Efforts to avoid Racefail

I’m more conscious than ever about Racefail in new projects. Over the past few years, writers, blogs and forums have done a cracking job in dissecting various types of issues that form part of an ongoing debate. We are, I’m sure, more educated on when novels go wrong.

I think most novelists will agree that part of writing a novel is minimising problems. There will always be flaws in novels. Someone, somewhere, no matter what you write, will always take issue with a writer’s portrayal of race, gender, and so on. All a writer can do is be aware of where they have failed and try to fail better next time. For my previous novels, I had the excuse that race was split along the species line, but for Drakenfeld, everyone is human, so I felt I should confront the issue of race head-on rather than avoid engaging with it at all.

I’m currently writing a black character, but painfully aware she’ll easily be perceived as the ‘sidekick’ to the first person lead, who is not black (he’s not particularly white, either – I’m evoking a classical, Roman-Perisan location, but that’s besides the point). I’m aware, then, of the gaping chasm of racefail that stands before me, like I imagine it can stand before every author.

I’m trying very hard to make sure she exists in her own right, has complexity, doesn’t exist solely to further the plot of the non-black character, that she’s strong without being magical, that her race is addressed in the context of the world, that I’m making sure the reader understands such things without it being a lecture, and without me incorporating guilt of Western privilege (probably unavoidable, if I’m honest). In a secondary world of my own building, I must address such things.I like to think I’m not going to head feet first into the ZOMG turban dudes = bad like some. I’m half-Indian, but I’m not sure that really helps all that much, other than perhaps it reinforces some vague awareness of the inherent problems with addressing issues of race in a novel.

It should be simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. To some extent, I feel a little like Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar in my efforts to engage and over-engage with the situation, but I’ve decided that’s a healthy thing. It’s better to be Mr Palomar than to waltz into a novel blindly and reinforce current cultural prejudices. Not thinking is no excuse.

Anyway, one particularly fantastic short-hand resource, I’ve discovered, is tvtropes.org, which assiduously lists the many pitfalls of film and literature tropes, but has a good deal to say about race, too:

In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.

A vast and brutal database, it’s actually been very helpful in showing me where I can go right as well as wrong, and I recommend spending a bit of time looking up the tropes if you get a moment. Anyway, as ever, not sure I was going anywhere with this – it ended up being more navel-gazing than I hoped. I just wanted to share a healthy concern.

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About Mark Newton

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


  1. “Not thinking is no excuse” If more people believed this & acted on it, the world would be a better place… or at least, not as damn frustrating.

    Interesting post. I don’t think it’s particularly “navel-gazing” – just shows that despite writing fiction you are also engaging with the real world.

  2. Ooooh, I never thought to use tvtropes as a cliche-avoidance database, but that’s rather brilliant. An inevitable time vampire of monstrous proportions, but nevertheless useful! Interesting post in general, and indicative, I suspect, that you’re in no danger of inadvertently RFing–that usually comes about when people half-assedly try to justify their thoughtless writing after the fact, instead of thinking carefully about how they’re handling race (or gender/sexuality/religion/etc) before they put the words on the page.

    I went through a similar sort of Palomarian lizard-gazing with my last novel, as I knew from inception I wanted an African woman protagonist. That I figured out early on that she was also going to be a lesbian didn’t exactly make the process any less fraught with doubts over whether or not I was shitting the bed at any given point in the story. Now that the book is the better part of a year out in the wild, I’m quite a bit more confident in my work–not because I think I did such a great job and aren’t I just the awesomest for writing about GBLT PoC, but because I know I did the very best that I could, and I thought very, very carefully about what I was doing. Which, dahoy, is what we should be doing as writers any way, all the time, but I imagine for some authors who shall remain nameless, potentially difficult subjects are an afterthought rather than a starting point.

    That said, I know from an amazon review of Enterprise that for at least one reader who identified as a woman of color I did an awful, offensive job of it, which is about the worst feeling in the world. Compounding matters, the particulars that she took issue with were all things I did intentionally to subvert racial stereotypes–rather than being a tall, light-skinned, “exotically” hawt sex-interest for a white dude, my protagonist Awa is short, very dark-skinned, uninterested in men, and not exactly attractive to the white, European characters she encounters.

