. My mother was so offended because it was “old people.” I couldn’t understand because it would have been just as entertaining if they were young people. As to sensitivity, I had a sensitivity reader for one of my books to make sure I didn’t check off the stereotype boxes or offend Native Americans. In the end, even without diversity, there’s a chance I’m going to offend someone.

    • Thanks for sharing, Karla. When my kids were little (4 or 5), they were talking about old people. I asked them what an old person was. “Someone with lines on their face and walks with a cane” was the answer. “How old is that?” I asked.
      “Sixty.” I pointed out that we’d just spend the weekend waterskiing with their grandparents who were in their sixties. They upped their standard to eighty.

    • Some people just can’t be happy unless they’re being offended. They think of themself as super-virtuous, when actually they’re simply addicted to their own adrenaline.

  3. While I’m going to make reasonable efforts to make sure I accurately reflect characters of different backgrounds, I’m not going to get hung up on the angst about worrying if I offend someone. There are people out there who simply read hoping to be offended and offered the chance to complain. Sad but true. About a year ago I got feedback on a historical chapter I submitted that wanted me to make it politically correct. I can’t recall now what the specific detail was but I do remember that it was a very minor, insignificant thing that they honed in on–plus they forgot it was in HISTORICAL context.

    And as you note in your post, just because someone is labeled in a certain sect, class, or demographic, they are STILL individual people and not the same as every other person. The most important thing to me is making that individual character right for who they are in my story, not a generic label.

  4. Exactly, BK. People are people. And experiences vary SO much. I had a review from someone who dinged Deadly Secrets because a character referred to her German grandparents as Oma and Opa. He said something to the effect that no Jewish person would refer to their grandparents that way. Well, guess what. I did, as did just about all my relatives.

  5. Good discussion, Terry.

    No matter how you refer to a certain group, someone will take offense. In my geographical area, the Shawnee were the predominant Native Americans. Historical markers all over our county refer to “Indian” village, battle, memorial, camp etc. Even though my stories are set in my own area where the term Indian is used, I’ve been called on that.

    I think you just have to use the phrase or name that is appropriate for the character speaking or POV, and realize that you’ll never make everyone happy.

    Have a great day.

      • Hillerman was HIGHLY regarded by the Navajo – because he consulted them and got it right. IIRC, they might have even made him an honorary member of the tribe.

        We’re enjoying the Dark Winds series with Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon (who really do look like what I remember of Hillerman’s characters); I don’t know if either is Navajo.

        It’s a real pleasure to see them on the screen.

    • THIS is exactly the point — “use the phrase or name that is appropriate for the character speaking or POV.” Does whatever it is fit the character and the timeframe of the story?

  6. Thanks for chiming in, Steve.
    realize that you’ll never make everyone happy.
    For someone who was brought up to “not make waves” this is a tough lesson to learn. But you have to deal with it.

  7. Being part of a bunch of “minority groups” I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since onwvoices came out. Basically, I hated the books I was “supposed” to like because the text said the characters were the same color as me. Don’t get me wrong, I love how diverse books and movies are now, but I still don’t like seeing myself, I want to see others.

    The only concrete piece of advice I came up with over the years is to always make sure your choices are intentional. Yes, there are so many sects of Judaism–so pick one. Yes, people have immigrated to the U.S. for over two centuries–so decide what generation your character is. When you don’t choose, that’s when stereotypes come in and insult.

    Oh, and I suppose another piece of advice is to be brutally honest with yourself about your own biases. Doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, if you aren’t aware about what you actually feel, that stuff will sneak in.

    • This! Oh, and I suppose another piece of advice is to be brutally honest with yourself about your own biases.
      There are a lot of things I fight with myself about including, from vocabulary and on down the line. I recall an editor flagging a mild profanity not because it was profanity, but because she didn’t like the word. If my characters are using it, it stays.

  8. This is a great topic, Terry. I identified with your mother’s experience (““I’d never have thought you were Jewish. You’re so nice.”), but for another reason. I was born and raised in the deep south, but moved to the northeast after college and immediately lost my southern accent. Over the years, I’ve heard some blistering remarks about southerners by people, including good friends of mine, who didn’t know my background. Years ago, I was offended. Then I became amused. Now I re-educate when I feel like it.

