Rewriting the Balance of Black and White Characters in Fiction

I loved Chella’s recent article on avoiding black stereotypes in our writing. It highlights an issue so long-standing in fiction I think it calls for a deeper discussion.

It was a revelation to me, following some general conversations with Chella, to realise that there are default settings for characters in fiction. I never even considered it. In fact, these defaults are so prevalent in books that to change them it’s necessary for a writer to specify that 1) the MC in a book is not male and 2) the MC is not white.

The initial assumption of a reader (I’m speaking generally now, not necessarily about you) is that any character introduced in a book is a straight white male, until it’s established otherwise. This is true even if you’re not straight, male or white. That’s shocking, if you think about it. Why should there be any default, and why not instinctively gravitate towards your own gender, preference or colour?


Idris Elba as Luther, a layered character where race is important, but not central

This whole issue comes from decades/centuries of experiencing white males as central characters in fiction. It’s so well-established that as a woman I can (I think) easily write male characters, yet I’ve heard male writers confess to struggling to write female characters. Of course it’s easier for me to write in a male ‘voice’ – I’ve had my entire life to learn how they think, feel and act based on most of the books I’ve read.

However, my current WIP is a steampunk novel with a black female as its central character. Very PC of me, right? Frankly, I’m terrified.

As a woman, I can write women, but black? I’ve never been black and have no idea what being black is like. There are issues people of colour must face daily which I’ve never personally experienced, and there are certainly not enough books using people of colour as central characters to give me the same grounding I have for writing male characters. The last thing I want to do is make my lovely heroine a stereotype, or cause offense through insensitivity.

There are very few black heroes in fiction, which makes it even more important for me to get this right. Young black women deserve a great character to identify with, and why shouldn’t they have one? Yet a wrong or careless word from me could a) stereotypify my character or b) offend my non-white readers.

Without any doubt this character is the most difficult I’ve tackled. I don’t want to make ‘being black’ a core aspect of her character – she’s a person before she’s a colour – but the fact that she’s not white raises historical, cultural and personal demons for white and people of colour alike. This is a sad reflection of the real world, and one that has to be addressed on a far wider-ranging platform than a simple YA novel. Skin colour should be no more contentious than eye-colour in a character description, but until society in general makes this true, black characters of any depth will always be burdened with the reality of prejudice and assumptions.

We need more diverse writers and more diverse characters, but we can’t always leave it to people of colour to write those characters. And it’s important to remember that minority characters don’t have to be preoccupied with ‘issues’ or fulfilling a didactic role, they can be just cool characters with a compelling story.

Thanks go to Chella Ramanan for her editorial suggestions.

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