Blank Slate

Hi.  So I know I’m a guy who writes stories about robots and monsters, but, for better or worse, I am vaguely famous.  Between blogging about dinobots and comic books, I sometimes like to talk about more important things.  Although is anything more important than dinobots?

Let’s talk about race.  Let’s rap, as the kids say.

As a writer, I wrestle with race.  It’s not something I particularly worry about, but it is something I have to consider.  Since most of my characters are weird creatures, usually surrounded by equally weird creatures, race (as we Terrans define it) isn’t always important.  But sometimes it comes up.

Teri and Phil, the mortal protagonists of Divine Misfortune, are African-Americans.  You wouldn’t know it though because they are never referred to as such in the book.  In fact, they aren’t really described in any specific details.  This isn’t unusual.  I do it all the time.  Unless I’m writing about a space squid or a mole man, I really don’t see the need to describe human characters in any great detail.  Perhaps because I usually envision my characters as being unremarkable physically.  Most are neither handsome or hideous.  They are you and me, regular people who are not defined by their appearance or the color of their hair.  They are people, and people are more than a collection of physical traits.  At least, they are in my universe.

But for Teri and Phil, I very specifically decided not to mention race.  Is this a copout?  Yes, it is.  It’s a copout because here are two minority characters who are automatically assumed to be caucasian because they don’t “Act Black”.  It doesn’t matter that Teri and Phil grew up in the suburbs, that they have an average middle class background, that neither of them has ever lived “in da hood”.  They’re black, and if they don’t act black enough than their characters will ring false to many.  Frankly, I just didn’t need the headache.

When I wrote Gil’s All Fright Diner, I took some heat for the character of Loretta.  Loretta is fat.  Very, very fat.  I made her fat because you just don’t see many overweight characters in fiction, particularly fantasy adventure fiction.  Loretta is a great character who just happens to be overweight, but for the wrong people, she comes across as insulting.  It’s true that I make plenty of jokes at her expense, but I do that for all the characters in Gil’s.  Nobody seems to notice when I poke fun at Earl’s scrawniness, Duke’s unshaven greasiness, or Chad’s churning teenage hormones.  But for some people, poking fun at Loretta’s weight is a definite sore spot.

I can’t really blame them for that.  Fat characters, particularly overweight women, are almost universally portrayed as undesirable and, often, insecure.  Whether it’s fiction or nearly ever magazine on the rack that tells women how to be thinner or obsesses over a woman’s weight, the appearance of a woman is nearly universal a shorthand for her character.  And if a woman is unattractive in general (and fat in particular) then she is usually flawed.  This leaves a writer with only so many options.  Either mention a character is overweight and take some heat for it or avoid the whole issue and just have the reader assume what they will about the character.

And it’s that assumption that illustrates the problem with race in our culture.  Because, inevitably, if you don’t mention a character’s skin tone or appearance, then the reader will almost always picture a white person.  If I don’t specifically point out a character is overweight, then the assumption is that they aren’t.  So a writer finds himself in a bizarre position.  Mention a detail that is largely irrelevant and hope that the reader won’t make much of it.  Except the reader usually will.

This is the insidious nature of race.  It’s not racism I’m talking about here.  Racism is obvious.  Racism is blatant and obnoxious.  What’s not so obvious is the assumption that caucasian is “average”, and that everything else is “not average”.  And when something is unusual, it can’t help but become a defining characteristic, even if it was never intended as such.

Being white (and usually male) is tabula rasa.  A blank slate.  Defining a character as white doesn’t give a writer much to work with, doesn’t give the reader much to hold onto.  To say a character is white is like saying he’s human.  It doesn’t mean a damn thing and usually can be assumed.

On the flip side, being non-white (or female) is often all a character needs.  To give them more than that can seem like too much.  Why bother with anything more complex when the reader will, unconsciously, consider them as an ethnicity (or sex) first and a character second?

Granted, this is a copout and a bit harsh.  I’m not suggesting that readers shy away from complex or fully developed non-white, non-male characters.  Rather, I’m suggesting that, even when we don’t want to, we can’t help but stick these types of characters in very specific categories with very specific expectations.  The same thing happens in fantasy, of course.  It’s perfectly acceptable for all orcs to be defined by their orc-ness, all elves to be generically elf.  But the humans have to be more than just human.  They have to possess personalities and culture and something that makes them more than merely human.

