First, I should say that I hate almost all discussions of ethnicity, because they always seem to end up going in circles, trying to break out of treating people as groups and always consider them as unique individuals, but not wanting to deny the importance of culture, ethnicity, or appearance in real life and hence some group identification, but, a focus on group identification can easily devolve into stereotypes at best, and yet completely ignoring differences can become an attempt to wipe out other cultures or backgrounds where everyone is assumed/forced to be the same as the majority group, and, well, you see the circle.
That said, I am going to talk about ethnicity in your writing. I also should say that this post sort of wanders around this topic with no real point.
How do you handle ethnic identification and backgrounds in your writing?
There are easy mistakes to avoid such as making everyone good be of some identifiable real ethnicity and everyone bad be of another. I love C.S. Lewis, as people know, but several of his Narnia books revolve around basically Turks as bad guys with the English as good guys.
Apart from such things, how do you decide what ethnicity to make your characters? Naturally, it will depend upon the type of novel you are writing. Let's start with real world settings:
As everyone knows, I haven't actually written fiction in a couple years now, but when I did, I did end up with one story involving a white American character and a Vietnamese-American character. This was sort of accidental. I've never been good at plot, so I like to borrow them as much as I can. I happened to read a brief romance between an "Asian" woman and a white man, and I liked the general idea of what the person had done, but I wanted to do such a story in my own way. In the end, I dropped virtually every detail of the original, except their very approximate ethnicities. Next I wanted to make her character more precise and developed, since, in the original story, the heroine was just vaguely Asian and it didn't seem the author had any real idea what specifically. As I was brainstorming, I thought about setting the story in a suburb of Minnesota, and I knew from my college time there, that there's a sizable ethnically Vietnamese population there, so, bam, she was suddenly Vietnamese by ancestry.
And so now I have a story about a Vietnamese character without ever setting out to write about a Vietnamese person in particular.
However, sometimes I will just randomly change the ethnicity of a person (if it's a main character, of course I have to genuinely develop it) solely for the point of having people of different ethnicities. There's no particular reason a never-met ex-girlfriend or an old P.E. coach or whoever must be, say, Indian (as in India), but why not? There's no reason they have to be white, black, or anything else unless the world demands it. (This last bit is sort of the crux of things I think.)
But is that right? I don't know. There's a famous saying from Checkov that if there's a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, it needs to be fired by Act III. Of course, this idea is based on the notion that something like a gun is going to catch people's attention, and so it needs to be part of the story. But there's no comparable saying that if there's a poker by the fireplace, someone must be hit with it. Pokers are assumed to be naturally next to fire places and don't need to be a part of the story. If I make an ex-girlfriend Indian, is that ethnicity choice a poker or a gun? I often want it to be a poker, because the idea is that America (and most places in fact) are multi-ethnic and people need to get used to that being represented in fiction. Am I writing a story about the Indian-American experience? No, course not. But I am writing one deliberately set in a world where ex-girlfriends are periodically Indian (or whatever). In the end, it really comes down to the reader. Some readers expect the presence of any non-standard (I deliberately chose that term) ethnicity to require an Important Reason.
Of course, all of this has been written as if I must justify the ethnicity of anyone who is not white, but I don't need to justify a white ethnicity. Well aware of that, but, well, this post has to end some time, so I won't go into that issue.
Then there's so-termed speculative fiction, such as fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi, etc. How do you handle ethnicity there? It's interesting because in theory the world is entirely created by the author. How is this handled?
As always, it will depend upon the sort of world being created. Ello's shopping her novel set in a mythic ancient Korea, so I assume most of her characters will naturally be Korean-ish. Classic fantasy worlds a la Tolkien are really a mythical, never existed sort of medieval Europe. Rohan is basically Vikings on horses for example. And in such a fantasy Europe, I assume it actually does make sense for most people to be European-looking, even though in theory the world is not the real one, and so could be anything. Would it be wacky to make everyone in Rohan look Tahitian? Culturally Vikings, but Tahitian in appearance? I think this would knock most readers off, even though since Rohan is fictional, it could be just so.
But what if you want to create a world that isn't a modified / mythicized version of some part of the real one?
However, we rarely truly do this in fantasy at least, do we? Characters are almost always human, or a modified human. It's a conceit that they speak Modern English (really the reader's language) as the Common Tongue. If they didn't, the reader couldn't read the story. The technology is modified real world technology of some real culture. So we are back with modified humans as characters, which means you have to make the choice of ethnicity again. Is that what's wrong with Tahitian Vikings? Ripping the technology and culture from one place, but the physical appearance from another? (OK, Tahitian Vikings might be a bad example, since there's an actual biological association between climate and skin color, but we can just change the example to Tahitian Mayans or whatever.)
I'm done wandering aimlessly through this minefield. What choices do you make?