This is a topic that came up in an online writing group in which I occasionally participate — came up a couple months ago, actually, but I’m just now getting around to putting down my thoughts here. See, as with pretty much anything online, what started out as a really good discussion was very quickly derailed by two self-important dicks who managed to devolve the whole thing into the online equivalent of two chimps flinging shit at each other.
And yeah, the topic is complicated and sensitive and I’ll probably make some people mad with this post, but whatever.
The question being debated (until the chimps stormed in) was this: is it important to establish a character’s race or ethnicity in fiction? Does it matter?
Yes, I realise there’s actually no mention of gender there. Bear with me, we’ll get to it.
Does race matter?
I’m a white dude. The fuck do I know about race?
I’m also heterosexual and middle class, so yes, I am aware of my privileged position within society. The only way I could be more so is if my parents had birthed me into a Fortune 500 company so I could be named VP of Privilege and draw a salary for golfing.
But yes, race and ethnicity of your characters matters.
One of the arguments put forward was that unless it is essential to your plot, then the race/ethnicity of your characters is irrelevant and has no place in the story. I can understand this argument, even if I disagree with it. There is a massive backlash against anything considered to be “politically correct” these days — though given the state of politics right now, I’m not sure we should even be using that term anymore — as we’ve seen very clearly with the recent all-female Ghostbusters movie and even more recently the casting of a female actor as The Doctor. So I suppose fear of alienating an audience could be one rationale. I remember years ago, back when a new Superman movie was in development hell. Those of you who are into this might remember as well, but I don’t know how accurate the rumours were. This would have been after the infamous Tim Burton/Nick Cage Superman movie was finally shelved for good, and long before Bryan Singer got his version of the ground. Rumours were flying about a new Superman movie in development and the studio wanted a very specific actor for the role. And that actor was… Denzel Washington. (Disclaimer: I’m actually not sure it was Denzel Washington now that I’ve put his name down — regardless the rumours ended up coming to naught as we now know). A certain segment of the population UTTERLY LOST THEIR SHIT. Whether or not this was even something Warner Brothers was considering or whether it was just more internet BS, the fact of it was that large numbers of people were vehemently opposed to a black Superman. The reaction wasn’t “Well, as long as the story is good…,” it was “SUPERMAN IS NOT BLACK.”
So yeah, backlash is a real thing. Of course not many characters are Superman, so it might be a poor example, but regardless, a very vocal section of the population can and will go nuclear against anything they deem as being “PC.” And yet liberals are the snowflakes, eh?
Another argument I’ve seen put forward is, essentially, audience participation. You give the audience the bare bones of who your character is, but leave their race a blank slate. The theory being that the reader will fill in those details from their own experience — a black kid will see the character as black, a Jewish kid will picture a Jewish hero, etc. This idea is possibly drawn from one of the things Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: that you should give the reader the framework and let their imagination fill in some of the detail.
I actually went this route with Radko’s War, where I never described Finn Radko in any capacity aside from what he was wearing or whether he looked tired. I wanted the reader to imprint, to see themselves in Radko. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. I have yet to speak to anyone who saw Radko as anything but white. Now, part of that may be in the name — Radko is a fairly European-sounding name — but part of it is conditioning. We are so accustomed to our heroes being Tom Cruise or George Clooney or Arnold Schwarzenegger that our brains default to the following equation:
HERO = WHITE
That is thankfully starting to change, with Dwayne Johnson being arguably the biggest action star in the world right now, and one of the biggest successes of the summer starring an Israeli woman, but we still have years and years of movies and novels and television shows where the hero is a white man. So in theory I love the idea of letting a reader’s imagination create the main character in their image, in practice I don’t think it works. And that’s also why I would argue that a character’s race and ethnicity is very important in fiction.
Granted, I’m speaking in broad generalizations here, but if we don’t include race in our characters, how do we break the cycle? How do we stop the “white guy auto-correct,” where our brains help us fill in the blanks with more white people? Representation is important. It matters. I don’t need to see more representation of people like me in books and movies, I’m all over the goddamned place. But that’s not the case for everyone. See, you know what one of the great things was about the original Star Trek series? Everyone was there. In the core cast you had a Japanese man and a black woman. The supporting cast included an African doctor (not sure what country he was supposed to be from, I just remember his accent) and even one of the most memorable villains of the series was a Sikh — the infamous Kahn Noonien Singh. Sure not everyone got the screen time that Shatner did, but the important fact was that they were there. They existed. Some played important roles, some played supporting roles and some just walked through a scene, but they were there.
Did it matter to the story that Uhura was black or that Sulu was Japanese? Nope. Their names were giveaways, but if they’d been named Sally Jones and George Patterson, would it have made any difference to the stories told on Star Trek? There may have been some minor differences, but not in the core of the story.
