Tonight I am attending an event sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers on writing authentic African-American Characters. This Write-Brain is very timely for me, because lately I’ve been wondering a lot about how to make sure my stories don’t come across as white-washed. However, at the same time, I want to write a character whose physical characteristics such as skin tone don’t really matter.
Tonight’s presentation focuses on African-American characters. Presumably people with dark skin who live in the United States currently or sometime in the last couple of centuries. For most of my stories, I’m interested in writing characters who live in a fictional future world.
I’m looking forward to learning a lot, and I’ll share what I garnered from tonight’s event in another blog post later. Meanwhile, here is a SFQotD post from earlier this month, discussion the topic of race in fiction. This question had some very insightful responses.
SciFi Question of the Day from July 7, 2016:
When writing about an off-Earth human-colonized society, are the goals of 1) writing racially diverse characters and 2) writing so that race/nationality/skin color truly doesn’t matter… mutually exclusive? Can a SciFi writer do both when an image of the character may never appear on a book cover, illustration, or screen adaptation? #SFQotD
I think it depends on what you mean by “writing so that race… Etc… doesn’t matter”?
There’s a difference between believing that such things don’t necessarily define what kind of person a character is, and recognising that humans do, in fact, tend to be prejudiced or experience prejudice.
I think it all depends on what you are doing with the story. I could believe a story that doesn’t reflect our own racial and class divisions, but it would be more difficult to believe in a world where no divisions and prejudice exists.
This is something I considered when I started to plot out the first Halcyone Space book. I knew I didn’t want to fall into the trap of creating white/male as default for my characters. And I couldn’t imagine a space-faring future that was LESS diverse than the current society in which I live.
So I deliberately created characters from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds. BUT, I didn’t recreate the social stratification that society currently has that is so focused on race.
Instead, I played with status in different ways, using professions (the mixed-race sons of the space station’s physicians are considered higher status than the white daughter of the engineer) and geography (there are still haves and have nots on Earth, but it’s less related to race – Dev struggles with her place at University because she was raised in a post-flood settlement and is looked down on because of it.)
I also extrapolated forward from my own experience in terms of how much my characters might hold onto from their cultural heritages. My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They all spoke multiple languages and kept to their religious and cultural practices even as they learned English and settled into this country. My parents were born in the US and always considered themselves Americans. They could understand Yiddish, but didn’t speak it. Nor did they understand or speak any of the other languages their parents spoke. I neither understand nor speak any of my forebearer’s languages. My cultural identity is American.
It seemed logical that this generational shift would continue to take place as we humans move into space.
I can well imagine, however, a different scenario where specific cultural groups might use the opportunity of a space colony to create an enclave – kind of like what Quebec is in greater Canada. But given how interdependent colonies would be – especially in the beginnings of a diaspora – I would imagine that such isolated communities would not fare as well as more diverse and connected ones.
And if you don’t believe me, consider the fuss when Rue (hunger games) was cast as Black even though that’s how she was written. See also: staging Harry Potter with a Black Hermione.
Part of what I do is pull from a wide range of languages for the names. I include references to appearance, ‘he kept his dark brown eyes on the dials’, ‘the light reflected dimly from her olive skin’, but I’m still working on describing people without resorting to the tired food and wood cliches. And without going medical (I’m still working on how to indicate eyes with an epicanthic fold without using the word ‘almond.)
Perhaps not mutually exclusive, but certainly tricky to handle. The majority of readers are likely to default to the predominant race of their homeland.
One thing you mentioned in another post was Hermione being black. The problem with that issue– not that I’m notabsolutely okay with a WoC portraying the character– isn’t just that the readers defaulted to Caucasian, but that JK did, too. Hermione wasn’t described in racial terms, but at the same time:
“Thomas, Dean,” a Black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table.
They all swiveled around in their seats and saw Angelina Johnson coming into the Hall, grinning in an embarrassed sort of way. A tall black girl who played Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Angelina came over to them …
“And this is Kingsley Shacklebolt” — he indicated the tall black wizard, who bowed …
I’m a PoC reader and if only physical descriptors are given (non-blond stick straight hair, eye color that isn’t blue, button nose, etc.) without regards to race, I assume a person of mixed ancestry, such as myself and my family members, or, you know, Brazil. We’re all going to be brown one of these days.
I prefer writers who just write people. Racial identity in books brings along so much negative connotation, and if you are writing a future where mankind has expanded off Earth, why the heck are you bringing along all that hatred and bigotry. Humans are going to have to band together as one to deal with the aliens. Or what? Have ethnically segregated planets?
