When I begin to write something new, I always ask myself a series of questions. These questions change with every fresh story, but their basic formula is the same: Why did I write this? As in, "Why did I write this story in Beijing?" "Why did I write this in first person?" "Why did I write my main character as a nineteen-year-old boy?" "Why did I write him as Chinese?"
I ask these questions because, honestly, writing is made up of a lot of arbitrary decisions. A character is called Chad because it was the first name to pop into your head, but Will or Doug would have worked just as well. A lightning storm is written when any meteorological event would have done. But as the story develops, these random choices, light as air when you first blew them onto the page, gain density, until they grow impossible to remove. For example, I'm currently working on a novel about a Chinese restaurant, and the biggest event, a fire, was originally added in as a placeholder, until I could find a better catalyst for the plot. Over a year later, this fire has become a load-bearing pillar for my novel; to replace it would be to rewrite the entire project. But the reason this fire is so integral is because I asked the question, at some point in the writing process, of why this story needed a fire. And even if the answer is merely, "A fire would cause an arson investigation," or, "I like the symbolism of lightning storms," or "Chad sounds like a name a douchey guy would have," that's a direction to go in. If I had never questioned my decision to include the fire, the event would have stood out, like a lump of flour unincorporated into the narrative gravy. The readers would be stuck asking the question for me, the arbitrariness of the fire distracting them until it had seized their attention entirely.
When American writers arbitrarily decide the race of their characters, and then ignore the question of race, they are courting the same conundrum, even if they phrase it a different way. We often hear this baleful refrain, "Why can't a character just be black, or Asian, or Hispanic? A white character can just be white, after all." Let me tackle first the easier, and latter, misconception in this refrain. What writers refer to as white characters are in fact characters that never have a race attached to them; in other words, a default character. A default character can just be a character because a writer never really chooses the default (a thing to change, certainly, but that's another bulletin). But when a white character is characterized by the adjective "white," when a choice is actually made, their race is also thrown into the ring, to be questioned and examined. Better to phrase the dilemma as, "Why does describing a character's race mean that inexplicably, my readers become fixated on race?"
Well, in the same way that my writing in a fire without asking myself why I am writing in a fire means that inexplicably, my readers want to know why there is a fire. But, one may argue, if I never ask myself why a character is named Chad and not Will, the reader certainly won't be fixated on this choice. This is because some authorial choices are more obviously choices, and the more the choice seems like a departure from the norm (imagine if the character was named Peaches), the more likely a reader will mark it as purposeful, and therefore meaningful. Characters are named Chad all the time. Writers, and I will be frank, especially white writers, are more likely to have a character named Chad than a character of color. So yes, unfair as it might be, a character of color attracts a similar amount of reader curiosity as a fire, is as much of a distraction. The antidote, then, is also the same. Ask why you are writing a character of color. Do your best to answer it.
Say you want to write a Korean-American character who goes to summer camp and comes of age in the mountains of Vermont. It is easy, I know, to argue that you have the right to write a character of color because the decision of his race is arbitrary. It is easy, also, to take the road more travelled and change the race of a character to white (or rather, default), and avoid the extra scrutiny altogether. But consider the ways your story may change, for the better, by not just writing a character of color, but really questioning your decision to do so. In asking yourself if your character could as easily be white, black, Hispanic, or Chinese-American, you open yourself up to seeing the unique set of experiences, possibilities, and limitations your original character brings to the work. You start to wonder about your character's patterns of behavior, customs, rebellions, hopes, and fears, how these might play out in a sleep away camp in Vermont. You see all the ways that this character of color is exceptional, and all the ways they are absolutely ordinary. In other words, you give this character—this simultaneous representation of, and access point into, a human being—the opportunity to shape the story around themselves. You give your character of color the same consideration you give to all your other characters, consideration you have even given to the inanimate objects, events, and names in your writing.
You may still fail. I know I do. Because the question in my title is not the last step. It is not even the middle step. This is the first step to writing characters of color, and yet it is a step rarely taken. Asking yourself why. Seeing characters of color as characters first, who, possessing inherent value, deserve to earn a place in your story. And questioning your own racism and prejudice in treating them differently in the first place. The question in my title is not rhetorical; it is not one a moderator asks to kick off a stale panel discussion. It is a real and urgent question, one of craft, of race, of character.