Defaults

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

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6 Comments on “Defaults

  1. Excellent post, John! We all have our own defaults–I’ll admit to writing a few strapping Irish characters myself. I couldn’t agree more with your post. When a YA book in particular, has an all-white cast of characters, everyone loses out. Those in the minority (whether by ethnicity, gender, sexual preference) have no one to identify with, but also those historically considered in the majority (a.k.a. white heterosexual males) begin to think of themselves as the only game in town…the standard. Well, it’s time for standards to change. Maybe writing characters that stray from our defaults puts us a little out of our comfort zones, but there are an awful lot of people in this world that need to be heard.

    And you know what? I’d read a book about dark-skinned elves any day of the week. Best of luck with your work!

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    • Thank you. It doesn’t even have to be a gigantic push. If someone gives an alternate protagonist a try at some point, not even having it be a huge part of a narrative, it’d be cool. Like I said, it’d be fun to see major characters of different demographics be something we’re just used to seeing.

      Elves aren’t my forte, but I might give it a try in the future. Comfort zones, eh?

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  2. I really appreciate this post. I know there had been a lot of talk about the need for more diversity in books. I fully support the rallying cries and, thanks to bloggish recommendations, have found some wonderful books because of it. However, I must admit this seems to happen more easily in mainstream fiction than the genres like science fiction and fantasy, which I also enjoy.

    So, as a reader, I am attempting to be more aware of my consumer habits. As a writer, though, I know I struggle with this. I wrote and self-published a paranormal romance novel set in Flint, and I cringe when I consider my cast of characters because I know this city’s demographics. I lived on the “north end” for a couple of years and then, when my husband and I got married, we bought a house near downtown, more east side than Cultural Center, if you will. To my mind, I have no excuse for the mostly all-white cast I ended up putting together. I am not proud of this and I am going to try to improve on this default setting in my writing toolkit.

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  3. Great post. I liked reading your thought process about why you defaulted to white characters for so long and how you’re working through that now. I look forward to reading your work in the future!

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