Prejudice is conflict. While there appear to be some people who seek to isolate people by appearance or lifestyle, there is always someone who uses that to divide and conquer us, without which that prejudice would likely die out as that instigation is brought to light and snuffed. IMO the only way I can see this actually happening though, is if scientists could find a solution that suppresses negative emotions in the affected groups until they could acknowledge just how stupid prejudice is.
Just because a book doesn’t have an illustration doesn’t mean the author won’t provide a description. When the reader can visualize the character, it helps to connect the reader emotionally.
Additionally, it depends where the author wants to introduce conflict. Is the colony united against a struggle with an outside force? Then it probably doesn’t matter if the colony is diverse or homogeneous. If there is conflict between different factions in the colony, then race could be a valid basis, or they could use something else like status, profession, birthplace, whatever.
Ultimately, if the author develops a strong character based on something other than racial stereotypes, then the character should be interchangeable. For example, changing the gender of Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or changing the race of Nick Fury in the Avengers movies.
Relying on the reader’s assumptions of race as a substitute for actual character development is just lazy writing.
When I write for the most part I don’t really think about the characters’ appearance. I tend to be focusing more on what is happening.
It depends upon the premise of the story. If you go with ‘*2*’, you had better have developed a legitimate reason for the social evolution, and as such, should be a major part of the message of the story, otherwise it fails one of the pillars of science fiction by simply parroting an extant liberal ideal instead of exploring it.
The goal should not be diversity in and of itself, but if there is or is not diversity in the colonies, it should be something that is integral to the plot and its ethical implications.
Asimov, I think, handled this fairly well inNemesis by having the colonie*s* realistically be varied in their contrasting makeups, some being homogeneous (culturally and ethnically), some being more diverse. Homogeneity has its inherent internal functional efficiencies, and it’s important to understand these and their consequences within the larger context of societal growth and the consequences of majority rule and exclusion, and colloquial attitudes and apathy resulting from insularity.
People get described all the time in books. Not eliding such traits as skin color, bone structure, epicanthic folds or hair texture will allow you to put all manner of people in your work. As well, wherever we go, we take our cultures with us. Often, living together, we then mix them (c.f. a Scottish fast food joint that sells Pakistani authentic curry – with battered, deep fried haggis. Yes, it’s real.), but there will be recognizable things in there. And yes, make sure to mention the skin color of any white people too, they’re not the default.
A case study: Naomi Nagata is a major character in the book series The Expanse by S. A. Corey. She is described as light-brown skinned, with almond shaped eyes, curly hair. She’s a Belter – grown up off Earth in low gravity – and thus has a large head and a slender, elongated body. Descriptions have featured mention of how her last name must imply Asian ancestry, but that the only outward sign was slight epicanthic folds in her eyes.
Other characters have various attachments to Earth cultures – one is quite clearly and explicitly Indian, another character is from Mars but descended of Indian parentage, and he speaks with a Texas-style drawl affected by his home region.
In the movement, though, not seeing race is problematic. Race is a socialrather than a biological concept but it does matter – it matters because it matters. In other words, if we do not see race, then we blame the individual for their immediate circumstances rather than acknowledging decades-centuries of systematic oppression. That’s not an approach I would carry forward into a series of books.
It has become passe to talk of the American “melting pot” as that’s Borg-ish. We don’t want to eliminate biological distinctiveness. The more modern goal is not assimilation at all but learning to value diversity. What do people bring from their various backgrounds and experiences that makes us stronger and more admirable?
I see the danger of un-raced humans as coming from the biases of the writer. Ethnocentrism. The trouble is, they wouldn’t be un-raced, they would likely be white (unspecified). We write what we know; when we’re white, we write white people and assume once the “differences” are stripped away we would be the base-model human.
Not doing this would be really difficult. It would really require having a large number of experiences outside the usual field of our daily interactions and a lot of thought. In what way would each contributing culture add to the culture one is creating? In what ways will this be unlike a standard Euro-American society? what new values and behaviors will emerge that come from none of the contributing societies? What about bottlenecks – traits carried forward due to the small size of the initial founding population?
I feel to actually and heart sick to get into them now.
But it’s interesting to ponder the generality… such as:
How long must a society be completely removed from Earth before it’s almost impossible to tell what part of Earth a citizen’s ancestors came from? (Because the gene pool just kept mixing…)?
Of course, that may give way to new prejudices, e.g., how Earthers are all rich, spoiled, and lazy.
Such prejudiced are likely to proliferate into the future because that’s what we do: find people like us and favor them.