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How To Assign A Character’s Race In A Screenplay

Race, Variety & Authenticity

It’s important for writers to think about race, because representation matters. It’s part of the B2W remit. If you follow me on social media, you’ll know one of my books is titled, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV or Film. In the course of my research for the book, I talked to a multitude of producers, literary agents, filmmakers, publishers, authors and even actors for their thoughts on this issue, from ALL types of backgrounds, which has been a real eye-opener. I’ve also put my own thoughts under the microscope about what ‘diversity’ really means when it comes to creative works.


Diversity & Representation

So, since we talk A LOT about diverse characters and representation on this site, I thought this question sent via email from Bang2writer Matt Charlton was worth opening up:

I am writing something in which I’d like the lead to be female, I would also like her to be black (there is a reason for this, but it is not a story ‘about’ race or a making a social statement).

Can I ask what is the best way to introduce this into the script when you first meet the character? Do I need to say it? How do I make reference to it without making too much or too little of this fact?

In the context of some stories (such as slavery, racism, stories set abroad), a character’s race may be obvious; but in most stories it’s not. Some writers think this is not an issue unless the film gets made; others think it is, from the page upwards. In short, it can depend.

Casting Dilemmas

So, this can be a real dilemma – and NOT just for white writers (though they may feel the most at sea about it, having thought very little about race before). But that said, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this conversation with Bang2writers of ALL colours.

As Matt rightly says, he doesn’t want to make too little of the character’s race, either. It can be just as tedious to gloss over a character’s heritage and ‘tick boxes’ as it is to labour over it too much! Besides, Matt also points out there is a story reason his lead is black. This is a good thing, since there are so few women in colour in the protagonist’s role.

For this reason, I am of the school of thought that screenwriters SHOULD signify race of characters in screenplays. I believe this because I think it means there is more chance the character will be cast ‘correctly’.

However, I also understand some writers don’t want to be so blatant as writing ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ (or similar) next to a character’s name. This is not because said writer is racist, but because they may feel it reduces the character to his/her ethnicity. Others feel it is an admission that the world is otherwise default white. As with anything, there’s always more than one way of looking at an issue! MORE: 7 Casting Debates That Need To Die The Death


So, for these writers, I have the following advice:

1) Consider your character’s name

Sometimes, names can give an indication of a person’s ethnicity: Wing Hun and Rupinder are from two very different cultures, as are Brandon and Piotr. There are certain names that give a clue to status and class too, ie. Monty and Sharon. It’s not a foolproof method, however. Names do not necessarily follow through ‘logically’; plus second or third generation children may have names that reflect their new culture. In addition, different cultures may adopt ‘English names’ as well as their given names, like the Chinese do. But it can be a useful tool for the writer, if used with care. MORE: 7 Ways To Name Your Characters

2) Subvert our expectations 

Sometimes utilising general societal expectations can help build your character … As long as you don’t reproduce them as being ‘the same old, same old’. (The latter can range from being boring right through to offensive).

Taking something familiar and flipping it can pay dividends. For example, think of all the Chinese Takeaways you’ve been to. They have probably ALL been run by East Asian people, right? This is not inauthentic or surprising.

Now consider all the expectations white people might have of the people working in the takeaway:

  • Hard-working
  • Poor to intermediate English
  • Very quite, almost shy, smiles and nods a lot
  • Very good with numbers
  • Maybe can kick ass with martial arts

Now imagine someone – of East Asian descent – working in a Takeaway who is not REMOTELY like the above!

After all, all the above list is based on assumptions… and assumptions rarely lead anywhere good. Sometimes they can lead to racism, sexism, homophobia, especially via microaggressions.

So to combat this, perhaps your character who works in a takeaway is:

  • second or third generation British
  • maybe s/he likes working at the takeaway or maybe s/he doesn’t
  • Maybe s/he failed Maths GCSE
  • maybe s/he’s really miserable, or is dreaming about getting out
  • Maybe their dream is opening a hair salon, joining the army or becoming a nudey photographer?? (Why not!)

In other words, create a SITUATION we expect to find but introduce us to a character we DON’T expect. Rather like this >> WATCH JADE DRAGON WEB SERIES.

3) Reboot the storyworld 

I wrote in my Writing Drama Screenplays book that what’s particularly refreshing about Kidulthood (2006) is the fact the ‘usual’ story world is inverted. Curtis is a powerful, black man who commands a small army of followers. Crucially, in the excruciating face-cutting scene, it’s a white henchman who holds the guy down on the snooker table for Trife. The subtext of this storyworld is clear: white guys work for Curtis, not the other way around.

Alternatively, maybe the change in the storyworld is LITERAL. Such TV shows as Empire (2015-ongoing) and Luke Cage (2016-ongoing) are notable because they are set in the black community, with black as the default, for once. This means that if you DO signify race in a storyworld like this? It will be to note the character is WHITE, instead. Refreshing change! MORE: More on rebooting your story world.

Good Luck!

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2 thoughts on “How To Assign A Character’s Race In A Screenplay”

  1. Hey! I’m writing a post-apocalyptic/dystopian story where a lot of cultural elements of race don’t really apply anymore due to everything just being different. I have multiple characters who are not white, but I don’t know how to say this without awkwardly stating their skin colour. Help?

    1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just saying *what* characters’ races are – I don’t think it has to be clever or poetic. But if you go this way, make sure you do the same for white characters too. I do this and I know readers have appreciated it, because they’ve told me (including readers who are not white).

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