Skin color in speculative fiction

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Beware: this is a rant, inspired, at least partially, by a recent review I read of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti.

The reviewer liked the story and waxed poetic about the heroine, especially because she was black. Then he branched out and started talking about speculative fiction in general, and how it needs more black heroes, more Asian heroes, more Latin American heroes, and so on. (I’m using the word ‘hero’ for simplicity, not to indicate gender. It could be ‘heroine’ as well.) More racial diversity, the reviewer cried.

I’ve heard this refrain before, and so have you, no doubt, but I wonder. Why nobody ever demands more Bulgarian heroes. Or Finnish? Or freckled red heads, for that matter? Why do they fixate on dark skin and dark hair? It feels like some sort of perverse racism, when the authors of such appeals count the percentage of colored people in America and announce that the percentage of colored heroes in speculative fiction should relate.

I disagree. Conforming to percentages is a dangerous direction, and it leads to some ugly places. I grew up in Soviet Russia, where anti-Semitism was subtle and sanctioned by the government. There were certain prestigious universities, like Moscow University, which didn’t, as a rule, accept Jewish students. I’m a Jew and I knew it. Every other Jewish boy and girl I met at school knew it too. We didn’t apply to Moscow University. We applied to the institutions known to ‘take’ Jews. But there was an exception to this unspoken rule. The percentage of Jews in Russia at the time amounted to a certain small number (I don’t remember the exact digits), and the Moscow University was obliged to ‘take’ a few token Jews as students, so their ethnic student distribution looked the same as the country at large. Is that what we want happening in speculative fiction? The racism in this notion is camouflaged, true, but it’s no less real.

I think that the only reasons for a fictional hero to be black or white or blue with tentacles should be creative, organic to the story, not political or inspired by a popular hashtag. Such choices should have nothing to do with the racial demographics in the US. Besides, the percentages are different in different countries. So do we need more black fantasy heroes in America than we do in Canada? How about the racial statistics by state or province? More Chinese heroes in British Columbia and fewer in Ontario? It gets ridiculous pretty fast.

If your story wants a black hero, like Binti – wonderful. If it wants a white hero – equally good. Neither is better than the other, and the writers shouldn’t go out of their way to comply with the false demands for diversity. Only your muse knows what makes your writing alive. Artificiality never improved any story.

Most of my protagonists are white young women. That’s how I see them, although I’ve stopped describing my heroines several years ago. But the protagonist of my latest speculative fiction story is a colored girl. That’s how I saw her even before I started writing her story. It had nothing to do with the absurd concept of racial diversity in fiction. It was just how the story unfolded in my head: her father is an African American human; her mother is a white elf. That’s what the story whispered in my mind, and I followed its tune.

Am I wrong in my musing?



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23 Responses to Skin color in speculative fiction

  1. spunkonastick says:

    No and I think you said it very well.

  2. cheriereich says:

    Though I do believe we need more diverse books out there (not just race but beliefs, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc.), I don’t believe they should fill some sort of quotient. The characters should be who they are based on the story.

  3. I agree that you should follow who you think your character should be but there is a need for more diverse characters in fiction, especially for kids. I’m Jewish too and can’t imagine the experiences that you went through. I also am the mom of an adopted Chinese daughter who is also part Mexican-American because that was my late husband’s heritage. There were very few books out there with characters who were Chinese or Mexican-American when she was growing up and she felt the lack.

  4. I agree with not filling quota’s. I don’t care what race or color a hero is, as long as they are a well developed character. And the story plot is well crafted. I think also that if healthy white people are not writing enough racial and disabled hero’s, perhaps these groups need to write these needed stories.

    My stories usually include diversity, but that is just because the world is full of diversity in real life. Are my hero’s always white? Yeah, pretty much. But, I’m white. On the plus side, I don’t think my “hero” is ever as interesting as my secondary characters, lol. I’m pretty plain and ordinary, and don’t seem to have the ability to dream up an impressive hero, no matter what color, nationality, or state of health.

    This is a tough question to explore Olga.

  5. That’s a tough one… I’ve gathered from the guest posts I had on my blog last month that even if you do write diverse characters, someone will still find something wrong with them. My characters walk into my study, fully formed and ready for their stories. I can’t change their backstories or their parentage — it’s already part of them. Each one is unique and diverse in their own way — just like everyone in the world is. And if someone doesn’t like the way I describe my characters (minimal detail) because of the image that forms in their head, then that’s their imagination’s problem, isn’t it?
    Living in a country where quotas have to be filled when companies do hiring, I’m in no frame of mind to fill any quotas in my writing.

