Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race?

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About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two and lives in Boston with his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Hyphen, The Rumpus, and other venues. His new book is I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.


  1. By all means, YES!

    It is not for authors to confine themselves to creating characters within their race – or gender, sexual preference, ideology, and social status for that matter. I agree with Christine Lee Zilka, who thinks it “hard to get away with painting NYC entirely white.” This, especially that I have written a novel about the United Nations, and birthed a hierarchy of characters – from the secretary-general down to the mission-area pawn.

    From my experience, researching and absorbing cultures outside of mine (in order to craft a good, realistic story) had been a reward in itself. I put reader-interest, critic-opinion, and any disabling conventions aside so I could explore worlds previously unknown to me and weigh my options therefrom. It was liberating to be immersed in the so-called quirks of peoples other than my own, and then to find confidence in building such fictional, multidimensional characters as Czech diplomats, Filipino peacekeepers, American service members, French divorcés, and homosexuals from the British civil service and the Argentine military. The target audience may not have picked up on this yet but, at least, I have fully satisfied my personal aim of promoting “border-less humanity”, and of splashing vivid color in the story.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Darn. I’m having such a case of identity fatigue. I write, and I’ve published one story from the point of view of a woman. Jim Harrison, to speak of someone much more talented, is a master at this. Some of the “exploitation speak” and “offendedness speak” tropes have just worn me down. I know that there’s such a thing as privilege, but I’ve decided not to worry about it because its variations are infinite, and it’s politically and socially divisive.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    At some point, unless you’re writing an autobiography, your characters will always be different from yourself. (Some would say this is even true of autobiography).

    Our current racial categories are not very old. If novelists are only supposed to write about “people of their own race,” then that means that historical fiction is essentially impossible for any historical context earlier than 400-500 years ago. That would mean nobody, including modern-day Italians, would be allowed to write any story set in ancient Rome. Are white Americans really the same race as the Romans? Are Chinese Americans really qualified to write about Korean Americans? The peoples of East Asia sure don’t think their all one race….

    Come to think of it, that rule would mean no more Bible stories, either….

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