Monday, June 9, 2014

Black or white – it’s in the eyes of the readers

For my first post here, at TWV, I decided to examine a controversial topic. Recently, book bloggers have been complaining that most high fantasy stories take place in similar worlds, all resembling medieval Europe, or at least our imaginary version of it, and that most fantasy characters are white guys. Well, girls too, but for the simplicity of this post, I would refer to the said characters as males. “Give us more cultural diversity!” the bloggers and readers scream at us, writers. “We want Africa, China, India, whatever… We want characters that are not white. We want different.”

While the facts the readers bemoan are correct, I don’t think there is anything to complain about. Furthermore, I don’t think we, writers, should do anything about it. The readers accuse us of discrimination, but in my view, the opposite is true. It’s the readers who see white guys everywhere, when in fact, by using a little imagination of their own, they can see anyone they choose.

A writer writes what is close to her heart, her own vision of the story and the characters. She shouldn’t paint her characters’ skin in a color she isn’t drawn to. But when a reader opens a book, it’s like staging a show inside his or her head, with one spectator, the reader, and one casting director, the same reader. He can cast anyone he chooses for any role. It’s his choice.

Take Tolkien. If Aragorn had dark skin or narrow Asian eyes, would his behavior or his actions change? No. Tolkien just wrote Aragorn as a great hero. The color of his skin was irrelevant to the story. I don’t remember exactly how much space Aragorn’s description takes in the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m sure it’s not more than a couple lines – in about fifteen hundred pages. Can’t the readers imagine him any color they wish? If they can’t or don’t want to, if they want to see him white, it’s not the writer’s fault.

Classical ballet has the right approach to the issue. When Giselle or Sleeping Beauty were first choreographed, the choreographers and the librettists envisioned the heroes white, although nobody specified the performers’ skin color. At the time, there were no other ballet dancers but white.  
Now the situation changed, and the ballets changed with it. Chinese ballerinas dance Giselle, a French peasant, or Kitri, a Spanish girl, and nobody is surprised. One of the current ballet superstars, Carlos Acosta, is a Cuban-born, brown-skinned dancer. His repertoire includes Romeo from Romeo and Juliette and all the assorted classical ballet princes who were originally assumed white. The public loves him. The roles are cast according to skill levels. Skin color has nothing to do with it. 

In my novel Eagle en Garde, my protagonist Darin is a white guy, because that’s how I see him. But I don’t force my vision on the readers. Like Tolkien, I used only a line or two of a verbal sketch. If any reader wants him black, please be my guest, disregard my short description. Imagine Darin a mulatto or an Inca or a Japanese, whatever you wish. His courage and wit won’t be affected, and the story won’t change. It’s up to you, the reader, how you see my hero.  

Olga Godim


Jude Johnson said...

Well said, Olga. I think in fantasy especially light descriptions of the protagonists are vital--unless they are totally alien such as in Avatar.
I think perhaps the complaint extends to the cover art, that all the heroes on the covers are white. I'd love to see some Latina kickass heroines on a cover or two, but that's isn't the author's doing.
Congratulations on your first post and welcome to the Vineyard.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Welcome, Olga.

I thought they were all green, but then...

Your point is well-taken. Where we've traveled there are many colors and many cultures. After a while, all those humans look alike. However, in unreal life, how your fantasy folk look would be an adaption to the cultures you've created interpreted by the minds of the readers.

Jim Hartley said...

I never really worry much about characters in fantasy stories. It's much more fun dealing with characters in SF stories, or some cross-genre SF/fantasy stories. Green skin, blue fur, or whatever seems handy.

Finn Tallaksen said...

As a writer of fantasy, I have to 'write to what I know about.' I'm of Norse extraction, I write Vikings. IMHO, I know squat about being Chinese. Or black. In fact, this is a topic of endless discussion in my writer's group. One of us writes lit-fic. Many of her characters are black and she's white/Jewish. It takes extraordinary skill and diplomacy to write across the color line without giving offence, or being accused of appropriating someone else's culture. It's not such an easy thing to do justice to a culture not your own.

Jim Hartley said...

Actually, thinking back on it, I did put a black supporting character in one book, "Cop With a Wand." Daisy Hudson, a plainclothes cop ... and a witch ... calls on the State Troopers to take out a car following her. The trooper succeeds but is slightly injured. When Daisy and one of her coven visit the trooper, Cynthia, in the hospital, they find she is black ... and unknown to herself, a witch. Later she transfers to the local police and is assigned as Daisy's partner.

Olga Godim said...

Thoughtful and very interesting comments. Thank you, folks.