It’s 2017, and inclusion is in.
To be clear, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. By all means, movies, TV, and books should include a more diverse cast, one that looks more like real life.
But books… should authors include diverse characters? To me, that’s an interesting question with no one right answer.
The way I’ve resolved it is to only describe those parts of characters where physical description is important. For instance, in my manuscript, Acheron Crossing (which I’m trying to get an agent for!), I describe the main character only as fat. It’s important, because she’s bullied for being fat. But does her race or height or hair color matter?
Not at all.
In my mind, the problem is that when you start identifying some characters as white, and then don’t identify the race of other characters, in most cases, they’re assumed to be white. JK Rowling got a lot of crap for not having a diverse enough cast of characters, and she said that they were there, but she wasn’t going to describe them all. Lots of people don’t buy that though.
Another article I read by a young black woman talked about how, when a black woman was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she didn’t see what the big deal was. She had always seen Hermione as black before Emma Watson was cast. She said that because of all the prejudice Hermione faced, and her only descriptors were “bushy brown hair” and “big teeth,” it seemed perfect to her. There are a million articles out there that describe this better than I do. Here’s one.
That article blew me away, and completely changed my thinking. It made me realize that if I don’t describe my characters, maybe the reader can better identify with them. The character can be anything the reader wants them to be.
In my mind, a book is a magical doorway, and the reader gets to be part of that magic. If a reader identifies with a character, that’s the best kind of magic.
In a personal example, I think Nicola Yoon is one of the best authors out there right now. In The Sun Is Also A Star, Natasha is Jamaican American, and Daniel is Korean American, and it was important to the narrative. Culture was all over the book. I had previously read Everything, Everything, and when I was looking up more about The Sun Is Also A Star, I read a reference that the main character, Maddy, in Everything, Everything was partly African-American.
I didn’t remember that.
In fact, I didn’t remember anything about what she looked like.
It didn’t matter to me what race Maddy was, nor did it matter to me what her love interest looked like. If it was relevant to the book, I don’t remember that either.
I remember that it was an amazing plot and a beautiful love story. I remember that it had a breathtaking finale, that I was reading it in Vegas. I was laying by the pool with a friend, and she kept trying to talk to me.
And I wasn’t interested.
Because I had to finish this wonderful book.
Now, I don’t mean to say that the main character in Everything, Everything shouldn’t have been African-American. Honestly, there are tons of books with blonde haired, blue eyed main characters. If I want a MC who looks like me, I have a bookshelf full.
But from what I understand, POC don’t find nearly enough books where people look like they do. So it doesn’t matter if I read past the part where Maddie was African-American. For someone who doesn’t have enough book characters who look like her, that could have been an important connection.
I remember the first time I read a book where the main character was fat (Good in Bed, by Jennifer Weiner). I was in my 20s, and Cannie looked like me. She was a real person, not a fat person caricature who just ate cakes and candy all day and watched TV. She was a writer and had boyfriends and did all the things that normal people do. But she was fat, and it was okay.
Not every book needs a main character who looks a specific way. But in my opinion, if there’s going to be a description in the book, it should serve a purpose. Not just be there because the author is a blue-eyed blonde.
What do you think?