I’ve gotten a lot of questions about why, as a white author, I chose to make the two main characters in my debut novel black. Its a question with a hundred answers, but I’d like to focus on two answers in particular.
The Story Made Me Do It
I never consciously set out to write characters of uncommon skin color, sexual identity, or philosophical belief. My process always starts with a premise, and from there I ask myself which specific human beings would make for the most interesting plot. For Underworld, I asked myself who would have the most trouble coming to grips with being gay? How about an interracial kid already obsessed with acting (and being) one race or the other? How would he struggle at acting (and being) straight or gay?
After finding my main character, I let him inform all of the secondary characters. That’s how my hero got a black brother. And how the girl next door ended up a first generation immigrant without any American cultural baggage. The other characters and the setting were all picked the same way. Story first.
Still though, why even ask the question, right? Why use a person of color when a white one will do?
By the Numbers
There’s a danger in authors who argue their stories required lots of straight, white, Protestant men and nothing else. We’re all only human, and most stories can be told in a lot of different settings. If an author can’t seem to find any space at all for characters of diverse backgrounds, they’re either lazy or a bit racist.
Consider that most people are not “average.” Almost everyone is different from the straight, white, Protestant man we think of as embodying the United States’ spirit. Look at the numbers:
- 51% of US citizens are not male.
- 50% of US citizens are not Protestant (30% not Christian).
- 23% of US citizens are not white.
- 19% of US citizens are not fully physically and mentally enabled.
- 4% of US citizens are not reporting as straight (though the true statistic is likely much higher).
All this means that about 15% of Americans are “average.” And yet as of today, twelve of the top twenty books (60%) on Amazon feature “average” leads. And if we remove our gender criteria, all twenty (100%) meet the requirements of being straight, white, Protestant people. That’s not alright.
The Needs of the Many
But if most stories can be told using many different kinds of characters, and if diverse characters are often more uniquely positioned to accent those stories, and if there’s actually lots of diverse people all over the place already, what’s stopping us from having more diverse fiction?
The question isn’t, “why use a person of color?” The question is, “why not?”
When I’m casting my stories, it’s not as a political act. It’s not me taking a stand to represent the minority of our country’s (or our world’s) experience. It’s me attempting to represent the world as it really is. Because I don’t just see straight, white, Protestant men around. I see a hell of a lot more, and it’s easier for me to write all sorts of people into my stories than to try and write around them.