- Shanice Felix
Three Black Characters You Want to Avoid
TL;DR: If you wrote the character primarily to serve as emotional support for the main character (MC), be overly aggressive, or exist at either extreme of human morality, you probably should rethink that character. Or at least their role in your story should be reimagined.
A Black character written by an individual who does not share that identity is at risk of becoming a puppet if care is not taken to write the character with their full humanity respected.
So, how can you easily determine if you have this problem? How can you tell—almost as efficiently as a tox screening—if the character you created in your work is harmful to the very community they claim to represent?
Here are three warning signs you can use for your work to determine if you should “avoid that Black character.” As in, rethink, reimagine, and rewrite.
1. If most of their scenes involve them giving a pep talk because they understand the main character or MC’s struggles better than anyone else due to their “unique” identity, you should avoid that Black character.
For example, a “Black best friend” side character telling the MC who had a bad encounter with the police that he understands how she must feel because he’s a Black man in America—who better would understand? This could work well in a story with rich representation. But in one with inadequate representation, it comes off as if the Black side character is dusting off his trauma trophy as credentials for being uniquely qualified to sympathize with and comfort the MC. After the MC feels better, that trauma trophy goes right back on the dusty shelf it originally was on. There’s no resolution to his trauma. It served its purpose and no longer gets time in the story.
Here’s another example of how this could show up with a different marginalized identity: A closeted gay character telling the MC who is having heterosexual love troubles that she understands how the MC must feel to not be able to confess his love for another—because who better would understand than a closeted gay person?
2. If the character has an aggressive, angry, or hypersexual* personality that constantly has to be tempered or simmered down, usually by a fairer-skinned, ‘morally superior’ individual, you should avoid that Black character.
This trope makes it feel like the Black character in your book exists only to be corrected and, dare I say, “put in their place.” They are something to manage, to deal with, to “civilize.” This obviously has a number of ties back to historical oppression, enslavement, segregation, profiling, and misrepresentation in the media. It’s not that Black characters aren’t allowed to ever be aggressive or angry, but is it for good reason? Is it depicted as a situation that would anger or provoke anyone? Is the degree of hostility your character displays positively correlated with the darkness of their skin? As in, the darker their skin tone—or the further away from white their skin is—the more hostile they are? Similarly, in regard to hypersexuality, there’s usually nothing wrong with a Black character being sexual, objectively speaking, but are most characters in the book also sexual? Or is it just (or mostly) the Black character who is seemingly “lascivious” in their very nature?
*On top of Black characters often being depicted as hypersexual, there is a related issue that is almost the inverse of this: Black characters being hypersexualized, or turned into something to be observed and objectified. Sexual thoughts and actions are thrust upon them even if they are doing nothing to provoke it. In this way, their mere existence is turned into something sexual just because they are a Black person in a Black body. Descriptions associated with their body will—for absolutely no perceivable reason—begin to be described with animalistic language. For example, let’s say, in a book, that every other character smiled or smirked. But then when it gets to the Black character, it’s suddenly, “He grinned wide with his canines showing.”
3. If the character is either (A) the MC’s moral compass because they are especially good or (B) so morally corrupt that they eventually lead to their own demise, you should avoid that Black character.
In media, Black characters seem to live at the extremes of the moral spectrum. They either live on a holy pedestal or are so far in the trenches of depravity that, at some point in the book, they have to be “put down like an animal” for the greater good of the world (which is so harmful). In other cases, the MC has to cut all ties with them, showing that the MC has “risen above” their lowliness and corruption (usually in the form of breaking out of an abusive friendship or relationship, breaking a drug addiction, leaving ‘the hood,’ cutting ties with a gang, choosing peace over revenge, etc.).
Regardless of which extreme the Black character exists at, both serve the function of dehumanizing the character. They are pushed into the margins of humanity, either morally above or below the common person. Either way, they have reached a place beyond humanity, somewhere that is usually painted in these cases as hard to sympathize or empathize with. It often makes them two-dimensional and rigid.
Consider the moral compass Black character who will, more often than not, preach forgiveness and love at the most inappropriate times, and is ready to help wash the MC clean of their sins or warn them about what lies ahead on the “dark path” if they so choose it. And for the morally corrupt Black character, they typically spit every negative stereotype about the Black community back into readers’ faces without context, compassion, or tenderness, which is uncomfortable and heartbreaking.
Ultimately, tread carefully—carefully—in your pursuit of diverse voices in your work. If you do not take this venture with deep consideration and caution, you will run into trouble achieving the rich representation you’re aiming for in your writing. However, just caring about having better representation is important in itself. It’s what this world needs more of, so thank you.
Shanice Felix, is a Black, second-generation, Haitian American, queer woman who loves to explore creative works and the representation issues that arise within them. She have a bachelor's degree in Film and Media. She is also the author of the Quotev/Wattpad story Three Alphas, Three Mates which has amassed over three million reads across both sites.