“For Diversity’s Sake”: On Representation in Fiction, One’s True Art & the Vicious Circle of Mainstream Media

Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, the first black Jedi.

Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, the first black Jedi.

There’s been a lot of talk lately within the corners of the blogosphere I frequent about diversity of characters in genre fiction.

First fantasy author Chuck Wendig blogged in favour of book and movie characters being more representative of the world around us.

Then, indie fantasy author Ksenia Anske wrote about writers – diverse writers included –writing their true art – whatever shape or colour that may be – rather than being obliged to meet quotas of diversity – a compelling piece I neither fully agree nor disagree with.

This topic is hardly new within the writing world, with numerous other arguments out there both for and against the inclusion of more people of colour, of different sexual and gender orientations, and different physical and mental ability levels in genre fiction.

The “against” argument I despise the most is the concept of something I repeatedly saw in the comments trail of Chuck Wendig’s post.

The notion of “diversity for diversity’s sake”.

What does that even mean?

It was a remark seemingly offered only by straight, cis-gendered white people, to start with.

One commenter on Wendig’s site clarified the expression:

[D]iversity for diversity’s sake means putting someone in a role that they normally wouldn’t be in just to create diversity.

Three thoughts immediately come to mind upon reading that.  The first is the Star Wars prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

African-American actor Samuel L. Jackson was desperate for a part in these movies.  He was so keen to be part of the Star Wars phenomenon, he was willing to play a faceless Stormtrooper.

Instead, he was cast as Mace Windu, the first black Jedi and only the second black character to feature in any of the first six Star Wars movies.

My second thought is of the original Star Trek.

In this, creator Gene Roddenberry deliberately cast a diverse crew for the Starship Enterprise – including a black woman and a Japanese man – for the express purpose of addressing inequality and modeling a future in which racial and ethnic equality has finally been achieved.

I happen to applaud both of these castings.  I do appreciate that of Star Trek more, though, on account of Roddenberry’s desire to show diversity where it previously wasn’t seen on TV, whereas if Jackson were not so famous, there may well have been no black Jedi at all.

That is to say, Roddenberry included diversity for diversity’s sake, since diversity, as the kids say, is a thing – something worth depicting in books and TV and movies because it exists.  It’s all around us and cannot be avoided indefinitely, try as one might.

To wit, comedian Russell Peters:

The third and most salient thought I have when I hear “diversity for diversity’s sake”, especially coming from straight, cis, white people, is that what’s actually meant is unless the story is explicitly about race, gender, sexual orientation or what have you, diverse characters are an unnecessary distraction.

Personally, and as a person of colour, I couldn’t disagree more

Witness for the defence

Additional arguments against diverse characters in fiction themselves come in many forms:

“Serving the story”

This argument basically asserts the need for non-white/non-cis/non-straight/non-able-bodied characters to justify their existence in a story rather than the story being about, and thereby serving, them.

The above line of thinking is tethered to the idea that all stories with diverse characters must necessarily be about said diversity in terms of the stories’ plots.

Not to mention, the reverential notion that a story is an ethereal wonder that flow from us as if from a holy vessel rather than a divine idea that’s whittled and shoehorned into the contrived format we refer to as “story”.

In a story, every element is a conscious decision of the writer, including the internal and external traits of the characters.

“Historical accuracy”

This argument comes up surprisingly often within the fantasy genre.  I’m still waiting for someone to tell me which historical era elves and dragons derive from, and can we maybe go on an archeological dig in search of their bones?

Even within proper historical fiction, historical accuracy is tricky to pin down, for it assumes we know everything that occurred in the past.

It assumes that only the things recorded in mainstream history books actually happened, and that history’s winners gave fair and accurate representations – or representation at all – of those they considered lesser than themselves.

Sites like this one certainly suggest mainstream history has left a few details – and people – out.

“Colour-blindness”

AKA, the “Details like race or orientation don’t matter because stories are about whole people and emotions and transcendent human qualities to which we can all relate, and really, we’re all the same anyway” argument.

Again, most often expressed by white/cis/straight writers writing about white/cis/straight characters, and who seem to be contending that only the qualities demonstrated by white/cis/straight characters are transcendent.

(Incidentally, pretending that diverse people don’t exist – which is essentially what the “diversity-doesn’t-matter-we’re-all-the-same” argument amounts to – is the same strategy I’ve been employing for the recent mouse sightings at my workplace.  Act like they’re not there and maybe they’ll just go away on their own.)

“Ignorance is bliss”

The most honest argument of all, in my opinion, and the one that brings us full circle in the great “diverse characters in fiction debate”: a lack of knowledge of the culture and experiences of diverse people.

