Race in Novels


I’ve been working on an article for Let The Words Flow in which I discuss planning books vs. letting them happen ‘naturally’. It got me thinking… back when I was on FictionPress, writing Antebellum for the first time, I had no idea how the story would turn out. I didn’t even have any ideas for a sequel, much less a trilogy. And then a reviewer said this to me:

“I love your story, but there aren’t any black people. Could we maybe have a black character? :-)”

Her comment distressed me, firstly because she had assumed that all of my characters were white, when in fact I had been very careful to describe everyone in as general terms as possible so that their appearance could be super-imposed by the reader. (Actually, we find out later that everyone is pretty much descended from a mix of white and hispanic people, so they’re all varying shades of color).

Secondly, I was forced to confront my own inherent racism when thinking about main characters. I don’t mean racism as in believing badly about one race or another, I mean that I was conditioned to assume a character was white until told otherwise, and part of that had bled over into my writing. Frankly, all my characters looked white in my head, even though I knew their technical ancestries.

So after that reader confronted me about the inherent ‘whiteness’ of my characters, I decided to add a few black characters, mostly to please her :-)

Enter Charoleen, and later Mercoush. For those unfamiliar with my stories, Charoleen is a friend of my main character who went into politics and is now the Representative for their region. Mercoush is an Equal (a man held on an equal platform with women) from their world’s equivalent of Washington DC. Char and Mer are involved romantically :-)

Originally I created these two characters to please my readers, but then something unexpected happened: Char and Mercoush revealed that they were part of a pro-equality movement, and wanted my main character to join them.

And from that revelation, I developed enough plot line for a trilogy.

Having just finished editing the book after Antebellum, Apostasy, (I cut 20,000 words, hooray!), I was reflecting on the origins of my story, and remembered where I got the idea for Charoleen and Mercoush in the first place.

So while I’m a fan of outlining now, if I hadn’t have written Antebellum on the fly, with input from my FP reviewers, I probably would never have gotten those characters, or my series out of it.

Thank you, lone reviewer, wherever you are. :-D

15 thoughts on “Race in Novels

  1. outfortea says:

    Yay for successful edits! Well done :)

    And I definitely understand the unconscious ‘racism.’ I’m of Indian heritage myself, and I realised a while ago that I also unconsciously make all my characters white. I don’t know why. Since then I make an effort to put in people with all different kinds of backgrounds, but I think my characters are still skewed in the white, and maybe even Indian direction now. In fiction in general there is definitely an absence of ‘minority’ (I don’t really like using that word, but you know what I mean) ethnicities, especially minority protagonists. It’s not necessarily a sinister thing, because people tend to write what they know, or what they’re used to. But does it make a difference? For sure. As a kid I would have loved to read about a non-blonde, non-brunette heroine, someone who looked more like me. I would have loved to see them in movies, too- I was so excited when I saw the trailer for the Princess and the Frog, which I STILL haven’t seen, but I plan to. For my current WIP, which is my first foray into fantasy (haha what a fun word, foray, I should use it more often)-I have white, brown and black characters. My protagonist is brown. Maybe it’s because I’m brown myself. ;) But I think it fits the story because it’s set in a tropical world, it makes sense that people from there would be darker.

    PS It’s beyond cool that your reviewer’s suggestion totally changed the entire story. I can’t wait till you get published, and I can read it!

    • savannahjfoley says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one! Thanks for sharing your experience. I have tried to make my characters multi-cultural after that time… in the novel I’m working on now my main character is biracial. My problem is the cultural parts. No way am I qualified to write about someone else’s culture, so all of my non-white characters have to somehow have grown up in ‘white’ culture.

      And while that makes me feel bad in one sense, I also like that I can have people who all look different from each other interacting in the same way.

  2. vees_vendetta says:

    I think a large part of the reason why characters in literature are so predominantly white is because basically ALL of the literary cannon is made up of books featuring white characters. And that’s what we, as writers, get influenced by. Anyone who writes a character who’s not of that certain background, or any type of minority really (I mean, you don’t find many ugly characters either, I sometimes think) is fighting against literary tradition, so it’s sort of harder to envision? If that makes any sense?

    I think the solution to that problem is getting more people to buy books with characters of diverse backgrounds, because those books can be really sadly ignored, and because if more people see more examples of fiction with characters of various racial minorities I think it’ll effect the entire writing community’s collective consciousness…Or something. It’s late, and I’m probably not making much sense, haha.

  3. vees_vendetta says:

    And, omg, I totally forgot to add (the entire point of that comment, haha) that it’s seriously amazing the power one suggestion can have and that’s AWESOME that you had such inspiration from something like that :D

    • savannahjfoley says:

      I know! Which makes it so sad that I can’t keep posting on FP, and also because I’m now in this stage where I like working with outlines. So I’ve entered a new period of creativity where everything comes from only me. It’s not necessarily bad, just… different.

