In this second part of my brief exploration of diversity in media, I put my money where my mouth is, examining my own works as proof that I live up to my own standard. For each of my “major” settings (which have—or will have—multiple books), I look at the characters through the lens of the diverse, and I explain why I made the choices I did.
Obviously, as this post concerns deep introspection of my writing, it will have spoilers. If you want to read any of the works I describe, check out my Patreon for more information.
Otherworld is my most developed setting. Its premise is that a team of archaeologists take their students to Mexico on a dig in the summer of 2019. They uncover a lost pyramid deep in the middle of nowhere, and it is conveniently aligned so that a hole in the domed top allows the sun to shine directly down on the summer solstice. After a storm drives them away, a subset of the dig team returns to watch the astronomical event, and they are transported to another planet populated by the descendants of a group of Paleo-Indians who left the Americas near the end of the Ice Age. The following 22 stories (so far!) describe the world, its inhabitants, and the unique challenges it creates for the protagonists.
The dig is organized by an American university (Arizona, to be specific) in modern times. Thus, it is diverse out of necessity: political pressure ensures that women are well-represented. Thus, of the 11 who travel to the Otherworld, 5 are women. Two are non-white. Ramón is a Mexican freshman who was offered a place on the team in exchange for being an extra translator. Damonte, I’ll admit, did begin in my mind as the “token black character”. But then, as I delved deeper into the story, I reimagined him as aware of that. He cultivated the image, if only because he thought it was funny when he didn’t act like he “should”.
In a way, Otherworld shows both sides of what I’ve been saying. The diversity is by force, but within the context of the story; for me, it developed mostly naturally. The characters from Earth are normal people. They live in our world. Ashley is a feminist, and she comes out as bi in the sixth story (Situational Awareness). But that’s not because I was pressured by the LGBT community, or because a producer told me I had to include a non-straight character. No, I thought that was the best direction to go. And while she does let it begin to overpower her thoughts, that’s her reaction to finally being among people who let her express her true self.
On the other side of the galaxy, things are a bit different. The Otherworld’s people are not like us, except insofar as they are human. They have different views, and much of the conflict comes from this kind of cultural impedance mismatch. The natives are descended from indigenous Americans of millennia ago, long before the Conquest. They see race in a different light. Those who look the most unlike themselves (Jeff, Ayla, Jenn, and, to a lesser extent, Sara) are viewed as something else. As the natives only have their own histories for guidance, they interpret blond and red hair on white skin the only way they know how, which becomes another main source of trouble.
Nocturne continues to by, in my opinion, the best novel I’ve ever written. I do have ideas for a sequel or two, but those won’t come for a few years. Until then, I only have a single book to extrapolate from, but here goes.
Basically, Nocturne is an allegory for race relations in the US in 2016. That was the backdrop for its writing, and it was largely my intent from the start. The story’s kingdom of Velin is home to three races: the fairly normal skyborn; the almost Aryan dayborn; and the pale-skinned, black-haired nightborn. These subdivisions, however, are not hereditary. In that, they more closely match other intrinsic factors such as orientation. The nightborn are most reviled, owing to their inherent magical abilities of stealth and secrecy.
The protagonist of the story, Shade, is unique in possessing both the abilities and appearance of the nightborn, but also the magics of the dayborn, all of which are associated with light, life, and heat. Thus, he is a kind of fulcrum character, a center point on the spectrum, and his mission is one of moderation. He wants to stop the endless strife of the races by showing that they can unite. (This, by the way, mirrors my own belief in the folly of partisan polarization.)
Beyond his realm, however, others exist, and these offer more “traditional” concepts of race. The southern land of Duravi, for instance, is well-known to Shade’s people; it’s a kind of Africa analogue. Distant Fernicia is a fairly generic Orient mostly based on China. The Northlands are home to, in essence, Vikings. But none of these play much of a role.
Nor do sex and gender. Velin is mostly blind to those by design—I wanted to focus most on the race aspect. So Kellis, the secondary protagonist, is a female police investigator, and she is not special for that. She is treated no differently, for good or ill, than her male counterparts. Others she meets do remark that she is a woman, because that’s what they see, but even the most radical feminist shouldn’t find fault in my portrayal of her. Her worst sin might be using a dinner date to lure a suspect into an interrogation.
The Endless Forms series is my paranormal detective thriller playground. It’s got Bigfoot, werewolves, and all sorts of unnatural phenomena. (The second entry, the forthcoming The Beast Within, even has an oblique reference to Otherworld, one of the few times I’ve done that.) Our star here is Cam Weir, who just so happens to be a straight, white man from just outside Atlanta.
Nothing about the premise requires that. Indeed, for the first half of the initial novel, The Shape of Things, he’s almost the only white character in evidence. Investigating the paranormal in Atlanta requires being in Atlanta, and the inner city is very diverse. It was when I spent a summer night in 1996 riding around as my mom tried to find an all-night tattoo parlor (don’t ask), and everything I’ve seen points to it only becoming more so in the decades since.