(And oftentimes a corresponding lack of desire to know, since those cultures are experiences are different from the writer’s own, and thereby not an expression of his/her true art.)

Diversity represent

Many white writers feel more comfortable writing about wizards, vampires, self-determining robots, and other such things that don’t even exist than about characters with the diversity of real life.

This despite the fact that as writers, we trade upon our imaginations, our ability to empathize with others, and our research skills to ground our ideas in reality. (How many of us have actually committed murder, after all, or masterminded the perfect heist, or been cloned, or even visited all the geographic places we write about?)

This, to me, screams of a need for diversity in fiction.

We’re all hugely influenced by all forms of media: the media shapes our opinions of what’s normal, what’s desirable, what’s understandable, and what’s possible, and fiction especially builds empathy and provides practice in understanding unfamiliar points of view.

If we had more mainstream stories about diverse characters, understanding diversity wouldn’t feel like such an insurmountable task.

Instead, we find ourselves amidst a vicious circle: because so few diverse, non-stereotyped characters exist in mainstream media, few people of all backgrounds are encouraged to try creating some.

I even count myself among this: I’m currently writing a work of medieval historical fiction in which all the characters are white.

I have no worries about writing white characters or misinterpreting white culture, for I’ve been given ample opportunity to study it.  White representation is all around me: it’s what’s headlined and green-lit, what’s showcased and what wins most of the media awards.

White culture is my culture too because I have no option to not expose myself to it if I want to remain relatable to modern North American society.

But  diverse people want to be heroes too – to have adventures, romances, sorrows, and triumphs.

Samuel L. Jackson loved Star Wars so much, he was willing to play a non-speaking minor role to be part of it. We all want our vicarious experience through story characters to be a little closer to what we see when we look in the mirror.

Diverse people

Art imitating real life

Writing diverse characters doesn’t have to be a hindrance to a writer’s true art or a criticism of what’s most familiar to him/her, but rather positive encouragement to try expanding one’s horizons, stretching one’s imagination, and step outside of oneself into the to truly transcendent.

I don’t support dictating to what people should write or specifying diversity quotas that must be followed.  But neither do I support a mainstream media machine that makes people unwilling or believing themselves unable to try for more diversity.

I certainly plan to make my own contribution.

The first novel I every tried to write, currently incomplete and shelved, was an epic fantasy novel with multi-racial characters, two or three gay characters, and one that was differently abled.  Not because I was trying to fill a quota, but because that’s the way I envisioned the world as inspired by a recent move to the über-diverse city of Toronto.

This project was near and dear to my heart, and is something I’ve wanted to rework and rewrite for many years now.

As soon as I’ve completed my current WIP, I believe the time for this work’s renaissance has finally come.

What are your thoughts on the topic of diverse characters in fiction? Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

17 thoughts on ““For Diversity’s Sake”: On Representation in Fiction, One’s True Art & the Vicious Circle of Mainstream Media

  1. My detective’s sidekick worked at the Parliament House, a gay resort here in Orlando. At first, I didn’t think about her skin color. The fact that she is transgendered is important to the story concerning human trafficking. I knew she was southern. As I wrote her dialogue, and included her humor, as she is a sort of comic relief, I discovered she’s a black woman. But that felt to forced and cliche. Too Chablis from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” She is also very beautiful. Given opportunity to tell her story in bits and pieces, it became obvious that her father was white. So she ended up being racially mixed, which suited the physical appearance I had already designed for her. I like having the characters tell me who they are. It’s part of the fun of writing.

    • It’s so much fun, SK, to learn about who the characters as, especially when we as writers are open to them being any person with any combination of real-life traits at all. Your sidekick sounds awesome!

  2. Right on, Janna. I’m with you 100%.

    My current series is so very white. There’s still room for diversity because I have 2.5 books left to write in it, but I’m not sure how it will turn out. The characters are members of two feuding families descended from Druid-like people from Ireland. So…

    My next won’t be so white. The characters are all different shades. That’s how they came to me. And I can’t wait to learn more about them.

    Your first novel sounds like something I’d gobble up. Hurry up! I need to see this stuff published. :)

    • Not every book has to have diverse characters in it; I’m more so trying to promote an openness among writers to consider the possibility of it, and an awareness that mainstream media is lacking in this regard.

      Hurry up! I need to see this stuff published. Yeah – you and me both. That first novel has been hanging over me like the Sword of Damocles for about 12 years now. I wasn’t a good enough storyteller then to pull it off, and even now, I’m still not sure what the actual story is (although the story world I created is pretty awesome, if I say so myself!)