The character that immediately springs to mind for me is Luke Cage of Marvel Comics.  Luke Cage is defined by his blackness, now more than ever.  Just consider for a moment that Luke Cage is a superhero with super strength and invulnerability.  He fights crime alongside Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America.  All these characters have colorful code names, colorful costumes, and complex backstories.  Luke Cage, on the other hand, has no code name, no costume.  His backstory is quintessentially black.  Hard-knock life, prison term.  He fought crime as a Hero for Hire.  Yes, even as a superhero, he was just a hard-workin’ man tryin’ to earn a livin’.  While Cage’s backstory isn’t really negative, it is still very black.

Compare this to Spider-Man, who is a fully developed character that just happens to be white.  There’s nothing white about his backstory.  You’ll never hear the origin of Spidey start like this: “Once upon a time, a white teenager was bitten by a radioactive spider. . . ”  But it’s a guarantee that “A man from the streets (i.e. black)” will come up almost immediately with Luke Cage.

For cryin’ out loud, he even lost his code name.  Power Man might be generic, but at least it sounds like something a superhero would use.  And don’t tell me that he doesn’t have a secret identity and doesn’t need a code name.  Why the hell does Wolverine need a code name?  And when Tony Stark was outed as Iron Man, nobody started calling him The Invincible Tony Stark!

So what does this mean?  I don’t know.  Should I have outed Teri and Phil as black?  Probably.  But I chose not to, and while it is a copout, it was really the only way to ensure they would be treated as characters in their own right and not merely a racial backdrop on which a couple of minor personality quirks have been dropped.

Just a few thoughts.  Make of them what you will.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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14 Comments

  1. Rippley
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Mr. Martinez I believe this blog post is the best one you’ve ever written. I’m not going to make a troll remark for this post, because you have finally hit on a serious issue. Also, I do not know if I would not have made the same choice. I probably would have made the same choice in not mentioning race–I do not know. While Teri and Phil are black, you are right, it’s not a critical detail of the plot. People are people.

    Here are some questions from my confused mind:

    1) Why are Teri and Phil black? I mean, why are you telling us now? (I really want to know, because J.K Rowling outed Dumbledore as gay and I’m not sure why? I supposed it was to create controversy. Or a surefire way to get people to reread her books, looking for clues. I’m not saying you are doing this.)

    2) Was Bonnie also black? If not, is there a passage that could differentiate Bonnie as a Caucasian. Again, I’m not trying to be contradictory in anyway. I’m just trying to clear up the confusion in my mind.

    Actually, I’m not sure why you brought the race issue up. I agree with you about the Luke Cage character. In honesty, I thought you might eventually bring up the gender issue. Again, this is not an attack on you, your writing, or your beliefs. But, it seems to me, in your books women are portrayed as either sexually aggressive (wanton women) lusting for a man, or women who use sex as a weapon. Your writings have very few women who aren’t of this type. Do you have anything to say on the gender issue?

    If not, so be it. I’m not some angry feminist, trying to point fingers. It’s not as if you are/were/will be the only writer who (has) ever portrayed women in this light. I mean, I get it sex sells. It’s our culture. But then again, the same logic could be applied to the portrayal of stereotyped blacks.

  2. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts, Rippley. If you’re trolling, well, you’re not doing it well enough to irritate me, so carry on. To answer your questions:

    1) Teri and Phil are black because . . . well . . . why not? Really, that’s the answer. Since I don’t define them by their blackness, they could’ve really been any race. And because it wasn’t truly relevant, I didn’t bring it up. I only bring this up now to illustrate my point. Nobody in the world would’ve thought they were black because I did not write them “black”. But in my head they are African-Americans.

    Of course, if you want to picture them as Asian, Hispanic, or any combination you want to imagine, it really doesn’t matter to me. That’s kind of the point I was trying to make. They can be just about any ethnicity since, if you look hard enough, you can find anyone of any race growing up in the suburbs. If you want to picture them as a mixed couple you can. In fact, since I don’t really define them in terms of appearance at all, they can be whatever you want, and yet, most will assume they’re white. Which is irrelevant, really. They could be white too. It really doesn’t matter. Yet that’s the point, isn’t it? If I don’t describe them in detail, the reader won’t exercise their imagination to create characters they want to see. They’ll instead most probably make them the characters they expect to see.

    (And, yeah, I don’t get the Dumbledore being gay thing either. Perhaps she was trying to do the same thing I was attempting with this post, but it just sort of comes across as labored and silly to me.)

    2) Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about Bonnie’s racial background. So she might very well be black. Don’t ask me. I didn’t even give it half a second’s thought. Like Teri or Phil, she can be whatever race you like. And, even better, I don’t have a default to give you.