    There’s a lot of diversity in my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Although I’ve noticed the trend in diversity in books selected by my book club, I’m not explicitly trying to include it in my writing. If it’s there, it’s because it’s a natural extension of who I am.

    • We had a new member of our book club, and when she said she was from Texas, someone said she didn’t sound like it. She said her mother drilled the accent out of her when she was very young. Another member is from the south, and she said she couldn’t lose her accent, and it added to people’s perception of her. She was young, in a tech field, female, and sounded southern. Nobody took her seriously, and she didn’t get promoted until she had a supervisor who judged her on her performance.

  9. Important topic, Terry, thanks for tackling it. I had the privilege at the library of working with staff and patrons from all walks of life, and from throughout the world, and it has enriched my life in immeasurable ways. I agree with Azali’s comment to act with intentionality. In my Empowered series, one of my main characters is Keisha McMillian, who is African-American, and I drew on my library background to create her, and hopefully make her true to who she would be if she actually existed. I try to do that with all my characters, regardless of their backgrounds.

    I worked with a lot of refugees and immigrants from many countries, but in order to write convincingly about someone with that background, I would need to really put myself in their shoes, and that’s where I might try to have a reader with that background go over it for me, bearing in mind that we are all individuals with distinctive POVs. People from the same ethnic or national group, or for that matter, sexual orientation or gender can have quite different outlooks and experiences.

    • Thanks, Dale. People are people. When my daughter wanted to invite her friend, Kiesha, over (junior high, so “to play” sounds all wrong), I said of course, and I hope I hid my surprise when Kiesha was a blue-eyed blonde white girl. (Can I say girl?)

  10. Great topic and discussion, Terry.

    I try to create characters who are unique individuals. Several continuing characters in my series are multi-faceted combinations of two, three, or four ethnicities and religions. Some struggle with feeling caught between different cultures.

    Authenticity readers are more helpful for me than sensitivity readers. Sensitivity reading assumes a single individual represents the experiences, beliefs, and problems of an entire demographic. That seems racist, sexist, ageist, etc. I depend on authenticity readers to make sure cultural traditions and practices are accurate.

    As Steve says, we’ll never make everyone happy and that is not our job as writers.

    A stereotype that makes me bristle is that Montanans are all white supremacist bigots. Uh, no.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I was looking for a term other than ‘sensitivity’ but drew a blank. Authenticity is what I wanted.
      I was at UCLA in the 60s, during the John Wooden dynasty. Race was becoming a more visible issue back then, and a reporter questioned one of the Black players (I think it was Curtis Rowe) if he felt any discrimination as a player. His response, which I recall, was “Coach don’t see color.”

  11. Excellent question, Terry. For me, I immerse myself in Native culture. I do have Native blood, but not from the clan that I focus on. Even though I’ve been granted “inside access” to Diné culture via consultants, I could never get everything right. So far, no one’s complained, but I’m extra careful of how I portray diverse characters.

    • Thanks, Sue.
      Being careful is good. Obsessing is probably a waste of time, because as others have pointed out, you’ll never get something right for everyone. Showing respect to other cultures is important, I think, which means avoiding caricatures and stereotypes.

  12. I base my characters on real people (except for the bad guys and the silly, 2D foil characters). Because of where I live and the circles I run in, that means bilingual Hispanics, goofy teenagers, black people who run their own businesses, middle-aged white folks (that’s me), rednecks, elderly people who still command a room, and old-timers with strong, Southern accents. I hope I don’t offend readers, but if I do, maybe it means the readers wouldn’t like the people I know in real life.

  13. I grew up in the South when it wasn’t cool to believe everyone was equal. My father was a merchant seaman who had friends all over the world and from my earliest memories he taught my sister and me to that everyone was the same no matter what color the skin was.

    That said, I rarely write characters who are different from my ethnicity simply because it hasn’t been many years ago that writers were told If you’re not ___(Fill in the blank) you’re not qualified to write about that culture. Most of the time, other than my protagonist, I rarely describe my characters. I leave it to the reader to decide what they look like. I like to describe what makes them tick instead.

    One more thing…I laugh out loud at some of the stereotypes of older people. Sure, there are 70-year-olds who walk with a cane, but there are a lot of them running marathons, working out, doing Pilates, swimming…and in better condition than most in their 50s. In my last book, I had my 80-yr old potter creating a crime board, trying to find out who killed her daughter.

