Thursday, October 6, 2016

White by Default? A Character Assumption Roundtable

This new writers roundtable topic comes from a recent discussion on a Pulp Writers list of which I'm a member. I thought the topic a pertinent one, so I wanted to share it here as well. 

The key kernal for this discussion comes from an exchange my fellow pulp writer I.A. Watson had with one of his editors, and is as follows:


Editor: About this villain, Ms Zeuzi. Why is she White? Aren’t there enough White characters in your book? 
I.A. Watson: Where do I say she’s White? I don’t describe her appearance at all, except her business suit and mannerisms. 
Editor: You don’t say she’s not White. You could have mentioned she’s African American or Latino. You don’t. 
IW: There’s lots of characters in the book, some of whom are White, but I don’t say they are Caucasian or put in a description of their skin colour. Why do I need to specify that Ms Zeuzi is non-White if it doesn’t come up in the story? 
Editor: Readers default assume characters are White if you don’t say otherwise.

I’m really not sure about this. Advice?

Is this true in your experience? Why do you think that?

Lee Houston Jr.:  Only in regards to classic characters created before the late 1960s, and the writers of the day didn't dare challenge the "social norms" of their time.

Erwin K. Roberts: Before "enlightenment" came to the various media, there were occasional stealth minority characters. In his book,  Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein's three protagonists were a kid from Des Moines, a wild & wooly Texan, and a quiet fellow from colonial Venus. One presumes they all had white skin. After they finish training, the three spend a year or so on a spaceship with a crew of about a dozen. What is not revealed, until after they leave the ship, is that one of the ship's officers was "as black as the ace of Spades." Not exactly politically correct, but I'm sure a lot of younger readers circa 1950, or so, were shocked by the revelation.

Kristi Morgan: This is true, and applies to writing that has more than just humans in it too. I am in the middle of editing stories for a collection that contains humans, elves, dwarves, and kobolds. Every story started of with dialogue or what their characters were doing, but nothing about what they looked like. My mind assumed they were human and probably white unless the writer said otherwise, and most of them never did. Readers are not mind readers. Unless you describe the characters, we will make up our own descriptions in our mind.

Van Allen Plexico: I think readers consciously or subconsciously look for cues, even tiny ones, that tell them more about a character. Those cues can come via outright descriptions of appearance, yes. But also via tiny comments during dialogue, manner of speech, name, and so on. And those don't even have to be intentional or conscious decisions on the part of the author in some cases, I think.

So, no, I don't think all readers default all characters to white as long as there are any reasons not to... But likely some do.

Alan Lewis: In most cases, I'd say it is true. Or maybe, more to the point, we like to make the characters like ourselves, so we default many characters to our own race.

Lucy Blue: I know as a reader, i do this, and I always assumed that everybody just defaulted to their own race until told otherwise. But of course, that isn't true--readers of color have gotten so used to white being the "default setting" in fiction that they make that assumption, too. (May that someday not be so.) So yeah, as a writer, I struggle with this. I don't want to point out every character's race as soon as they're introduced, but if a character's race is important to the story, I want the reader to have a clear picture of them. That's one great thing about writing science fiction and fantasy; in those worlds, a lot of the time it doesn't matter what skin tone the characters have; readers can picture characters however they choose. But in writing any kind of contemporary or "realistic" fiction, it's definitely a concern.

Rose Johnson Streif: This is weird, but the characters tend to remain somewhat amorphous to me until they are described, or begin to take shape. I have a highly visual mind, but I want to see what the writer sees when I am reading someone else's work. I'll fill in the blanks as time goes by, but I want to see their world, not impose my own. (That's for my own work.)

And so, as to race, I'll pick up cues, wait until the author says it outright, or just not assume. But if it goes on for too long without description, I probably will default to white, because the author probably did too. (And I dislike not having descriptions. I don't need info dump, but show me these people you created, d@mmit.)

