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Shifting the Defaults - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Shifting the Defaults
In this article, the author talks about assuming characters are white. Let's unpack that a little.


Why do people assume that characters are white? Of course, we first have the problems with racist canons, colonialism, and other claptrap. But then we have the fact that so many stories are set in places where a majority of the people are white. Because white people average more money and education than everyone else, more writers are white. White writers tend to write white characters, or at least, characters easily mistaken for white if not explicitly named otherwise.

Ways to fix this:

* Set stories in places where most or all the people are some other color than white. If a story is set in Africa or China, would you assume all the characters are white? Probably not. It's a very different experience to be black in Africa than in America, to be Chinese in Japan than in China, to be Mexican in Los Angeles than in Idaho Falls.

* Whenever you set a story in a specific city, check its demographics. Compare Los Angeles to Chicago to Montpelier. Each city has its own unique demographic profile. Use this to sort your characters. If there's no reason for them to deviate from the local norm, 10 characters from Los Angeles should be roughly 5 Hispanic, 3 White, 1 Asian, and 1 Black. Plus if you look up countries of origin, you see very different detailing within those broad categories. I have Omaha characters in Nebraska and Miwok in California for a reason. If we make a habit of doing this, people will quit assuming all characters are white unless flagged differently.

* Describe features from the full range of humanity. Skin goes from alabaster through tan and honey tints to terra cotta to brown and black. Hair can be straight, wavy, curly, or nappy. Eyes, noses, and mouths come in many shapes. A character with coily black hair and naturally tan skin probably will not be read as white even if you don't specify African-American or Hispanic or Sicilian. A person with fair skin, curly blonde hair, blue eyes, and a broad nose may well be a "blackfella in a whitefella body."

* Throw in other markers besides appearance. Humans encode culture into basically everything we do -- makeup, clothes, jewelry, music, religion, dialect, etc. A Muslim is probably not white. But a Muslim who listens to hip-hop is probably black while one who listens to beledi is probably Middle Eastern, even if you don't spell it out.

* This also works with every other demographic. Humans are roughly 49% male and 51% female, or slightly less if if you count the 1% or so of trans and intersex people as a separate category. Your stories should show the same mix unless there is a reason not to (e.g. you are writing about a baby shower with all women). About 20% of people have a disability, so unless you have a reason to change that (e.g. you are writing about Gallaudet University), roughly 1 out of 5 characters should have a disability. Demographics are powerful; use them. You cannot fairly be accused of discrimination if you are mapping your representation to the setting.

* With that in hand, consider randomizing elements of character development.  I literally diced up most of the major traits for the Blueshift Troupers, and some for Schrodinger's Heroes.  It's a fantastic method for ensemble shows when you're starting for scratch.  If you're worldbuilding, it works there too.

* Alternatively you can grid characters instead.  Frex, make one for each of the 9 intelligences.  You can see where I've gone down lists of common causes for chronic pain or types of neurovariance.  There are no humans in A Conflagration of Dragons and the races have features (coloration, wings, horns, etc.) based on elemental correspondences.

* Show as much diversity as you can fit into your writing. This will teach your fans not to make assumptions about unspecified character traits. Look at my writing -- if I haven't spelled it out, in most cases it could be anything. Not white. Not straight. Not human. You get the idea. People are complicated, I have to pick and choose what will fit in any given story based on what's relevant to that story. For series where I make character notes, however, there's often a lot more detail (coloration, sex/gender, orientation, etc.) in the character sheet than the story itself. If it's mentioned in the sheet but not the story, that's background parity. Just making sure the story is congruent with the character sheet creates a space for those other traits to exist.

This is one of the few problems that is absolutely, totally fixable. All it takes is people writing more diverse characters -- or prompting them or buying them, if you don't write yourself. If you don't like discrimination in literature, you can definitely stab it to death with pencils.

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fayanora From: fayanora Date: May 12th, 2019 12:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I solve some of these issues a little in my Ravenstone stuff with names, for one. A Korean-American boy named Brandon Han, a family with Greek ancestry have the surname Metaxas, most of the Latinx characters have Latinx names such as Joaquin Asís, and a Kitsune character with a Japanese appearance is named Kohana Sato. I do a similar thing for the other Kitsune characters, too. (Morikami Shimizu and Nurse Ishikawa). Another Japanese character (human) has a Japanese name, too. (Takashi Nakamura.) There's another, minor, Asian character whose name I can't recall, but her name matches her heritage as well.