      • vees_vendetta says:

        Wow. Outlines. I think I’ve already mentioned that synopses scare me, outlines too haha. But that MUST be really different! I think I like all the initial first-draft creativity to come from me, though. I’m not a bounce-ideas kind of person — I get demotivated if other people read parts of a work before it’s finished, I’ve noticed :D

        • savannahjfoley says:

          I just started using outlines, and I’m going to write an article about it for LTWF. Also, it’s part of writer’s lore that if you share story ideas before they’re done then you’ll kill them. However, obviously that’s not completely true for everyone, lol.

  4. lalaith7 says:

    I was called out on this as a reader once when the author of the FP story I was reading asked her reader why everyone kept thinking her main characters were white, because none of them were nor had they ever been. It’s sort of the self insertion thing that readers do, if there isn’t a description of the person we just dump in generic person who is most likely our race (at least for me, there are an awful lot of Midwestern white girls in the books I read :-).)

    Anyway, i think what bothers me most is the dearth of non-white characters interacting in a “normal” way. The author I was talking about above wrote her non-white characters living their live and their race wasn’t important to the story so it wasn’t a big deal. I feel lie a lot of stories with non-white characters make a big deal out of the fact that that character is non white when in life (at least for me, Midwestern white girl)isn’t like that at all. I took a survey yesterday asking me how often I converse with someone of a different race or religion than myself, the answer was all the time b/c that’s my roommate, but I don’t look at my roommate and think “you’re a different race/religion than me” it comes up, but not very often.

    I see this a lot with religion in film. Characters in American films seem to either live in this quasi-real world where no one every identifies with/talks about/or attends services for a religion or they’re in a Christian movie. In real life the majority of the population of the USA at least identifies themselves with some type of religion, whether they be Christmas/Easter church goers, Morman missionaries, or whatever else. (TV is a little better about this, but still lacking.)

    Anyway, this is long so I’ll shut up there, but I love that you posted this, it makes us think.

    • savannahjfoley says:

      The older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve thought ‘race’ when looking at people of a different race than me. For example, when I was younger if I saw someone of a different race, the connotation I had of them was their name, probably what class I had with them, and their race. Those were their ‘key words.’ Now that I interact with a lot of ethnically diverse people I’ve lost that ‘race’ keyword when I think of people. It’s kinda neat.

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s amazing, how one detail can change/contribute so much to your story.
        I find that I do this too – the unconscious racism – which is a little weird as I come from a Filipino background but was raised in Australia. Maybe its all the fantasy fiction i read when i was younger (excluding sparrowhawk from earthsea) where all the protagonists have deathly pale skin…It doesn’t happen as much if I’m writing short stories, realistic or speculative fiction. All my friends and aquaintences come from different cultural backgrounds but I don’t really register that unless we end up talking about family linked topics where expectations might differ. I started getting back into fantasy writing and made a conscious prod to not give my herione green eyes lol. It’s something I should probably consider more, it’s a strange topic for me as I have light skin compared to other filipinos and that is actually valued alot in our culture (I think due to colonialism, spanish and american influences in the past and popular culture), but in reality I find that every filipino in and outside of my family have different shades of skin colour and facial features vary tremendously. It makes me curious to read things by authors who are caught in two cultural worlds, I guess its something I can relate to and maybe something I should explore more in my writing. Lol, intersting post, makes me reflect on these things..

        • savannahjfoley says:

          Well, thanks! I’ve always made an effort to give my characters brown eyes and hair, because those are pretty universal colors, but also as a protest to people who always give their characters startling blue eyes or sexy green eyes or any of that nonsense.

          However, my reasons for doing so aren’t completely altruistic… my first literary love was Tobias from the Animorphs, and he had brown/brown so I guess I’ve never quite gotten over that. <3

  5. mylilac_wine says:

    I admit I tend to create characters that are predominantly white. If for no other reason than I’m white and I don’t know how well I’d be able to portray someone of another race accurately. Thankfully, I mostly write fantasy so I can create my own races and attitudes towards them.

    I wrote a novel (as a part of a trilogy) where one of the main characters has a darker complexion and black hair, think Middle Eastern. A lot of his country’s culture was influenced by several Middle Eastern countries, but in the end it was all out of my own head. I really liked the culture I “created”, so I hope I can play with that more in the future, so I don’t have deathly pale, blue eyed characters running around like mad. Strangely, the hair/eye combination I’ve found myself using the most is black hair, blue eyes. It’s what I find very attractive, so I guess that’s what I tend to do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.