On diversity in fiction, part 2: Case study

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

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

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.

Endless Forms

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.

Occupation Trilogy

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.

Others

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.

Conclusion

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.

On diversity in fiction, part 1: Opinions

No matter where you go in the world today, diversity is a word on everyone’s lips. Love it or hate it, the concept has, thanks to a particularly vocal segment of society, become a fact of modern life. And that has spilled over into fiction of all sorts. After all, stories are ever a reflection of an author’s worldview, so it stands to reason that something so prominent finds its way into anything we write.

In this two-part post, I’d like to offer my opinions on diversity as it pertains to fiction in various sorts of media. That includes the written word, video games, movies, television, and even theater. Anywhere a story must be written, it seems that the writer must take diversity into account, and I feel there are right and wrong ways to go about that.

For this part, I merely want to speak what I believe. In the following entry, which I will post next week, I will then look at my own efforts as a kind of case study for what I feel to be the most appropriate method of dealing with the concept.

Definitions

First off, let me define what I mean by diversity. In this context, I refer to people, or rather characters, who show visible differences in what might be termed intrinsic factors. These are the divisions we’re most familiar with, the ones most evident in appearance or association, and those that are hardest—if not entirely impossible—to change. Race, sex, religion, national origin, culture, and sexual orientation are some of the most common. (Gender, as it exists in a social context, has become a bit more involved, but it works essentially the same way for our purposes here.)

Nothing in a fictional work should, in my opinion, give a reader, viewer, or player the impression that the author sees those who vary from the norm in a negative light. (Unless, of course, that is the true purpose of the work, as in extremist literature of all sorts.) The purpose of fiction is to create a story. Thus, the best authors leave their biases at the door, so to speak.

The fictional world—the secondary world, as some call it—can have its own biases, and those may be different from our primary world. In that case, it is the writer’s responsibility to explain those differences, those biases, in a way the is both entertaining and enlightening. If there is to be a message, then let it stand on its own merit. That goes for diversity as well as its lack.

The use of force

And this, I feel, is where so much modern media has gone astray. Too often, we see authors and screenwriters “force” diversity where it detracts from the story being told. As Hollywood has become far too fond of reboots and reimaginings, we can watch this unfold on a daily basis. In only the past year, I’ve seen reboots and story concepts that, for diversity’s sake, promise to change a character’s race (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), sex (the oft-rumored “female James Bond”), gender (Supergirl), and orientation (Star Trek).

My question is a simple one, yet one that would likely lead to my firing if I worked at one of these studios: who wins? If the object is to show that women/people of color/LGBT/whoever can be protagonists, then shoving them into roles defined by someone who is one of straight, white, or male can only be considered a failure. If your argument is that marginalized groups deserve their own heroes, then make them some heroes. Don’t try to remold preexisting heroes into a more diverse image for the sake of diversity. That, to use a term these people like, is no different from cultural appropriation.

The problem, as I see it, boils down to polarization. One side wants to see more diversity, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal. But those who don’t seek diversity in and of itself are then pushed to the other side, lumped in with white supremacists, homophobes, etc., for no reason other than they are not sufficiently progressive. Conversely, they then become shunned by those same elements for being too progressive. And the gap only continues to widen.

A better approach

Instead of this increasing bifurcation of society, I think a far better approach, at least regarding the creation of fiction, can be had by writing in a natural, organic fashion. Instead of forcing diversity, keeping quotas of minorities and the like, look at the story as a whole, the world it creates.

For fiction set in the real world of the present, this is almost too easy. We have demographics at our fingertips, so it’s not too hard to make a story that is both diverse and true to life. Historical fiction needs a little bit more work, but some common sense can tell you that it’d be silly for, say, Thor or Achilles to be black, or Guan Yu to be white. (Sexuality, especially in ancient times, is a whole different ballgame, particularly once you leave the familiar Christian West.)

Constructed worlds bring their own rules. In fantasy, you can make a case for just about anything. The men of Middle-Earth are white, if only because they are explicitly contrasted with the southern Haradrim. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series has a race of “savages” that, upon further inspection, are not African in appearance, but…ginger. Female warriors abound in literature—Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) is the example most pertinent for TV audiences. Non-heterosexual relationships aren’t at all uncommon. And a good author lets all that fade into the background unless it’s absolutely pivotal to the story.