So if race doesn’t matter to your story, why include it? Because we need to. If it doesn’t matter to my story if my space pirate is white or Middle Eastern, why not make her Middle Eastern? If I need a supporting character to bring in some information at a crucial time, why not make him Mosi Olugbala instead of Ross Johnston? Unless you’re writing historical fiction where your time period would dictate the presence of certain ethnicities or the lack thereof, there is no compelling reason not to include a diverse cast of characters. It may not seem like much to you as a writer, especially if you’re white like me and have never had to search for representation in entertainment, but think of those in your audience who do. Think of the Middle Eastern kid growing up in North America in today’s political climate, where 99% of characters she would encounter that shared her ethnicity (or religion) would be blowing shit up and trying to kill the hero. And then she finds a book where a Middle Eastern woman — a scientist — is instrumental in saving the Earth. It didn’t matter to your story that the scientist was Middle Eastern but it sure as shit mattered to that girl.
The same could be said of a lot of “visible minority” situations.
No, it doesn’t matter to the story that the historian is in a wheelchair, or that the cop is a lesbian or that the astronaut is Muslim. You don’t think paraplegics and lesbians and Muslims would be overjoyed to find a character in your story that represents them and their community?
To put it even more bluntly, there’s no point to race in the real world, it’s just random shuffling of DNA determining our appearance, so why should it be required to have a purpose in your story?
Gender makes people mad
Stupid but true.
I’ve mentioned before than in the very first outline of Radko’s War, the two main characters — Finn Radko and Freyja Sigurdsson — had their genders reversed. Radko, the naval officer, was female and Sigurdsson, the tough soldier, was male. I switched them because I preferred the dynamic, but I remember presenting part of an early draft of the book at a writer’s group I was part of at the time (real world, not via the Internet) and there was some resistance to the idea of a woman as a hard-ass soldier. One comment I received was that I should have made Sigurdsson male, since her gender wasn’t relevant to the story. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
They were right — it doesn’t matter to the story that Sigurdsson is a woman. I could very easily have made her male, with just a few dialogue tweaks. But, as I said to this individual, if her gender doesn’t matter to the story than why are they bothering to raise the issue of her gender? There’s no compelling reason why Sigurdsson SHOULDN’T be female, aside from insecurities and/or outdated mindsets from some readers.
Oh. A quick aside: same writing group, same reader actually. I had started writing a horror story where one of the main characters (female) had a Mohawk hair style. The guy actually paused while reading, looking up at me with a frown, and said “Can women have that hair style?” I swear this story is entirely true.
We’re now seeing the same kind of knee-jerk reactions with the casting of Jodi Whittaker as The Doctor. Some people are crying “the Doctor has always been male!” and they’re right, but you know what? The Doctor has also always been fictional. He also only has twelve regenerations, but wait, now we’re somehow on the 14th Doctor. Yes, I’m counting Paul McGann, and you should too — he was great. I’m sure some people have rage-quit as fans over a female Doctor and I suspect Doctor Who fandom is ten times stronger for their absence, and certainly ten times more tolerable. Star Wars fandom has been facing this since The Force Awakens and then Rogue One introduced — GASP — female leads. People… sorry, typo. Self-righteous man-children were practically foaming at the mouth over how Disney was turning Star Wars into I don’t know what — they’re barely intelligible. I’m sure the words “libtards” and “snowflake” were thrown around.
Anyway, if your enjoyment of a movie or novel or any other entertainment is dependent upon the genitalia of the main character, you have issues.
I have mentioned before that I have a step-daughter. She’s eleven now, and well into her rehearsal time for her teenage years. She’s only been in my life since she was seven, so my realization of just how shitty this world is toward girls is fairly recent and it’s a big part of why I’m a big supporter of strong female characters. And I don’t just mean strong leads, like Wonder Woman or Rey, but all the way down the line. As I always say, I don’t hold myself out as any shining example, but I try very hard to make my female characters three dimensional, but I also try to have a lot of them. Show women playing all sorts of roles in society: soldier, doctor, student, psychic assassin — you know, all the normal stuff. And again, it frequently has no bearing on the plot whatsoever that those characters are women. But representation matters.
The truth according to Whale
So here’s my bottom line. Take it all for what it is — the opinion of one white guy who has never had to deal with racism, sexism, classism or cubism.
Who gives a shit if race, ethnicity or gender have anything to do with your story. Guess what? Black people exist. Transgendered people exist. So do Muslims, lesbians, paraplegics, and, yes, even women. I know this is all such a shocking set of revelations that I have blown your mind. Yes, I know it’s moronic to make statements like that, but by putting it that way — explaining that yes, these people do exist — I have hopefully made you think I’m kind of dumb for feeling like I need to point it out.
Of course they exist, you know that and have known it forever.
And think of your workplace, or the coffee shop you frequent, or the local game store where you go to play X-Wing (ahem). Is there any “point” to the race or ethnicity of any of the people you see there? Of course not, they simply exist.