  3. Great stuff as usual, Janna.

    The problem I see with popular film and literature is that White = Normal. I’m not sure if they air this on Canada’s broadcast networks, but we have a station here called Black Entertainment Television, which invariably inspires white folk to say, at one stage or another, “How come there’s no White Entertainment Television? I’d be crucified if I tried to start a TV network with that name.” Not realizing, of course, that every other channel on the dial is already White Entertainment Television. White is the default, and it seldom occurs to mainstream filmmakers to cast outside the box.

    As much as I loved Seinfeld and think it revolutionized TV comedy, it is tragically flawed in that it depicts an alternate-universe New York City inhabited only by white people. Same thing with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, et al. Elves are White. Dwarves are white. Wizards are white. “But dude, that’s just the way it is.” Luckily, Peter Jackson took those complaints to heart and added a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it black background extra in the second Hobbit movie.

    o 0
    —-

    That said, it can be challenging for a white writer to diversify the cast. Walking Dead got a lot of heat for having too many white characters in season one (justifiably, given the high percentage of blacks in Atlanta, where the show was set at the time). They’ve added a lot of black characters, and now they catch heat because racial issues are seldom or never addressed. But if they had addressed racial issues, a different chorus of complaints would sound they they are exploiting racial tension, or people would ask, ” Why can’t you cast people of color without having it be about race?”

    My approach, as a writer, is to be as real as possible in a fantastical world. As I’ve said before, my current WiP prominently features characters of color, including one who gets the second-most page time. Her chapters are about her and her direct experiences, and I am in her head. She experience racism, both overt and subtle, because, in the suddenly brutal, lawless world I am depicting, that’s pretty much what would happen. The book isn’t about racism, but I’m not going to create an epic struggle for my characters to overcome only to brush reality under the rug. I’m also not consciously diversifying my cast to say, “Look. Enlightened white dude over here.” I’m doing it because my novel takes place in an American city, and that’s where you find the greatest mix of ethnicity.

    If the stars align and this project finds an audience, I’m sure some folks will attack me for my audacity in narrating the life of a teenage black girl from a poor neighborhood. If I’m the writer I think I am, though, the criticism will be of my intent, not my execution.

    To directly answer your bolded question at the end, I think diversity in fiction is great. As long as the best character is hired for the job, that’s what matters.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    re: gender stereotypes. My co-worker brought to work something she got at a wedding this weekend: A silk rose with feathers for leaves attached to a bobby pin. She gave it to me during lunch in the cafeteria, and I tucked it over my ear and wore it. Interestingly, none of the men passing by said anything, but most of the women laughed. One asked me if I lost a bet. Hmmm. Maybe I want to wear a flower over my ear.

    p.s. I recognize why a dude with a beard and a masculine demeanor would garner chuckles for wearing a silk flower in his ear, but it seemed to jar some women just a bit. Thoughts?

    • Great, comprehensive reply, Eric – practically a post in and of itself. You should tell your readers you did a guest post over here this week. ;)

      I am familiar with BET and the responses it often garners; it’s not unlike what folk often say in response to Black History Month. In an ideal world of equal and balanced representation, we wouldn’t need such special-interest projects.

      I agree, it can be tough for writers and producers to diversify, but much of that backlash seems to stem from how infrequently diversification still occurs. If we’re only getting one or two diverse representations, readers and viewers will want it to be perfect. If there were 9 or 10 representations, they’d be more leeway for them to focus on different issues (i.e. some explicitly discussing race, others just being about pure adventure with characters who happen to not be white).

      And, of course, not everyone will agree on what makes for a good diverse representation. I loved the movie The Help, but lots of people, both black and white, disliked it for a number of valid reasons.

      I like your approach of “be as real as possible in a fantastical world”. I think your story will be just fine because, as much as you profess to hate research, I know you’ll do what needs to be done to make read true. I personally will always credit a writer for trying to write something that’s outside of his/her direct personal experience rather than just sticking to the SSDD. We’ll never grow as writers if we don’t try new things. Besides, as I mentioned over at Ksenia’s blog, we can tell the same story so many times before people get tired of hearing it from us.

      As to your experience with the flower pin, had I been there, I likely would have made a joke about you advertising your availability in the Polynesian tradition, and probably been jarred a bit myself.

      It’s often been my experience that seeing a man doing something that is a more typically feminine behaviour – especially feminine behaviour designed to attract the attention of a man – often comes across was laughable. But laughable in an uncomfortable, this-is-kind-of-demeaning sort of way. Not that there’s anything overtly wrong with anyone wearing a flower. But the intent to essentially market oneself as an object for sexual consumption can be unsettling when mirrored back.

      A good example of this is fantasy writer Jim C. Hines, who frequently re-creates the poses women are put in on fantasy book cover using himself as the model: http://www.jimchines.com/2012/01/striking-a-pose.

