How to Write Black Characters by the editors at Salt & Sage Books

The editors at Salt & Sage books work as sensitivity readers, and in the course of their work, they kept seeing the same problems over and over. Rather than repeating themselves to individual authors, they wrote HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS as an introduction to the topic. It’s meant as a broad overview, to help catch the most common errors, helping readers eliminate negative stereotypes and harmful tropes.

The chapters cover stereotypes, hair, language, (including an introduction to AAVE and code-switching), family, anti-Blackness, and religion. There are also chapters on Blackness in Britain and Africa, although the bulk of the book is addressing North American writers.

In the case of stereotypes, the authors explain where a stereotype came from, why it’s so harmful, examples they’ve seen, and—crucially—how to do better. Sometimes, erasing one stereotype can make an author fall into another. One example that the authors use is when you don’t want to write an “angry black woman” character, so you make her too passive and eager to please those around her, as if her emotional labor isn’t important or she’s not worthy of emotions of her own. The key is to make your character well-rounded. To help readers understand her anger and her other emotions, and why she’s worthy of having them.

I’m not Black, but some of my characters are. We live in a beautifully multicultural society, and it’s important that fiction reflect that. I learned a ton from this book, and I loved the way it went beyond the basics to the more subtle nuances. I’m grateful to the editors at Salt & Sage, who put a lot of their own lived experience on the page so that others could learn.

HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS is a short book, but it includes a lot of resources for further reading. It underscores the theme: the author must do the work. This book is an invitation, the beginning of a conversation that should continue through other sources and by talking to members of the community you want to write about.

HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS is not meant to substitute for a good sensitivity reader. There isn’t a checklist that a non-Black author can go by, and even if there were, checking the “not offensive” box isn’t enough when writing real characters. The authors warn readers right up front that this is an incomplete guide, blackness is not a monolith, and this guide should never be the sum of an author’s research.

But it’s an excellent place to start.

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HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

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