That doesn’t even get into the possibility that other races might have differing notions of what constitutes diversity, or different intrinsic factors. One can easily imagine polyamorous elves, matriarchal orcs, or shapeshifters to whom the very concepts of race and gender are nonsensical. A fictional world with multiple races and sub-races might have an incredibly complex system of lineage and rights, but equally plausible is the idea that diversity plays by different rules. If there are beast-men living in the next country over, then why are we so worried about skin color?

Science fiction set in the future brings its own baggage. Although I do love The Expanse (except for the very depressing Persepolis Rising), this is a case where I feel it breaks the rule of organic diversity. As far as I can tell, seven books have produced one stable, monogamous, straight couple for a major character: Duarte, the current villain! Race is also hopelessly muddled (one of the series’ main points, to be fair), and the whole thing sometimes comes off as an experiment in throwing as many diversity-friendly adjectives as possible into a character. “Oh,” I can imagine the authors saying, “we don’t have a half-Asian transgender character yet. Let’s get right on that.”

In the future, we can imagine the boundaries of the present falling down. But it’s no less a stretch to imagine them rising back up. As humanity expands its reach—and especially if it expands into space—communities might become more monolithic, rather than more diverse. If anyone can found a space colony, why wouldn’t a group experiment with a “pure” society? Human nature tends towards mild xenophobia. We like being with people who look like us, talk like us, believe the way we do. That’s why we’ve created echo chambers on the Internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t feel bad positing, say, a Nazi colony on Mars. (Now, I wouldn’t want to read about that, much less write about it, but you do you.) On the other hand, liberalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are on the upswing right now, and projecting that into the future seems like the safer bet.

Conclusion

Whatever your genre, whatever your medium, diversity should not be a goal in itself. Instead, natural storytelling should create diversity where it is needed, where it is expected. New York City and San Francisco today don’t have the same demographics as 13th-century London or 1st-century Palestine. Rather than attempt to check all the boxes, think about what characters would be where. Put them where they belong, rather than where society wants them to be.

Now, if the purpose of the story is to tell of a character or group’s struggle against adversity because of their intrinsic properties, then that’s okay. Slaves in the antebellum South are going to be black, no question. Medieval women will have a harder time than their modern counterparts, and a story focusing on them can certainly have a higher female:male ratio. A story that focuses on the X% doesn’t have to follow statistics.

Really, a story for the general populace doesn’t, either. Diversity is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a master spy who happens to be a woman. There’s no reason why a superhero can’t be black, or trans, or whatever descriptor you want to give them. But you shouldn’t tout that as an accomplishment. Because it’s not.

It’s just who they are.

The alternative

No form of government is perfect. If one were, every nation-state would eventually gravitate towards it. Nor will I say that I have developed the perfect form of rule. In fact, I’m not sure such a thing is possible. However, I can present an alternative to the deeply flawed systems of the present day.

Guided by the principles of good government we have previously seen, and aided by logic, reason, and the wisdom of ages, we can derive a new method, a better method. It is not a fully-formed system. Rather, it is a framework with which we can tinker and adjust. It is a doctrine, what I call the Doctrine of Social Liberty.

I cannot accept the strictures of current political movements. In my eyes, they all fail at some point. That is the reason for stating my principles. Those are the core beliefs I hold, generalized into something that can apply to any nation, any state. A government that does not follow those principles is one that fails to represent me. I am a realist; as I said above, nothing is perfect. Yet we should strive for perfection, despite it being ever unattainable. The Doctrine of Social Liberty is my step in that direction.

More than ever, we need a sensible, rational government based on sound fundamentals. The answer does not lie in slavishly following the dogmatic manifestos of radical movements. It does not lie in constant partisan bickering. It can only be found by taking a step back, by asking ourselves what it is that we want from that which governs us.

Over the coming weeks, I hope to detail what I want from a government. I don’t normally post on Tuesdays, but the coming election presents a suitable reason to do so. In four posts, I will describe my doctrine in its broadest strokes, and I will show how our current ruling class violates the principles I have laid out. Afterward, following the start of next year, I want to go into greater detail, because I think these things will become even more relevant.

Elimination

The six basic principles of responsible government don’t, by themselves, converge on a single system. Instead, it’s best to first look at those regimes they entirely eliminate.

Necessity

Egalitarianism is, in essence, a lack of organized government. Anarchy is a repudiation of it. Neither is well-suited to the needs of a large, diverse state. Human nature is to be social, and that means forming relationships, whether romantic, platonic, friendly, or simply on the basis of mutual acquaintance. Those relationships can easily turn into alliances, recognitions of shared purpose. From there, it is a short step to self-organization, and then to government. Therefore, anarchy can never be more than merely a temporary state.

