Do Your Characters Reveal Your Race? A White Author’s Push for Self-Examination

For a very long time, one of my sons has been asking me to read the books from Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. My kids like it when I read stuff they really like, which I can appreciate. We all like to share stories we are passionate about. And while I always had every intention of reading at least the first book in that series, The Lost Hero, it took me awhile to gather up enthusiasm. I had read all of the original Percy Jackson books and liked them well enough, but not so much as to get me super excited for this new series. Really, a lot of us probably have that book that’s hanging over us – one that our friend really want us to read, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it because it isn’t quite what we want to read for whatever reason. The Fault In Our Stars for my friend Jen, or To Kill a Mockingbird, for my friend Alanna.

You know what? That’s totally cool. Especially since there’s the risk that the reluctant reader won’t end up liking the book like her friend does. Who wants a friendship destroyed that way, right? 😀 (Side note – made obvious by the use of parentheses: I know of one person who absolutely refuses to reveal publicly the title of her most favorite book of all time because she doesn’t even want to hear one word of aspersion on it from friends, fearing it will interfere with her own love of it. I really really want to know what that book is. But, to quote a well-known movie, “Get used to disappointment”).

If it’s your kids who want you to read a particular book though, you are plagued by guilt until you do it.

Turns out, I really enjoyed The Lost Hero. So much so that I kept reading through the rest of the series and now I will have to lord the fact over my son that I work from home, and therefore will get the package in the mail before he comes home, which means I can lay claim to it as it contains the final book in the series, and read it first. HAHA. (Just kidding. I am not that mean. Especially since he paid for it with his own money.)

Anyway, here’s why I’ve been drawn in to Riordan’s complete-as-of-this-week series: His storytelling and writing in general has gotten stronger (and I love seeing this in a writer), but more importantly, he has created some new characters that I really love. (Leo is my favorite. I want to adopt him, which might prove challenging since I already have another son by the name of Leo, but I’m sure we’d work something out.) Not only that, but Riordan writes strong and intelligent girls, which is awesome. Finally, he has made great strides in diversifying his character set – and more importantly – his protagonist cast. While he has included some diversity in his Percy Jackson series (and perhaps in his other books, too – I can’t speak to them), this series has gone to greater lengths to make it more natural.

I have spoken before about when physical appearance is important in fiction and when it isn’t and touched upon the troublesome nature of white authors only revealing race when the character is non-white. It’s troublesome, because it still works with this ignorance that our readers should assume white for a character if not otherwise indicated. Riordan, in many cases, has skirted this issue – not entirely, but much more so than I have seen recently in other books that I have really loved.

I just finished reading a novel by an author that has clearly tried to diversify her character set, but does so in a very overt way. She tells us when a character is gay or black or Indian or whatever. Additionally, she does so when it isn’t intrinsic to the situation at hand. She doesn’t disparage or typecast these particular characters, so I don’t want to say that what she has done is bad, only to highlight that there is still room for improvement. It is by an author that I know believes in diversity, in equality, and incorporating this into her fiction – “our” fiction as a whole as readers and writers, so I respect her efforts (and she is definitely not alone in this endeavor), but it is not enough.

Instead, what I’d like to see – and what I consciously work at myself within my own writing – is a natural diversity. When I spend the first few paragraphs talking about Riordan, I do so to say that he’s not quite there yet, either, but over the course of the Heroes of Olympus series, he started to figure it out. There is more to diversity than just skin color. There are cultural factors, behaviors, speech patterns. In other words, just saying a character is brown, doesn’t make her latino, or Native American.

But of course, does that mean we have all of our latino characters speak Spanish? Do all of our Native American characters live or have lived on a reservation?

This is what I mean by natural. Look around. What do we see? What do we really see vs. just assume?

Lest you start to think I’m starting to be all judgy, pointing fingers at everyone else, let me assure you I see the “three pointing back” at me. I have latino characters who all speak Spanish. In my current WIP, I have a latino character who does not, but his mother does. Guilty of stereotype? I might very well be. Also, are my books full of non-white characters? Not necessarily. On the other hand, I have other characters whose race might be ambivalent. I’ve written them with an image in mind, but because I haven’t felt it urgent to point out their race, I believe it is up to my readers to decide, if indeed they feel a decision must be made.

What I’m saying is while it has not necessarily been a conscious effort to create a racially diverse cast of characters, it is definitely a mindful one when I describe them. I think our narration, whether we want to believe it or not, reflects our worldview, which means that when I write a story, I want you to SEE my world. My world includes whites, blacks, browns, straights, gays, transgenders, atheists, Christians, Muslims, and so much more.

But more importantly, I want my reader to feel it, to experience it, to relate to it. And therefore I resist the urge to make it obvious when unnecessary. I mean, in the real world, it’s not like we walk up to people and say, “Hi white/black/brown person, have you seen this week’s Bones episode yet?” And yet, when we introduce a character right away as being black or gay or whatever, this is akin to that ridiculous conversation starter I just exemplified. Do I notice when someone is a different color than I am? Obviously. As does that other person about me. But to highlight it in our writing when it has no direct bearing on the purpose of the scene (asking for directions, buying a scarf, introducing a friend, telling him about the funny movie someone just saw) only serves to highlight the other-ness about that character instead of the authenticity of the interaction in the scene.

We are not to be applauded for simply including a diverse character set. We should be expected to reflect the real world in our story and write those characters well, whoever they may be. Our characters should be as authentic as possible, which means we need to continue to be constant observers of human nature.