    • I don’t even try to have main characters too far beyond my own race, simply because I can’t know enough about what their experiences are like. I recall a new student in high school who’d transferred from the south and she said the first time she saw a black salesperson, she was taken aback, especially when she paid for the purchase and received her change (we used something called cash back then), and their hands touched. I know my mom told us we had to be “better” than others because anything we did wrong would be chalked up to our being Jewish, and the generalizations would kick in.

  14. This is a good one, Terry!

    I don’t really have enough author experience to say anything other than this:

    These days, being offended has become an art form in itself.

    Having said that, when I’m in the development stage of a novel, I don’t give much thought to the “group” that a character might “identify” with. It’s later, during revisions, that I pay attention.

    I don’t see myself developing any character who is vastly different than my own experience. Which is fine with me. However, in my new release there is a secondary character who is a black man. But his skin color doesn’t really have any bearing on his role in the story.

    Which is how it should be in life, IMHO.

    • Thanks, Deb.
      If ethnicity or anything else matters in the story, then it behooves us to get it right. But if the diversity is there more to reflect the reality of things around us than to develop a strong character in the story, then I think broad brushstrokes are fine.

      We are a melting pot, after all. That ethnic character might be a third generation American. And I’m not getting into internment camps here.

  15. My advice to students is you are writing a human, first and foremost. If you can get that part right, you can figure out the rest with research and conversations with others.

    I do not envy authors right now in this climate of anger and entitlement. Fortunately, most of the current idiots are too busy screaming and being offended to the nearest camera and don’t have time to read.

  16. The best you can do is is to make a good faith effort. I have read some passages for authors to get a broader understanding of their characters. I do my best. My Jewish upbringing and practice is going to be different than someone else’s. But I will read your sample and let you know if I think it will work.

    My oldest child is non-binary. Her classmates are well, everything. It gets well beyond pronouns. I have several friends who are the parents of trans youth. Show a sample to a friend. See what they say.

  17. My characters and their situations erupt from my creative center simultaneously, as near as I can tell. It is those characters I must be true to. I don’t focus on ethnicity and I rarely identify a character by race, unless their name reveals it. I made an exception for Investment, where bias is the theme. The beauty of a stereotype lies in his/her undergoing a reversal, failing to meet the reader’s own biased expectations.

    • Speaking of names, my son and I were texting during last week’s UCLA football game, and we were enthralled. I’ll bet the sportscasters weren’t thrilled when they looked at the roster (which I’m sure came with a pronunciation guide).

  18. I find it incredibly common that disability and chronic illness are not universally included in ‘diversity.’

    It takes a few more words to include all aspects of diversity, and there has to be a balance, but 20% of adults have a disability of some kind that significantly impairs their ability to function in the modern world, and most of what I’ve seen is about able-bodied characters, or able-bodied characters with a tic.

    And disabled characters or chronically ill ones are rarely the main character.

    And IF they are a main character, they’re often the one who dies, commits suicide, or gives up their agency to the benefit of some other character. ‘Better dead than disabled’ is appallingly common.

    I do my best to fill that gap with my mainstream fiction. I often get comments about how a reader has never seen it done.

    • Jeffrey Deaver does what I think is an excellent job with his Lincoln Rhyme books. I imagine he’s done a lot of research.
      I do have a wheelchair bound minor character in one of my Mapleton mysteries, but I’m remiss in not including more challenged people, something I should attempt to fix. Thanks for pointing it out, Alicia.

      • Wheelchair enabled? Or is the character actually tied to the chair? 🙂

        Mobility devices are seen as a problem, confining. They are actually empowering, and provide mobility when it either isn’t possible to stand or walk, or it hurts too much.

        I scoot around on an Airwheel S8 (it satisfies the ADA requirements – none – for mobility devices). I look as if I’m floating down the halls. It’s been to Denver and back in the onboard wheelchair closet (you know, where the first class passengers and the crew store their coats and suitcases?) of a United jet.

        30 sec. video:

        It’s also way cool – a bicycle seat on a hoverboard.

    • Disability is one of my “minority” labels, and the reasons you listed are exactly why I don’t like seeing myself in fiction. That said, I have tried writing characters with disabilities, and agency is the biggest issue. Basically because, we have very little agency allowed us in real life. If someone decides they don’t want to let me do something, whether it’s an actual job or just me climbing a playset, there’s nothing I can do.

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