Saturday, August 20, 2016

But What About The Poor Unrepresented Majority

This is a quick follow-up to my last blog.

Last week we talked about representation, the importance of fiction and what sort of world we, as creators, want to present to the world. I've written about this a few times in recent memory, about people with special needs, about the spectrum of gender and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This stuff is important to me and it should be important to you.

But something that is raised whenever I board this train of thought is, well, what about real world demographics? What about actual population statistics. Say that I'm writing a story set in Australia, in the area I live, which I mentioned is mostly white, with a large number of people from Chinese descent, as well as Korean and Indian but very few people of African descent or South American descent represented in the local population. Shouldn't the story set in this area have a cast that represents that ethnic makeup of the population? Shouldn't my cast be mostly white and maybe a couple of Chinese characters? Isn't it conceivable that my story wouldn't include the full diverseity of the area?

What about people with mental illness? Special needs? Diverse gender and sexuality? What if my story is about lawyers? Most lawyers are men, so isn't it being realistic to have a cast mostly made up of men?

In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to have this conversation. In a perfect world, the great diversity of humanity in our world would be equally represented in the heroes of our fiction. The only reason we have to make a fuss and a focused effort to write better female (for example) characters in leading roles is because there is a historical absence of such characters. There's a lot of catching up to do. The women of the world deserve a representation they're not getting.

And not every story needs to be a rainbow of representation. Not every story needs to tick off a list of characters: Black, White, East Asian, Homosexual, Transgender, Woman in the cast. In fact, when you try do that, you often end up with token characters and that isn't as helpful as you might think. You might argue it's better than nothing, but we can do better than tokens and we should.

When we talk about better representation and more diversity, we're talking about across a larger body of work. If you want the main character of this story to be a straight white dude, cool, fine, there are straight white dudes in the world and nobody is asking them to be deprived of representation. But if you have written ten stories and each one has a straight white dude as a main character and a supporting cast mostly made up of other straight white dudes and maybe some straight white women from time to time, then there's a problem. You're not challenging your default thinking and you're creating worlds in which people are excluded.

And finally, reality is no reason to under-represent people. We're writing fiction. Anything is possible. Your world, your story, the characters - and anything speculative and beyond the normal like laser guns and werewolves - don't exist in reality. It's not the (fiction) writer's job to paint a realistic portrait of the world.

Like I always say: Truth should never get in the way of a good story.

So after I uploaded this blog, a good friend of mine asked me "What right do I have, as a straight while male, to try and tell the stories of people of colour or women?"

It is an excellent question. The short answer is that you don't have a right, you have a responsibility. I said that. But that short answer doesn't rally address the issue in question.

All of us, as creators, even the women and people of colour amongst us, have a responsibility to represent diversity in fiction. However, we also have a responsibility to be sensitive and respectful. Sometimes that is going to mean not writing from the perspective of a character you can't represent. I have no idea what it's like to be homosexual, growing up in the bible belt of America and I would not feel comfortable writing about that life experience. That is just too far outside my experience for me to approach the topic with the necessary sensitivity. Even though I am writing about an under-represented person, I'd be doing more harm than good.

But it's also possible to over-think it. You don't need to write a minority character in which their being a minority is the point of the story. There's room for that on the bookshelf, but there's room for so much more. Think about this: If you took the character of John McClane from Die Hard and made him Chinese-American but otherwise kept the movie and the character exactly the same, would Die Hard lose anything? Hell no. Would you need to add something more Chinese American about the character to justify the racial choice? Of course not, that's stupid. John McClane doesn't make a point of bringing up his Scottish ancestry through the film, he just kicks arse and takes names.

In my opinion, this is the simplest and maybe the best way to write diversity for most authors. Tell the same stories you love to tell, but diversify your characters.

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