Monday, January 12, 2015

Writing in Color - When Do You Tell Your Readers What Race a Character Is?

A problem, some questions, and an excerpt.

One of the great things about writing is that you know you need a character for a scene and you might have the sketchiest idea of their role (CEO) and what you need them to do (sign a form), but then suddenly they leap fully formed onto the page and you fall in love with them. For me, Andrew Langford was such a character. But here's the part that bugs me. *I* know that Lang is black, and I kinda want the readers to know that too, but I don't want to make it an awkward, facty insert to the text. If you've read any of my books, you know that I'm NOT a very descriptive writer by nature, focusing more on dialog and action, so describing him in detail would make him stand out in the text. He's just a minor character. It would be like putting a big neon sign up and saying "OH, AND I HAVE BLACK CHARACTERS, TOO." The story is in Chicago. Why WOULDN'T I have a black character or two (or maybe somewhere around 33% of the cast, give or take)? I can't take the easy way of tossing off "it was unusual for a black man --" because there is absolutely nothing unusual in what Lang is doing here, at least in my experience. Maybe I can't point to one black guy I know who is a former professor, CEO, microbrew drinker who loves seafood, but I can put together four black guys I know and get there. (I'm in Charlottesville, you can kinda swing a cat and hit four guys who fit that profile, although it will take awhile to get all four of them in the same race. But still. One cat. I'm telling you.)

Here are my questions:
  1. Does it matter that I point out Lang is black? Twitter buddies who tweet about diversity in fiction make me think that maybe it is important, but maybe it isn't?
  2. If I do try to point it out, what should I do? The only two things I say that *might* be construed as hints (his height and brown eyes) really aren't. Some of my POC buddies have said that direct references to skin tone can be irritating. Why are we pointing that out? What color is Nick's skin? Pasty? Milky? Come on. If we don't need to mention Nick's skin tone (inferring race perhaps in the first scene he was in where we found out he had sandy hair and blue eyes), then why mention Lang's?
  3. Does it matter more to have readers understand that Lang is black since his daughter will be the heroine of one of the associated novellas? (And a bit of a blerd.)
Ok, the first scene Lang shows up in is below. Unedited and FAR from publication. You won't see this one published for a year or two and it might have the stuffing edited out of it before you see it again (or it might not). And just so you know, professionally he goes by Drew Langford, which is why Nick starts out calling him Drew. The hero/heroine of this one are Nick Carradine and Vivian Devonshire. It's very possible that Nick's last name will change...

Excerpt: Star Crossed (Goners #1 - Contemporary Romance)

