Sunday, January 17, 2010

Characters of color in speculative fiction

I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes").

Ooh, poor Daenerys.

I rarely think about the skin color of characters, mostly because I’m usually trying to come up with biological features to differentiate races. Lateral lines, glass instead of eyes, metallic spurs, that kind of thing. I only mention skin color when it serves to distinguish a particular species.

On the other hand, I don’t think I ever went out of my way to make sure any characters were clearly black, or obviously Far Eastern (though that’s partly because I don’t use Earth as a setting). Even in The Mark of Vurth, which is set in an Africa-esque land, I didn’t specify that anyone was black, although I had a blonde minor character.

There are probably several books where characters of color play supporting roles – Nenisi Conor in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines is the wise and beautiful (but non-exclusive) lover of the heroine. But I’m finding it difficult to think of books where the main characters are clearly black, Native American, Asian, Far Eastern, etc. The only ones which came to mind right away are Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

An old edition of the book has a beautiful cover painting which shows this. And the heroine of Kara Dalkey’s Goa is Indian.

So here are a couple of questions.

1. Should we make an effort to include characters of color in our work?

Personally, I can’t see myself doing this unless the story called for it. Partly because I believe we all pick what we want to show and promote in our work. Another writer may want to draw attention to the lack of minorities in fantasy and science fiction – and what better way than to write an excellent book where all the characters are people of color?*

But I’d rather portray science and technology in a positive way in my books. Even if I could do both, I know which issue I feel more strongly about, and if I included too many of the causes I support, the books would stop being fantasy stories and start being thinly veiled rhetoric.

It’s also going to be difficult, at best, to write characters of color into historical fantasy. Especially in a setting where such people were just not that common, they’re going to stand out. They’ll be noticed. Even today, there are groups which believe in the superiority of one race over another, so there may be even stronger sentiments in the past.

"Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe."
-- Othello

2. Would you like to see more characters of color in speculative fiction?

I must be colorblind, because I usually don’t even notice. Until I read a post which mentioned the lack of Chinese characters in the Chinese/American ‘verse of Firefly, it didn’t occur to me that there was such a deficiency, or that only one member of the cast was black. The show was just so good that I didn’t notice.

Though maybe that’s just me. Even though I’m an Asian who migrated to first the States and then Canada, the issue of skin color has never been an important one for me. My answer would be that I’d just like to see interesting and realistic characters – they can be green-skinned Orion slave girls as long as they have interesting personalities.

What do you think?

*I only realized the significance of this when I read The Tombs of Atuan. Towards the end, Ged tells Tenar that she will be known as the White Lady of Gont, and that’s when it dawned on me why he was specifying the “white” part. Until then, I’d barely registered the characters’ skin color.


Linda Maye Adams said...

This reminded of a writer on one of the message boards who was writing a space opera (her term) where she was trying to be like Star Trek. She had the Black officer, the Asian officer, the woman officer--it came across as if she was ticking off a political correctness list.

I think different races works better if you start with the typical makeup of the setting. For example, if you were writing a story about the army, you would have more characters who would be Black or Hispanic. Asian and Native American are rare. I only saw one Asian and one Native American in ten years I was in the Army. If I wrote a story set in Los Angeles, I would expect to see Hispanics, and I would expect Native Americans to be in Washington State. This is easy enough to research if you're basing any fantasy city on a real place--statistics are available online.

I liked how Tamora Pierce did in her books because she makes it a part of the setting. There's a Black character in one of the books (actually several), and their origins are a logical part of the story. Instead of feeling like a political correctness card being used, it has more of the flavor of entire world.

Maria Zannini said...

I never think of color when I'm reading, even when the author mentions it.

But nothing aggravates me more than when authors write to an agenda and spoon-feed racial awareness for some 'higher' purpose.

Such behavior is arrogant at best and reprehensible at worst.

Bekah said...

Interesting. I agree that Tamra Pierce has done a fine job of creating characters of multiple skin tones.

JH said...

The absolute definitive word on why this is important:

(Marian already linked to the excellent rant she followed this essay up with.)

Addis said...

I like Linda's answer.

My generic, PC answer is that I think the most important thing a writer can do for their self is to get their version of whatever truth it is that they're trying to portray on the paper, regardless of anything.

For myself, because I've never lived in a racially homogeneous setting, writing about one has never occurred to me. Not to say that I wouldn't do it one day.

But for now, because the characters I create tend to be amalgamations of my real life experiences and tied to particular settings I find it impossible to omit race from the story.

I do agree that it's ridiculous to put in characters just to meet a self-determined quota.

As a kid, I can certainly say I always got a thrill to see people that looked like me on the television or in films in unconventional roles so I won't begrudge any writer for using their fiction for aspirational purposes as long as it's not heavy handed.

Aspirational can become condescending if not handled carefully. (See Stephen King and Magical Black People)

Deidra said...

I'm with you on this: I barely, if ever, notice race in books and movies. (Of course, sometimes I ignore the physical description of a book character entirely and give a blonde woman dark hair or somesuch. It always comes as a shock in re-reading to realize I've imagined them wrong the entire time...) It always comes as a surprise when one of the characters comments about race because I basically forget that there's any difference between them.

I think racial blindness is a good thing, though. :)

Marian Perera said...

Linda - I really dislike the racial checklist. It reminds me of starting a fantasy novel by gathering a group of characters - one elf, one dwarf, one knight, one mage, one Token Tough Girl, etc.

It can still be pulled off, but only if the characters come off as three-dimensional people rather than representatives of their races, chosen on the basis of PC.

I like you analysis of racial distribution on a geographic level. That would work well for fantasies based on real-world places.

Maria - The authors usually have good intentions, but then again, those pave the road to somewhere hot.

I don't mind this agenda as much as others (e.g. promoting the author's religion), but the story takes precedence to the soapbox, always.

Marian Perera said...

Bekah - I read Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series, but (as usual) don't recall anyone's race or skin color. One thing I do remember is that Keladry was raised in a Japan-esque country and learned to fight with Far Eastern weapons.

JH : Been wanting to write about this ever since you posted that link. It's a complex and controversial issue.

Marian Perera said...

Addis, this part of your post sprang out at me.

"As a kid, I can certainly say I always got a thrill to see people that looked like me on the television or in films in unconventional roles "

I realized that I'd feel the same way if I saw a South Asian character (as long as they weren't hypereducated types with Apu-ish accents, which IMO are getting to be a stereotype).

It's not a necessary thing to do. I identify with personalities and flaws rather than with appearance or racial characteristics.

But it would give me that little thrill. I remember being pleased when I read a Wild Cards novel and realized that a minor character was called Jayawardene (i.e. he was Sri Lankan).

"Aspirational can become condescending if not handled carefully. (See Stephen King and Magical Black People)"

Oh yes. That could be a topic for another blog post.

Marian Perera said...

"Of course, sometimes I ignore the physical description of a book character entirely and give a blonde woman dark hair or somesuch..."

Deirdra, that happens to me too! When I finished Ender's Game and read Orson Scott Card's description of the character development in that novel, I realized that he had never described Ender. So I'd imagined him as looking somewhat like me - relatively small, dark-haired, dark-eyed, etc.

Also kudos to whoever designed the cover for not including their version of the main character and allowing me to build up a vision of him. Some things are best left to the readers' imagination. :)