Race in writing

Race is a hot topic in our generation. Racism, equality, diversity, affirmative action…you can’t get away from it. Even the very month we’re in has long been declared Black History Month. Scientifically, we are told that race doesn’t really matter. Socially, we’re told it shouldn’t matter. And yet human nature, our predisposition towards clannish, us-against-them xenophobia, keeps race constantly in the news. Whether it’s a white cop shooting a black teenager or the Academy Awards being called out as “too white”, racial tension is a fact of life as much in 2016 as in 1966.

But that’s the real world. In fiction, race has historically been somewhat neglected. In most cases, there’s a very good reason for that: it’s not important to the story. Many genres of fiction achieved the Holy Grail of colorblindness years ago, when such a thing was all but inconceivable to the rest of the world. Indeed, for a great many works, it doesn’t matter what color a character’s skin is. If you’re pointing it out, then, like Chekhov’s gun, it’s probably important. A story where racial tension plays a direct role in character development is going to be very dependent on character race. A lot of others simply won’t.

That’s not to say that it should be entirely ignored. After all, real-world humans have race, and they identify more with people of their own race. And, of course, a mass-media work needs to be very careful these days. One need only look at Exodus: Gods and Kings and the accusations of “whitewashing” it received. Also, when moving stories from the page to the screen, a lack of racial characterization in the book can lead to some…interesting choices by the studio. (I’ll gladly admit that I was surprised to see who was cast as Shadow in American Gods.)

Does it matter?

When you’re planning out a story—if you’re the type to plan that far ahead—you should probably already have an idea what role race will play in the grand scheme of things. Something set in the American South in the 60s (1960s or 1860s, either one works) will require more attention to detail. Feudal Japan, not so much.

Futuristic science fiction deserves special mention here. It’s common for this type of story, when it involves a team of characters, to have a certain ratio of men to women, of white to non-white, as if the author had a checklist of political correctness. But why? Surely, for an important mission like first contact or the first manned Mars mission, the job would go to the most qualified, whoever they were. That assumes rational decision-making, though, and that’s something in short supply today. There’s not much reason to assume that will get any better in the coming decades.

For other genres and settings, race should play second fiddle to story concerns. Yes, it can make for an interesting subplot if handled well, but it’s too easy to make a minor detail too important. Ask yourself, “If I changed this character’s race, what effect would that have on the rest of the story.” If you can’t think of anything, then it might not be quite as pertinent as you first thought.

When it does matter

Very often, though, the answer to that question will be a resounding “yes”. And that’s where you need to delve into the bottomless pit of psychology and sociology and the other social sciences. Lucky you.

If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a specific period and location in history, then most of the work is already done for you. Just look at what race relations were like in that time and place. You’ve always got a little bit of leeway, too. People are not all alike. You can be a pre-Civil War southerner against slavery, or a 1940s German sympathetic to the Jews.

Writing for the future is a lot tougher. A common assumption, especially for stories set more than a century or so ahead of our time, is the end of racism. In the future, they argue, nobody will care what color your skin is. The Expanse series works this in a great way, in my opinion. The whole solar system is full of a mishmash of Earth cultures, but nobody says a word about it. It’s not white against black, it’s Earth against Mars.

You can also go the other way and say that race will become more of a factor. The current political climate actually points this way on topics like immigration. But other factors can lead to a “re-segregation”. Nationalist tendencies, waves of refugees, backlashes against “cultural appropriation”, and simple close-mindedness could all do the trick. Even social media can play a role. While it’s true that there aren’t many paths back to the old days of separate water fountains, we’re not too far from strictly separated racial ghettoes already.

The worldbuilding process should be your guide here. What made the world—more specifically, the story’s setting—the way it is?

When it’s different

All that above, of course, presumes you’re dealing with human race. Alien races are completely different, and I hope to one day write a series on them. For now, just know that the differences between humans and aliens utterly dwarf any difference between human races. Aliens might not perceive a distinction between white and black; conversely, an alien appearance can hide a number of racial distinctions. For fantasy, substitute “elves” or whatever for “aliens”, because the principle is exactly the same.

In fact, this whole post I’ve been using “race” as a broad term that encompasses more than just traditional notions of skin pigmentation. In the context of this post, any social subgroup that is largely self-contained can be considered a race, as can a larger element that shows the behavior of a race. Jews and Muslims can be treated as races, as can fantasy-world dark elves. As long as the potential for discrimination based on a group’s appearance exists, then the race card is on the board.

As always, think about what you’re creating. Where does race fit into the story? Try to make it a natural fit, don’t shove it in there. And this is one of those cases where a lot of popular fiction can’t really help you. White authors tend to write white characters by default, because it’s easiest to write what you know. (A counterexample is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where half the main characters are black, and you’d never know it except from the occasional hint dropped in narration.)

It’s also all too easy to go to the other extreme, to fill a story with a racial rainbow and put that particular difference front and center when it doesn’t help the story. Honestly, that’s just as bad as saying, “Everybody’s white, deal with it.” If it doesn’t matter, don’t even bring it up. If it does matter, make it matter. Make me care about the struggle of the minority when I’m reading that kind of story, but don’t put it in my face when I’m trying to enjoy a sword-and-sorcery romp where everybody is against the Dark Lord.

In the end, the best advice I can give is twofold. First, learn about your setting. How does it affect racial relations? Second, think about your characters. Put yourself in their shoes. How do they see members of other races, or their own? How are they affected by the society they live in? It’s hard, but writing always is, and this is a case where the payoff is a lot harder to see. But keep at it, because it really is worth it.

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