Do you think all whites talk and act the same? I’m betting you’re thinking, “duh, of course not”. Remember that about everyone else, then, too. Do the research. Visit a food court in a mall and watch people’s actions and listen to their conversations. (Certainly there are many other places to visit, too – but the food court is an easy one for many people.) Watch TV shows or movies that are known to be authentically diverse (maybe Google that one, hmm? Just because a show has a non-white character doesn’t mean that show is writing that character outside of a stereotype.)

To circle back – I’d like to use Riordan as an example (I swear, I really don’t know anything about the guy except for what I’ve read of these books, I hope he’s one of the many nice authors out there) – I look at his original Percy Jackson novels and am glad to see non-white characters holding some prominence in the story, but in many ways, the still just seemed like white characters wearing word-disguises of other colors. Early in his Heroes of Olympus series, there’s a little more to these different color characters. As he moves into the penultimate novel of the series is when I see reference in character conversations and behaviors that finally get me to feel that the protagonists fold into the richer multi-cultural tapestry that better reflects our world.

Progress.

Riordan, obviously, is not the paragon of this sort of thing, but a recent example of growth and since I started with him, I figure I should end with him so you can see how he spurred this post. I am notoriously bad at finding titles and authors and quotes to illustrate a point when I need to, but I took advantage of my Goodreads booklist to save help me throw out a few more names of white authors who I seem to remember doing well with this kind of writing: Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon, Lisa O’Donnell, Julie Kibler, Neil Gaiman, Samantha Shannon.

And so I myself continue to strive for success in creating characters that any reader has a chance for being able to relate. I look to these authors and I look to my own suggestions.

What suggestions do you have for white writers in creating an authentic character set? In what ways do you struggle? How do you try to overcome? Am I still woefully ignorant in my approach? If so, educate me.

For my song, I was torn between this one and Bruno Mars’ Super Bowl appearance. I love them both, but Ricky Martin’s Grammy performance of the official song of the World Cup (France, ’98) encompasses so much of what this post is trying to say. Plus, he had way better luck with the leather pants than Ross Gellar, you know?

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8 Responses to Do Your Characters Reveal Your Race? A White Author’s Push for Self-Examination

  1. This is a really good post, Janet, and I hope it will spark some discussion by readers and writers. I don’t like pointing the finger at authors who aren’t ‘inclusive’ enough. This is what I consider the PC/American college brochure approach – throwing together a perfect mix of male, female and every possible ethnic group on the cover, to appeal to everyone and show how open you are. These creations always feel artificial to me, and stereotypical in their own right. But I do love reading international/multicultural fiction that introduce these issues naturally. Right now I’m reading a book by an Albanian author who writes in Italian (and has been translated into English). The main character is Hana, who grew up in Albania and, under an accepted Albanian clan tradition, has lived as a man in Albania (allowing her more freedom). When Hana immigrates to America, she must decide whether to continue with this Albanian tradition, or to try and live as a woman in her new society. It is a beautiful, delicate book, about identities we create for ourselves, perceptions from different societies, and how this affects our self-image.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I totally know what you’re saying the college brochure – but then again, I think my white privilege has come into play when I’ve been critical of that sort of thing. I don’t think I want to make white authors feel guilty for not including non-white characters in their stories, but I do want them to be aware. Ileane mentions below that she’d just as soon authors stick to writing what they know, and if we cannot write our characters well because of what we don’t know, then I’d say avoid the “token” characters.

      (That Albanian story sounds fascinating, by the way. Very interesting premise.)

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  2. Ileane says:

    I can’t think of many authors that I read that have successfully handled this actually. I tend toread authors who have stuck to what they knew. But that might be a good place to start for authors who are trying to branch out. Read books by latinos, African americans, etc. Obviously you wouldn’t copy the character but you would have a betree understanding of their background. I gotta say though, avoid the Wikipedia/social studies textbook description of an ethnic group. Almost every time I’ve read them every wondered who these Latinos are? Mostly because there is more to a culture than can be adequately explained in a paragraph or two. Sorry for any typos, autocorrect is being a real pain

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Ileane, oh YES. How ridiculous that I did not even include that suggestion in my post. White authors absolutely should read books by non-white authors to get a feel for authentic characterization if they want to learn (and also expose themselves to great literature that continues to be overlooked). I think I felt that reading widely like that is a given, but I should know better than that.

      Totally agree about “textbook” descriptions. Memoirs (if you can find one that is real) might be a good option for individual experience, since that is the truest one (individual, that is).

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  3. MJ says:

    I struggle with this. I have a couple of characters who are biracial. One is minor but the other is fairly important to the story as a whole. I always saw her as biracial so it surprised me when readers were surprised when it became obvious. I haven’t made a big deal of her ethnicity, partly because I don’t think it’s a big deal and partly because I worry about how to do that with authenticity. I’d like to include a chapter focused on one of the sons she has with her husband (who is Caucasian) but again, I’m hesitant. Let’s face it, I don’t have those life experiences and to pretend I do feels like pandering. It’s a conundrum.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I understand that “pandering” feeling. On the other hand, even that worry is allowing you to approach it with wisdom and sensitivity and so many human experiences are shared ones, even while still influenced by race in the background. At the very least you can write it and then see how it plays out before deciding whether or not to keep it, right?

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  4. tantemary says:

    Janet, I so love these posts and discussions! I just requested a book through our library system (not here yet) that is an historical romance. What’s new for me is this is written by an African American woman and I can tell from the book covers that I’ll be looking at 19th century history with a new slant. I’m excited for the possibility. How/why did I choose this book? The author is a friend of another friend (also an author) who recommended her.

    Great insight from you as always 🙂 (I think the Albanian book sounds interesting as well!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Reading and Writing While White – Part One: Writer Perspective | It'll All Work Out

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