Then Nizoni, a full-blooded Navajo, has a hyphenated name (Haatathli-Ravenstone), the first half of which is a Navajo name. Another Navajo family have the surname Bylilly, with Navajo given names.

Next, I recruit character races by what I see in my environment, so leaning towards black, Asian, and Latinx characters, in the non-white category, because it's what I see the most of here in Portland. There are a few exceptions in the races of my characters from those or white. A couple Egyptian characters, for instance, and a couple characters with heritage from India. Oh yeah, and the Navajo characters. Two fully Navajo, and six of mixed ancestry. (Five out of eight of those are Ravenstones, Dalia and her family, since Dalia and all her bio siblings are half black, half Navajo, because they all have one full-blooded Navajo parent. Chooli is the only one of them that actually looks Navajo, though.)

As to gender demographics, the Ravenstone series as a whole is weighted more in favor of female characters, whether cis or trans. But the teachers are pretty close to 50/50 gender-wise between male and female. And there's ~19 prominent male characters, not counting teachers.

One of the characters in book 2 has dyslexia. At least one character has ADHD. There's at least 2 autistic characters. Dalia's missing a foot. Chooli is deaf. There's another deaf character prominent in book 2, along with a blind character. A couple characters have chronic anxiety, including Dalia. Dalia has chronic depression and has a strong phobia of public restrooms. (Actually, it's any restroom that she can't securely lock other people out of.)

Sexuality... anyone who's not straight is likely bisexual, unless otherwise stated. Confirmed bisexuals so far are Dalia, Vedya, Morgana, Orpheus, Nizoni, and Mr. and Mrs. Metaxas. Dalia is asexual, but hasn't confirmed it yet because she hasn't run into the term yet. Vedya is aromantic in terms of not experiencing romantic attraction, but she likes the trappings of romance. She hasn't said the term "aromantic" yet, but she's said as much with other words.

As of book one, there's one genderqueer and three transgender characters. Add one more TG character for book 4.

Oh yeah, and regarding "not human," the Ravenstone series has at least 9 prominent faery characters in it. Book 2 has a prominent non-human (but not faery) character. Most of the faery characters are Kitsune, so far. That will be changing in later books.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: May 12th, 2019 12:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
For intelligences, Orpheus (fittingly) has high musical intelligence, even uses music in his spell-casting.

Kinaesthetic: Vedya is a skateboarder and plays soccer. She also does magical dueling. Sarah skateboards as well.

Naturalist: Planning on having Ashkii fit this one. But Orpheus also has it; Orpheus is a phytomancer; in the context of the book, it means he raises plants, especially magical plants, and uses transformation magic to help them grow faster and/or bigger than normal, or in ways they don't normally grow. Acorn also has this, because as a Dryad, she has a natural affinity for trees and other plants. And Nizoni and Dalia both love animals. Nizoni works with animals for a living, and Dalia has a familiar and loves monstrous creatures.

Logical-Mathematical: Vedya is a math whiz. In a middle-school equivalent year at school, she's taking Pre-Algebra, a high school math course. She's also got a knack for strategy, and regularly plays a variant of chess that involves solving math problems before you can make your move.

Interpersonal: Dalia struggles with this in some ways, and in other ways she's got this in spades. See, she's a telempath (AKA "empath"). She figures this out in book 1, and is still learning how to control it and use it in book 2.

Linguistic: Vedya got double blessed. Along with being a whiz at math, she's also got a (possibly magic-boosted) knack for languages. Last I recall, she's fluent in nine different languages at age 12.

Spacial: Dalia has this in spades; she's a talented artist.

intra-personal: Dalia and Vedya both have high scores here.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 12th, 2019 06:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yay!

I love that not only can you rattle off examples like that, you do what I do -- seeing a reference to a character sorting method or a trait makes you look for it in what you've written. :D And it's usually there.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: May 14th, 2019 12:15 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yay!

Yup. I love diversity. I love in reading especially. I've had a hard time reading for years because "straight cis white men doing Marty Stu things" is just so damn boring, even if it's the "in space" or "with dragons" varieties. I read mostly things with diversity in them now, when I can find them.

I mean, that's not my only problem with reading. It's the only one I can really quantify, though. Seems like the only thing I can reliably get myself to read are fan fics and most books by Seanan McGuire, especially the InCryptid series and the October Daye series.
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