Representation in Literature

Do I write a person of colour into my novel? Do I make my character's best friend gay? How much research should I be doing into this character's chosen gender? How do I diversify the racial origins of my cast?


These questions are being asked now more than ever. As real-world movements such as Black Lives Matter, Gay Pride, #MeToo, the LGBTQ+ Community, and Gender Fluidity have gained mass media attention, those of us in the literary world--authors, editors, and publishers alike--are starting to ask how we support these people. How can we do our bit to ensure they're represented in literature?



Why?

Before I start rambling and ranting about how we can be more inclusive, I wanted to briefly discuss why we should be. I mean, why should white people be writing about Black characters? Why should straight men be writing about gay men? Shouldn't it be the job of those people and communities in question to represent themselves? Wouldn't that make more sense?


Yes.


And no.


According to DBS 1.0, 79% of authors are white, 78% are female, 88% are straight, and 92% are non-disabled (Lee and Low, 2020). It is perfectly normal for us to write about what we know; for even when writing speculative fiction, we still tend to stick to known quantities, which often means writing characters we can easily identify with. And that makes sense because, otherwise, how do you get into the character's head? How do you write a realistic reaction to racial abuse if you have no experience being on the receiving end? The issue with this line of thinking comes from the figures. If so few authors are Black, how can we start equalising the imbalance of white and Black characters? The Black and African American population make up the second largest demographic race in the US (US Census Data, 2018), but 78% of all books published have a predominantly white cast (Diversity in Publishing, 2019). So, with so few Black authors out there and so few non-white character casts being published in fiction, how do we make the literary world reflect the real world?


We're going to have to put our big people panties on and do it ourselves.


Race

I'm writing this on the back of the Black Lives Matter campaign, which has made international news--again--after the tragic death of George Flyod. Despite being uncomfortable putting my own opinions out into the world in such a turbulent time, I wanted to set an example. Now is not the time to be timid, or scared, or silently supportive. Now is the time to talk. So, even if I get something wrong in this blog, or have mislabelled someone or been accidentally insensitive, I know someone in the world will point that mistake out to me, and I will have learned something new today.


I know it can be scary to write about characters who are different from yourself; and equally, I know it can be scary to write about topics that are affecting millions worldwide but are not affecting you. It's a challenge. On the one hand, most of us want to be supportive, but on the other, how do you do that without treading on someone's toes? There simply aren't enough Black authors in the world to suddenly equalise the literary racial imbalance out, so we're going to have to stand alongside them and help. And even if there were enough Black authors, we should feel compassionate enough to stand alongside them anyway. Because we're all human. And we all deserve our voices heard.


Now that I've said my speech (which probably sounded much better in my head), I wanted to talk about how we can diversify our character casts because, let's be honest, most of us white authors don't immediately think about racial representation because we're privileged enough to not see colour-based prejudice unless it's pointed out to us. So, how do we help? I've conducted a list of ways we can diversify our characters in terms of race and skin colour.


  1. Start talking about racism. Whether it be an underlying message in your plot, a main theme throughout, or something you just want to touch upon, please don't ignore it. Even if you don't feel experienced or researched enough to make it a main theme, don't leave it out. If you have a person of colour in your world, think about how that would affect their lives. Maybe it wouldn't and you're writing a futuristic world where racism is no longer a problem. Great! Have your characters talk about how it used to be a problem 200 years ago. Maybe you're writing a reverse-racism book about a world predominantly populated by people of colour, but you have a main white character. Great! Start talking about how that would affect your world's history, culture, economy, and lifestyle; start talking about how it would create racism. Maybe you have your main character's best friend be Black and living in Ohio. Great! Include realistic undertones of what her life would be like (sorry for picking on Ohio, but I had to pick somewhere).

  2. Do your research. If racism is in any way going to come up in your book, no matter the who, what, where, how, or why, please start talking to people of colour in your community, in your group of friends, in your school, in your place of work. And ask what racism means to them. Ask them what a day in their lives looks like in relation to their skin colour. Read other books whose central issue is racism, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, or books with minor themes of racism laced throughout, like The Sound of Stars of Stars by Alechia Dow. And really take in what they're trying to tell you. The first step to improving your diversification is understanding. And that means asking uncomfortable questions. But trust me when I say that Black people are not going to be offended by talking about racism. I'm sure many would relish the chance to help educate us white folk.