Marian Allen: I think it's true. If somebody's ethnicity doesn't matter to your third-person story or doesn't impose itself on your first-person narrator's consciousness, don't bother with it.
Herika Raymer: I usually default to the race of the writer, not sure who else does. It's usually the correct assumption, unless otherwise stated.

Gary Phillips: I once wrote a novel giving hints as to various characters' race -- she was a natural blonde, his name was Kurasawa and so on, but deliberately gave no indication of the main charater's race. And being black but with a "whitebread" name, left my photo off the back Of, and the anti-hero, the main guy is only called O'Conner, though plenty of black folks have Irish sounding last names.

How do you handles such descriptions of ethnicity or do you prefer to let the reader default to their preconceptions?

Erwin K. Roberts: I tend to sprinkle minority characters around my stories. But only if the story is not slowed down by explaining how and why the character happens to be there.

Sometimes there is a compelling reason for a minority character, or group, to be included, even it such a thing was not common to the period. In my Sons of Thor the first section is set in World War One. The French need a battalion of Infantry to provide security for a very important meeting. There can not, must not, be any German sympathizers or spies among them. Who they gonna call?

Well, there's this Regiment that the U.S. Army dumped on them. The Yanks just couldn't figure out what to do with the unit calling themselves The Men of Bronze. The 369th Infantry Regiment is best known as The Hellfighters From Harlem. How many Germans are in an all African-American (to include some of the officers) unit? This retired Missouri National Guardsman was proud to shine some fictional light on the former 15th New York Infantry Regiment.

Marian Allen: GENERALLY SPEAKING, I don't think of characters as being a particular ethnicity or race so much as I think of them as individuals OF a particular ethnicity, race, or background. I might specify this lady has milky skin and red-gold hair, or this guy might have tightly curled black hair, brown eyes, skin the color of bittersweet chocolate .... If there were no such thing as the concept of "race," or if we understood that "ethnicity" doesn't mean "everybody but white," how would we describe characters? That's what I try to do. It kind of pisses me off when writers don't describe characters unless the characters are people of color, or when writers do describe characters UNLESS they're people of color, in which case they're "black" or "Oriental" or some nonsense.

Lee Houston Jr.:  Unless I am writing either aliens in science fiction stories or contributing a story to an already established character, I usually don't mention ethnicity and let the readers judge/decide for themselves.

Alan Lewis: I only feel that the color of a character's skin should be important if it is a factor in the story.

For example, in my Black Wolf stories, the lead character is a black man, living in 1930's South Carolina. He lives in a predominantly black neighborhood and is always dealing with racist attitudes when he ventures into the white parts of town. He dates a young white woman, which was very taboo in those days. All these factors come into play in the stories, telling the daily struggles with racism while the man is simply trying to do his job.

Now take away the prejudice and time period and drop him into a contemporary setting, and those issues of race are greatly reduced. Therefore, the color of his skin isn’t an issue and doesn’t need to be made part of the story.

Van Allen Plexico: I will admit I do feel a responsibility to make the casts of my stories at least somewhat diverse in terms of race and gender, rather than monochrome and all guys. I don't do this out of any sense of trying to be "PC", but because it makes the story more interesting and more appealing to more people, and it's more logical in a world of diverse people, particularly one set in the future. The fact that it is the right thing to do is only a happy side effect.

To convey this, I try to provide as many cues as reasonably possible (short of doing any harm to the narrative) to make the characters "visible" in the minds of the readers as close to how I've imagined them as possible.

As a made-up example:

Hawk drew off his glove and stared down at his olive-skinned hand, flexing it carefully. 
Hawk glanced over at Falcon, then ran his hand back through his thick, black hair. 

I generally follow Roger Zelazny's rule that you should provide no more than three outright physical descriptions of a character when you introduce him or her (more than that and they get fuzzy in the reader's mind, rather than clearer), and then fill in any remaining visual blanks during the course of the narrative or dialogue later, as needed, as you go.