Gender, Color, and Sexuality in Characters

I’m currently working on the script for my manga project Astral Rain for the April edition of Camp NaNoWriMo 2014.  Well, more accurately, I’ve been working on a lot of background notes, plot notes, and world-building because I noticed that a lot of that hadn’t been worked out in advance.  As I was writing, I came across the article “I’m Demanding Better Representation For Black Girl Nerds in Geek Culture” by Chaka Cumberbatch.  And that’s when it hit me:  all of my characters in Astral Rain are white.

Granted, it’s supposed to be an OEL (Original English Language) manga, and most anime and manga lack people of color.  I have no problem featuring white characters, but what surprised me is that the idea of any of the cast of Astral Rain being anything but fair-skinned never occurred to me.  And that concerns me.

Image via What If Books Etc (click for link)
Image via What If Books Etc (click for link)

I’d like to think that I’m an enlightened modern woman.  I’ve been reading a lot of articles, watching videos, and even viewing comics about gender inequality in media and in the geek/nerd culture specifically.  I’ve also become more aware of the challenges faced by homosexual, transsexual, asexual, transgender, and all the other permutations of sexuality to find honest representation of their experience and relationships in media.  For the most part, it either doesn’t exist or turns into a grossly misrepresented stereotype.  Finding a solid platonic relationship between a man and a woman is nearly impossible.  Heck, I don’t think there are any mainstream films or books that don’t have romance of any kind in them.  However, despite all this reading, attitudes and mental defaults are hard to change.

Being a white, lower-middle class, American female, I have it better than a good portion of the world.  My only biological oddity is being demisexual, but I enjoy well-done romances in fiction.  I’m also lucky because I’ve never been assaulted or abused, physically or sexually, unlike many women I know.  However, I am very, very aware of the dangers and misrepresentations faced by women in this hyper-sexual patriarchal culture that still clings to sexism.

Because I strongly identify as female, I tend to write more female characters and to make them as interesting and well-rounded as possible.  (Writing men has always been a bit of a struggle.)  Astral Rain has eight main characters.  Of those eight, three of them are male, and of those three, one of them is the villain.  In Ravens and Roses, the heroes and villains are evenly split between the genders, but the Ravens Company, an elite group of soldiers, is primarily female.  In my early stories, there were no male characters at all, or they only made cameos in the story.  Luckily, I’ve gotten around some of my gender blocks by trying to think about my characters as people first; the rest of the attributes come later.  I also avoid the “love at first sight” kinds of romance to create complex and hopefully realistic evolution in the relationships of my characters.

But I still have unconscious biases.  Most of my characters are white and heterosexual.  This is true even in my fan fiction; only a handful of characters I’ve created (Rashida, Jermala, & Adeltia Stellamar) have darker skin tones and all of them are straight.  I even have trouble creating characters with body types that aren’t “thin” or “fit,” which is why Donna from Doctor Who was a breath of fresh air.  It’s rare for me to even have a character wear glasses, even though I’ve lamented more than once the lack of bespectacled characters in fiction.

Because I’m very visual when I create a character, changing their appearance becomes very difficult after a certain creative point.  Even if their color or sexuality doesn’t impact the story, they don’t “look right” in my head if I try to change them.  And I don’t want to be like Hollywood which tosses in token black people or women so they can claim to be “multicultural” or “diverse.”  Readers and viewers can tell when something about a character is forced or done as some kind of appeasement.

I’m not looking to appease.  I’m looking for natural evolution in how we think about gender, race, and sexuality in fiction.  Humanity is far more diverse than our current media shows, and I don’t want to contribute to further white-washing.  At the same time, I also want to be true to the characters I create, regardless of their physical or biological attributes.  So I guess the best I can do for the moment is to keep my eyes open and remember that, as I create new characters, that there’s an entire palette of colors, relationships, and plots out there for writers to consider.  Diversify!

6 thoughts on “Gender, Color, and Sexuality in Characters

  1. i think everyone struggles with this.

    my natural inclination is that everyone is white and straight (if they’re not an alien 🙂 ), but i’ve also taken strides in my writing to expand my characters into different races and sexualities. it definitely adds to the story’s complexities because then you get to experience things from the completely different perspective of someone different than you may naturally choose.

    for me, i never even thought about this sort of stuff until i read a friend’s short story and realized that he had a crippled character with glasses and a korean. i know that doesn’t seem wild, but when all your characters come from the same mold, it can be eye opening.

    great post 🙂

    1. It’s really great to hear that you’ve been trying to expand like that in your writing. It’s human nature to assume that whatever we happen to be is the default, and I think part of becoming a well-rounded adult is realizing that the world is a lot stranger and more beautiful than we originally thought. Way to work on breaking the mold and thank you very much for commenting!

  2. Hi, Kat,

    I’m generally not much of a fantasy person, and most of my stories deal with The British Isles or Early America. Hence, it would be natural that most of the people would be white, unless I were writing a story with an emphasis on the slave experience, or something to that effect. I don’t worry about that too much, since it’s just natural the way things fall, not as if I am trying to avoid one racial ground and project another instead.

    Again, with sexuality issues, since my stories are usually set in days of yore, characters wouldn’t be expected to start gushing about a same-sex attraction. That doesn’t mean that these things didn’t happen, but it was pretty much taboo to talk about them. And frankly, I think guys and girls and really meant to be together, like magnets from opposite poles. Anything else just doesn’t have the same plot chemistry.

    As far as gender, I don’t really have trouble writing from the perspective of male characters as well as female. Like you, I prefer to view my characters as “people” first and foremost. Also like you, I am “demisexual” in the sense that I have never really felt any sexual desire for anyone thus far, but relationships are deeply important to me. I am very romantically inclined in an emotional way, however, and love the concept of having a “soul mate” and sharing my life with him.

    Actually, a lot of my characters have glasses! 😉

    Anyway, all the best with your character formulating!


    1. Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting, Pearl! You’re right that in historical fiction, having the right race and gender is important for accuracy. Time, place, and current culture are really important for that. Luckily fantasy and science fiction have a lot more lee-way when it comes to race and gender, but there’s still a depressing lack of variety.

      I really like the *idea* of romance, and a lot of my stories and characters feature it. But I try not to make it the focus or derail the plot because there’s a lot more to life than that. I’ve personally found being demisexual pretty comfortable. It makes being independent much easier.

      Hooray for characters with glasses!

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