Saturday, 2 March 2013

On Non-White Characters, and their Representation in Fiction

When was the last time you read a book with a non-white protagonist? Or a book in which a non-white character played a primary, or at least influential, role?

I've always been a little wary of posting about this topic, but today I've decided to suck up my courage and do it. However, I'm not going to make any attempt to preach - because I'm just as bad as anyone else who had a hard time answering this question.

Let's face it, there aren't a lot of books out there - especially in what you might call the "mainstream" world of bestsellers - that feature a main character of colour. From my perspective, on the rare occasion a main character isn't white, it's usually because the novel makes a plot point out of it, or is geared in some way towards it as a neccessity.

However, I am not here to rail about internalised racism and inequality in the world of publishing. For starters, it's not fair. The vast majority of authors do not set out to write their novel with the aim of excluding non-white characters, nor do they add such characters to the background just to pat themselves on the back and feel pleased with themself for playing the philanthropist.

From my perspective, there are three main reasons why characters of colour are lacking in mainstream fiction:

1) The author is worried about misrepresenting a given background or culture, and in order to avoid falling back on flawed and potentially offensive stereotypes they simply avoid writing coloured characters.

2) The author, particularly if they are writing historical fiction or similar, is uncertain whether a character of colour would be accurate and / or possible in the context of their setting.

3) The author, quite simply, isn't aware of the fact that they are automatically creating an all-white cast.

All these issues, particularly the last, are down to cultural issues. If you are a member of a certain racial background, and grow up primarily interacting with members of that same race, the likelihood is that your earliest conceptions will alter what you automatically draw on as references for character construction. For example, as a white person who interacts mostly with other white people, I draw primarily on these features when considering not only a character's race, but also their cultural views.

Of course, I am not saying that every race holds to its own cultural code - I'd be a blithering idiot to be unaware of the globalisation of the world, as well as the incredibly multicultural state of my own country, and in fact my school. But, whether it is infant psychology or otherwise, I am more likely to create white characters because these are the sorts of attributes and attitudes that I am familiar with.

And, until I wrote my NaNovel Ikarus, that is exactly what I did.

Unlike the high fantasy and historical fantasy I had written up to this point, which drew heavily on British Celtic and continental Gaelic roots, Ikarus left me with a massive variety of backgrounds and races from which to choose my characters. And, as I wanted as broad a cast as I could manage, I turned my attention, for the very first time, to the roles of potential non-white characters.

Since hammering out the first draft (and scraping my brain off the wall in the aftermath thereof), I have made a point of reading articles providing pointers on the presentation of characters of colour, and I've gleaned a lot of really helpful tips from them - and I'd like to share a few that impacted me most.

1 - Cultural Misrepresentation Is Not Neccessarily An Inavoidable Disaster
They say there's nothing a bit of research can't solve, and I believe this is one of those things. Admittedly, those dealing with fiction set in a locale of their own creation have a slightly easier time of it because they can create and be aware of the background and belief of their characters, but even those writing contemporary fiction can take a good look around to brush up on their presentation of non-white characters. 

YouTube videos by people of the relevant background are a personal favourite, as they can give you plenty of insight into their views and values (although they may only be those of the individual - watch out for that!) without the awkwardness of having to ask questions yourself. There are also plenty of great articles round and about, written by non-white authors, to give useful guidance.

Likewise, although your character is going to be influenced by their background, it is absolutely vital to remember that they are individuals too! They will have views and hobbies and a personality just like anybody else, regardless of their background and race. Sometimes getting too bogged down in an obsession with cultural accuracy can make one lose sight of this, when, really, it's not half the monster under the bed it likes to think it is!

2 - Writing "Colourblind" Is Harder Than It Looks
Now now, hold the rotten tomatoes - writing colourblind (i.e. with no reference to a character's appearance or racial profile) is not a bad thing. It's great for letting the reader's imagination craft the character, and thus forges a more personal relationship with the story.

On the other hand, there will be some things about a character that can - and will - give away their race. Particularly, their descriptions of other characters. You may not have said a thing about your own character's skin colour, but if she remarks that the nice lady helping her retrieve her kitten out of the tree is asian, then the reader will pick up on the distinction and, likely, assume that the narrating character is not, because she refers to the other woman's ethnicity in a way that indicates difference. 

Likewise, the treatment your character recieves from others, and some of their views, will also give away certain things about their background. A white character, for example, is probably less likely to be worried about racially-provoked slurs being hurled at them by strangers than, say, a Latino or black character would be. I use a real-world example here for illustrative purposes, because depending on the story the characters' sensitivity to their race will vary, but an awareness by the author can nevertheless prove helpful in preventing automatic cultural approbations that can affect the reader's racial profiling of a character.

