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,