You know, the diversity in my genre is growing – and fast! When I was a kid, the hero of the story was always a little boy or a successful man. Now, we have countless women taking center stage, from Young Adult to Urban Fantasy. Back then, it used to be white, caucasian, or, um, white. Now? I see Latinos, blacks, Asians, and dozens of people with mixed ancestry.
That doesn’t mean it’s good enough. And you know what? I’m as much to blame as anyone else. When casting a story, I often imagine people like myself filling most of the roles: middle class, American, white, female. I think that’s what most authors do (thankfully, not all are quite as boring as I am!). But, I’m always making an effort.
But what’s made me the happiest, is that in one of my most diverse series, Rise of the Iliri, no one has complained about the abundance of brown-skinned characters. Zep, Ran Sturmgren, Rayna Mel, and so many more! And while skin color is a defining characteristic for the line between human and iliri, it’s not the main one. Sharp teeth, growling, and “beastly” attitudes are more likely to get a person in societal trouble than how they look… to a point.
Why? Because it’s human nature. We have learned to fear that which is different. It’s normal for most animals to act like this. I mean, just show a cat a cucumber! New things could be monsters, and well, I could make a very good argument that the iliri are exactly that! But that’s not my point, today.
Rather, it’s how interesting it is to write a diverse cast. Thinking about things like natural hair on a foreign world, or how to describe the difference between a pale-skinned black man and a dark-skinned middle easterner. Shades of brown are most often attributed to foods (caramel, chocolate, latte, etc.) but what happens when those foods don’t exist? I’m not even going to get into the problem with describing a people as something to eat!
And so, I just use colors. Zep’s skin is dark, nearly as black as his uniform – according to Sal. Ran Sturmgren is pretty average, in a world where brown is average. Rayna is just pale enough to make Sal wonder if she has any iliri ancestry, while Dominik Jens is lighter due to the climate and lifestyle he grew up with (less tanning). Then there are the “white” humans. Compared to an iliri, they are pink, but so many crossbreds have pigment as well. I tried to show that the colors are different, such as blonde vs golden hair, to demonstrate that the line isn’t about color, but about species traits.
But it’s HARD! And why bother, right? Why go through all of this just to portray fictional characters that readers will imagine their own way?
Because I believe that it matters. How many readers have realized that Zep is a black man? A very sexy, very smart, incredibly loyal black man, who is fast, strong, and one of the most beloved characters of the series? How many black men are given a role as the hero/love interest? I mean, it’s getting better, but there’s still not enough.
And minority women being portrayed as the STANDARD of beauty? Sal’s always comparing herself to black women. Yeah, I know a lot of people haven’t realized that, yet, but that’s what she does. Because darker skin means more purebred in the CFC, and humans always got more rights than iliri, Sal grew up dreaming of dark skin and human features that she could never have.
Currently, I’ve been researching for a sci-fi series I can’t stop thinking about (in my “free” time). I want to have a Japanese/African American girl as the main character. Here’s the problem: I have no clue what type of hair she would have, what daily problems she would encounter when Earth society is removed, and no concept of how to describe her without either removing her cultural background or turning her into a minority caricature. I’ve never grown up as the mixed-race daughter of a black professor and a Japanese immigrant. The only way I can figure out what she might feel is to read stories of what people in those situations have felt before.
In other words, my understanding of their struggles comes from a story. Just like my readers understanding of oppression comes from Sal’s stories about her situation. A fake person, with fake problems, helps a real human grasp that life may be different in different shoes. It creates understanding, empathy, and normalization of those emotions. Let’s be honest, being an outcast is something we ALL feel from time to time, so we can all “get it”.
And that, right there, is why I think diversity is so important. It allows the writer to show a reader a comprehensible perspective on something they’ve never had to live through. A silly story can become a bridge. Why wouldn’t I want that? It’s one of the most powerful emotions I can think of: understanding.