    Ronel visiting on Insecure Writer’s Support Group day: Autumn Decisions

  6. cleemckenzie says:

    I applaud your musings. I’m not jumping onto the diversity bandwagon to sell books. I’ve included a lot of different characters in my books–hispanic, gay, East Indian, elderly–but they were all integral to the story. I didn’t “add” them for diversity sake.

  7. emaginette says:

    No. You’re not wrong. I feel it too, but for other reasons just as close to my heart. I see everyone as people with the same people problems and the same people hopes. I don’t care where they live, who they pray to, or what color they may be. The world is getting smaller every day and I like it.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  8. NIcki Elson says:

    I agree with you 100%. People are so quick to jump on a bandwagon that sounds good on the surface and they don’t stop to think any deeper about the implications.

  9. What Anna said. Doesn’t matter the exterior – we all have similar loves and hates.

  10. ChrysFey says:

    That’s why my Diverse Character A-Z feature I did last year provided a list of all sorts of diverse characters. What makes us diverse isn’t just the color of our skin. 🙂

  11. Erika Beebe says:

    I am right there with you. We must write what we see 🙂

  12. Denise Covey says:

    I agree with you on this, Olga. Diversity in characters is good but not easy to do if you’re not familiar with the culture, race etc. But a certain quotient? No way. But no matter what you do, someone will gainsay you, so in the end, you must write the way you think is the right way!

  13. It’s important that the publishing industry publishes stories by underrepresented segments of the population. In a way, this definition includes you as well, and maybe that’s the problem you had with this particular person’s definition, which, perhaps, is narrower than what a lot of people are asking for. This is a topic I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak about though. Also, generally speaking, there is still a large deficit in publishing ownvoices stories by authors of colour, and it’s important that this issue is addressed.

  14. patgarcia says:

    No, you’re not wrong in musing. You’re wiser than you think. Diversity is becoming more and more of a problem because it drowns the creative spirit and what comes out is systematic thinking that placates people and blinds them to the fact of what it means to be different and unique. True, my main females characters in my manuscripts are black women, they are older than their male partners, and the males in their lives are Jewish-American Italians, but that is what I feel in my spirit and see in my heart when a story hits me, and that’s what I write. It is a matter of letting my creative spirit fly the way it wants to fly and be what it wants to be.
    Love your article. This is a topic that touches my heart too.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  15. Elsie says:

    I think your muse is spot on. You go with your heart and your character will be strong and her voice will be clear rather than seeming false and forced.

  16. I whole-heartedly agree. Characters need to be organic and true to themselves and the story, not a political agenda.

  17. Thank you for sharing your story. While I don’t think a quota should be filled, I’d love to see more diverse authors with representative characters. I saw so few Native American characters growing up, and the few I did see were typically caricatures, ridiculous cliches. It was damaging. Not just to me, but to everyone who absorbed those images and used them to form their opinions of Natives. I imagine it’s the same for all sorts of people, whether we’re talking color or other traits.

  18. I’m with you. Diverse books are great as it’s uplifting to see yourself reflected in a character, but it does need to be organic. Shoving it in just for a quota only makes a flat character that no one relates to and risks harming the demographic its supposed to enhance.

  19. yvettecarol says:

    I’ve seen this development, too. It seems like a potential minefield, if you’re not careful. As you say, the most important thing is to listen to the little inner voice as a writer, and stay true to the actual authenticity of your story’s needs, not some overlay of arbitrary societal dictates. A very bold post, Olga. Good on you!

  20. I don’t describe race or color in my characters. I just imagine them doing and saying things not looking a certain way so much. I think diversity is important but we shouldn’t be forced to write about it.

  21. Loni Townsend says:

    I avoid naming or describing race, but my characters do tend to have sun-darkened skin, but that’s also reflective of my own family. Characters are characters, and they are who they need to be.

  22. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    I need to tell the stories that come to me. I was never into writing what was “hot” or in vogue. I write what matters to me. You go, Olga. Bravo!

  23. lenmruth says:

    Your point is well taken. In my own writing process, there are two elements: the premise, and the characters. Example: Character travels through post apocalypse landscape to achieve goal X. Does it matter what his/her race, gender, sexual orientation is? Not usually, not at first. Who the character is will fill in the plot. What matters is: can I write the truth in that character’s voice? If I can, and I’d like more readers to identify with the character, then I might choose to write a mixed race lesbian in that roll. I’m not qualified to write about that any more than I’m qualified to write space opera, but as long as I tell the truth, and the readers agree, why not be more inclusive in my character choices.

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