Monday, April 19, 2010

Character ethnicity and why some of my characters are indeterminate

Years ago, when I started writing confessions, there were a dozen or more confession magazines, just as there were several mystery magazines and several science fiction/fantasy magazines.

Confession magazines--women's magazines featuring a specific genre of women's fiction known as "confessions"--served two distinct readerships. Many of the confession magazines featured white characters for a white readership; the rest of the confession magazines featured black characters for a black readership.

The best paying confession magazine--then, as now--was True Story, a few confession magazines were on the second tier of payment rates, and the rest were grouped in the third tier. I came from the science fiction genre where the mantra was to submit to the best paying publication first and work down until the story sells. Which I did.

But there was a problem with this. If I wrote a story intended for one ethnicity, I had to revise the manuscript before I could submit the story to a magazine serving the other ethnicity. In those days I was fortunate that I used a correcting Selectric, the top-of-the-line, every-other-writer-envied-me typewriter.

Typewriter. Not computer. A revision meant retyping an entire manuscript.

This was not time- or cost-effective.

I discovered a trick to avoid having to retype manuscripts. I stopped giving my characters physical features that were associated with one ethnicity or another.

I made them fat and skinny, tall and short, big-hipped and small-hipped, large-breasted and small-breasted. I gave most of them dark hair--black, brown, auburn--and dark eyes--brown, hazel.

Then I could send the manuscripts to any of the confession magazines without revision. This was much more time- and cost-effective, and for several years I sold every confession I wrote.

(For a few years I even wrote confessions on assignment, creating 5,000-word stories based on one-paragraph descriptions sent me by an editor.)

The publishing world has changed over the years. There are only five confession magazine still being published--and they promote themselves now as romance magazines--so I no longer need to use this trick.

But I still do.

Not always, but frequently.

It's no longer a trick; it's a habit.


sandra seamans said...

I understand why you write your stories this way, but, and you knew I had one of thoses, didn't you? But don't you feel like you're cheating the story when you don't flesh out the characters more? Or this just something you do for your confession stories?

And yes, this is coming from someone who rarely describes her characters.

Michael Bracken said...

Every story is different, and how much description is necessary for a reader to understand a character is determined, in large part, by the story itself. In some stories, what a character looks like is extremely important. In many stories, though, it's sufficient to provide a general description of the characters and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest.

Consider this: If you read a story and there is nothing in the story that clearly tells you the protagonist is white, black, Asian, Hispanic, or any other ethnicity, what do you picture in your head? I'll bet you picture someone much like yourself.

And "fleshing out" characters comes as much, and perhaps more, from what they say, what they do, how they dress, etc. than it does from a few physical attributes.

sandra seamans said...

I enjoy imagining characters when I read but some readers want a head to toe description so I often wonder what is too much or too little.

You're right about ethnicity - we do tend to think of people as being the same as ourselves. I remember reading "Waiting to Exhale" and while the women in the book were black - I could very easily relate to them. Because the characters were women dealing with issue that all women cope with, their race didn't matter.