Nick slid into a booth just after 11 o’clock. Enthusiasm had made him earlier than he’d intended so he had almost half an hour to kill. He pulled out his smartphone and started flying through the emails he had missed that morning while setting up this luncheon. When the waiter came by he ordered one of the house microbrewery beers. Not because he particularly liked them, but because he knew that Andrew Langford always ordered them and it was in his best interest to make Langford as comfortable as possible. Five minutes before Langford was due to arrive Nick tucked his phone back into his pocket and settled in to wait. Langford was prompt, so in just a few moments Nick was springing to his feet with a smile on his face.
“Drew!” he said warmly, extending his hand.
Nick was over six feet tall, but Langford towered over him with the build of a former basketball player. Nick knew that when asked if he used to play, the professor-turned-businessman liked to answer with the phrase, ‘I prefer to keep my physics theoretical.’ Now in his 60s, Langford still looked fit enough to consider taking up the sport any day. He was wearing a tailored suit over his tall, lanky frame and his silvery hair was close cropped. The chairman of Persephone Corporation looked cautious and speculative, but took Nick’s hand in a firm grip. “Carradine. I’ll admit that this was a surprise.”
Once they’d settled into the booth together and Langford had ordered his beer, Nick began to warm up his argument. “Drew, I know that this is a bit odd, but I’m bothered by the analysis for the merger.” Langford sat quietly while Nick outlined the benefits of merging the two companies, the older man peering from time to time at the charts that Nick pulled up on his phone. In about seven minutes Nick had outlined the first tier of his argument, which focused on shared profits. He finished with a pleasant smile and the question, “What do you think, Drew?”
Langford settled more comfortably against his seat and looked at Nick for a long moment. Nick cleared his throat and took a sip of his beer. He had a feeling that he knew how the former professor’s students used to feel.
“I think,” Langford said at length, “that you and I have met twice before this, both times at fundraisers where we spoke for a total of maybe ten minutes. Is my memory correct?”
Nick settled back as well, waiting to see how this played out. “That sounds about right.”
“Nick.” Drew Langford paused again. “By all accounts you are a very bright, very successful young man.”
“But I think you’ve overlooked that it is just as easy for me to find out about you as it is for you to find out about me.”
“Ah. I’m, uh, sure it is.”
Langford tilted his head forward so that his intelligent brown eyes peered over his glasses at Nick. “So I know that beer isn’t your poison. That, in fact, you don’t drink often, and never at lunch. When you do drink it’s most likely to be high quality scotch. Which means that you are using lowbrow psychological tricks to build rapport with me and that leaves me wondering, why do you feel like you need to butter me up? You haven’t said anything yet that I didn’t already know. You’ve said it perhaps more enthusiastically than my assistant, but it is essentially the same information.”
“Mr. Langford, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.”
The older man’s lips twitched in amusement. “It’s Mr. Langford now?”
“It can be whatever you’re comfortable with.”
Langford rolled his mug back and forth between his large hands. “How about we make it to the end of this conversation and I’ll tell you what I’m comfortable with.”
“Based on how this is going, I assume that might be… now?”
This earned a wry smile from Langford. “Don’t disappoint me, Carradine. I can’t imagine that you only came to the table with that information and believed that I would sign whatever permission slip it is you need to review the analysis.”
Langford had made it very clear that he didn’t want a sales approach, was offended by it, so Nick set his mug aside and leaned in towards the table. “Ok, I’ll cut to the chase. If I’m successful it’s because I have good instincts. And my instincts tell me that there is something wrong here. My top suspicion is that someone got to the attorney, Devonshire. I’m not sure if it was a bribe or what.”
Langford’s eyes narrowed. “And who would gain? Who would do that?”
“That’s what I asked myself, and there are a couple of potential answers. Carradine Metals is cash poor right now and without the merger they will need to do some deficit financing, which will change some key ratios. That could leave them open to a hostile takeover by your primary competition, GHB.” Langford nodded slowly and Nick could see that he was also considering something left unsaid, that it could have been someone inside Persephone who had made the same assessment and decided that a merger wasn’t nearly as appealing as a potential takeover.
“And what do you gain by looking at the papers?”
“I’ll be able to tell if there really was anything wrong in the first assessment, or if Devonshire threw the game, as it were.”
“Ok, you have me interested. If there’s something wrong with our legal representation I want to know about that. But why should I trust you? You’re a Carradine. You have conflict of interests written all over you.”
Nick shrugged. “You checked me out, what did you sources say?”