    I am a bit surprised by your idea of sexuality in my books though. While sex features prominently in several of my books, it’s not at all important in others. The Automatic Detective and Too Many Curses are completely absent of sex. Nessy the kobold is neither sexually aggressive or using sex as a weapon. Mack Megaton is a robot and asexual, which doesn’t necessarily prevent him from developing an intimate sort of relationship with another character, but it is explicitly not sexual as he doesn’t have those urges.

    If you’re using Tammy from Gil’s you’re absolutely right that she uses her sex as a weapon. But I’d like to think she’s more than just a bombshell. Even if she isn’t, it doesn’t change the fact that neither Loretta or Cathy are guilty of either of the roles you’ve given as options. Yes, Loretta does make a pass at Duke, but it isn’t her sole motivation throughout the book and it’s one scene. And Cathy makes the first move on Earl, but it’s not as if she’s forcing herself on him. They develop an intimate relationship. Just because she tends to be the initiator of that relationship doesn’t make her sexually aggressive.

    As for A Nameless Witch, she does indeed have some problems in the sexuality department. But her relationship with Wyst is not a one-sided thing. It’s something they both have to come to terms with. (Also, I did win a Feminism award for Witch, so I feel comfortable saying that its portrayal of sexuality is nuanced and interesting.)

    I could go on, but I’ll simply say I disagree with your assessment. Judy from Monster never seems to fit either role, Bonnie & Teri from Divine Misfortune don’t fit them either. Miriam from In the Company of Ogres might be a siren with sexual powers over men, but she never uses that power.

    If you think sex sells my books, you should probably go read sexier books. Because I can honestly say I’ve never heard them ever described as sexy. Ever.

  3. Posted April 24, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Hey Lee,
    Just saw the blog. Love your books, but haven’t read the new one yet. As for race, it doesn’t matter to me as long as it is done in a tastful way. I dabble in writing, and for me, it’s how the writer views characters in his mind, and that should transfer onto the page. Anyway, let me know when you’re in Austin. Would love to get some books signed…and an interview.

  4. Posted April 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    me and the misses enjoy your books no matter the race of your characters even if theres two blacks guys involed or a evil asian girl summoning demons in a small desert town . you tell a great story thank you for your detication to the craft and keep slinging those epic tales and i’ll gladly keep buying them.

  5. Rippley
    Posted April 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I cannot comment fully, because WordPress considers what I have to say to be spam.

    Short: I’m not framing you as the Marquis de Sade of Sci-fi/fantasy. I may have over-dramatized my argument with an either/or choice. But you do have major and minor female characters who have sexually prominent personalities. I include any female character who is having, or talks about, or has a sexual past during a story. For example, the angel in ‘Monster’. Why else would these women have this role other than to appeal to the reader’s sense of s.e.x.u.a.l. (not an acronym, done for WordPress) ideologies.

  6. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. Sorry WordPress is giving you difficulties.

    It’s interesting that you equate a female character displaying any kind of sexuality as being sexually “prominent”. While it’s true Gracie from Monster is a bit casual in her sexuality, this doesn’t necessarily equal what you seem to be getting from it. At least from my angle. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with portraying women as sexual beings. This doesn’t necessarily equal titilation.

    Perhaps it’s just a difference in our personal backgrounds, but I find nothing wrong with women being sexual. I don’t particularly find it remarkable either. Your example, Gracie is modeled after a sort of casual hippie attitude about sex. Yet she never has sex on page, and aside from a passing description, she isn’t even described in much detail.

    Characters in my books will have sex when appropriate, but it’s a wide ranging mix of attitudes on display. Certainly there are examples like Tammy and Liz the succubus, who use their sexuality as a tool. Then there are people like Cathy, who only has sex after forming an intimate and personal relationship. And then there are others like Nessy or Lucia Napier, neither of which have any sex in the stories at all. In any case, none of these characters, male or female, engage in any prominent sexual activity on the page.

    Humans have sex, and quite a few of those humans that do are female. While I have no interest in fetishizing sexuality, I also don’t shy away from allowing characters, both male and female, to be sexual when it seems appropriate to the story.

    Again, if you think my portrayal of female sexuality is prominent, I can only say that we must have very different ideas of what constitutes prominent. If the display of any sexuality at all strikes you as prominent, then I guess you’re right. But different characters will have different attitudes, different comfort levels, and I think I have a wide range of sexual attitudes on display in my books. You’re always free to disagree, but just thought I’d offer a reply.

    • Elizabeth
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Very few genre writers talk about sex in their books and few give women more than a flat personality.

