What color is your hero

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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Racial diversity in fiction – I wrote about this controversial topic before. Unfortunately, it raises its head again and again, in different guises. Sometimes, it is a book reviewer demanding more colored non-European heroes. Sometimes, it is a colored writer condemning her fellow white writer for ‘cultural appropriation and stereotyping,’ when the aforementioned white writer dared to write about a colored character in the ‘wrong’ way. No matter where you turn, someone is unhappy.

I think, the only guiding principle for any writer should be their imagination. Whether they see their characters as white or brown or green with wings, they should write their story the way their muse demands. Inspiration can’t be forced. Nobody should judge a writer for her fiction’s diversity level or the way she perceives her characters. The story belongs to her. The only issue under discussion should be the quality of writing, not the peculiarity of the author’s vision. (Of course, I’m not talking about outright racism, just the characters’ appearance.)

But while a writer writes what is close to her heart, a reader could enrich the story by his own interpretation. After all, reading a book is like staging a show inside your head, with one spectator and one casting director – you, the reader. You could cast anyone for any role. The choice of the hero’s skin color is yours.

Take J.R.R. Tolkien, for example. If Aragorn had dark skin or Asian eyes, would his actions change? No. Tolkien wrote Aragorn as heroic and compassionate. The color of his skin was irrelevant to the story. I don’t remember exactly how much space Aragorn’s description takes in the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m sure it’s no more than a few lines in about fifteen hundred pages. Couldn’t the readers disregard those lines and assign Aragorn any color they wished? If they can’t or don’t want to, if they prefer to see him white, like Viggo Mortensen from the movie, it’s not the writer’s fault.

Classical ballet has the right approach to this concept. When Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty were first choreographed in the end of the 19th century, the choreographers envisioned the heroes white. Nobody specified the performers’ skin color, but at the time, there were no other ballet dancers but white.

Now the situation changed, and the ballets changed with it. Chinese ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan danced Odette from Swan Lake, and everybody was delighted. Carlos Acosta, a Cuban-born, brown-skinned ballet superstar, performed the assorted classical ballet princes, who were originally assumed white, and the public loved him. The ballet roles are cast according to the skill levels. Skin color has nothing to do with it.

It’s up to you, the reader, how you see the heroes of the stories you read. Don’t you agree?

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23 Responses to What color is your hero

  1. Juneta says:

    Yes. I agree it is up to the reader. Great post.

  2. I do agree! That is the best way to look at it. After all, isn’t that why book to movie adaptations disappoint people – because they envisioned how the characters would look and it’s different than what is on screen?

  3. Sarah Foster says:

    It’s tough–on the one hand, having diverse characters is important, but you also want to make sure you’re being realistic and appropriate. But you’re right, the reader has the power to picture the characters however they want.

  4. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I agree too, though we have to be very sensitive if we write about a character that is of a different ethnicity to portray them sensitively. And it is a problem when readers envision a character one way from reading a book and they are not portrayed that way in a movie.

  5. Denise Covey says:

    This is true Olga. In Australia, most books about the First Nation people (previously Australian Aborigines) are written by whites. The First Nation people hate that. I wish everything wasn’t offensive to so many people these days.

  6. I just wish so many people weren’t so oversensitive and easily offended. You make an excellent point that characters can look like anyone.

  7. Great discussion. I’ve seen more and more writers who leave the personal traits up to the readers.

  8. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    I do think that the experiences of people influence how they deal with others. For me, that means that writers, who are human, have their own experiences and write from their own experiences and how they see the world. There is a huge mess going on in the RWA in the United States that is affecting the whole organization regarding this. When we start dictating how a writer should write, then we are stepping out on the brink of stifling a writer’s creativity. I believe that.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  9. emaginette says:

    Rowling stated simply that Hermione had curly hair that stuck out and Dumbledore was sort of skimmed over. Both were diverse. Both were understated. That’s my approach. I want readers to see themselves in my work. I don’t know if I meet the goal but I try and always will.

    Like you said, we do what comes natural to us. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  10. Loni Townsend says:

    I admit, I tend to envision the characters closer to my own appearance, usually with gold-brown skin tones. My own protagonist has metallic bronze skin, likely influenced by that same inclination. But I’ve never really taken issue if other people envision characters from books differently than I do.

  11. cleemckenzie says:

    I absolutely do agree. I write about people who don’t look like me, don’t talk like me and certainly don’t think like me. If I could only write about old white women, I’d have very little to say and quite quickly.

  12. Lee Lowery says:

    Completely agree, Olga. The PC diversity inclusive police will never be satisfied, no matter how much we try to include others not like “us.” We will never get it “right.” Yet, there is no uniformity of thought among diverse populations and to suggest such smacks of stereotypes. How long until the Outraged Dragon Union descends upon us?

  13. Chrys Fey says:

    I started to do certain things in my own writing to let my readers visualize my characters how they want to see them. I may describe their hair and eye color, but that’s about it now.

  14. I agree. And readers will always envision their own world based on any piece of writing. It will be a unique world.

  15. Erika Beebe says:

    I think you summed it up perfectly. Write the character you see in your mind because that’s the character 🙂

  16. Jacqui Murray says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I remember three books into a trilogy, at my writer’s group, they were surprised to find out the main character was black. Thought I should have said something earlier. My response was ‘Why?’. The story is about hard work and tenacity which fits any skin color.

  17. yvettecarol says:

    Yes, great piece of contemplation, Olga. I try to minimize character descriptions in my writing these days. When I started out I was so pedantic about completely describing their appearance, then a writing mentor came along and said no one wants to be reminded what colour a character’s eyes are and what colour hair they have on every other page.

  18. In my current manuscript, I have an African/American character with albinism. I’m so doomed.

    However, consider the popularity of the musical Hamilton. Is the success due to the different skin colors of the actors, the music, the lyrics, the storytelling, or all of the above? Yes, the sky is the limit. Creators should keep pushing at boundaries. Magical things can happen.

  19. Donna Hole says:

    I think the focus on the “color” or “race” of people in literature is a pretty recent development. Authors have to specify to check the diversity requirement. When Tolkien wrote his stories, he used “color” and “race” differently. I don’t remember (its been years since I read the books) the Author truly describing his characters in that way. Aragorn was of the race of Dunedin, The Long Lived; he was dark haired because he is half human (as opposed to other Elves who are white haired). The only comparable reference to color and race as we see it today was referencing the dark skinned Corsairs. When I read the books, I imagined my own looks on all the characters: Elves, Hobbits, Orks, and Wizards. Viggo was the perfect choice, in my opinion, for the role. He was able to portray all the heroic characteristics and skills expected of the character.

    I’m pretty sure Wesley Snipes (Blade) could have handled the role equally as well. Except, his face doesn’t reflect the range of emotion that Aragorn’s character needs.

    A well developed, well rounded character is all that matters to me in a story.

  20. I fully agree with you Olga on this one. As Umberto Eco explains in his book Lector in Fabula. The reader’s responsibility is to go the other half of the way in the fiction job, writer-reader relationship. A helpful read I would recommend to every writer interested in thinking through the craft. It was a compulsory read in BA and MA literature studies in France. Umberto Eco was first and foremost a linguist, then an essayist and lastly a novelist.

  21. Historically the complains are valid, because historically characters of darker skin has been grossly left out of literature and if written about at all the script wasn’t always positive. Green or other natural hued people doesn’t exist so it easy to write about them and still avoid the fact that people of color is still critically lacking in literature.

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