A bit of a meandering post, this one.
At the recent Alt.Fiction Otherworlds event in Derby, I had a fascinating chat with a young lady (Helen, who I think was a friend of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s) about minority characters and people who are poorly represented in genre fiction. I made a comment in one of the panels about defending quotas for minorities – or rather, people of different races, sexuality, abilities etc. Whilst I can see people saying all sorts of nonsense about this being positive discrimination, and making general noises of discomfort, as I said in the panel, that assumes it is a level playing field, but it really isn’t. Whether we like it or not, our genre’s output is still populated by straight white middle-aged male heroes, for whom women are merely plot points.
The conversation afterwards really hit home. Helen was a bit of a literary activist, but a forgiving one, and that was something I liked. I’m paraphrasing badly here, but she suggested that when it comes to minorities, authors nearly always get it wrong, no matter what they do – but the main thing is that we reduce the amount of errors we make. Does this matter? Yes. A lot of people read our books, and a lot of people are influenced by them. You may choose to pass off books as entertainment, but that is not an excuse for accidental misogyny or racism, because readers – especially younger readers – may think that such treatment of people is the norm. I do think authors have some responsibility to influence what the perceived norm can be.
So, facing up to these statements, I think I’ve got plenty wrong. I know I made errors in Nights of Villjamur – personally, I didn’t think I made any of the female characters truly, independent or outstanding. I could make all sorts of bullshit up about the world being a patriarchal society, but so is ours. I could say I was concentrating too much on getting the gay character right, whatever. But after I wrote that novel, I thought I should rectify that; in City of Ruin, I wrote a properly independent and central female character, without trying to turn her into a leather-clad fetish. I’ve written about a transgendered character in The Book of Transformations – which serves not only having a strong female lead, but also focusses on the issues of another minority. Race is something I’ve dealt with down the species divide, so I hope I’ve addressed some issues there.
There are probably a whole load of other problems with my books (quiet at the back!) but it’s interesting that now I’m at that stage of my career where I can really assess what I’ve done so far and what I should try to fix. There are other minorities I’d like to address: people with disabilities was one that cropped up in our conversation. How few books feature a disabled character in a central role that is not a villain?
Anyway, food for thought.
If you’re currently writing something, why not question the ethnicity of your main characters. The act of questioning is the important part, surely? Why not try to get things less wrong, too?