Representation in writing

16 Sep 2020 - Vidar Hokstad

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There are two main reasons to care about representation in writing.

The first is that it matters to people. The wonderful late Ursula Le Guin wrote about this in the form of the feedback she got from people who felt more represented by the diversity of her characters:

I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in—and how much this meant to them, particularly as adolescents, when they’d found nothing to read in fantasy and science fiction except the adventures of white people in white worlds. Those letters have been a tremendous reward and true joy to me.

She also addressed the second reason. It matches the real world better:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

This was churning away in my mind when I started working on my own universe.

I'm from Norway. I moved to the UK in 2000. When I first moved, Norway was very much pasty-white compared to the much more mixed world I moved to when I got to London.

I lived in Central London at first, and then a rich borough (I rented, don't get excited) that while it was more diverse than Norway was not all that diverse. I then moved to South London, to a far more mixed area.

It'd seems ridiculous after seeing this progression of increased ethnic diversity to just include white characters.

Yet I had to struggle not to.

The names that sprung to mind where Norwegian or English, and the descriptions of people that sprung to mind were white, because it was my childhood. They were men, because it's what I relate to.

Often, I think, this is the reason for stories that lack diversity. No ill will, but inertia.

But I'm not writing about the past, nor am I writing about a semi-rural area in Norway, or about my me, and so allowing that inertia to define my universe would make it pretty weird and unrealistic.

I'd gotten about a third into my novel before I changed gender of the main character.

If anyone cared about this series yet, there'd be gasps from some people at this point.

The thing is, I realised it didn't matter. I changed the name and pronouns, and nothing else. My main character, Zara 'Zo' Ortega, would be the same as a man.

She's a tough, hardened spaceship captain who likes women. There's nothing about that which requires the character to be a specific gender, except that the name I had used was too obviously male.

This is what I'd like people who have an issue with representation in fiction to think about:

Nothing else changed. Not a word.

Because a woman does not have to be stereotypically feminine, or like men.

Sometimes things do change, and sometimes they should, because more representation of different types of characters also matters, but someone who complains about the gender of a character rather than about specific characteristics they don't think works for that character tell us a lot about themselves.

To me, the most compelling reason for trying to make the set of characters I wrote more representative was that it felt more realistic.

The first novel in my series has a crew that is relatively white and a majority men - it's not at all about avoiding white characters, or avoiding men, but about being aware that an unrepresentative set of characters is ridiculously unrealistic in a future setting.

And so as the series progresses, while the proportion of any specific ethnic group or gender at any given point in time does not matter, because with any small group, outliers will happen, it matters that over a period of time it reflects something relatively realistic.

It's great that more representation also provides role models, but I'm probably not the best person to do that.

As a straight white cis middle-aged male (it's the first time I've called myself middle-aged in writing... I don't like it). I should not be the one to give a voice to under-represented groups in sci-fi.

And so I won't try to pretend to do that, because it'd be far too easy to stray from inclusive to offensive.

Thankfully, in that respect sci-fi is a forgiving genre. I get to write people largely how I like, and give them other ethnicities and make them women, or have an underrepresented sexual identity, and as long as I avoid stepping right into stereotyping people, I'm describing a melting-pot more than a century into the future, and that is my excuse for e.g. not trying to depict cultures I don't know very well (and failing miserably), because I can make up my own mix.

But exactly for that reason - that I'm depicting a future culture - I don't have an excuse not to introduce characters that are not the pasty white males I am either.

There is representation and representation - I do not want to try to copy a voice I can't accurately represent, but there is no excuse not to do better in terms of describing a future that is at least a somewhat closer approximation.

I'm making up space-ship and interstellar travel. Making up a description of persons that are not all white males is a pretty low bar to clear at that point.

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