Don’t Bleach and Iron Your Work: Guest Post by Alica McKenna Johnson

Today’s guest post was written by Alica McKenna Johnson, who ‘writes about snarky girls, kind boys, and the adults trying to keep them alive.’  You can check out Alica’s blog here, and say hello to her on Twitter here.

Today, Alica’s talking you writers out there who are stuck in a white-bread world.

The floor is yours, Alica!


Don’t Bleach and Iron your work.

Tips for adding diversity to your writing.

*I cheat. My YA series which has many people from different cultural backgrounds as well as taking place in different countries. I have written it in 1st person. My MC is female who was raised without an ethnic culture of her own, but was exposed to many cultures and lifestyles growing up in group homes in San Francisco. I don’t have to know how the other characters cultural background influences their perspective- I only have to know what they show my MC. And yes they do show cultural differences, but this is not as in depth as other POV’s need to be.

*I read books written by people and about people from many different backgrounds. I also watch foreign and LGBT films. And yes a media portrayal of people from other countries isn’t necessarily a clear picture. Neither is my book. It’s a fantasy- a story of fiction, and the books and movies allow me to add little details that make my characters come through clearly. They also help me to break stereo types.

*Basic research. I read travel books- specifically children’s books as they give a greater sense of culture flavor. I also watch travel shows- Bizarre Foods and No Reservations being two of my favorites.

*I’ve take classes on writing about people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Two of my favorites were How to Write Realistic Native American Characters and How to Write Realistic Gay Characters. I loved both of them and learned a lot! I learned what stereotypes are and what things are culturally true. I learned that like everyone else there is a huge range of personalities and backgrounds.

*I’m not afraid to offend people. I don’t go out of my way to offend people, however if I want my curvy blond to be panting for the sexy black waiter with the great round butt, then that’s what I’m going to do. That being said- I will do research and ask someone who is black to read my story and see what they think. Is every black person going to be happy? No- but I can’t make everyone happy anyway. There are white characters I don’t relate to at all. I ranted through the movie 30 Days of Night because I lived in Alaska and there were big technical errors- it happens. Tell your story, research, get advice, do your best, and write.

*Not everyone grew up in a cultural household. I’m mostly German; you wouldn’t have any idea of that by watching my life. I have a friend who is Zuni. Going into her house gives you no sense of her cultural background and she grew up on a reservation and still practices the Zuni religion. I have a friend whose family is Italian. At Thanksgiving they have turkey, stuffing, smoked octopus, pasta, and pumpkin pie. You get a sense of her culture because that is how her family lives.

Just because your character has brown skin doesn’t mean they identify or were raised in an ethnic and cultural environment. You don’t have to be perfect, you can stay within the things you know and are comfortable with. Maybe your Chinese character has a Buddhist alter in their home and hates egg rolls. Mix it up!

*We are all people. Under the bindis and jeans, bling and manicures, Chanel no 5 and sandalwood, we are all people. We want to feel safe and loved and special. We want a home, a family, and to be happy. What that looks likes differs from one person to another. A home in the burbs with two kids and a dog can be the dream of an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, yet might be a nightmare for an Indian couple.

No matter what your skin color or who catches your eye, lust, longing, love they all feel the same. Does the shape of a mouth change the passion and nervousness of a first kiss?

*It’s okay for them to have flaws. While stereotypes are wrong concerning everyone of a race, religion, or sexual orientation some come from a problem, issue, or quirk that is common within that community. There is an alcohol problem among Native Americans; they also have a higher risk of diabetes. Not all Native American have either of these issues, but they are a concern within the Native American Community. Don’t believe me, go to tribal websites and see what programs and services they offer, many have drug and alcohol programs and some have nutrition/diabetes programs. People have to deal with drugs, alcohol, abuse, and gangs- it doesn’t matter what color they are, who they have sex with, or how much money they make. Having a character dealing with these issues doesn’t mean you are stereotyping them.

We are all people with stories to tell. So tell them. Be brave and see your characters uniqueness. Don’t Bleach and Iron you’re books, no one wants to read that. Delve into your creativity, your heart, and your mind. Imagine what life is like for someone else- you do it all the time- unless some of you really are vampires and werewolves.

And for those of you creating whole new worlds- there is no excuse for not having more diversity in your characters. You don’t have to deal with social issues in a steampunk alternate universe with dragons- just let that go and have people living together peacefully (well except for the soul sucking demons).

For expanded versions of these tips, plus foreign film reviews to help you broaden your cultural knowledge come to my blog


23 thoughts on “Don’t Bleach and Iron Your Work: Guest Post by Alica McKenna Johnson

  1. Tameri Etherton says:

    Great tips. I never thought to read children’s travel books, but I’ll definitely keep that in my tool box. Love the advice to ‘be brave and see your character’s uniqueness’. If character’s are too bland, who wants to read about them? Not me.

  2. Julie says:

    These are great tips! I recently finished Perfect Chemistry, by Simone Elkeles, and I thought she did a good job of dealing with culture clash. Some people complained in the reviews that it wasn’t 100% accurate, but like you said, you can’t please everybody!

    As our world becomes both more diverse and more connected, we’ll HAVE to write outside of our cultures in order to stay relevant.

  3. Louise Behiel says:

    Great post. You’re far braver than I -. my day job is spent managing interpreters and cultural competency trainers for a major Health system in Canada. The nuances of culture are so vast that I can’t imagine trying to write a book from a different perspective. Sometimes I’m even nervous writing for an American audience because the culture of our two countries are different. well done.

    • Alica says:

      That sounds so interesting. Some things you can do- do it from the perspective of a character from your culture experiencing another culture- make the character very specific so you can find out all the specific details- or have the character be third or fourth generation this gives you the ability to add in the bigger things, but let go of others.
      Personally I would love to read a book set in Canada- I love reading books where I learn about other cultures and perspectives. It makes it so much more interesting. 🙂

  4. Karen McFarland says:

    Thank you Alica!

    I like how you explain things with conviction. I especially like the tip about using children’s travel books. That would have never entered my mind. Thanks for being so generous! I better get back to work. You’ve challenged me to do better!

  5. Alica says:

    I am so excited, please stop by my twitter and or blog and let me know how it goes! Childrens books are so much more fun- the pictures are more colorful and they talk about more the population and the price of a hotel. The DK books goal is to help children learn about not onyl the geography but also the culture, this makes them ideal books for writers to use.

  6. August McLaughlin says:

    This post oozes with boldness and inspiration. I’m a huge proponent of celebrating uniqueness and diversity in fiction. This is the first time I’ve seen it presented in such a way. Brilliant! Thanks, Alica and Myndi.

  7. Jess Witkins says:

    Not a subject widely talked about and yet so important. I love the amount of research you did. I was fascinated by all the press around Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help because she wrote from the voices of two black maids. Lots of people weighed in on whether that was appropriate and how she depicted the characters. I say more power to her! Like you said, if you do your research, and ultimately you’re telling a story, your readers must know it’s fiction and just the way one character perceives and reacts to the world. Society is full of enigmas, our writing can have them too. Awesome post Alica! Thanks for hosting Myndi!

    • alicamckennajohnson says:

      Thanks you Jess. I haven’t read The Help yet- it’s on my ever growing list of book I need to read. It amazes me how bent out of shape people get about something so simple. Really trying to see the world from a different POV and writing about it- how crazy. LOL! Authors do it all the time and I thin it separates us more when we feel we have to stay within our own culture. Sure you can go back in time, the future, another world, be a vampire, as long as the author and MC have the same skin color, sexual orientation, and religion. We are better then that we can expand out views and grow as people beyond what we are born into.

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