Diversity in Books

This was a topic in one of my MFA classes this week, and I think it’s worth talking about more. The commercial successes, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games – the main characters are white and straight. The question is, “Where’s the black Harry Potter or the Asian Katniss?”

I don’t believe in writing a story or making a movie for the main purpose of having black or Latino characters – those stories tend to read more like racial propaganda. In my experience as a beta reader, I’ve read some of those stories. They’re not fun.

The thing that made stories like Harry Potter popular isn’t the race of the characters. It’s the story. If Harry Potter had been black, nothing besides his skin color would have changed. He still would have gone to school, defeated the Dark Lord, and married Ginny.

The story of Harry Potter rose above race and gender and met a higher standard – in a good story, the race of the character or their gender doesn’t matter. If Harry had been a girl, what would have changed? His sexuality might have, so instead of having a crush on Cho he’d have crushed on Cedric. Oh, that would have made a twist. What about if Harry had been gay? He could have discovered that about himself somewhere along the road to adulthood. Side quest!

We all want to see ourselves in our favorite characters. We want to envision ourselves learning magic and making friends. (That’s why, if you hadn’t noticed, some main characters are a bit bland compared to their spunky friends. Less personality gives the reader room to insert themselves into the plain character.) All my main characters tend to be blonde – like me. It’s not that I don’t like brunettes. I insert myself into the character. That’s why they tend to be female. My male characters tend to be a little feminine in a first draft. I’m used to a girl-brain, and writing from a male’s POV is a shift. Writing from a straight white girl’s POV is easier. It’s natural.

Does not writing black or Latino or Asian characters make a writer racist? (Why is ‘black’ not capitalized when ‘Latino’ and ‘Asian’ are?) If I were to write a novel in which the main character is black, would I be held to a different standard than a writer who is black writing the same novel?

I read a collection of short stories as an undergrad where most of the main characters were Vietnamese women. It wasn’t until the end of the book that the professor informed the class that the writer was a white male who’d lived in Vietnam. Suddenly, the book felt fake. Those women suddenly felt sexualized, portrayed through a man’s eyes. Knowing the gender and race of the writer made me see the book differently than before, when I assumed the writer was an Asian female.

We assume things about the writer based on their characters. That is why some writers, like J. K. Rowling, chose not to include a picture or their full name on their books. Men are less likely to read a book by a woman, and less likely to read a book if the protagonist is female. Does that make the man sexist? Or is that his personal tastes? I don’t like police procedurals. That’s my personal taste.

So – between race, gender, and sexuality, it all boils down to those two industry pushing words. Personal Taste.

We all have things we like reading. We all have things that immediately turn us off a book. What’s yours? Be honest. This is the internet. No one will judge you.

 

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