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Why I’m Writing About A (White, Cisgendered, Ablebodied Straight) Boy

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog recently talking about the value of diversity in genre fiction: the benefits of reading diversely, of supporting authors whose experience or identity is different from the SF/F mainstream, and of trying to increase the representation of characters of all stripes in the stories we tell. These issues are on my mind a lot these days, and I talk about them with my writerly friends (and others who will tolerate the conversation) at every opportunity.

Which has led to some uncomfortable moments for me in the last few weeks when I sit down to work on my novel. Because after all my talk, I’m still developing a series whose central character matches up with just about every protagonistic cliche in the book: a fair-skinned, able-bodied, heterosexual male.

When I sat down with all the pieces of my story to start my second draft, representation was one of the things I wanted to address, and I’ve definitely made some changes to my cast. There are now several major characters with physical or neurological differences that they didn’t have in the first draft; there are more queer characters than there were before; the skin tones of my supporting cast are more diverse than they were in my original mental portrait. These days, when I introduce a new character whose gender isn’t an essential part of their role in the story, I’ll literally roll a die to determine if they’re a man or a woman. I’m making a conscious effort to put my money where my mouth is in terms of my supporting cast. And yet, when it comes to my hero, I can’t quite do it.

I could give the excuses that I’ve heard over and over again from fans justifying the majority identities (most often whiteness) of beloved fantasy characters: that my character’s ancestors came from particular places that mean he’s going to look a certain way, or that the religious aspects that are very central to his story would have to be dramatically different if I changed his gender because of the conventions of the religion, or a half-dozen other things that don’t really address the issue. Because, after all, these are rules internal to the setting, and the setting is invented. I could easily change the way my protagonist’s ancestors looked; I could just as easily change the details of the religion he follows.

Alternatively, without changing the world’s rules at all, I could tweak my story to put a different kind of person at the center of it. I’ve thought about what these kinds of changes would look like more than once in the months of working on this revision: what if I made him brown? what if I made him queer? what if I made him “her”? But every time I ask myself these questions, I confront the simple truth that I just don’t want to. My hero has been living in my head for eight years now, even if I’ve only been trying to shape his story for about two and a half of them. And I like him the way he is.

I’m still conflicted about this choice. I revisit it every time I read an article about the lack of diversity in mainstream stories (this chart from We Need Diverse Books, for example, is infuriating). I squirm uncomfortably when I read articles like this one from author Elizabeth Bear, seething about the fact that in far too many movies, there are capable female supporting characters whose only job is to scaffold the male hero on his way to being the Chosen One. I remind myself that one central theme of my first big plot arc is subverting/problematizing that Chosen One trope; I remind myself of the work I’ve done to diversify my story’s cast; and still I wonder which tropes I’m unwittingly perpetuating.

And so, after much soul-searching, here are the promises I’ve made to myself (and to those who will hopefully someday become fans of my work).

  1. I will not pretend my hero is something other than another skinny white guy. I could make arguments about how he’ll have a major lack of elite cultural capital, or discuss what I want my series to say about social mobility; I could talk about how racial identities in his world map differently than racial identities in the real world; I could stomp my feet and flail my arms and point to how other characters have X or Y marginalized identity. That doesn’t change the fact that the guy on the cover will look much the same as typical fantasy heroes have looked since the first American nerd bought the first nerdy paperback. As Rachael argues in this fabulous post on being a fan of problematic things, Step 1 is acknowledging the thing’s problematic nature. I can love my hero as he is, but I still need to admit his lack of congruence with the goals I say I support for the SF/F community at large.
  2. I will develop my supporting cast with intention. When this character sprang to my mind eight years ago, I didn’t question his majority identities, and in the interim, I’ve grown attached to the person I developed. But there are a huge number of people in the world around him, characters major and minor, who aren’t so well-developed yet. And as I flesh them out, I’m going to do my damnedest to do it with my eyes open to all possibilities.
  3. I will remind myself this isn’t the only story I have to tell. I know there are other stories in the universe of these books; I know there are other universes in my head that haven’t presented themselves to me yet. I can’t predict what the protagonist of my next series might look like, but I do know I’m gone too far down the rabbit hole of storytelling meta-analysis in the last year or so to blunder blindly into telling the story of yet another straight white guy.

When I first became conscious of the cliched choices I’d made in developing my protagonist, I felt guilty. I don’t anymore. I believe that in the end, authors should write the stories that speak to them: as I noted on this blog about a month ago, in my experience, if you’re writing something ONLY to get a political or social point across it won’t work very well as fiction. I like my hero, and I want to tell his story, so I’m going to do that and trust that someone out there will like it, too. I think that what I’ve learned — and what I’d pass on as the wisdom for other writers — for the next time I start something new is that there are more places to look for inspiration, and more stories to tell, than what the old-time genre canon suggests. I’m excited about the prospect of a long career of going out and discovering new and different kinds of heroes.

In the meantime, I’ve got a book to write.

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4 Comments

  1. I’ve been there! I developed most of my major characters around six years ago. And for the major three or four, all are white and all but one’s straight. In my case, I tend to draw them as well, which made me even more resistant to change them too much. It just wouldn’t feel right to draw them a different way. I know what they look like, who they are, and I don’t want to change them.

    But I have gone and made many changes to the supporting cast who’s design I either hadn’t thought about or hadn’t gotten invested in. I also know that I’ve got many more stories and places in this world that I’ll want to write about, and when it comes time to develop the protagonists for those, they’ll likely end up more diverse.

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    • Thanks for the comment! It really can be tricky figuring out how to walk the line between staying true to your vision of a character and staying true to your larger principles 🙂

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  2. Interesting project. Thanks for sharing how you handling it. I have been reading and thinking about how often we just don’t see or admit our own privileges. The problem of “whiteness” as a race.I don’t have any idea of what plans you have for you character, but you might think about what your character thinks or ignores about his whiteness and maleness. Does that change in the course of the book? Not an easy thing to figure out, of course, and you’d probably need to be subtle. But an idea to explore. I can’t think of anyone who has done that.

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    • Great idea, Marilyn! Neither race/phenotype nor gender has exactly the same valances in my fantasy world that they do in The Real World, but there are definite contexts in which both still matter. I will have to think about that more and how I want to bring it in…

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