Things We (Authors) Get Wrong

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?

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Hi Mark,

    I remember that question and I did take note of it as it was a very valid observation. I always found, in ‘Nights of Villjamur’, that ‘Papus’ was quite independent and likeable in her mysterious way!

    My main character is a middle-aged male but one of the support main characters is a female who gradually finds more independence as the story progresses due to her conflicts. I have thought about questioning a lot of characters and I have planned on slotting in some different ethnic groups somewhere.

    I am itching to get started on ‘City of Ruin’ as I have heard nothing but ‘fantastic’ and ‘awesome’ from people’s lips!

    Racism is a problem and I do not intend to be one of the people who delve into it. I have come across so many defamatory pieces (whether they be books, magazines, poetry, reviews, etc.) and it does bear thinking about

  2. Thanks, Andrew. I think, as I mention, the main thing is that you’re at least thinking about it.

    Another thing, thinking of ethnic groups, is that it actually makes the world-building more realistic anyway.

  3. You know, I have raised this issue a couple of times in talking with other writers, just asking if they saw any reason to specifically include (or note) characters of different races (have an African-American character or Chinese, or whatever) or did it matter? It was pretty much unanimous among the people I spoke with that it didn’t matter, and there was no reason to make an issue of it. And yet, I’ve often read that people want to see themselves in the fiction they read, and if there is no one who is specified as being black, or Native American, etc., how can they do that? I guess an easy way would be with a name, an ethnic Chinese name for instance would instantly give some clue about the character. Didn’t ST:DS9 raise this issue in the episode where Sisko was in an alternate universe, or back in time as an author trying to be published, but the characters in his story were black and no one (they told him) wanted to read about black characters? It’s been a long time since I saw it, I could be fuzzy on the details.

    And I swear if I see one more ‘ass-kicking, feisty’ heroine dressed up in dominatrix gear, covered in tattoos, I’m going to throw something. Women have just gone from one stereotype to another. (and no, I am not wearing leather as I write this)

  4. Unsurprisingly given my politics, I find a lot in this post that I agree with, but one of the genuine difficulties I have with it surrounds the question of authenticity. For example in a recent video game, Japanese game developer Capcom, decided to set one of their Resident Evil games in Africa. Given this fact, it would seem to me to be a perfectly logical thing to expect in that setting those affected by the zombie virus would largely be Black African, and so it was. This then resulted in an outcry in which the game was labelled as racist by some groups. It’s not difficult to see why the idea of a white American special agent – even if accompanied by a brown girl – shooting at hordes of mindless black people raised a few eyebrows.

    The question then is, should it not have been set in Africa? Would the game have worked better with an African American lead hero, rather than a White American? Should the zombies have been made up of different races, despite the fact that this wouldn’t be a true reflection of the local population? Some might argue zombies aren’t a true reflection of it either. How far do we go to avoid not just causing offence, but in seeking to redress balance; and at what point does the result just end-up feeling hopelessly inauthentic, contrived and maybe even a little preachy? Although I recognise the need to stop feeding stereotypes, I’m genuinely undecided on this, and have had cause to question it in my own short stories.

  5. D.D. Yeah, the women in leather fetish thing is the one that often gets the least amount of coverage, perhaps because it’s actually rather confusing to a lot of people / your average reader as to why that is an issue. Although this is a step in the right direction.

    Jason – I remember hearing about that. That’s a fascinating debate to have, and is probably at the extreme end of possible examples. I’m probably with you, on that, in that I don’t know either. It’s a very fine line. But again, the important thing is that the problem is being considered from all angles. A good thing!

  6. It’s a minefield, Mark. I really feel that a writer should be conscious of these issues but they shouldn’t override the story they want/need to tell. That’s their story. You can always tell when someone’s trying a little too hard to be progressive or politically correct or however you want to define it. The writing/narrative doesn’t feel natural.

    You raise an interesting issue when you talk about race issues being explored via nonhuman races. I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a while and I think there’s still a long way to go. Even when nonhumans are consciously used to explore racism and so on, there’s still this sense of humans as intrinsically the norm – usually representing white people – and nonhumans as the ‘other’. Sometimes it seems a little weird and condescending/patronising. My postcolonial studies were a while ago, otherwise I’d articulate this a bit better.

    The more I think about it, the more I find troubling in the treatment of nonhumans in SFF. It’s everywhere I look. For instance, Perdido Street Station is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers, but the more I examine the wyrmans, the more I see a not particularly pleasant working-class caricature/stereotype. Here we see nonhuman as subhuman, which and when you follow this to the sections of real-life society that the author’s seemingly drawing inspiration from, it raises some questions.

    Can of worms.

  7. The game may have been ill-conceived, but in our fiction, why can’t we just have normal people, but who happen to be of various ethnicities? For me it’s more a question of writing them, as Jason said, authentically. Could I write a Jamaican character accurately? Probably not, I don’t know anyone from Jamaica and have never been there. I do, however, work with a sharp-witted, outspoken black woman from Texas, who may yet be the basis for a character for me.

  8. But does a person’s race really have any meaning in a secondary world fantasy setting?
    If the author does not describe skin-colour the characters could be purple with yellow polka-dots for all we know.

    Isn’t describing race in secondary world setting just showing that the author is bound by our world’s conventions?

    I read the whole of “Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman, and don’t remember the lead characters being described as black. I read that they are 1/3 (or something like that) into the book in a comment on the web. But I honestly can’t recall that it was ever mentioned.I honestly looked at them as white, which of course can be seen as a form of racism on my part.

