How often do you see minority characters in fiction? They’re pretty rare. When you read fiction, unfortunately you normally see a white protagonist alongside a plethora of supporting white characters. Possibly a minority sidekick, if you’re lucky. Minorities of both sexual orientation or race are underrepresented in teen and young adult fiction, according to this YALSA study.
But why is it so necessary for authors to write characters that accurately represent our world? It all boils down to facts—namely, the fact that races other than Caucasian exist in the real world, and when there is a fantasy world in which no minority characters exist, it’s basically telling minority characters that they aren’t good enough to exist even in a fantasy world. If elves and hobbits and dragons and dwarves can all wander around Middle Earth, there shouldn’t be anything terribly far-fetched about a few characters of color in the mix as well.
Some authors bring up the fact that they come from a more homogeneous background in response to criticism about their characters, and while it’s very positive that these authors recognize they’re coming from a place of privilege, sometimes these statements make me wonder if they’re not using their own background as an excuse for not writing more diverse characters. For example, Lena Dunham, creator and lead actress of the HBO series Girls, has talked about the homogeneity of the characters on her show (all white) by saying, “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.”
This isn’t an indictment of Girls, which is a show that deserves a post all to itself—but the statement does illustrate the fact that perhaps authors like Dunham, who come from a white, fairly privileged viewpoint and know it, may be too hesitant to write about people of different ethnicities. A basic tenet of every writing class is “write what you know”, and if you’re coming at it from the perspective of a white straight writer, you don’t want to mess up someone else’s religion or ethnicity. But the problem is, just because it may be difficult to do doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It’s hard to do the amount of research necessary to give depth to the character and it’s harder still to straddle the line between making a character a stereotype and taking the character so far out of the norm that it no longer rings true to readers of that ethnicity. And it’s even harder to have the courage to publish the story and face the inevitable backlash (because no matter how well you write it, there’s always going to be backlash).
In recent years, there’s been an upswing in minority characters in fiction, perhaps due to a set of rapidly diversifying authors who have an even more diverse readership. Sarah Rees Brennan has a girl of Asian descent as her main character in her YA novel Unspoken, Malinda Lo has written lesbian and Asian characters as her protagonists, and the BBC’s Merlin cast a black actress as Guinevere.
And unfortunately, when you do see characters of color who are awesome, sometimes people have objections. Scott Lynch, the author of the fantasy series The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, got some criticism for including a character named Zamira Drakasha, who is a black lady pirate. Seriously, what part of “black lady pirate” doesn’t sound amazing?
Fortunately, Mr Lynch can more than hold his own. His response to the aforementioned commenter:
COMMENTER: Real sea pirates could not be controlled by women, they were vicous rapists and murderers and I am sorry to say it was a man’s world. It is unrealistic wish fulfillment for you and your readers to have so many female pirates, especially if you want to be politically correct about it!
LYNCH: First, I will pretend that your last sentence makes sense because it will save us all time. Second, now you’re pissing me off.
You know what? Yeah, Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. I realized this as she was evolving on the page, and you know what? I fucking embrace it.
Why shouldn’t middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does. H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.
Shit yes, Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights. In my fictional world, opportunities for butt-kicking do not cease merely because one isn’t a beautiful teenager or a muscle-wrapped font of testosterone. In my fictional universe, the main characters are a fat ugly guy and a skinny forgettable guy, with a supporting cast that includes “SBF, 41, nonsmoker, 2 children, buccaneer of no fixed abode, seeks unescorted merchant for light boarding, heavy plunder.”
You don’t like it? Don’t buy my books. Get your own fictional universe. Your cabbage-water vision of worldbuilding bores me to tears.
And really, if this were what all authors thought about including minority characters, we might not even be having this conversation.