Wednesday, 14 August 2013

WRI: Character Diversity Problem

This post is a bit mathematical, but more about writing, along with being a cry for help.

But let's start with a relatively simple question. You're writing, so will your main character be a male or a female? Or for that matter, neither of the above? (I'm not talking aliens here, humans can and do diversify beyond those two simple categories.)

He is also gender flexible

Then again, your main character(s) might be a given, depending on your personal experience and how you see your plot progressing. Or perhaps you were picturing fanfiction, so those roles become predefined for you. So let's look beyond that. Let's talk about the more secondary characters you create.

The wise mentor. The henchman (henchwoman?). Even the clerk in the store for that one scene you need. Why is that guy male? Or is he? Now, go further. What race? What religion? Do those things matter too? I think they do.

But maybe not for the reasons you think.


The problem, frankly, is that I'm a white male. I like to think I have enough of a feminine side to be able to write female characters, but I can't say I really understand what it's like to be a woman. So when we progress to race, or religion, we've gone right outside of my comfort zone. It feels like too much of a stretch for me to be able write about those differences properly. So I don't.

'It doesn't matter!' you might protest. 'We're all human! Deep down we all have the same passions and desires! Colours, beliefs, they don't matter!'

How would this look be for a man?
Don't answer that.
No. I'm sorry, but no, to write realistically, it matters. Or it matters to me. And not for plot reasons either, I'm talking simple characterization! If your main character is female, won't that change how they walk through an unlit park at night? If the clerk in the store becomes black, isn't it possible that s/he could have an effect on what your characters are saying? Note that I'm not saying such impacts are RIGHT, I'm saying it's our current REALITY.

Which is also a reality that I'm not sure I can address. This seems to leave me with two options as far as the fantasy goes.

Either (A) I write a story including diverse types where "it doesn't matter" - not realistic, potentially offensive - or (B) I write a story where everyone looks white and acts like a liberal with only minor religious ties - which in some ways seems more offensive, but tends to be my default.

Quick aside: If you risk the third option, and write for realism, I applaud you. Do it. And if as a reader, you find yourself highly offended by an author's interpretation, take a second to ask yourself if they offended intentionally. (By which I mean a genuine misinterpretation as opposed to believing that some archaic stereotype is actually valid.) Because constructive criticism could be the difference between an advocate for your cause, and someone who decides they'll never write again.

Okay, back to what I've been personally struggling with.


Here's where I need your help. I write a web serial about the personification of mathematics. (Yeah, I bring it up constantly. Sorry.) Gender, at least initially, was nicely covered off in that XX=1 is female, XY=1 is male, and from there functions and their inverses were branched to opposing genders. When I first started out, I also hand waved the all white cast as "this is the caucasian branch of a much larger canvas". Implying there's other versions of these characters out there.

But the story is evolving. My canvas is growing. My hand waving is starting to feel like, well, hand waving.

Thing is, while my serial is a fantasy, it's is based on mathematics. On reality. As I generate new characters and situations, the fact that I'm still working with an all white cast is starting to unsettle me. The last thing I want to do is exclude demographics from mathematics! So I think I've got four options. Which of these do you think is the best?

1) I keep going as I am. Someone once posted that they hadn't thought about race until I pointed it out. And maybe I'm the only one truly unsettled by the general lack of race or religion in the serial. It's just a story, right? I'm often overthinking things. Perhaps I just need reassurance.

2) I start to mix it up. Some new characters are black, or latino, what have you. Heck, I've already started taking liberties with gender, to the point where "Gaston Julia" and "Karl Weierstrass" might be rolling in their graves. And from the very beginning, I did make some of the characters left handed (anyone notice that?). Trouble is, I don't want to pigeonhole a mathematical construct as being "a black function" or "a native american function" - in fact, how would I even decide? Also, it feels like maybe it's a bit too late to pull this off elegantly.

3) I actually pull in a set of racial counterparts. White Para meets Black Para, et cetera, due to some plot convenience. Space-tearing convoluted parallel-world track, whatever. My main problem with this one goes back to my earlier feelings of them not being the same individual, even though mathematically, they are. There's fundamental differences here, ones that I'm not sure I can properly express. But maybe I can attempt it as a short story arc within a series? Is that worthwhile?