“Well, its good you know your own reputation. Along with brilliant everyone always points out how honorable you are.”
Nick nodded.
“Still,” said Langford, “Shouldn’t I want a real investigator involved?”
“That’s just the thing,” Nick pointed out. “I’m as likely to turn over something that reflects poorly on Persephone as on Carradine. But I’m less likely to reveal anything outside of our circle. I’m the closest thing to an independent insider as you’re going to get on this thing.”
“So, you’ll promise me that you won’t share any of the information you gain from the review with anyone at Carradine Metals, or anyone who might share the information with Carradine Metals?”
“Let’s just make it simple and say that I won’t share the information with anyone because there are far too many people who could use it to their advantage.”
“Simple enough. But what if you find evidence that there is something amiss with our legal counsel?”
“Then I’ll tell you it’s time to bring in an investigator.”
Langford nodded, thinking. “If I were to ask who you would suggest I call as a character reference, who would that be?”
Nick smiled and finished off his beer. “That’s easy, my Dad.”
Langford’s brows rose. “Oh?”
“Tough, but fair. And he was my first employer.”
“You don’t think his opinion would be biased?”
“Anyone who knows us well enough to be a reference has a biased opinion.”
Langford considered that. “True, true.” He positioned his glasses better for reading and picked up his menu. “Now that our business is concluded, let’s order some lunch.”
“Our business is concluded?”
Langford peered over his glasses again. “I’m sorry, did you have some more of those pretty graphs you wanted to show me?”
“No." Nick said quickly, still feeling a bit off balance. Then amended, "I mean, I can if you want me to…”
“That’s alright. Let me have a minute with this menu." Langford gave Nick a sardonic smile. "If I order what I usually get, you’ll just have that, too.”
Nick turned his empty mug on the coaster and murmured. “Actually I don’t like scallops.”
From behind the oversized menu he heard Langford say, “Don’t like scallops? Son, you need to learn to appreciate the few places where truly fresh seafood is flown in to the Midwest.”
After they ordered Langford looked at Nick with gentle amusement. “You’re dying to know what I’ve decided.”
“You’ve decided?”
“Yes sir, indeed I have.”
“You can call me Lang.”
Nick laughed. “Oh, well, I’m glad that’s resolved.”
“Yes, you should be. Only my friends call me Lang. Now let me look at your permission slip.”
Nick pulled an envelope from inside his suit jacket that contained the legal release form Jake Hilliard had drawn up for him last night and slid it across the table to Langford. The older man opened it up and read it in detail. After a few moments he pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and signed the form with a flourish, then slid it back across the table.
After securing the form in his pocket again Nick asked, “I just have to know, what put me over the top?”
"Using your father as a reference? That was classy, Nick. Very classy."
"That's probably the first time anyone has put the word classy together with my father. He's a plumber, you know."
Lang chuckled. "Nothing wrong with that. My old man was a mechanic. Honest work is good for the soul. But speaking of fathers, do you know Vivian's?"
Nick felt a sudden cold suspicion run down his spine. "Vivian the attorney? No... Should I?"
"Mundy Devonshire is quite a force unto himself. He comes from old, old money. Likes to dabble in politics."
"Are you warning me I should be careful?"
"Warning you? No. But it might be wise to be aware of him."
"His name doesn't sound familiar, if he's what you say..."
"You're a Chicago boy, Nick. You know everybody here but you don't get out of town much. Mundy splits his time between Boston and Washington, DC."
"Is he a senator or something?"
"No, his little brother is the senator. Mundy realized there was more money, and power really, in lobbying. You can pretty much thank him for making Washington lobbying what it is today."
"That's not something I'm likely to thank him for."
"Be that as it may, he's a man you're not likely to find a lot of paper on when you go to research him. Well, other than the society papers. But don't underestimate his influence."
"Do you think his daughter is like him?"
"It doesn't matter what I think. It matters what you find out."


  1. Something about Langford's voice immediately made me think of Denzel, and after some consideration I believe I may have hit on that casting even if I'd gone into this reading WITHOUT the preface. I don't believe any racial description is necessary.

    Also: I'm already itching to edit.
    : )

    1. I was thinking of a younger Bill Cobbs, but it's not like I would turn DOWN Denzel if he wanted to play the character. :)

  2. As a reader, I think race is worth mentioning in passing for setting the scene, because I like to picture the people and scenes in my head. Much more importantly, I like to know if race causes one of the characters to act differently (e.g., my elderly aunt, who persisted in calling all black people by their first names, because in her eyes, only white folks got called "Miz Lastname"), or if race plays a role in the story (e.g., the witness saw a short Hispanic woman running away from the scene of the crime). That said, I'm also a middle-class white woman, and I don't get to speak for other races.