Posted April 14, 2017on:
A lot of people have been making a lot of noise lately about the “need for diversity” in stories, which confuses me. I don’t see that the story needs it so much as some portion of the reading public might want it, to the point of seeking out stories that have it over stories that don’t. The publishing industry might therefore want to see more diverse books, either authors or characters, in an effort to sell more copies to more people, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a need for diversity in the story, or an indicator of the quality of the story itself.
This is not to say that a story should not be affected if the lead detective in the case was black instead of white. Of course it would be. The cause of diversity would not be well served if the author simply stuck the word ‘black’ in there. Characters don’t ‘just happen to be’ black, or female, or gay, etc. People have history, experience, knowledge, and if they’re lucky, evolution. Taping the word ‘death’ over ‘stun’ in ‘stun ray’ doesn’t make it a death ray. The actions and words of that character would have to be very different. The reactions of those around him would be very different.
My claim is that the difference in behavior would and should be enough to tell the reader that this is a black guy without the author having to throw in an extra word like ‘black’. There needs to a reason for each extra word, and the fact that the character is black isn’t it. The stun ray has to be a death ray and at some point it has to act as one, in which case adding the label does serve a purpose to the plot, by indicating the change in its nature (and the nature of its maker). In Phule’s Company, one character attacked anyone who used words like ‘short’ in her presence. Guess why. But if action and dialog aren’t enough, if the death ray never gets fired, then the diverse nature of the character is so irrelevant that again, the extra word should be edited out.
On the other hand, the reader who goes looking for diverse stories probably isn’t looking for them for the fun of it. The search for diversity is at base a search for realism (of a specific sort), and an unrealistic portrayal won’t serve that goal. But what counts as ‘realism’ in this context?
What counts as realism in any context? My only real resource, as an author, is my own life and my own observations, but even those observations are all understood in terms of my own life. At bottom, then, the only thing I can realistically portray is me, and only to the extent that I was paying attention at the time. Can I portray another white male realistically? Only to the extent that he is like me. Which is the same extent to which I can realistically portray anyone, including space aliens, dogs, and elm trees (assuming they were sentient).
Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I’m allowed to fail. I’m not allowed to not try.