And, finally:

3) Making An Effort to Create Non-White Characters Is A Good Thing!
Again, another note of clarification. Tokenism - the practice of creating a character of an ethnic minority background for the sake of appearing diverse - is not a good thing. In fact, if you create a character with no purpose other than to be there and say "look, isn't the author a good person for including me!", it's almost more insulting than not including them at all, because it treats race as a commodity.

On the other hand, if, when creating a character, you realise there is no particular reason why they should automatically be the same ethnicity as yourself, or of the other characters in the story, then why not add in a little diversity? Why shouldn't your main character's best friend be African-American? Why shouldn't the ship's lieutenant be proud of his Brazilian heritage? 

The potential for introducing different worldviews, values, and cultures to a story is endless, and a character who can introduce such things can be a wonderful addition to a story. Provided you pay close attention to avoid cultural stereotypes (sassy black people with strong accents, Asians with an expertise in martial arts and bonzai trees, Latinos with hot tempers and a passion for the samba), these characters can provide marvellous new dynamics to the story. Heck, they might even enjoy poking fun at the stereotypes that supposedly define people of their background while they're at it!


I do not blame anyone who was unaware of their culpability when it came to the lack of non-white characters, nor do I think it is something anyone should be blamed for, unless it is deliberate. However, I do believe that people should be sensitive to the issue, and perhaps make a little bit more of an effort to include non-white characters in their stories, especially in roles beyond being part of the illustrative background and / or cannon fodder.

On a personal level, going back to Ikarus, I have decided to make a special effort to treat my non-white characters with the same respect as I do the others. And I think the story is all the better for them - not in the least because it makes them far more interesting, and adds greater depth to their backstory and role within the story itself. 

What about all of you? What do you think of the issue of ethnic diversity among characters in mainstream fiction? Have any of you ever had any problems related to it, and do you make - or intend to make - any special effort to deal with it in your own work? Leave me a comment and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Now that is a good thought there. Though on the bestseller topic, Cinder is a NYT bestseller and all the characters are Chinese, so that was pretty different from the norm. I should give more thought to the topic though. I mean, I haven't been writing long enough to have scores of all-white characters, but I'll keep it in mind next time I'm plotting.

    1. Heh heh, can't say I've read Cinder, but thanks for the heads-up!

      Don't worry - as I said, it's not something to spread blame over. Just something to keep in mind when characterising!

  2. I just read The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, whose protagonist is dark-skinned. She did a very good job with that, though there wasn't a clear idea of him being dark-skinned until halfway through the book. I didn't mind, because I felt I knew the character.

    Recently, I learned that even without physical descriptions, the character can become well-known by his actions. I think that's important, as much in fiction as in the real world. Actions, motive, and history tell more about a character than the type of nose he has. So at once I think you're right and you're over-thinking it. You could describe the character, or you could leave it up to the reader's imagination for a while, let them know the character, and spring it on them then. They won't mind, at that point.

    1. I completely agree with you - the characters' actions and individuality are what matters, but as I said in the second point, if you do have it in mind for your character to be of a certain race then some of their actions will require a bit of careful thinking.

      On the other hand, you are right - if a reader gets to know the character first, and gets attached to them, than any racial revelation won't matter to them so much. It's a bit like the fantastical creature in some ways - might appear alienating, but not really that big a deal when you look past that and see the person instead.

  3. Australia (like, you probably totally know this anyway) is a pretty multicultural place. So, for me, putting "multi cultural" characters in my writing is pretty easy. My main-secondary character in my fantasy series has dark skin. In my latest WIP, the best-friend is Asian and the MC is Italian. But this is definitely an issue.
    If I take a quick glance at my to-read pile, there's a whole lot of all-white-casts, which isn't necessarily the author's intention, so I don't blame them. But we should be aware of this! Impeccable post!

    1. Thank you! I'm pretty impressed with your casts there - I managed to get a fair few racial mixes into "Ikarus", but a couple of them weren't remarked on much which made me sad, because I felt I wasn't treating them fairly.

      Having an all-white cast isn't neccessarily an automatic YOU ARE A BAD AUTHOR! indicator, but yes, it is an issue that I think needs dealing with. Especially as it's just really boring when everyone comes from the same background and social class etc.

    2. There's nothing like a bit of culture clashes to make life interesting, that's for sure! ;)

  4. Wow, this is good to keep in mind and be aware of. :) I think you did an excellent job handling this topic.

    1. Thank you! I'm very glad you think so :)

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  6. I was most definitely in that unfortunate category of all-white-casts until I fortuitously wrote a character who spent most of her time as a black panther... which worked way better when her skin was dark as well. The next story I wrote had an Asian, a Pole, a Russian, a Cherokee Indian, a midget, and a Frenchman. I think I accidentally saved myself! :D

    1. Wow, you did fabulously well there! I've always been interested in getting a Native American character into one of my stories one day . . . but first I have to get a setting where I can use one. We don't have a lot in the UK xP