“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the staircase.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
If you ever passed me on the street the first things you’d notice about me is that I’m white and a woman. You’d probably assume, without even thinking about it, that I’m straight. You’d happen to be right. I am those things. But I’m not all of those things. No one is encapsulated by his or her skin color, gender identity, or orientation. Not you, not me, not anyone. There’s a whole internal world inside of us that may have been shaped by those factors, but is still separate from those factors. Keeping this in mind I began to wonder why so many white, straight YA authors don’t seem to write diverse main characters.
First, it may not actually occur to a white, straight author to write a main character that is neither white nor straight. As writers we have been admonished to “write what we know” which can handicap us when we start thinking about who the star of our show is going to be. One author/illustrator, Courtney Pippen-Mather wrote openly on her blog about being the mother of biracial children and realizing one day that none of her paintings contained biracial children or children of color. This was a stunning revelation to her. It wasn’t intentional, by any means. She wondered why she hadn’t realized this sooner and if she even had the right to create illustrations of children of color:
“[P]erhaps I would offend someone by creating images that did not reflect my skin color? That somehow, we are supposed to only create children that look like the artists who create them?”
She decided she was going to start painting children like the ones she sees everyday, her own, and the results are gorgeous (you can check them out by clicking here). Sometimes, we just need to take a step back and realize we don’t need permission to start thinking about creating main characters that aren’t our mirror reflections.
Okay, maybe as a YA author you have thought about writing main characters that are more diverse but you’re hesitant because there are all those ISSUES. You know, the bigotry. I think the hesitancy usually comes from a genuine desire to not offend, to portray the struggles realistically, and the thinking that as a white, straight person they can never really know those struggles so to even attempt to portray them is inherently racist. It’s not. Your desire to try to have a diverse character be the star in your book is anything but racist or bigoted. It means you see who can lead the narrative in shades other than yourself.
A good post to read about writing diverse characters is How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour If You Are White by Kayla Ancrum. While this post can seem a bit overwhelming I think the best piece of advice is:
“It is important for you to know, what things [People of Color (POC)] are so tired of seeing in regards to incorrect or offensive portrayals of themselves.”
Like any novel you will attempt to write research is key, and I think the single most important approach is to identify stereotypes and avoid them like the plague. You can’t avoid writing stereotypes if you don’t know what they are. Avoiding stereotypes is also another really good reason you shouldn’t regulate diverse characters to secondary roles. There’s only so much room in a story for character development, and secondary characters, by their nature, are more compressed than the main character. That compression makes it more likely for them to fall into a stereotypical role. Having a main character who is diverse will allow you to fully explore and present their complexities as a human. In writing any diverse characters here are some rather obvious examples of what you really, really shouldn’t be portraying:
The Angry Black Man: He’s big, he’s black, and he’s angry. He has a chip on his shoulder and seems to think every white person hates him. Why can’t he see that you don’t see race? This stereotype is perhaps the most offensive and the most painfully pervasive in our society. This idea can also (and has) get a black man killed. It’s not just ugly, it’s dangerous. If you want to portray a black man who has legitimate reasons for being angry, that’s fine, as long as you make it clear that 1) he’s justified by his life experiences in feeling this way and, 2) he’s not just angry. He has an internal life as rich and as complex as anyone else. He feels things, is moved by things, and sees beauty in the world. He laughs, he loves, he cries, and, like everyone, just wants to be happy.
The Native American Shaman/Wise Woman: he/she has so much to teach the ignorant white person about the spirit world, about being one with the earth, about realizing their own potential for greatness. Also, they have feathers. Native American (or American Indian) culture has nothing to do with teaching white people how to appreciate nature. Their culture is for them. Also, this is very important, different tribes represent different cultures. The only thing many tribes have in common is that they happened to be living here when Europeans started invading and conquering. Some of the differences between tribes are as great as the cultural differences between America and China. If you’re going to write about Native Americans you need to pick a tribe and study it in depth and try to portray it accurately. It can’t be said enough, there is no one Native American culture. Every tribe is unique.
The Hispanic Help: she cleans the house, he keeps the yard, and neither has any thoughts about anything except working for you, and their six children, of course. Isn’t it charming how broken and accented their English is, and isn’t their food to die for? Ok, by now I’m sure you realize that people who are Hispanic are doctors, lawyers, scientists, housewives, etc. They are not only the menial labor. They aren’t all only recently arrived and many of them speak English just as well as you and I. As with Native Americans they don’t have a monolithic culture, so please do some research about their country of origin (even if you don’t need to include that information in your story) so you can write them as a rich, developed individual.
