Writing the Right Characters

Recently, a tiresome bit of pablum has circulated online in various articles by well-meaning individuals, whose main complaint seems to be that it’s not possible for white authors to write novels with “Person of Color” main characters.

The most recent reiteration of this complaint is a June 6 Tor/Forge post by one A.J. Hartley, titled “Writing POC While White,” in which Hartley tries and fails to explain why white writers do a poor job of writing non-white main characters, and why they should apparently avoid this trap whenever possible. To whit, he says:

Portraying disempowered Otherness on the page is still possible even if you don’t know it (in your gut) as lived experience. You can research it. You can talk to other people about it. Hell, you can see it in the news every day. But writing a POC character when you aren’t one yourself is not the same as writing a profession you know nothing about—plumbing, say—which you can fake your way through by watching a few How To videos on YouTube. In the end, all you can do is try to do it with sensitivity and respect, but—and this is more important—be ready to listen to those better qualified to assess what you’ve done when they tell you you’ve got it wrong. Again, meaning well isn’t enough, and the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

Keep in mind that Hartley begins this article by explaining what countries’ histories and political systems he drew from in the course of the worldbuilding process for his own novel, “Steeplejack.” From there, he attempts to elucidate further on his reasoning, such as it is, with anecdotes about his run-ins with well-meaning folks who make some racist assumptions about his non-white wife and son.

Hartley fails to defend the premise of his article for the following reasons:

He assumes that white authors don’t already know how to write non-white characters. He says:

“Too often writers play upon stereotypes and white notions of what it means to be a POC” without providing evidence of this claim. He goes on to add, “Conversely, and almost as problematic to my mind, many writers assume that race/ethnicity is irrelevant, so characters can be written as white and then (like the awful colorizing of old movies) given a superficial tint.”

Honestly, does anyone find this claim to be even remotely true? Hartley makes assumptions about other authors that reflects poorly on how he views their writing processes versus his own. How can he know or even imagine that the next writer, whomever that may be, will not invest time and effort to construct a believable protagonist that his or her audience will not equate to, oh, let’s see, Empress Teresa? (Here I will interject to add a disclaimer of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Oh, and proceed at your own risk regarding this can of worms.) Hartley might find this difficult to believe, but accomplished authors who know how to create characters their audiences can relate to do exist. And some of those characters are black! Cue the smelling salts, Henrietta!

Next, Hartley confuses the fictional universe within a work with the real world. He says,

Race is a real and meaningful part of who we are, so writing a racially-neutral character and then giving them dark skin or an “ethnic-sounding” name doesn’t allow that character to reflect upon the social realities that shaped their sense of self, particularly how they have been treated by the greater, imperfect world.

Let us note that every fictional universe is exclusive to its creator, who shapes it to reflect whatever he or she wants it to be. It might or might not contain shades of realism, it might or might not be populated by humans, it might or might not be a believable universe. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that it’s fiction.

The main reason why I continually find the complaint that white writers cannot realistically write “POC” main characters is this – hopefully – temporary amnesia on the part of the complainees. When reading fiction, who expects any reasonable creator of a fictional universe to mirror our world country to country, culture to culture, species to species? Why do people agitate for more representation of diversity in fiction when fiction’s main job is to serve as escapism from the current stresses of the real world? Do these folks want us to become stressed by the fiction we read? Heaven forbid this is their goal!

Finally, and most importantly, it’s the height of arrogance to claim certain writers cannot write certain characters because of the characters’ skin color. We would like to think that, in our acclaimed post-racial America, this object lesson would have already been imparted and ingrained into our collective psyche. Everyday there’s a poor schlob being judged because he, a white man, dared to slip into the persona of a fictional person who may have been created with tentacles, extra appendages, or lavender-colored scales to speak with another fictional person who’s human. How dare he! How does he know what xir’s had to deal with in xir’s society? How dare he force xir to converse with a human! What’s this universe coming to?

It is in this vein that some of the feverish condemnation of JK Rowling for writing about Native American wizard culture can be found, because she didn’t consult experts of historically-sourced Native American culture before recently creating the fictional version in the Harry Potter universe for her fans to discover. Some of the aggrieved even went so far to say that Rowling should not have bothered to write on the fictional Native American wizards, because their society and culture was portrayed inaccurately by its creator.

Consider the implications of this accusation, please: some arrogant “POC” experts on Native American culture essentially told one of the bestselling authors of our time to stick to writing non-POC characters in the fictional universe she’d created. Never mind that some of the characters that already inhabited the Harry Potter universe were non-white and had existed long before these pea-brained, brown-tinted glass-wearing individuals could write a coherent sentence.

We might laugh and consider the entire situation to be ludicrous. We might shake our heads and wonder aloud how people like the aforementioned aggrieved parties exist.

But exist they do, and their influence on writing fiction is pervasive and ever present.

To say that I disagree with Hartley’s assertions in his article is an understatement. They’re ill-conceived and there’s scant evidence to back them. The premise is poorly developed and easily dissected by a “POC” who finds it distasteful and irrational to use race and skin color as attempts to dissuade a writer from creating characters utterly different from himself. I would even say that the term “Person of Color” is unnecessary in discussing character development for its racist connotations. Which makes Hartley’s conclusion all the more amusing:

But I also think that writing about race (and all the other “isms”) is important because all people have a stake in these conversations, and we need to find ways to discuss such things which break down that sense of our culture as fundamentally siloed, divided, and fractious.

Indeed, Mr. Hartley. My first suggestion is to ditch this “POC” verbiage. You do yourself and your loved ones a disservice by including it here. It is by itself divisive in the worst way and not at all constructive to the discussion of character creation and development.

My second suggestion is to continue improving your writing so that “characters can be written as white and then…given a superficial tint” gives way to “write the right character for your story,” which becomes your primary focus so far as your characters are concerned. You do yourself no favors by assuming that a character is written as white by default. You can’t confirm that this is true for other writers, nor can you know what their writing processes are that could possibly lead you to this flawed conclusion, so why keep assuming this?

My third suggestion is to read between the lines in your fiction. Other writers incorporate non-white characters in their fiction as necessary on a regular basis. This doesn’t require an agonizingly presumptuous article telling white writers that this is a new required tool in their box of writing tips and tricks. Does that olive-skinned character serve a purpose to advance your plot? Does that Schlebian (a lobster-looking species I just made up) function in a useful way as a foil or antagonist opposite your main character, whatever skin color she may be?

The treatment by this “greater, imperfect world” may inform your life’s experiences and ultimately affect your worldview, but don’t let it taint your fiction.

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