    For this reader, however, rather than it being refreshing to see a black protagonist who didn’t fit into the popular genre parameters for women of color, it was odious–she thought I was objectively implying darker-skinned Africans are less attractive than lighter-skinned individuals, when I was actively trying to recreate the cultural climate of Renaissance Europe–a climate with standards of beauty that are all-too easily mirrored in our own problematic times (then there’s my general antipathy to the idea that protagonists have to be physically beautiful…). Furthermore, Awa’s being a lesbian was seen, I gather, as my relegating her to a non-sexual “mammy role” for the novel’s white male protagonist, rather than an attempt on my part to actively portray a lesbian that didn’t exist solely to titillate straight male readers.

    It wasn’t my intention to offend, and the source of the offense was in the (attempted) service of writing something that played against stereotypes of what a black heroine could be…but that doesn’t invalidate said reader’s emotional reaction to what I wrote. The bottom line is I’ll never be able to undo the hurt that I caused her, however inadvertently, which, yeah, is a shitty feeling,
    and one that I have to own–and acknowledge that my having my widdle progressive author feelings hurt is a good deal less sucky than encountering awful stereotypes about yourself on the page, the screen, etc. on a regular basis.

    I suppose what I’m stumbling toward is that mileage varies, and no matter how carefully you plan your work there’s always the chance that what you write will hit someone in a way far different than how you intended. If it happens, own it, but also go into it knowing that the reaction may well arise in part from more than just what’s on the page. You’re smart and you’re actively thinking about all this, so I suspect you’ll do just fine.

    The further we move outside of our unique personal experiences the larger the risk of sounding inauthentic becomes. But, of course, we’re writers, and so we know how important it is to push ourselves beyond, to attempt to tell the stories that need telling, rather than simply writing according to some proscribed set of criteria based on what we know we can safely pull off. I guess maybe that’s what it comes down to–I’m interested in writing that is careful, not safe, and from the way that you talk about your process I suspect that you’re a rather careful writer, indeed.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement! 

  4. Tvtropes is brilliant, I have to say. Very useful – and, of course, not every trope is a bad one. Some of their tropes are positive. But yes, a time drain, somewhat… 
    “and one that I have to own–and acknowledge that my having my widdle progressive author feelings hurt is a good deal less sucky than encountering awful stereotypes about yourself on the page, the screen, etc. on a regular basis.” 

    Seriously, thanks for sharing that ultimately painful encounter and I’m really impressed with your thought process and the way you dealt with it all. I suppose there’s a time for the thick skinned approach and a time for genuinely absorbing the reader’s comments, and that sounds an utterly healthy way of reflecting on an issue. 

    I think there’s something that often goes unsaid, but which underlines a lot of what’s going on, and it’s dealing with all the ‘privilege guilt’ in an appropriate manner. (I say guilt, but that doesn’t quite sit perfectly.)  Quite right we should feel guilty, collectively, because yeah, for those who are a minority or people of colour or sensitive to issues of gender, most media is rather sucky, as you say. I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel you/people like you are humiliated on screen in a subtle or blatant manner. 

    I suppose progressive attitudes are always slightly awkward to deal with when you write. There’s a whole heap of stuff that you want to make sure you get right, but which the vast majority of people will never notice. And which, I suppose, is the ultimate aim: that you can have a gay/black/trans/whatever character in a major role, and no one notices or minds. 

    I often wonder what it’s like for conservative writers, and whether or not they genuinely process this sort of stuff in the same way. Do they even care? 

  5. Yup. To everything, pretty much. That circumstance was the closest I’ve ever come to posting a response to a reader’s review, but I thought better of it in time, thankfully. Much as I wanted to explain myself, that would have just boiled down to telling her that she was wrong for feeling the way that she did, which is maybe the only thing I could have done at that point to actually make things worse. So it goes…

    It’s also plainly, painfully obvious but (unfortunately) worth reiterating that individuals are just that, and so one reader’s experience is going to be wildly different from another’s regardless of whatever commonalities they might share. Getting race, religion, sexuality, etc right for every reader is every bit as impossible as getting anything for the bulk of readers. All we can do is create characters that are just that, instead of pawns of a plot, and let the readers decide if we’re progressive or conservative, moving forward or lurching back.

