When I first started writing, I wrote about white people.
Hands of ivory gripped plasma guns or wielded claymores and bastard swords in thrilling combat. Incantations for spells were uttered by pale-faced wizards. The captain at the helm of the starship I worked into my undeveloped space drama was of European descent, assuming Europe existed.
It’s only now, some fifteen years later, I realize it’s odd that I never considered writing about people who looked like me. I’m black, and it took well over a decade for someone of similar pigmentation to escape my pen.
There’s nothing wrong with white people. I work with them. They’re my neighbors. They’re pretty cool people. Some (most) of my favorite characters of all time were white. Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly always charmed me with his roguish ways and dogged determination. I was enthralled by Danny Torrance’s struggle against paranormal forces and his own father in The Shining, then by his renewed conflict in Dr. Sleep. Ender Wiggins in Ender’s Game was a brutal little son of a bitch, but there was something I admired about how he reacted to the world’s molding of him into an extraordinary general.
But people who look like me, they exist, and they are doing important stuff. I never considered the notion that they could do so in MY works. I guess part of it had to do with what I saw when I came up. When I read the Hobbit, I knew it was about white folks. Short, hairy, dwarves and hobbits but still, white folks.
I know people who look like me that were the stars of all kinds of interesting stories. My dad used to regale me with stories about playing music in Detroit nightclubs. He told me he used to carry a Luger with him in his attaché because people thought musicians were easy marks. Somewhere in there is a protagonist waiting to have his story told, with his classy handgun and classier music. If that’s real life, why is fiction, especially speculative fiction, any different?
Whenever I picked up new epic fantasies or sci-fi anthologies to read as a kid, or a teenager, or as a desperate college student, there was always a melanin-challenged young man or woman adorning the cover, or implicitly in the context of the story. If the main character wasn’t an alien or some nondescript fictional race, they were white. You don’t often hear about dark-skinned elves. Unless they’re drow or something. Even then, they are still Caucasians. Caucasians with a coat of paint.
It never occurred to me that I could write about someone with darker skin. I didn’t break a mold because, hell, I didn’t know a mold existed. I just thought stories were about strapping young Irish or Anglo or Russian or Swedish people battling evil gods, or taking intergalactic road trips, or unlocking the secrets of magical artifacts. This predetermined mindset is why, if a black man or woman shows up in one of my stories, especially as a protagonist, it was a deliberate choice. I have to make myself do it, and it’s odd that as a black man, that’s my default setting.
I’m not a crusader for racial, sexual, or gender diversity in fiction. I don’t demand or expect authors to populate their stories with minorities to fill a quota, or turn their works into urban, or gay, or trans fiction just to attend to some fashionable need in speculative fiction. I’m just thinking that protagonists who look like me, or people who might be homosexual, or transgender, don’t have to be novelties. I don’t want a black person going on an epic quest to slay an ancient evil to be cause for celebration or deep introspection. Quite the opposite, in fact. Diverse protagonists should be so common as to be unremarkable. Especially for young adults such as myself fifteen years ago. It’s a disservice to people on the cusp of maturity that only one group can be the figurehead of their favorite stories.
If I can do something in this business, express my authority on the subject, then maybe a couple heroes will be able to walk outside without sunscreen, and no one will comment on it. Hopefully more young writers will do the same.
Fiction’s a mirror of life, and hey, there are a lot of different people in the real world driving events. I’m just writing what I see.
John McKeown is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi author from Flint, Michigan, with a penchant for procrastination. As such, he is woefully unpublished. When he’s not writing about magic and economic collapse, he either rots his brain with video games or destroys his body via competitive martial arts. Follow him on Twitter @Outfoxd21