Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Diversity" in science fiction romance characters


The word “diversity” has come up on the radar a few times recently, talking about the  lack of non-white characters in books and films. Our world, it seems, is predominantly Caucasian, especially when it comes to the main characters.

"ST TOS Cast" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ST_TOS_Cast.jpg#mediaviewer/File:ST_TOS_Cast.jpg
Star Trek has done a better job than most in covering a few more bases than white male. The original series was very advanced for the nineteen seventies, where not only were there two women on the Enterprise's bridge, Uhura was black. Then we had Mr Sulu (Asian) and because we were still in the Cold War, the Russian Chekhov was a departure, too. But let's face it, the main roles were white males. And yes, I'm including Spock. This is pretty much token diversity. Throw a few people of colour into the mix to show willing.

That other franchise, Star Wars, was full of white males. There were no women on the Imperial Star Destroyer bridges – though we did get a couple of female controllers among the rebels (think Hoth). Mace Windu, the only black Jedi, was killed by the emperor. Sure, all the cloned storm troopers were based on a New Zealander who is part Maori – but they wore white armour and helmets. Even now, all these years later, Will Smith is pretty well the only black actor I can think of who has starred in SF movies. But then, I'm not a movie buff.

As it happens, most of the main characters in my SF Romance books are not white. You did ask why, didn't you?

I'm Caucasian. White, privileged with my only demerit being I'm female. Where I live, ninety percent of the population is white, so I'm not writing “what I know”, I'm writing what I think will happen. 

The percentage of white people within the world population is shrinking. This article from the Guardian is worth reading. It's just one example, you'll find plenty of others online. Whites (ie European nations) have dominated much of the world for a millennium, but the Egyptians dominated the world for a lot longer than that. The Ottoman Empire came and went, the Chinese Empire was dominant in that part of the world. Times change, civilizations rise and fall. I think it's much more likely that the flag planted on Mars – or even the next one on the Moon – will be Indian or Chinese, not American or Russian.

That is why the hero in my Morgan Selwood series, Admiral Ashkar Ravindra, is Indian in appearance. Dark skin, black hair. So are the rest of his people, because the planets they inhabit were only seeded by people with that appearance. Their society is based on the Indian caste system. 

By the way, I chose Indian, and not African or Chinese, because I studied Indian history at university and I have a few Indian friends, so I know a little of what I speak.

Morgan Selwood, on the other hand, comes from the kind of background we're used to in Western culture. I don't see her as white, but rather as the result of a mixture of races, such as the striking women you see in Brazil or Argentina or Latin America, with mocha skin and high cheekbones. As an example, Bianca Jagger comes to mind.

I'm not the only one who has taken this general approach. In Elizabeth Moon's Serrano books, the Serrano family is Latino, I believe for much the same reasons that my heroes are Indian. And Veronica Scott's heroine in Mission to Mahjundar owes more than a passing nod to Egypt, which is a passion of hers.

Certainly science fiction romance is full of strong female characters. I'll throw in Linnea Sinclair's Sass (Games of Command) and Rya (Hope's Folly). Anne McCaffrey's Lessa, Pauline Baird Jones's Sara Donovan. I'm sure you'll be able to suggest plenty of others. But how many of them are non-Caucasian? There's a few listed here
PJ Dean, who is an African-American author, gives her POV on non-white characters.
As she so rightly says, don't throw in non-white characters for the sake of it. But if it's right for your story, and you know of what you speak, then why not? Variety, after all, is the spice of life.




10 comments:

  1. Great first post, Greta! I've been conflicted about this for years. When I was in my early 20s, I really wanted to write a book about characters of a specific ethnic background. (I'm not going to share which one, to protect the innocent, as you'll see!) I actually worked up the nerve to write a prominent author of this ethnic background, and I asked whether he thought it was possible or appropriate for me to write characters that were, in essence, like him.

    With kindness and humor, he basically told me don't do it. Paraphrasing: "Write what you know. You don't have the perspective required for that." Ever since then I've been afraid to do it.

    But just in the last couple years, I realized what was stopping me from writing MCs of a different ethnicity was fear instilled in me by that author's advice. (I am sure I took it much more to heart than he ever intended.) So recently I started a Wattpad SFR with a half Chinese MC (I have a good friend who is have Chinese, so that helped), and a new contemporary erotic romance I'm finishing up for SilkWords features an African American hero.

    What changed my mind? A comment I came across, by someone on some blog (sorry, middle-age memory fail), that basically said, "You write alien characters, but can't write one from a different ethnicity?" Yep.

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  2. Good for you, Sharon. I'm not saying it's easy. Mistakes can be made. But I guess we're lucky in an SF world that the society can be what we make of it. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have "people of colour" (I do hate that expression).

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  3. Great article, Greta! Lando Calrissian also played a key role in the Star Wars saga.

    I go a bit beyond racial diversity. In the future where INHERIT THE STARS takes place, all the races have blended but then separate human sub-species evolved based on the predominant genetics and the conditions of their colonized planets. Prejudging other subspecies is still very much a problem in this future though.

    The liberating thing about creating subspecies is that their cultures are entirely fictional, so I don't have to worry about not getting it right.

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  4. I'd forgotten about Lando, good call. But non-white humans were thin on the ground. The aliens- not so much :) We do have open slather out there among the stars.

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  5. Great first outing on the blog, Greta! I think it's a great issue to discuss. Got me thinking about how many calls I get a month for very worthy charities. So many, we could spend all our money on them and need help ourselves. So we had to decide which ones meant the most to us. For me, picking what issues or causes (not sure what to call it!) you write about is the same thing.

    My late mentor, Sally Merlin called it finding your authentic voice. I can't be authentic about too many things without creating a hot mess, so had to find what moved me the most.

    For me, having come of age, in the early 70's, my thing seems to be female empowerment. The power to choose is a theme that runs through my stuff and also identity. These resonate with me and give me a more authentic voice in my writing.

    I'm not ignoring diversity so much as realizing I can't be all things to all readers. I honestly don't think that much about characters and often don't mention skin color, because it doesn't matter to me. People pass through my life. People pass through my characters' lives.

    But I also have great respect for authors who can write authentically and powerfully about their causes or issues. We write to entertain AND move. :-)

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  6. And I will PS and say, I had a lot of fun with purple skin in some of my SFR. LOL

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  7. Enjoyed the column! Thanks for the mention - I do spend so much time researching my ancient Egyptian paranormal novels that I think I can't help but have some aspects come through in the totally different SFRs. I'm very sensitive as well to what Pauline says above, however, and what I can be authentic about in my writing. I liked the way she expressed the thoughts. I think I gravitate more to the strong female lead (was imprinted on Ellen Ripley LOL) and I consciously try to 'go there' in my books. And I have several alien characters (more coming this year, if I can just get more writing done!). Very balanced post from you, mentioned so many of my favorites too!

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    1. Thanks, Veronica. I agree, authenticity is very important.

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  8. Greta,
    Thanks for mentioning my post on The Galaxy Express on how authors can incorporate diverse characters into SFR books. Happy to see it still circulating.

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    1. I think it's very important. As you no doubt gathered, I don't really understand why it isn't just... done. Then again, yes I do. It's all about the money. Let's hope things change sooner rather than later.

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