    As for conservative writers…well, I suspect they’re like the rest of us, with some careful crafters and deep thinkers, and a whole lot of people who don’t really give it a thought until it’s brought up after the fact. Hence the hostilty you sometimes see…

  6. In one of the novels I’m working on, my main protagonist is distinctly black skinned. It has caused me to examine my position on this choice, sawing back a forth a little for a number of reasons. 

    The biggest issue for me is that the character is black because it is tied into something important in the plot. Does this then represent a mistake, a race fail in the making? Is it wrong to have a character of colour whose choice of colour isn’t to write a black character per se, but because for reasons of my own crafting I’ve written a plot which needs a black hero? Is this better or worse?

    I think in the end I’m all right with it. I even somewhat shamefully, thought long and hard about just making them white – well olive skinned Mediterranean because this is a Late Antiquity/Hellenic world, and sidestep all this, but that felt cowardly and the wrong decision.

    There are after all, lots of non European people in the setting. There are Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Mongols, and alien races. And despite my brief moment of spinelessness, I have no inherent problem with having a wide range of skin colours and ethnicities in my writing. My only fear is getting things wrong, not having a more fairly representative canvas. I believe with consideration and, sensitivity, I can do as good a job with POCs as any other race I might care to fictionalize.

    For me sensitivity is the important point. Knowing that I have to be careful and accepting that I’ll possibly offend.

    Because as the wise Jesse points out, chances are good that I’ll do it wrong, at the very least for some number of readers. But I imagine this caveat will apply to everything that I write, and not just because of the skin colour of my protagonists. And if I fuck things up, I’ll be doing so with all the grace I can manage. I’ll have thought about it, tried to make the right choices. After that I consider my writing to be a wild animal released into a communal pasture. What happens then, how people want to interpret my hopeful successes and likely failures, will be more their business than mine.

  7. What often happens, and I see this in Bullington’s work as well as the scenario you’re outlining, Mark, is a desire to have: “a little color.” You want to write about Europe, but you also want “a little color.” Not *too much* color, for God’s sake! Just: “a little color.”

    With that, you’ve increased your likelihood of fail a thousand-fold, because she (and that seems to be the relevant pronoun here) will be entirely embedded and understood within a Eurocentric context, without a range of other POC characters to broaden the reader’s understanding of that one character.  In effect, you end up offering an “exemplar,” a thesis: “black women are thus.” And why should the reader think otherwise? The text only includes/develops one of them!

    Of course, mind-blowingly brilliant writing–pure unadulterated genius–can make up for a multitude of sins, but flicking a single lonely speck of pepper into a whole cauldron of cream is always going to be a fraught proposition.

  8. Thanks for the strong comment, Kai.  As I said (not sure if you spotted it) I’m invoking a Roman-Persian world and there’s plenty of colour throughout that world. The lead character himself is not white, for that matter, but when we talk in binary we get into all sorts of difficulties. 

    But that’s certainly given me more to think about, so thank you.

  9. Thanks for sharing Eric, and that’s nice to see someone else has thought long and hard about the consequences. I’m inclined to agree with your final sentiments, which seem very sensible indeed. Wish you luck with it…

  10. I could answer this somewhat as a conservative writer. I live in UK but write in a different language than English and publish in my native country – therefore I have the opportunity to follow the racefail debate, but ignore it in my writing and write what I want. I’ve studied literature in a British university so I know all the theories and how I should care. Yet, I really don’t. I don’t adhere to those theories and I’m not progressive. My imagination is my only limit in creating characters.

    Why would I start character development with worrying if my character would offend people? That sounds horribly limiting to a writer – characters tend to take a life of their own and sometimes end up being something very different than I plan in the beginning. I follow  a lot of Asian comics and movies, so characters I like in them inspire characters  of my own stories. I just finished a howardesque barbarian short story where none of the characters were white. They were also all brutally violent. Evil male blonds is my favorite trope  which I tend to use a lot.

    I think the point of creating characters is to make them unique and interesting and not do things that show lack of imagination (magical natives, funny overweight sidekicks etc) The rest it up to the readers, who can reflect whatever  issues they have to the story.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful and relevant blog post Mark. It’s nice to see how much thought and effort you put into trying to get these things right throughout your work.