    And that anecdote brings me back to my point. Why does everyone assume that a character is white in a secondary world fantasy if said character isn’t described as otherwise?
    Shouldn’t an author be free to not describe his characters race?

    And shouldn’t that be the society we should aspire to?
    -A society were race matters so little it need not be mentioned.

  9. Alex – yeah, nonhuman races do tend to get to the shitty end of the stick. I’m sure there’s a good essay to be had in that territory (if you’ve not written it already!)

    Ole – I bring you back to the original point. Those things assume a level playing field. It is not a level playing field. We live in a society where race is still abused and we must choose whether or not to deal with that.

  10. @Mark

    I agree. It is not a level playing field.
    But shouldn’t we aspire for that as I said in my last paragraph?
    -Or at the least wish, and hope, that we one day will reach that…

    I’m wondering if enough people stop saying; “You got to meet my friend X, he’s black BTW”, that with time people would have no pre-conceptions about race/colour.

    -I’m Anarchistically inclined, so I wish/hope for “Utopia”. And think that if as many people as possible stop mentioning race/colour, that would bring us closer to real equality.

  11. Ole – Indeed, it is a fine position to aspire. I’m not sure we have to be as blunt as that when it comes to the art itself. The bluntness must surely come behind the scenes, so that authors can get on with at least addressing the inequalities in the fiction, so that in future we may get to that point. At the moment, I’m not convinced we’re moving forwards all that quickly.

  12. Thanks for this.

    I speak out against the (under)representation of women in fiction, yet I’m aware that *in my won fiction that I write as a woman* I’m lucky if 10% of the characetrs are women. And when it comes to race… I am trying to correct this, but must confess that the case is even worse. The trouble is that it’s self-perpetuating. You see a lot of white men aged 20-50 on the TV, in films, in books, and you’re just *used* to stories just being *about them*. And *even if you know so much better* it’s just not where one’s mind automatically goes. In a novel I recently started writing, I made myself go: ‘Well, why can’t this character be a woman?’ and, of another, ‘Why couldn’t he be black?’, and when I saw no good reason, I just changed it. But that’s hard to do if you don’t realise early on. Not because women or people of colour can’t be those parts, but just because characters live in your head, and you get used to them looking a certain way.

    There are problems. There are too many Evil Empires full of people who look asian. There are too many Noble Tribesmen who are black. As much as Fantasy and SF are the perfect foils for talking about race via aliens and other sentient creatures, there are ingrained tropes when it comes to races that reflect the real world.

    The thing is that things don’t change all at once. As a woman, I want to be hired on merit, not to make up a quota. But I understand why there are quotas. If you don’t see people like you doing what you like to do… it’s really depressing. Same goes for fiction. I’m sick of reading about white men. I like many white men – it’s not about that – it’s about seeing yourself reflected doing the things you like, and having a safe place where liking those things isn’t wrong just because of your race, or gender, or sexuality, or whatever.

    And… this isn’t a job panel. *Even for white patriarchal socoeties* women and other races are massively under-represented in comparison to the real world. 51% of the world are female, and there are 10% amongst the characters of an aware female writer. I can’t even imagine what the stats are on race. It needs to change.

  13. “personally, I didn’t think I made any of the female characters truly, independent or outstanding”

    Sounds realistic to me. I can’t think of many real people — male or female for that matter — who are “independent or outstanding”. I think the idea that female characters need to be strong and capable is born of quite an outdated vision of character politics.

    Firstly, it assumes that the point of characters is to provide some kind of vicarious sense of empowerment.

    Secondly, it assumes that strong characters are ones who have shitloads of agency. Frankly, most people are oppressed and defined by social forces beyond their control. I see absolutely no reason for genre characters to be any different.

  14. Jonathan, I couldn’t agree more. Characters do not need to be ridiculously exaggerated embodiments of this or that ideal just to make some point that most people get anyway.

    The “spunky, kick-ass” heroine is such a tired old 80s/90s archetype, for instance. Twenty odd years later and people are STILL writing permutations of Ace from Dr Who.

    A well-written character is a well-written character, whereas cardboard cutouts created to make very obvious statements on gender/race/sexual politics almost always make for bad reading.

    @Mark: It’s extremely tempting, actually! Wonder if my old Jstor login still works…

  15. I agree with Alex with the well written characters. It is what is on the inside that counts. Physical attributes are neither here nor there to be honest

  16. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but I remember thinking after finishing “The Nights of Villjamur” that the female characters could use some improvement! I had recently read a review of “City of Ruin” that praised the main female character and so was puzzled when I read NoV and couldn’t say the same about those female characters.

    I think it’s great that you’re willing to step up and say what you think could use improvement in your writing and then conscientiously work to towards that goal. I wonder what would happen if more authors were open about that sort of thing. Hopefully it would lead to a lot more self-aware writing, which could lead to better books.

  17. Emily – feel free to say such things! I hope, if you ever do read City of Ruin, you will notice a difference.

    Part of the problem with the writer’s ego is a tendency to think that you’re always right in producing your own creative vision, and an immunity from criticism because you need to be in order to concentrate. However, it’s actually quite liberating to throw your hands up when you’re wrong.

  18. Alex — Statement characters are fine but “is awesome!” is not a particularly interesting statement to make. Emma Bovary, for example, is neither independent nor outstanding. In fact, her mediocrity is kind of the point but that in no way makes her a weak or insulting character.

    Similarly, I’m pretty sure that MacBeth would fail the Bechdel test despite the presence of Lady MacBeth, one of the greatest female characters ever laid down on paper.

    There are things that authors get wrong but pandering to the tastes of a bunch of emotionally stunted fans who want to live vicariously through fictional characters is no a way of addressing those shortcomings.