The Muslim Fanatic: he hates America because he hates freedom! Also, his entire culture hates women and subordinates them. He has several wives and children and beats them all, in between building that bomb to blow up the White House (he’s SO good at multi-tasking). Where to begin. As someone formerly married to a Muslin man, just no. There are so many wonderful, peace-loving, tolerant, open-minded men and women who are Muslim. Muslim does not equal terrorist or intolerant. Quite the opposite. Practicing Muslims come in all shades and ethnicities, not just Middle Eastern. There are many wonderful blogs right here on WordPress where you can find discussions on what it means to be a practicing Muslim in the modern world. Not every Muslim prays five times a day just like how not every Jewish man wears a yarmulke (pronounced ya-mi-kah). They often look just like any other American citizen, so please keep that in mind when you are writing them as a character.
I could go on (what, you mean you’re not going to write about The Sassy Black Woman, The Sassy Latina, The Black/Hispanic Gangsta, The Super, Super Smart Asian Who Loves Math/Science?) but I think you’re getting the point.
Other problematic stereotypes to avoid are LGBT stereotypes. You know, the fabulous gay man who loves to shop, men, sex, shop, pink, men, sex, and fashion. Did I say fabulous because I meant FAB-U-LOUS!!! And don’t forget the super-man-hating butch and her super-femme-but-is-probably-really-straight-but-just-experimenting girlfriend/wife. Again, I could go on but I don’t want to ruin my lunch.
Here’s a great post for getting you started in ways to identify stereotypical portrayals of LGBT characters in literature so that you can avoid them: Gays in Literature – Avoiding stereotypes.
Now if all this seems terribly overwhelming and you’re thinking about throwing up your hands and running for the hills, take a moment and consider that this really only applies if you’re a contemporary YA author.
As Malinda Lo (author of Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance) wrote in her post Taking the homophobia out of fantasy:
“Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.”
If you want to create a world or universe where ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation are non-issues, that’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with that approach (just, for goodness sake, don’t pull a George RR Martin. The whole white savior thing is really, really offensive. And tired. Offensive and tired.).
A recent article on 24-7pressrelease, The Rise in Popularity of Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy states “One of the most fascinating developments in the publishing industry over the last decade had been the explosion of the sub-market known as young adult (YA) fiction, particularly the science fiction and fantasy genres.” –11/18/2012
Sci fi/fantasy YA is a thriving genre and it gives us so much room for possibilities. Some people may think it’s a cop out, a way to avoid writing about issues that make an author uncomfortable. And yes, maybe that’s true sometimes. Some people may feel that it gives a false illusion of race no longer being an important issue and holding POC back in the real world, or the ways in which LGBT people are marginalized, harassed, and discriminated against. But I have a different view. I see fiction as a vehicle to get us to where we want and need to go as a society. We often talk about a post-racial (post-gendered/post-orientation-conscious) society, but what does that look like? What does that even mean?
To me it means a world in which race, gender identity, and orientation has become descriptive and no longer defines how a person is seen, the opportunities they have access to, and what they are perceived as being capable of. That the stars of our stories, both in writing and in the media, come in all shapes, colors, creeds, genders, orientations, and cultures. That’s the world I want to live in. So that’s the world I will attempt to portray when I feel it fits the story I am trying to write. And when it doesn’t? Research, research, research.
As Malinda Lo wrote in response to a comment on her post Writing about lesbians when you’re not a lesbian “[B]ecause there are so many hetero characters in the world . . . one case of messing them up isn’t going to do much harm. But there are way fewer gay characters, so getting them wrong has a somewhat wider impact.”
That’s true for any character of diversity. So taking a bit of time to learn about what their experiences might be, even if you chose to go the sci fi/fantasy route, will make your writing more informed, as well as your mind.
Now, the last issue, the one that in some ways may have the greatest impact on whether a white, straight author chooses to have a diverse main character: the cash. Diversity is not what publishers are looking for, and in a very competitive market you want your best shot of being the next Cassandra Clare or Suzanne Collins, so, really you have to write for the market. I sighed when I typed this. Those who have already published or know the industry well, this isn’t for you. This is for the unpublished, uninitiated:
In 2013, only 10% of published authors broke $20,000 a year. For e-publishing the figures are even worse. Just 5% managed to break $20,000. If a published writer spends just one hour a day (ha!) writing, 365 days a year, they end up earning a bank-breaking $3/hour. (Don’t write for the money ) Sorry. I hope I haven’t ruined anyone’s day with that information.
So, seeing as you’re not going to be making any real money at this writing gig, it means you’ve got nothing to lose. And if you are posting content online, such as short stories, you have multiple chances to portray diverse main characters. Maybe you’ll never be a big-selling best author (that’s not why you’re writing, is it?) but you can still reach people. And you can still help change things. The more ordinary and everyday we make it seem to have diverse main characters the more we’ll change our own world towards the ideal we aspire to. And things are changing. Diversity is becoming more of a national conversation, and we, as writers, can use both our hands and our minds to create a world we all want to live in.