  3. Write non-white characters. This is kind of a given, but I feel it needs to be said. Stop making your entire cast white! That is not how the world works. Start reflecting the real world and including more than white western characters in your books. If you aren't brave enough to write a non-white main character, that's fine, but what about their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, unnamed acquaintances and filler characters? Do they ALL have to be white?

Sexuality

This aspect of representation in literature is similar to race, which is why I'm talking about it second; this is also something I feel particularly strongly about, so I apologise in advance if I start ranting. When talking about racial inclusivity in literature, it's to try to balance out the predominantly white character casting we see in fiction so we can mimic the real world better; however, when talking about sexuality, it's less about equal representation and more about giving a small, often quiet section of society a voice. 4.5% of the US population are estimated to identify as something other than heteronormative (Frank Newport, 2018), which, as you can see, is not a large percentage; though, it does keep growing every year.


Overall, authors seem to be less scared about writing non-heteronormative characters in my experience, but the percentage of straight characters in fiction remain high, at 81% (Diversity in Publishing, 2019). Despite this, the LGBTQ+ Fiction world is a lovely, inclusive place, one that is gaining further traction the more media attention is gets. And I, for one, love being a part of this community. So, while there are similarities between race and sexuality representation in fiction--the lack of it in mainstream publishing, the lack of media attention it gets, and where the communities are in terms of the evolution of literature--I feel LGBTQ+ representation has made more strides than racial balance. But, that doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels and pretend we have succeeded. We have not. If the goal is to make LGBTQ+ communities feel included in mainstream fiction, to make people feel more comfortable and "normal" about their sexual orientation, and to make writers feel 100% comfortable writing non-heteronormative characters, then we still have a long way to go. So, here are my top tips for being more LGBTQ+ friendly in your writing.


  1. Do more than include LGBTQ+ side characters. It seems to have become a fad to include gay best friends, lesbian parents, or other non-heteronormative side characters; and, while I appreciate that effort has been made to be more inclusive (the author could have had a totally straight cast), I wish authors would start including sexuality labels for their main characters. Maybe you're writing a high fantasy about a gay male character but romance never comes up. Please do not think for one second that it's fluff or filler content to include a little bit about their sexuality, regardless of whether that part of their characterisation becomes useful. If romance never comes up, and you don't have to explore what it would be like to have a sexuality other than your own, then please consider making your main character not straight. And even if it does require some exploration and research on your part, don't hesitate to ask the LGBTQ+ community questions.

  2. Don't just focus on gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. As someone who identifies as a minority sexuality, please consider us. We exist, too. And we're almost never represented. While I've never had confusion or problems surrounding my sexuality, that does not mean others have not. And I, for one, would have loved growing up with sexually fluid characters in the books I read. A version of Twilight where Bella was in to Edward, and then she gradually started noticing Alice was hot, too? Sign me up! Or what about transgender people? It must be so tough growing up in a trans-intolerant environment, and just because you would be okay with your children being trans doesn't mean other parents would be. Imagine the difference you could make to a pre-teen or teenager (or anyone, really) as an author if you included a few trans main characters into your children or YA books?

  3. Chat with the community. This one is going to repeat in every section because I just wish people would ask the representing communities questions and start opening conversations about these central societal issues. We could be a much more inclusive world if we simply listened to the experience and thoughts of others. Ask questions: What would you like to see in young adult books? What do you wish authors would stop doing? What would have made a difference to you when you were discovering your sexuality? All of these things are best asked of someone who has been through it, so please don't keep your mouth closed. Don't be scared. Just ask.

  4. Please don't make it all about sex. While sex and sexuality do go hand in hand, and I think that a much more openly sexual world would be a much nicer place to live, LGBTQ+ erotic romance has become one of the only ways sexuality is represented in fiction. And, if I had to make a guess, I'd guess it's where most of the 11% sit. While there's nothing wrong with that, I wish there were more books like A Dance of Water and Air by Antonia Aquilante and The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper. Books that explore the concept of sexuality without making it predominantly about sex.

Gender

This is where my blog starts to differ. Gender has already come a long way in terms of representation. This is an issue we started exploring back in the 1800s, with authors like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Emily Dickinson paving the path for feministic literature. And think how much good that did? How many more women started questioning their rights, their romantic treatment, their political standing (or lack thereof)? And all because a few women were brave enough to give us a voice. As women have gained equal standing in society in terms of careers, finance, politics, and many other central areas, women have started writing. Now we have female novelists, film directors, actresses, journalists, and all other manner of public voice opportunities. They gave us a voice, and now it's time to use it responsibly.