Thus, I see Endless Forms as a good illustration of what I mean by “natural” diversity, at least as far as race is concerned. Cam’s white, but his neighbor Darrell isn’t, and neither really cares. They’ll joke about it, but that’s as far as it goes, because they’re friends. The psychic he goes to for advice has a mixed ancestry he can’t place (Cajun and Caribbean, mostly), but that’s his problem, and he doesn’t hold it against her. If anything, the biggest culture clash comes from this Southern boy traveling to Boston.
Men and women alike see the spooky ghosts and other creatures Cam hunts. The friends he meets on his Bigfoot chase are all men, but that’s because they’re bros. It happens. Other applications of diversity haven’t come up yet, but I’ll take them as they come.
Orphans of the Stars
My child-focused sci-fi/space opera series Orphans of the Stars again follows this rule. Sixteen young people are stranded on a ship, and 9 of them are boys. Random samples can be like that. Most are white or Asian, while one is of Middle Eastern descent, but the story takes place about 500 years in the future, where race just isn’t that big a deal. (That’s basically what I was referring to in the last post: space colonies in this setting, while still horrendously expensive, are cheap enough that a sufficiently motivated group can create their own.)
Issues of sexuality are also background information, but that comes from the characters. They’re children. With only a few exceptions, they’re not even that old. (Their ages range from 9-16 at the start of the story.) Some of them have all the hormonal problems of teens, but it just isn’t important for them, not when survival is at stake. Whether you like that boy on the bridge or the girl down in engineering doesn’t matter much when you just learned your parents are dead. Hanna, the oldest and most mature of the girls onboard the ship, is bicurious, but that’s about as far as the story needs to go.
Then again, these are children. The difference between boys and girls is stark in their eyes. As their eyes are the ones through which the story unfolds, that means I write about their feelings on the matter—Tori, for instance, has an irrational dislike of boys, and she lets that show. But they all recognize the difficult situation they face, so such distinctions naturally fade into the background. Nobody is chauvinist enough to say Mika, a 14-year-old girl, isn’t fit to be an engineer. And if the command crew is largely male, that’s only because they were the ones who took the seats. Except for those just mentioned, most of the girls are younger, or they just don’t like being in space to begin with.
The Occupation Trilogy is a newer, more epic fantasy series I’ve been working on this year. The first novel, Shadows Before the Sun, is about two-thirds done, so I’ll probably release it sometime in 2019. But I can already say a little about the world from a diversity standpoint.
Mostly, the premise is thus: a colonial power similar to 18th-century Britain has taken over a distant land, and some of the locals are not too happy about it. A generation ago, the kingdom of Laurea invaded their home; the war of conquest lasted six years. They imposed their politics, government, religion, and very way of life on the natives of Ihnet. Most of all, they outlawed magic, because the religious teachings of Laurea forbid it.
This, then, has all the hallmarks of colonialism, and you probably know what that means for diversity. The series has two main races, the invaders and the natives. They view the world through different lenses. Ihnet’s women fought with magic alongside the men; Laurea sees the martial solely as the domain of men. Racial politics are vital to the story, and I choose each character’s race (and ancestry, as there are many of mixed descent) with care.
But this isn’t a series meant to make progressives happy. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and not all of them are guys. Men are overrepresented among the characters of Laurea, but that is because of the nature of colonization: many are ex-soldiers who settled down in this new land, took native brides (not always willingly), and started their lives anew.
On the contrary, the Occupation Trilogy mostly concerns itself with the very real factors of society. Whose side are you on? Are you with us, or against us? Both the occupying force of Laurea and the resistance of Ihnet believe there can be no middle ground, no compromise. All other problems are secondary to that, though this may change as the series progresses.
My other works either aren’t as fleshed out, or just don’t offer the same depth of worldbuilding. Thus, I’ll treat them here in much less detail.
Hidden Hills: This series, beginning with Lair of the Wizards, is set in a generic quasi-Renaissance fantasy land. As it is fairly small in scope at present, issues of diversity aren’t really important to the narrative. The culture is late feudal, so the treatment and disposition of women can come up, but really not.
The Linear Cycle: This one’s post-apocalyptic. One of the premises of the genre is that the traditional divisions of society break down out of necessity. Other than that, there’s not a lot of room to delve into such matters, if only because the action is first and foremost.
Heirs of Divinity: One of these days, I’ll release this one. Until then, know that it’s set in 1737, and I endeavored to make that time as realistic as possible. It’s a little more liberal than the real thing, but the story otherwise follows real history, with all its attendant foibles, wherever it can.
Gateway: This one starts with The Soulstone Sorcerer, which I’ll put out next year. It’s a typical RPG fantasy world combined with modern Colorado. Much like Otherworld, the diversity comes from the Earth characters, while the secondary world follows its own rules.
Before I Wake, Fallen, Modern Minds: These don’t have enough characterization to even worry about diversity. In most cases, the characters of any specific story are just about interchangeable.
In this post, I hope I have explained my reasoning, my argument for a more natural sort of diversity in fiction. In every case, I strive to write what feels right. I don’t set out to solve the world’s problems, or empower a generation, or anything of the sort. My characters, I believe, should be those who best fit the story, the world, they inhabit. Whether or not that matches another person’s idea of diversity never plays into my decision. The story is bigger than me, bigger than my prejudices. I would like to believe that others feel the same about both my works and their own.