4) I create an allegory in my mathematical world. I've got a bit of a wedge for religion there already, in that most of them worship TPTB (Transcendental Pi-Type Beings), while others could prefer a single deity. For race, I'm not really sure - continued persecution of the step functions? As they are immigrants into the standard world of high school math relations? Or is that idea even more wildly offensive than option (1)? Contrarily, perhaps a story arc where Root magically becomes oriental, and functions start treating him differently... worse idea? Better?

Admittedly, somewhat more boring as well.

Two additional things to keep in mind here: First, the fact that I illustrate my own work. So not only do I have to get characters' motivations right, I have to draw them reasonably too. My anime-style cramps that, but since it's what I know, there's no going back now. Do you think that limits me? The second thing to bear in mind is the fact that I am a teacher.

As a teacher, I feel the need to be careful about what I'm broadcasting. If I were to write anything perceived as racist, some jerk out there might find a way to twist it back at my day job. Related to that, I grapple with mental diversity in my classroom all the time, so deliberately adding in personal thoughts on physicality and spirituality feels less than advantageous to me. Oh, and teaching doesn't allow for a lot of spare time to do the proper research. But maybe now I'm simply making excuses?

Race and religion. It feels like a controversial line to cross.

Am I wrong?


I know, I know, I've put WAY too much thought into a serial that only a couple dozen people actually read. But I'd appreciate any insights or thoughts about my concerns, along with which option you think might be best. Or least offensive. You can comment below. For those of you reading who are fellow writers, maybe this is also something for you to think about, if you're planning a long-running work, with an ever-expanding storybook universe.

Let me leave you with this final thought: Our world is diverse. It feels to me like our writing should reflect that.


  1. Not overthinking at all, and in fact, it's good that you are thinking about this, since many people do not. I always find it interesting that white is seen a default that needs no mention, but any other race requires a specific marker of some kind to note this.... and that often, it's expected that race will have some impact on the plot. (Also true for sexual orientation, etc.)

    It's something I have very strong opinions on.

    First, I firmly believe that everyone has the right to write about anyone. From any perspective. Period.

    But second, I also firmly believe that every writer needs to write truthfully and well, which means they need to be wary of cliches and lazy tropes. And that includes racial, religious, sexist, etc. Which means that if you write it, you must also do it justice.

    This includes parody. You can parody and satirize and play with all the stereotypes in jest, but it has to be done right. The Simpsons is generally a good example of parody doing it well. Not writing realism isn't an excuse for writing bad cliches.

    There is definitely a truth to the idea that people are people and so that a character happens to be of another race or sexual orientation or social class, etc., that does not define them, and there is a universality to their experiences that any writer can access. At the same time, their 'otherness', whatever form it takes, is part of that character's experience, and can't be entirely ignored either.

    That it feels like a controversial line to cross, to me, is a good sign of your desire to do this justice.

    So what do you do? I think you go back to character. To arbitrarily make things diverse just to be diverse tends to read hollow. To be diverse because the characters are diverse tends to get a lot closer to doing it justice.

    You've already made choices to have characters of different genders. It doesn't appear that you did so just because you thought there should be a particular diversity among gender (otherwise, I think it would be 51:49 rather than your female-dominated cast).... you made those choices because it made sense for your character. So go with that... what make sense for the character? What fits with who they are? What do they look like in your head? Start there.

    And good luck!

    1. Thanks Sonal... strong opinions are probably what I need to cut through my uncertainty. I think it's the whole 'people are people' versus 'otherness' thing that I'm grappling with, because I'm not sure I can do the latter correctly, but the former bothers me. Despite my desires, I'm also not sure I can do it justice, but I don't want that to paralyze me. (I'm not even sure if my series is a parody or not!)

      Interesting conclusion. (What, I give you four options, you can't just give me one? ;) I'll be honest, part of the gender choice came from the fact that I draw women a lot better than I draw men. Most of my first attempts at Root had people thinking he was female (and maybe people still think that!). Think it comes from sketching more girls than guys when I was young, go figure. As to what makes sense, it's that being math, this shouldn't matter, and yet the way I've started... huh. Oh, okay. That is an interesting thought. Option 5.