Anyone involved in the reading and writing world will know phrase "over-sexualisation of women"; this is where a predominantly male writer will write a female character into their book for the sole purpose of making her a sex object. We also see similar things in books that have women solely beneath men, or only in subservient roles (like courtiers, receptionists, maids, etc). The problem this creates isn't isolated to the one book. It's a problem because women fought so hard to overcome the stigma that we're more than that. That we can be more than that. That we have as much standing in society as men do. So, when books are published with subservient-only female casts, it's adds to an age-old stigma that us women aren't good enough. Nowadays, if you publish something like this, you tend to get roasted in the review section, negative critical reviews, and generally bashed around a bit.


However--and this is the main point of this section--it seems to be totally okay to do this to men. Women, as readers, are rather evocative when it comes to our gender's representation, and not just in literature, but in movies, radio shows, TV shows, and all manner of fiction. But, as authors, we seem to be the exact opposite. Time and time again I see erotic romance books with men only existing for the purpose of sexually pleasing the woman, or in adventure fantasy, where men only exist to make the woman look stronger (as though she can't look strong without standing next to a weak man!), or in science-fiction, where men are only be villains, bed mates, or cookie-cutter best friends that don't exist without the female main character.


We have regressed. We've going in the opposite direction. And rather than be inclusive to all genders, we're trying to place women above men. I get it. I understand that some women are angry that we've had to fight for our place, some women might even believe that we have a few decades of leeway left on our credit account, but answer me this. If you think it's not okay for a woman in a novel to only exist to serve the main male character, then why is it okay the other way around? Just because men have been cruel to us in the past (and some continue to do so) doesn't mean we should be cruel and controlling back. I want to see middle-aged men without a six-pack on the front of an erotic romance book, a body-building woman struggling with modern-day beauty standards but is shown that she's beautiful just the way she is, a couple going through the tough and hilarious process of being a parent and probably not looking their best more often that not. I want real people in the books I read. Not just women serving men or men serving women, but something from beyond the men vs women hatestick fiction seems to have become. I want to read about characters who are themselves because that's who they've genuinely been given the choice to be, and not just because society is telling them to be that way.


Disability

Disability is one of those issues that is hard to represent without accidentally insulting someone. It's also hard to do without thorough research, and most authors I know prefer a more free approach to writing. So I think the reason we don't have many disabled main characters is less about unequal representation and more about the difficulty of writing a wheelchair-bound protagonist (or other disabled person). It can be so hard to write the daily struggles of any illness if you've not experienced what a day in the life of that person is really like. But it's not impossible. Bree Lenehan wrote PEMRBIM, a book about a girl with a mysterious, undiagnosed lung disorder who is unlikely to make it past 25, and it was done beautifully.


I think the main thing to remember here is that disabilities affect people in different ways, and everyone's reactions to it will differ depending upon their own life. Just look at the difference in rich disabled people's lives compared to the poor? Not to mention the number of family and friends support that is going to entirely depend on the disabled person's own life. So, no matter what you choose to do, make sure it's personal to your character and not just a cardboard cutout of symptoms from the NHS website.


I don't think I can write this section without touching on mental disabilities, because they've been quite heavily represented in fiction, and not necessarily in a good way. Also, opinions about this may differ, so this next section is going to agree with some of you but not others. Personally, I think we need to stop shying away from the true effects of mental health problems, and not just the obvious ones like panic attacks, self-harm, general anxiety, and tiredness. We need to show the everyday effects in an active, told way that doesn't rely on self-reporting (which can come across as whining). Lack of confidence, losing one's job, losing friends, causing family tension, the real internal workings of anxiety (instead of the crappy, self-reporting, childish behaviour we often see). All of these things need representation too. I find that authors rely too much on the obvious, outside effects that we can see and don't spend enough time on the side effects that really matter, the ones that can lead to loss of life. The ones hidden from view.



That's it for today, everyone! If you have comments, rants, questions, or discussions, I'd be happy to chat in the comments. Any other representations you wish were seen more often in books? I've picked on the main four in my opinion, but there are hundreds.



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