      That makes your books unique Lee-the women are fully developed with human personalities. Not sure if it is a guy thing but when I was reading the Belgariad/Mallorean books, it seems that Eddings was not letting his female characters be female. Polgara was a cranky woman, Ce’Nedra was a petulant child, Beldaran was the complacent wife, Cyradis the virgin, some of the other women were the whore type. Women are all of those things or none of them and frequently act totally different then stereotype-at least in your books the reality is reflected.

      Probably why your characters never have it obvious what race they are unless they are aliens or monsters or whatever. You do not appear to write to stereotype.

  7. Jesse
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I’d like to think that the reason I assume a character is a white male is because I am a white male. I’d like to think a black man would assume a character is black until otherwise noted but maybe I’m being naive.

    The comic “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud sort of touches on this point. At one end of the spectrum he had a smiley face and on the other he had a drawing that would have bee a portrait. The more defined a character the harder it is for people to relate to them. The more generic the character is the less interesting he becomes. There needs to be a balance for a lead character if your goal is to make the reader able to identify with him.

    This is why in video games like the Bioware games where you can choose your character’s sex, race, and name everyone has to refer to you as generic names otherwise the dialog trees would need to be near infinite. In other games like Uncharted you have a very specific character, Nathan Drake which reduces the open ended nature of some story elements which makes for a better story in a game.

    I think I’m rambling.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted April 26, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Love Scott McCloud’s work. I don’t disagree with his assessment overall. But I think if we’re talking in generalities, it’s easier for a minority reader to accept a caucasian character than the other way around. Again, a very sweeping generality and in no way meant to imply that this is a universal truth.

      In the case of Divine Misfortune I feel the lead mortal protagonists are given plenty of personality and character. They’re just not described physically, and because of that, they’re more likely to be perceived as white by most readers, I believe.

      But let’s not mistake this for racism. Rather, I just want to mention it to allow us to reflect on how we, as a culture, have created certain expectations. It isn’t an attack on anyone, nor on the culture we live in. It’s an observation that, hopefully, allows us to see the world in a slightly different way. And that’s always a good thing, if you ask me.

      • Jesse
        Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        I think you just hit on the key there. We as a culture. I’d be curious to see how that expectation changes depending on where you are in the world. Someone has done a study on this I’m sure.

  8. Novellaray
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I just talked about this with someone, weird. This must be becoming a big thing. I never describe my characters skin color, just their tail colors and I still get backlash. It’s not even white or black, it’s turquoise, black and supreme evil is pink. PINK.

    I have to agree with Jesse, I always imagined my characters as I wanted, so I left out a lot. The reader imagines what they want to imagine. And if your work becomes a movie later, than actors are just going to get filled out no matter what their race, right? I would hope to think so, although I know nothing about the movie business.

  9. Charmscale
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    I heard that JK Rowling said Dumbledore was gay because otherwise one of the directors of the Harry Potter movies would have given him a girlfriend. And not just any girlfriend, either, this director planned to have Dumbledore dating a significantly younger woman. Specifically, Madam Rosmerta. While JK Rowling’s method of preventing this was a bit extreme, I can understand why she did it.

  10. Rippley
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    A Lee,

    Never mind, I think the sexual impressions I had of your book came from a series of dreams. Or an overwhelming urge to see how many times I could get the word sex into your blog… There may have been a bet. I’m not quite sure. There was definitely a drinking game.

    By the way, I agree with you about the preconceived notions we have about race identity. I read a few arguments similar to yours in a media studies course, years ago. I also remember an advertising course I took, which basically mapped out gender/age/race aimed advertisement. I don’t quite remember the specifics, but when a product suffers in one of the aforementioned demographics they try to seize that demographic by adding a stereotype. While my new input isn’t where you wanted to drive your audience, I felt as if it were well worth noting. The main method of advertisement is, of course, influence (Duh). Advertisement is built into the movies we watch, (sometimes, the books we read), and especially, if you live in the city, the places you look. Advertiser don’t car if you avoid them, as long as you get a glimpse, because a glimpse is all it takes for you to think, “Oh, I want a hamburger.” The same time it takes for you to want a snack, is the same time it takes advertisers to put an idea of affirmation or negation on some cultural artifact.

  11. Zovesta
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    “J.K Rowling outed Dumbledore as gay and I’m not sure why?” Actually, a fan asked her. >_>

    Anyway, great post. I have to agree. Maybe I’m sort of the opposite… I always picture the main character as a black woman. Probably because I think black people are normally attractive and I identify more with women. Whatever. This probably explains why nearly every human I draw is a black woman… I should try and stop that.

    I think it’s great that you touched on this subject, though. :)

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