      Only thing is, that thought only works for this particular setting, so I'll still have a block of sorts in my other ventures. But one thing at a time. Thanks! More to mull over now.

    2. I'm not good at following rules. :)

      I wouldn't call your series parody exactly, but I mentioned parody to show that even if you aren't writing realism, getting it right still matters. Just randomly re-colouring your characters wouldn't quite work, IMO, and starts feeling like tokenism. But you do have your own experience of otherness to draw from, and you can read other voices and imagine and empathize.... those are good starting places from writing out of your comfort zone.

      Root is a good example.... A personified math universe doesn't have to have specific gender, but he does. And you are clear on that. So be open to other ideas, but ultimately you have to go with your instincts on what makes sense for the character.

      As for doing it justice, I read a fantastic short fiction collection by Clark Blaise about Indian-Americans. Blaise, perhaps obviously, is not Indian-American though his wife is.... he'd said that he'd wanted to write these stories for a long time, but it took him years to feel able to do justice to it. Don't feel you have to do it now, though it's certainly worth thinking about now and perhaps experimenting with now. (Since you draw the characters, I'd suggest doing rough sketches or doodles with greater diversity as a way of practicing and learning.)

      For anyone who might accuse you of lacking diversity, I think simply stating that you were concerned about your ability to do it properly is a good answer. It's not so much that it doesn't matter for this universe--you wouldn't wonder if it didn't matter--but that because it matters you want to do this with care. That's a good thing.

    3. Good for you breaking the rules, it gave me a new thought. I think there will be some recolouring, but it won't be random - I'll leave it there so that people will have to read my series. I also feel I have to at least address it sooner rather than later, otherwise my discomfort will persist.

      Appreciate the suggestions and the vote of confidence.

  2. Okay, I don't know if you're blocking me, but my comments don't go through. Trying google account, but I usually use ed realist here.

  3. Huh. That worked. Okay, here goes, under google.

    Apologies if this posts three times--it keeps on disappearing.

    No, you aren't overthinking. Go with option 2. You have too many races and orientations to do anything else.

    So toss in a few black and Hispanic characters. Then butch up a female function (cut her hair, give her granny glasses) and give a guy some fingernail polish.

    I was going to chastise you for not mentioning Asian, and then I see you did. Except you said Oriental.


    1. No idea what the posting issues are. Sorry about that, though must be on Google's end or something.

      There IS a lot of diversity, and as you point out, if I accidentally miss one, that might be just as damning. I don't want "token" stereotypes either, so what it cycles back to is the all important question of WHO would be those characters. Would the Cubic work better as an Asian, and more importantly, WHY?

      Thanks for the tip by the way, didn't realize Oriental was offensive in some parts of the world.

  4. I think your thoughts on this are really interesting - I've toured a lot of the same terrain in my mind.

    On a larger level, the solution is to increase the diversity of people creating culture. But on a personal level, it's no fun to think, "Well, I'm a straight middle-class areligious white dude, so I should probably lay off of creating stuff, so there's space for more under-represented groups."

    I'll have to check out your serial more closely to know how these issues play out there. But in general, I think it's better to err on the side of ambition - which is to say, write diverse characters, and do your best to make them well-rounded humans. Cultural/ethnic/gender identity may help shape our lives, but the variety of personalities and experiences within a group will always dwarf the commonalities. I suspect you can trust yourself to write individuals, not types.

    -Ben Orlin

    1. Thank you! Nice to know I'm not the only one musing on it. Yeah, the big picture is interesting, and troublingly I think the lack goes to the fact that other groups don't have equivalent access to the internet, for whatever reasons. I suppose the other option is to "create" works of non-fiction, but I'm not sure my mind works that way either.

      As far as my serial, I've drawn everyone white, so it's effectively such a non-issue that it's actually becoming a big issue. Though they are diverse (conics are more eccentric than the others, and so on), and I have something in mind that will be a game changer. Appreciate the remark about ambition, because the execution could backfire badly - perhaps one of the times that it's good I only have a couple dozen readers. We'll see.

      Again, thanks for the comment, always like hearing from other math teachers.
      If you want a little summary recap for part of my serial, I posted this quick video online yesterday: