By Victoria Garcia
The first time I read of a “person of color” (POC) character like myself was in Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero. The character was a Mexican boy named Leo Valdez. He used terms I knew like “Tia” and “Abuelo,” he celebrated holidays I grew up celebrating like Dia de los Muertos, and he lived in Texas like me. Leo Valdez was described as having brown eyes, brown skin, and short brown curly hair which reminded me of my sister with her lion mane of hair.
After finishing the book, I realized this was the first time I had ever read of a character like me. I thought back to my favorite characters from my favorite books, and I remembered them all being pale-skinned, light-eyed, or fair-haired. I could easily imagine Leo Valdez’s appearance because he was like me and people I knew, unlike other characters who I couldn’t picture as easily because they didn’t have much in common with me.
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The Relationship of the Writer to POC Characters
Writing and creating characters is hard enough on its own, but creating POC characters can be difficult for white writers. If these writers cannot relate to the struggles experienced by people of other ethnicities, they will be unable to understand how to authentically characterize and describe people of color in YA literature.
This does not give a white writer the excuse to exclude a person of color from their story or resort to stereotypes. If you want to be a competent writer, you must learn how to write and describe various characters from different backgrounds, as part of your creative process.
What Happens When People of Color Are Excluded from YA Literature
Many POC bookworms have grown up altering character descriptions to feel more connected to the characters in their favorite books. Many readers headcanon characters as a “person of color,” meaning that they reimagine a character according to popular fandom.
A perfect example of this is a point-of-view TikTok video by blewish, where she tells how she changes the descriptions in her head. If a character is described as “fair-skinned,” she imagines her as a light-skinned black person.
Another example is Hermione from the Harry Potter series, who is often drawn as a black girl due to the description of her hair and the lack of POC characters in the series. Percy Jackson from Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been recently headcanoned by people of color as a “person of color” because he comes from the diverse city of New York and is branded as a “problem child” by his teachers.
While headcanoning is a great way for a person of color to express themselves and relate to their favorite characters, it is quite sad that YA literature often underrepresents people of color. People of color should be able to enjoy diverse characters who look and sound like them.
You may also like: 5 Impactful Children’s Books Featuring Black Characters
How Can You Include POC Characters in YA Literature?
Now that you know how important it is for POC characters to populate young adult literature, you may be wondering how to describe people of color in YA literature that POC readers will love and appreciate. Here are tricks and techniques to do just that.
Disregard what you think you know about people of color
As a writer, especially a white writer, disregard what you know if you want to include people of color in your writing. What you think you may know about a group of people is probably based on stereotypes and microaggressions.
Examples of microaggressive stereotypes include the “Studious Asian” trope and “Rebellious Asian” trope. These tropes are common in numerous YA genres, which rarely feature YA books with Asian characters right. YA books often involve a shy, nerdy Asian girl or an Asian girl who has a streak of color in her hair to show that she is rebellious.
This is harmful because not only does it fetishize Asian women, it can also cause mental health issues such as anxiety by supporting the idea that academic success is tied to identity.
Another example of a stereotype and microaggression is the “Spicy Latina” trope. While a Spicy Latina character can seem like an empowered Latinx woman, the trope is actually a fetishization of a group of women.
The mistake writers make when trying to write a strong Latinx character is making her verbally or physically aggressive. A character can have power without being overly aggressive. For example, when describing a woman, you can describe her as intimidating by her stance or the way she carries herself.
By employing this technique we can get writing like this:
“She introduced herself like we didn’t already know who she was, Maria Rivera. She didn’t continue the conversation and the look in her eyes didn’t budge as my partner stared her down, waiting for her to provide more information.”
Maria is intimidating and powerful as seen through the eyes of the viewer. By describing her as having unwavering eyes and sharpness, the author helps readers to picture the type of person Maria is.
“She simply leaned against the elevator wall as we traveled higher through the glass ceiling. When we stopped on the top floor, Maria stepped out first and led the way with casual strides. Soon we reached a large conference door. As this was my first conference, I began to feel nervous, as did my partner.”
The author does not have to explicitly describe dialogue to show that the character is a powerful woman. Instead, by using phrases like “glass ceiling,” which is a metaphor for a barrier that prevents women and people of color from getting a promotion to higher corporate levels, the author shows Maria’s determination and strength.
“I looked over to Maria; her face was like calm, undisturbed water. It amazed me how someone could be so calm before delivering the biggest business pitch of their career. Maria took her place in front of the conference table, not a single dark hair out of place, her face wearing nothing but a sharp smile.”
Describing her as having dark hair is a simple way to give the reader an introduction to what she looks like. Later on, the author could go into further detail about the type of hair and skin color: curly or flat-ironed, and deep dark or warm brown.
Embrace authenticity for YA characterization of People of Color
People of color want to see themselves in YA literature not simply as the minority, but as a character, as representation. Don’t create a character and make them a target for sad storylines.
You don’t have to include racism when you have a POC character. It’s not a necessity. Basically, don’t have a POC character and make their entire purpose being a “person of color.” This is especially true if you are a white author as you do not have that firsthand experience with racism. It is not your place, especially if it has no point in the story.
It’s important to describe people of color in YA literature in a way that an actual person of color will want to read.
“She was built strongly, curly-haired, with dark skin. Her eyes scanned the track quizzically, eyeing her competitors. They wanted to achieve the same goal, which made them dangerous.”
The important part of the character’s description is that she is competitive and serious, which is what gives clues to her personality. The writer can simply say “he/she/they was/were brown or dark.”
It is the added relevant details on how the world interacts with them in a way that does not focus on only their skin color that matters to the readers. Which means no hate crimes, racism, etc. Many people of color experience such things in their lives and shouldn’t have to find it in YA literature as well.
What if the author doesn’t include any character description so the readers can imagine the characters in their own way?
Many white writers might conclude that describing people of color in YA literature is simply too difficult for them and decide to write no specific character description, leaving it to the reader’s imagination.
First, even if you leave out physical description, writing something like “She blushed a deep red” or “Her hair flew in the wind” will let people with dark skin or textured hair know that the character is not written with them in mind. Even when you think your description is neutral, you could be unaware of bias. Because you are used to your experiences being the default, you can’t tell when your descriptions are excluding people of color.
If you leave out descriptions or try to write neutral descriptions, your readers will create a broad image of the character. Trust me when I say that people are going to accept the white version over the POC version.
Many white authors have authentically described POC characters in YA literature. Rick Riordan, a white author, includes four main-character POC in his series The Heroes of Olympus. In another series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, he includes three main-character POC.
Another YA author who features a realistic person of color is Cassandra Clare. Clare spoke to black transgender women in her city, asking their opinions and wants, to create the character Diana Wrayburn for her book series, The Dark Artifices.
If you simply speak to people of color, you will be able to write POC characters into your YA literature.
Is it really that easy to describe people of color authentically?
Yes, it is. Talking to people of color and reading books written by a person of color is a great way to learn how to describe people of color in YA literature. Base characters off people you know; it’s one of the easiest ways to get a grip on how to represent people of color in young adult novels.
As a writer, it’s your job to be creative and imaginative. “Not knowing” how to describe people of color in YA literature is not excusable anymore. It can be done. Readers are looking for diversity in children and YA literature, and if you want your book to stand out, the least you could do is include people of color.
It’s really not as hard as you may fear. If you know how to write, you know how to write POC characters. Just don’t water down your character to only being a “person of color.”
If you have faith in your writing skills, I challenge you to write a POC character! Think you can do it? This is a challenge for writers of color and white writers alike.