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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.