Character and Challenging Assumptions

When I'm writing--even before I'm in the actual process of writing; when I'm sitting around or walking down the street kind of thinking about "What Happens Next" or "Another Story," I don't put a lot of initial thought into what characters look like. They usually come to me first as voices, habits, quirks of speech and personality. The visual follows, sometimes much later (it might interest readers to know that in the very first draft of the beginning of She Moved Through the Fair, Timber had red hair and Caitlin was blonde). Above all, I don't build characters around actors, which I have heard some authors do. I find this interferes with the character's own development, as roles I have seen the actor in engulf the emerging personality I wish to portray.

That being said, like many--maybe most--authors, I can't help but indulge in this occasional fantasy of "Who Would Play...?" the characters in my books if they ever got picked up for film. My husband and I will go to a movie, and one of us will say, "Wouldn't she make a great...?" or we'll be watching TV and turn to each other with "He'd be perfect for..."

In the course of playing this game, I started a Pintrest Board to collect actors and actresses whom I'd cast as the characters in my books. I haven't cast everyone by any means, only a handful. But I've noticed something that disturbed me.

90% of my characters are white.

As I said, I haven't cast everyone. Some of the characters elude me, particularly Sage Randall--trying to find a small, round black actress at all is a daunting task. Still, she would be only one more dark face in a sea of cream.

I've always thought of myself as fairly inclusive-minded. This imbalance upset me. It messed with my self-conception. In fact, it disturbed me so much that I actual considered going back to the book about to be released and changing the race of one of the characters, just so there would be a black person in a speaking role (in the end I did not elect to do this, though I thought about it for some days).

I grew up in Detroit, which I have read has the highest African-American population of any city in the north US, and I've lived in NYC and other mixed-race areas. But the truth is, I've spent the last 20 years in a very white place. And though I populate the Gordarosa of my mind with all kinds of people, so far almost all of the major roles have been white folk.

It's not that I don't think of these things. It's just that I don't make it a point to think of these things. When characters come to me, I let them be who they are; I don't ask them if they'd prefer to be someone else. And because I'm white, and most of my friends and acquaintances are white, and I know what that looks like, my characters tends to be white.

But I have to ask myself, is that okay? Or do I have a responsibility, to myself as a person and to myself as a writer, and to my readers, to challenge the immediate assumption of race? To ask those characters, "Can you be black, or Hispanic, or something other than white?" And could I do that without falling into racial stereotypes? I worry I've already done that with Sage; the Forceful Black Woman Friend is almost a cliche. And in another story which will never see print, I did have an Hispanic character who kept falling into the trap of being nothing but ethnic comic relief (one reason that story will never see print).

It's a tricky balance, trying to be inclusive and yet allowing for the limitations of my personal experience. Trickier to pull of in a "Real World" setting than in a completely fantastic world. Ursula K. LeGuin made the inhabitants of Earthsea dark-skinned, but then, it was a totally alien world and she could throw out the very real cultural differences of this world. Or am I making those up? I suppose it's like the question about the difference between men and women. Most people believe they exist, but few dare put a finger on what they are. And whatever you do, trying to write outside your experience, you risk falling into some trope or another. I could have made Alice Fisher black, I suppose. But then, would I be criticized for making the villain of A Maid in Bedlam black and the good guys white? Maybe.

I don't have an answer to this question. There are more characters of color in Book 6, but that just happened, had already happened before my Pintrest board hit me over the head. I guess it's something I'll just keep thinking about.
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Published on August 18, 2013 09:59 Tags: assumptions, character, race
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