     I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit lately, as one of the current projects I’m working on (my first attempt at a full length novel) is set in a region that geographically, if compared to a real world counterpart, would probably be Middle-Eastern. Seeing as it biologically makes the most sense for the inhabitants of an arid a country to be dark skinned (making them light skinned would seem too uncomfortably like whitewashing to me) I was a little worried I might accidentally trip up and that the characters I already had in mind (without even considering colour) might mirror some kind of racial stereotype I definitely did not intend to promote. A little daunting for an inexperienced writer. 

    I guess all I can do is keep that in mind, try my best, check it over with other people and have a look at tvtropes! 😛

  12. I think the fact that you’re giving this a lot of thought means you should be going along the right track. It’s the non-thinking that seems to trip people up. 🙂

  13. Really nice post, Mark.

    I think one of the things that authors get really wrong is not their characterizations but their responses to issues with said characterizations. Jesse Bullington did a really great job below of what the right thing is to do in those situations. Joe Abercrombie did a nice job of summing this up too over here – http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2008/03/11/misogynist-moi-3/ after 4 years of thinking about it.

    “These days I tend to think the best policy when faced with accusations (or maybe just reviews) of this kind is to take a deep breath, mouth shut and ears open, do my best to think about it dispassionately and consider if there’s anything to be learned. ”

    The other question to ask is to ask something early, something I don’t see often. Is it necessary for you to write a woman or PoC here? What does it add? What does it subtract from? A lot of times I think writers do it to showcase their progressiveness or their liberal cred instead of from a purely organic point of view, and it shows. It shows a lot more quickly if someone’s there for completely inorganic reasons or as a symbol instead of an actual character. Ultimately I think that as long as your writing is good, your characters are realistic and compelling and things largely make sense you can get away with a hell of a lot. 

  14. Hey Kalon, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thought.

    While I agree with you in principle about showcasing the progressiveness – and hey, maybe I’m guilty of that to some extent – but to play devil’s advocate we could probably just as easily flip that question and ask: why am I writing about a straight, white male? 

    People don’t make a decision to be PoC or gay or whatever. They just *are*. So why haven’t I got a genuine mix of cultures? Ultimately, I reckon there’s no reason for any character to be or not to be white/black/straight/gay/male/female/trans and so on, right? 

  15. Yep, it’s a tricky thing. If you don’t write about, well, everyone are you avoiding them because you don’t like them? Are you deliberately making the world anti-X because there aren’t many depictions of X? Are you endorsing a world without X? Are you now contributing to the world where there aren’t any positive examples of X in literature?

    I tend to agree that there isn’t any specific reason to not be a certain thing. Omar from the Wire is a great example of this to my mind: Omar’s gay. He’s black. The blackness comes from his background and from the character he’s based on; the gay part has almost nothing to do with him. Omar isn’t defined by his orientation any more than he’s defined by his haircut. It’s just one facet of him. Now, he gets a lot of gay insults and whatnot (and uses homophobia right back at those insulters) but at his core Omar is defined by being a downright bad ass character. 

    That said, I think there’s often a case where authors make a character X just because without it affecting them in the least. There’s no reason for it, and it has no ramifications. Or they do it to add exotic flavor and the Other, instead of adding it because it makes sense to do so. Or they make the character X and then don’t follow through with what that actually implies. Or worse yet, they make the character X and then either deliberately or accidentally use a bunch of bad stereotypes to characterize them. 

    It’s hard. But it’s worth thinking about, and trying, and failing at, and listening afterwards. 

  16. I guess it’s one of those things that, in a real-world setting, race and culture probably need more reasoning. However, in a world that we create ourselves, I think the need for reasoning in a person’s skin colour is not necessarily on those same terms. 

    Sure, we can create short-hand references (pasty northern folk, tanned southern folk), but ultimately there had better be a good reason for not having a mix. Or an even better reason for having the white people as good, the darker people as bad. 

  17. Right. Plus historically race was not nearly as big a deal in defining your rights and powers; your citizenship was far bigger a deal. Cultural identity was a much bigger deal than skin color, though not a bigger deal than sex or orientation. At that point I think it’s about avoiding some of the culture fails that can happen – the ‘noble savage’ or ‘evil == dark skinned’ or exoticifying the races. 

    Which comes again to writing well, writing good characters and being awesome.