  4. Excellent and thought-provoking piece Janna. I stand guilty of completing four novels with just a single, fringe character who is a member of a minority group. I am presently embarking on a fifth and will do so with a more open outlook when casting for characters.

    • I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty, Roy. This isn’t a trial, and as I said, I’m not interested in dictating to anyone what they should write. I only seek to bring awareness of the state of mainstream media, and to help open writers’ minds to the possibility of including diversity in their work.

  5. I also stand guilty. Having said that I live in a very indigenous community and many years ago I got slapped on the wrist for writing a story about an indigenous woman (which won a writing award). I was given the ‘how dare you think you know us’ spiel, so I’m very careful these days ;)

    • You’re not on trial, Dianne, so no need to confess guilt. :) I agree, it can be challenging to write about ethnic groups one isn’t a part of. I think this stems from years and years of mainstream media representing different peoples in a very superficial, stereotypical way without bothering to consult with actual members of that ethnic group.

      Actually talking to people – conducting in-person research – and even getting some of them to beta read might be what’s needed in that case. That, and as you say, being very careful and sensitive.

  6. I tolerated watching bits of Seinfeld..but it still felt too white. By the time, “Friends” tv series came out, I watched but not regularily. By that time, I was disgusted with mainstream popular culture tv: why on earth were these national (global) funny sitcoms featuring friends all white.

    I get that there are still many friendship circles that is exclusively that…all white or all black (I haven’t seen much of all black friends right now..) or all Asian friends in English. But the real reality in big North American cities are friendship groups with some non-whites.

    The Big Bang Theory funny series of geeky friends is great, but to me, why is the East Indian guy just often cast as lesser weak/phobic? Good thing about Russell Peters..

    • I watched both Seinfeld and Friends as well when I was much younger, and never even occurred to me that they were all white. That just goes to show the powerful influence of media: if they only ever show one thing, you come to expect that’s all that’s possible. Conversely, if the media showed more diversity, it would open our eyes to new possibilities, and help expand our worldviews. I would love to see a Friends-type show with an equal number of white and non-white friends instead of just the one (usually comic relief) “ethnic” friend.

  7. Being the ADD suffering procrastinator I am this reply is late, mainly because I thought I had posted it when in reality I had only talked about it. Guess I’m getting old. :D

    Anyways, I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that media’s all white representation influences us so that even when we think of vampires and wizards we see white people. The other reason could be lack of courage. We don’t make our characters diverse because we are scared people would call us racist or misogynist or homophobic for giving them flaws. This I see a lot in the media, where women, especially black women (Jessica Pearson from Suits comes to mind) are portrayed as beings so perfect they aren’t even allowed to get their hands dirty in the plot, hence their characters become wall decorations despised by the audience.

    That being said, there are certain situations where casting a diverse character may not work. One example is when the writer is planning to make a statement about an establishment or a system. If the purpose of my story is for example to show the discrimination and injustice a division of the U.S. Army shows to a rural community in Iraq because they see them as subhuman due to their ethnicity, casting a black commander as the head of that division muddles the message, because a person of color rising to the level of commander in such a narrow-minded establishment would be odd unless I include an airtight background story and sell it really well.

    The other exception I’d make is genetics. If a character is the biological child of two other characters, logic implies he or she would receive the same genes. One cannot expect an Asian child to be born of a black mother and a white father. And before you say that never happens in stories, it happened in this one: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0128996/

    In my case I tried really hard to have a black character in place of a redhead in my story and for some reason it didn’t work out. No matter how hard I tried she appeared as the redhead and got stuck in my head. Could it be media influence? Could it be the fear of putting a questionable background on a person of color and having to answer for it? I don’t know. Half the characters of my book are Middle Eastern so it can’t be me subconsciously seeking an all white cast. I find it interesting though that one resisted to be anything else (not even the hair color) and reading this article made me think about that.

    • Sunni, you’re absolutely right: there are definitely instances where casting a diverse character won’t work, such as your example, not because people of colour can’t also discriminate, but because we’re so unused to seeing a person of colour in a position of such power (both in fiction and in real life*), the backstory necessary to explain it all would just confuse the issue.

      But it’s true that the media’s default for things like wizards, elves, and vampires is white. And because that’s what’s always been, people often think that’s the only way it can be, forgetting the fact that, regardless of the historical context in which they were first created, wizards, elves, and vampires don’t actually exist, and can therefore be whatever a storyteller wants them to be (q.v. Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampires).

      There is not excuse at all for a lack of diversity within the speculative genres, particularly futuristic stories, for as Russell Peters says, society is getting more brown, not less. The spaceship with the all-white crew but for one person of colour should really be the other way around.

      (*But then, many of society’s problems come to be mirrored in popular media, and vice versa.)

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