Sunday, January 19, 2014

Straight, White, Able-bodied Cismen as Default Characters in Fantasy

Imagine that you're writing a story and your protagonist is a young soldier who has blond hair and a female sweetheart back home. The lady love never makes an appearance as a character, but your protagonist thinks about her on cold, rainy nights when he's hunkered down in his bedroll. All he really wants is for the war to be over so he can get back home to marry his girl and start a family. His blondness isn't central to the story either, but it's an unusual hair color in his setting. No one discriminates against him because of it, but other characters sometimes comment on it, and he's proud of his golden locks.

Now imagine that one of your readers offers the following feedback about your story: "The character's hair color and implied whiteness were irrelevant to the plot. I don't see why you had to mention them at all, unless you were trying to make a political point. You should just let the reader imagine the character as he or she chooses to." And then another reader chimes in with: "I don't see how the protagonist's heterosexuality was relevant to the plot. I'm no bigot, but I don't care what a character does with his junk. It really bugs me when writers make characters heterosexual for no good reason."
Conan--little doubt he was meant to be white, cis, able and straight

Ridiculous, of course. No one would say this. But this is precisely the sort of comment writers of characters who are not white, straight (and for that matter, cis-gender, able bodied or male) often receive from readers, critting partners and people commenting on the issue in forums and such.

So there's a double standard in fiction. If a character is white, straight, able bodied, neurotypical and cis-male, he's considered an everyman--the type of character any reader can relate to. Departures from this everyman model are acceptable for "issue" stores where the departure from "normal" itself is central to the plot. But such stories are supposed to be focused on a niche market, so for stories where identity is not the major focus? Make the protagonist a normal, generic, default human being.

I find this attitude troubling for a myriad of reasons. People come in many varieties, and while one's identity does not drive all, or even most, of a person's personality traits, it is nonetheless an important aspect of who he or she is. Even if a fantasy culture isn't racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist etc., a character's  race, gender, orientation, and ability status are not going to be invisible to that person or to the people with whom he or she interacts closely in the story.

So why in the hell should it be invisible to the reader?

Some reasons given include:

--But you'll turn off readers who aren't like that character. And most readers of fantasy are white, straight, male, able bodied, etc.

Even if this assumption about "typical" fantasy readers is true, there are plenty of readers who are not any or all of these things, and many of these readers are hungry for books that feature characters who just so happen to be like them in some ways. With isolation, depression and suicide among LGBT kids and teens still an issue, a story that lets someone know that he or she is not alone can have an immensely positive effect.

--So you're saying readers can and should only relate to people from the same demographic group as themselves? How narrow.

I'm not saying that at all. As a white, straight woman, for instance, I've read and enjoyed plenty of books with male (and non white and non straight) leads and will continue to do so. Getting inside another character's skin is part of the reason many of us read. But this begs the issue of almost never seeing characters like oneself in stories unless it's presented as a big deal. And anyway white, straight, able-bodied cismales should also have the opportunity to identify with characters who are different from themselves.

--Well, aside from this, some people really do believe homosexuality is a sin. QUILTBAG characters are very offensive to some people.

The same people who believe it's a sin to be gay often believe that premarital sex and worshipping other gods are sinful. But fantasy is not exactly devoid of characters who fool around on and off camera and it's certainly not short on the sympathetic or neutral portrayal of non-Christian religions (whether real-world or made up).

--I don't care what characters do with their junk, and I really don't care for sex in stories or for romantic subplots or for characters who think about these things.

Then you're probably pretty strapped for reading material. I can't think of many works of fiction for adults where the orientation of at least some of the characters is not apparent. And in any case, orientation is not just, or even primarily, about what one does in the sack. Even The Lord of the Rings, where no ever had sex or got horny on camera, made the orientation of many of its characters pretty clear. Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn, Sam and Rosie, Gimili's "courtly love" for Galadriel (and Merry and Pippin both married off camera, as detailed in the appendices). None of these relationships were central to the plot, but they were still an important part of the story. The only characters we're unsure about, really, are Bilbo and Frodo, since they never married or had a romantic attraction to any other character. I'm thinking they were actually asexual and aromantic, which are orientations also.

