Let’s say I want to write a political thriller set, in part or in whole, in Hong Kong. It’s an interesting location because, while it is technically a part of China, it’s also an independent state with its own laws and cultural and societal pressures.
As such, one of the first questions I’d ask would be: what race should my main character be? Chinese? If so, are they natural-born? From mainland China? Grew up in Hong Kong but travelled the world? Or could they be an American or British or French or German person who simply lives there and ends up being involved in something rather more than they bargained for?
The story will largely dictate at least part of the answer to this question. If there is some overriding reason for the character to be a particular race, then I will make them a particular race and build everything else up from there. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that this is just some random, regular guy who gets caught up in a dangerous spy game. Does their race matter then?
The easiest test for whether a character’s race is important to the story is to simply change it. Make your white British newspaper reporter African-American instead. Does it change anything in the story? Or in your plans for the story? No? Then mix things up a little!
But if the answer is yes? That’s even more reason to mix things up! Having them be of a different race or ethnicity or gender or sexuality can change your characters in ways you might never have thought of.
Let’s say our African-American reporter lives and works in London but grew up in New York. How would this change the character? How would it colour their perceptions of the world? Do they feel comfortable in London because it’s a large capital city similar to New York’s grand scale? Or are they uncomfortable because, while also a city, it’s not the same type of city?
Are they accepted by their peers? Do they feel like they stand out in the crowd? Maybe they like standing out in a crowd and here in London they get something they crave but never experienced in New York? Do the skyscrapers of home make them comfortable or do the narrow London streets make them claustrophobic?
Maybe they’re not just African-American but also gay? When is this story set? During a time when being gay was still largely unaccepted and misunderstood? Or a more contemporary setting where being gay is an everyday fact most people don’t think much about any more? Does the character like or dislike being accepted?
Diversity isn’t some black and white, on or off state, and race is only a part of a much larger whole. Two people of the same race could have entirely different outlooks on life simply by having grown up in two different countries. Likewise, how they are treated by friends, family, peers, and colleagues will play a part in how they view the world. Cultural background plays an important part also.
If racism, sexism, or other powerful themes are important to the main character – whether receiving, attempting to effect change, or even giving in the case of an antagonist, or potentially just someone who starts off kind of awful but grows and improves over the course of the story – then their race and background are important to the story as a whole and I will craft my character with that in mind.
If I can change the character’s race or sex and it doesn’t affect the story, I will sometimes use a degree of randomness. If the story is set in a predominately Asian country or region, generating a character who is Italian but grew up in São Paulo because their parents travelled a lot is going to present you with a lot of potentially fun and interesting ideas, more so than simply making your characters Asian as well, whether main or side.
There are an infinite number of ways a character – or more accurately, a person – is shaped and moulded over the course of their life, and using that variety of life experience when crafting characters is a great way to introduce conflict and drama. Use it well.