Purpose

A government that does not protect the lives of its citizens is a failure. One that does not uphold those citizens’ rights is equally lacking, though the nature and quantity of those rights can be argued. It is clear, however, that some systems of rule are entirely unsuitable. Those predicated on the absence of individuality—Leninist communism, for instance—cannot be considered acceptable for governing a free people. Likewise, those which ignore fundamental human rights—theocracies being only the most familiar example—must not be seen as viable. But even democracy is not infallible, as the tyranny of the majority can be used to strip rights from the minority. Good government, in this sense, is far more than a question of who rules. It also must take into account how those who rule protect those who do not.

Evolution

Nothing in this world is without change, and that includes society. Social mores shift over generations, but a rigid government can fail because it fails to adapt to these seismic shifts. To prevent this, a state must give some allowance to the possibility of radical changes to its structure, to its core tenets. Those that do not, those that remain fixed, are doomed to fall. Again, theocracy, with its strict insistence on dogma and received wisdom, is the perfect illustration. But a theocracy can adapt by reading and interpreting its scriptures in a new light, while a strongly segmented, highly conservative aristocracy may instead resist the natural evolution of culture, leading to failure.

Equality

Every human being is unique, but we all share many things in common. It is easy, common, and perfectly natural to separate humanity into groups based on the presence or absence of a specific factor. However, to institutionalize this separation is to create an imbalance between members of a preferred class and outsiders. Implementing this sort of segregation by intrinsic factors, those we are physically, mentally, or psychologically unable to change, sorts humanity into those who are—by definition—haves and have-nots. This leaves a segment of the population without political power, without the opportunity for redress, and that segment will only seek to find a new outlet for such. Legislative tribalism, in the form of laws motivated by race, religion, sex, or other factors, is a failure of a government to protect (as by the Principle of Purpose) a certain portion of its citizenry. Executive tribalism, as seen in caste systems, aristocracies, communism, and oligarchy, bars this same portion from using its political voice.

Cooperation

Once again, we return to egalitarianism, as it is a prime example of the nature of competition. When every man is for himself, he can accomplish only what is within his own means. A larger conglomeration, however, can achieve greater things. This is because of resource pooling, specialization, and leadership, among other factors, and it is an expected consequence of our social nature. The most striking examples are those grand projects requiring the cooperation of an entire state, but this sort of socialism is inherent in any system of government. That does not require a surrender of all free will, as in Hobbes’ Leviathan, nor is it a condemnation of capitalism. When we accept the role of government, we commit a portion of ourselves to it, hoping that we receive greater benefits in return. It is this equation, in its lack of balance, where the failure of neoliberal technocracy lies. Yet there is equal imbalance in pure objectivism and pure collectivism.

Initial Conditions

The final principle is the most culture-specific, and it is here that one government system—or the idealized notion thereof—is singled out. However, the Constitution itself does not uphold all the ideals stated above. In its original form, it embraced inequality. It made little space for grand-scale cooperation. In accordance with the Principle of Evolution, however, it has changed to reflect the times, the changing beliefs of those it represents. Other founding documents fail a different set of fundamental principles, and in differing ways. They may be suitable as a starting point for deriving a system of government, but few begin so close to the ideal. Wholly unusable, by contrast, are scriptural resources such as the Ten Commandments, as these are defined by their violation of the Principle of Equality.

None of this is to say that these forms of government are invalid. If a people chooses to create for itself a state based on a violation of the Principles, the choice is theirs alone, and it is not for us to assign fault or blame. Those regimes, however, may not endure.

The axioms

Let us consider the following statements as axiomatic:

  1. Principle of Necessity: Government, in some form, is a construct necessary for the creation and function of any collection of people larger than the tribe or village.

  2. Principle of Purpose: A government exists solely to protect the liberty, health, safety, and well-being of its constituents.

  3. Principle of Evolution: A form of government is not cast in stone, but it must have the potential for change.

  4. Principle of Equality: A system of rule that classifies, based on intrinsic factors, some people as greater or lesser in rights or in being is untenable.

  5. Principle of Cooperation: A society of any size is able to achieve greater feats by working in concert rather than in competition.

  6. Principle of Initial Conditions: The Constitution of the United States is not a perfect document, but it is the best available starting point for enumerating the rights of the people and the responsibilities of government.

This set of axioms should be considered a framework, a definition of the boundaries of a space. With logic and deductive reasoning—two qualities sadly lacking in modern politics—it is possible to derive a system of political thought and a model for governance, one which upholds the principles above while remaining rooted in the practicalities of the modern world.