--I prefer to imagine characters the way I want, without having the details of their appearance and ethnicity crammed down my throat.

Fine, we all have our preferences. But it's a rare story indeed that makes no reference at all to the appearance of any character. While mirror scenes and detailed description of a person's nose shape often make readers want to toss a book across the room, the way a character looks can be important. And even in a fantasy world with a different history from ours, people will likely notice physical traits that relate to ancestry. The fact is, our media has overwhelmingly presented whiteness as the default norm. Most readers will imagine characters as white unless it's made clear that they are not. Whitewashing of characters in cover art is also commonplace and another issue that can sway readers' perceptions.

In any case, I can't help thinking that this argument (and the previous one) is because the person in question really wants to imagine characters as straight and white because he or she is uncomfortable with departures from that.

--Forcing diversity in novels is just PC posturing. I hate it when writers try to cram their sociopolitical views down readers' throats.

The concept of political correctness is a straw man that is commonly invoked as a silencing or derailing tactic. I'm not sure why the concepts of inclusiveness and equality have been so mocked and derided, to be honest, or why they've become so politicized. Speculation about the nature of liberalism and conservatism in modern society is beyond the scope of this essay, but it saddens me that some people are so attached to their political identity that they must categorically deride and reject anything that they associate with the party they don't usually vote for in elections.

I'll also add that I don't think it's possible to write a story where one's values, even one's political values, don't bleed through at least a little. The standard fantasy plot--intrepid outsiders prevailing against overwhelming odds--is hardly neutral from a sociopolitical standpoint. Nor is the decision to only portray straight, white, male, able-bodied characters as default norms in a story.

--so you're saying I need to dwell on the race and orientation of every person in every scene in the book? Bob ran past a guard, who was both black and gay, on his way through the gates. That's stupid.

Of course I'm not saying that. I'm talking primarily about protagonists or secondary characters with whom the pov characters have extensive interactions. Like anything else in writing, the perspective of the pov character should determine what is revealed. With an omniscient pov, the writer has more latitude, but revealing unapparent details about minor characters is not usually the best approach. However, if your fantasy society is diverse, I think it's important to find ways to show this to the reader as an aspect of your world building.

Whitewashing of characters in cover art is commonplace in fantasy.

--Fine, we need more stories with characters who aren't white, straight, able-bodied cis-males, but I personally am white, straight etc. What if I try to write a character who isn't like me and I do a bad job of it?

This is a legitimate worry. Stereotyped or unsympathetic portrayals of under-represented people can do more harm than good, and as a white, straight woman who has enjoyed many of life's privileges, I make no claim to any special wisdom here. But one of the reasons that readers are so critical of less than perfect portrayals of characters who aren't the default everyman is because they're so rare. The desire to create an archetypal female, gay, black etc. character can actually lead to very unrealistic portrayals. The best way to write people who differ from yourself in various ways is to know a lot of people, read books written by and for different people, do research so you know which stereotypes are particularly offensive .

I am hoping that this concern might become less of an issue if equality becomes more uniform across society and if diversity becomes more common in storytelling. No one really worries about portraying a straight, white male in a stereotyped way (or worries much the appropriation of various European cultural tropes) precisely because there have been so many portrayals of people and cultures from these demographic in fiction. There are, however, centuries of inequality and injustice sitting on our shoulders as writers. We should never allow ourselves to be blind to that.

On an up note, I think acceptance of inclusiveness in fantasy (and fiction in general is growing) and that people from historically privileged groups are becoming more accepting (even desirous) of this. One cheering statistic is that comic companies appear to be becoming more inclusive of LGBT characters in comics aimed at teens. Attitudes as a whole seem to be shifting in society, with younger people on being more accepting of diversity overall, but many older people also modifying their views. I'm hoping that objections to characters who step outside of the one-time "default norm" will also fade with time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dogs recognize familiar faces from images

 This is cool. It reinforces something that most dog owners already suspected was true, but it's clever how they designed the study to test the notion.

Dogs recognize familiar faces from images