Friday, October 15, 2010

A racial question

I’ve been messing around with an idea for a novel for a couple of years. At its core, it’s a thriller with paranormal elements. Think Dean Koontz, though, more than Stephanie Meyer. No vampires in this one, no young hunk (or heroine) as the lead.

From his inception, I’ve thought of the character as having a psychic talent... and as biracial (black* and white, in this case). He’s not John Aleron, if you’ve read that character’s stories. This is someone new.

Now, I’m starting to wonder if this is such a good idea. One reason: most of the paranormal and thriller readers I’ve met over the years have been white in overwhelming numbers. Would publishers even consider a story centering around a biracial male character? I’m not saying all white readers are horrible racists who hate blacks… but publishers might be afraid that the reader base might not 'connect' with the character.

A second reason: how many quirks should I give this character? My spouse tells me that a mistake she often sees are authors who make a character quirky in so many ways that getting a ‘handle’ on them is difficult for the reader. Is paranormal + male + biracial too much?

A third reason: I am neither black nor biracial. My character would be raised in a predominantly white environment for various reasons, including the income of his family. The more money your family has in the USA, the more likely you are to be living around white people. Would black readers find my writing this character offensive? I was exposed to the poorer segment of the black population when I was a kid, but there is a big difference between knowing black people and knowing what it’s like to 'be black'.

At Magna Cum Murder in 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting Austin Camacho. He sat on a panel that dealt with writing characters who are unlike oneself in many ways. Austin is African-American and male. The character he was discussing was female and Irish. I pointed out that this was a character who differed from him in gender, race, nationality, and possibly religion as well. She was also an ex-jewel thief, but I don’t know what Austin’s past hobbies may have been.

Austin explained that a character could be very unlike his or her author in some ways, but share experiences that the author was quite capable of describing and exploring. My character, being biracial and older (around fifty years of age), would have been confronted daily with the same situation I had while growing up: not fitting in. I was an intellectual living in a significantly illiterate state, a liberal among conservatives, a lesbian and a Pagan among fundamentalist Christians. My hero would have some of these social disadvantages as well, plus the additional difference of being biracial. Someone like me could hide personality differences  by keeping my mouth shut, but racial heritage is usually self-evident.

To me, the notion of a psychic who would not only feel the ‘usual’ emotions of the people around him, but also the attitudes towards his race, is very compelling. We have been educated to ‘not see race’ in this day and age, but when we meet someone of another race in real life we often stumble over the baggage of our upbringing. My hero would be aware of that stumbling on a regular basis. Is this patronizing on my part?

What do you think?

* I use the term 'black' instead of 'African-American' because the latter is a) long, and b) acknowledges that there are black people beside African-Americans. I refer to Austin as an African-American because I'm comparing him to an Irish jewel thief. 



Marni said...

Sarah, I think you should go for it. In THE BLUE VIRGIN, the main victim and her partner are lesbians; I am not. So what? Part of being a writer is being able to imagine, tied with research. Do your best and it will show~it sounds like an interesting premise with an equally intriguing protagonist to me!

Catherine said...

The PJ Parrish sisters have a biracial male as their protagonist and I think they've done a good job with him.

It's true you can't know the experience of being biracial but I think being a lesbian in a conservative environment can give you an understanding of what it is to be different.

However, a biracial man or woman straddles two worlds and has special issues to deal with. Think President Obama.

I think you should go for it. Just research by reading personal stories and perhaps interview people to get a real sense of the interior life.


VR Barkowski said...

I don't think writers should ever limit themselves. You must write for yourself. Tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Do your research, but be prepared for possible backlash. Right now I'm thinking of Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP. Stockett has taken a lot of heat, not only for her use of dialect, but for presuming to speak for two black maids in 1962 Mississippi.

Kathleen said...

Sarah, I think you should try it. You'll know pretty early on if your character is going to come alive, and if this works it could be fasinating. As far as getting th manuscript sold, I don't know. However, the guidelines are getting fuzzier all the time and the books more interesting.Keep us posted. Kathleen Delaney

Polly said...

Go for it, Sarah. I have a bi-racial male in a book where the white woman is the psychic, and they become lovers. I wrote him as I would write any character--with his own flaws and baggage. You have to decide how much your character draws from his racial background, just as a writer writes any character. They all have a story.

morganalyx said...

I too think you should go for it, Sarah. If your character is compelling enough (& he is to me), & your story is written well-enough (which, of course it would be), then it needs to be out there in the Universe. Who knows, maybe you'll join the ranks of authors who have helped to shift people's consciousness for the better.