Discussion On 'Default' Characters and Diversity In Books.

discussion

#1

Maybe a year or so ago I came across something that really put my frustration about how diversity in books is critiqued into words.

I’ve noticed that people see ‘default’ characters and anything that diverges from that ‘default’ needs to be plot relevant, plot-driving or defend why they have to be there.

I’ll give a quick example. I was reading a webcomic and a lot of people in the comment section kept asking ‘Why is the MC crossed eyed?’, ‘I don’t get why his eyes are like that if it has nothing to do with the plot?’ e.t.c.

Apparently ‘The M.C. is crossed eyed because he’s crossed eyed.’ is not enough of an explanation. And it I personally think it should be enough of an explanation. People in real life have crossed eyes. Being crossed eyed doesn’t need need to be plot relevant.


Do you think this idea that people have an unconscious idea of what the default person/character should be has truth in it?

  • Have you ever had a similar critique of a work? Have you asked why an MC is POC when you wouldn’t ask the same thing about a white character? Have you asked why a character is gay when you don’t ask the same question about straight characters?

  • Why did you think those identities needed plot relevance?

  • Do you think this unconscious bias is the reason people shy away from creating more diverse fiction? (Thinking a character with a ‘non-default’ identity needs their identity to play a role in the plot, hence complicating the plot.)


#2

I’ve heard people make this argument too and it is abhorrent to me. Why should the “default” be straight, white, male, able-bodied, and neurotypical? Why is it “shoehorning” to make them anything else. There’s no logical reason for it. People who make that argument are just prejudiced.


#3

A lot of people do not notice that they’re making arguments like this unless you point out to them. So I think for the most part its an unconscious thing. Sad though that bias like that is why phases like ‘forced diversity’ are thrown around a lot.


#4

Diversity that’s ‘forced’ generally means it doesn’t feel authentic and the character feels like a token or falls into stereotypes. It’s lazy writing, like stick to what you know but not to the point when most of the characters could be interchangeable.


#5

I do get that for the most part.

But what makes a random character that just happens to be black forced diversity? Are they not ‘acting black’? Is their blackness not brought up enough to be justified? (because these are the usual cases I see people complain about forced diversity. ‘Why does she have to be black?’ etc.)

That’s the main question I’m asking.


To me, stereotypes arise AS a way to justify a character being there. If people did not think there was a reason to defend a character’s identity in a work/ make that identity plot relevant, they wouldn’t fall into Queer coding, stereotyping etc.


#6

I’d say it’s only forced if the author did not want them there and did so due to fan pressure or from editors. Otherwise people are just mad that it’s deviating from the ‘default’ as you said.


#7

I’ve never had a similar critique myself, but I’ve seen it a lot when people ask for plot/character advice. It seems like every time someone is writing a story about a character being LGBTQ+/POC/disabled/etc. when the story does not focus around them being LGBTQ+/POC/disabled/etc., people will inevitably accuse the person of pandering because “it doesn’t have anything to do with the story.” Yeah, but being White, straight, cis, able-bodied, etc. doesn’t have anything to do with the plot either. Why aren’t you asking what’s the point of your character having pale skin, or being cis?

The answer: you already said it; those types of characters are seen as the default.

When I started branching out in my reading, most of the stories I read were about being a certain identity. It wasn’t until later that I started reading books about people just doing things regardless of appearance, sexuality, gender, etc. By then I was already used to non-White, cishet, able-bodied characters in books, and thankfully by then I already saw them as normal people, so it wasn’t a huge shock to read about a Black dragon rider or a bi spy (hehe, rhyme).

I think that’s part of it. I think another part is that sometimes people never learn to create characters past the “default” (which is all well and good; everyone should feel free to create whatever characters of whatever identity they want).


#8

Hmm, I didn’t think of this.

And now that I do it’s a lot more in line with Art. See, if you’ve taken a basic art class we all know we’re taught this facial proportion thing.

image

And if you suck at it in class the teacher corrects you about it.

It seems so mundane and simple, but some types of people don’t have that facial proportion. Like, Black people on average have more distance between their eyes.

So, I guess the point of people learning about how to portray only the default, has weight.


#9

Ooh, that’s a really good comparison and a relevant one. I really struggle with drawing realistic images of non-White people (cartoony is for everyone, holla) because I was never taught how to traditionally draw anyone but a White person. It takes a lot of time, research, tutorials, and tons of reference images to draw anyone else, but I’m confident that with enough practice other types of people will become as easy and effortless to draw. I’m still working hard on that.

I think it’s the same with writing. People are going to have to do more research, talk to the people about which they’re writing, and probably make mistakes and then fix them, but because of that work, the default expands.

And once more types of people are portrayed as being normal and default in popular media, the more and more people will inherently believe that, and have an easier time being more diverse in the things they create.


#10

I am of the polar opposite opinion - the moment everything about a character becomes systematic is the moment you story becomes disingenuous and, worse than that, predictable. To follow up on your example, the moment I find out an author only ever mentions details if they are plot-relevant is the moment the story starts to feel constructed to me (in a bad way).

Oh, so the character is cross-eyed? Surely people bullied him in his childhood, which will undoubtedly play a role later in the plot.

Too much of this and the story will simply fail to surprise you.

And so on, and so forth. So no, I don’t think every detail has to be relevant to the plot. :slight_smile:


#11

That’s an interesting take!

Sometimes just little details here and there are great for knowing a character, but sometimes readers take this as a hint at some subplot you probably don’t have plans for, no?


#12

I have never gotten that critique… Well, I’ve barely gotten any critique, so, that doesn’t count.

But very recently, I revealed my main character to be bisexual. While writing that chapter, or more of - that tiny part, I’ve been questioning a lot whether I should even include it because there ain’t any romance in my story, so my character’s sexuality really doesn’t have a play in the plot and I was honestly scared that to some, it’d look like tokenism because of that.

In the end, I decided to include that bit because when I created my character, that’s how I imagined him to be and if someone would accuse me of tokenism because it doesn’t matter to the plot, well, so be it.

I think that the fact that I even questioned my decision to reveal it shows my position.


#13

People these days want representation and diversity because they feel entitled to it–never mind what the author wants. It’s what they want.

I’ve had to put a trigger warning on my book because it lacks any real diversity or representation. But in my defense, the novel–like so many others–were written years before this “craze” ever took place.

And at the time, nobody actually cared what I did with my books. But now they do, and now…? Well, let’s just say that I’ve had to take steps to isolate myself from the online community because of this trend.

I’m hoping that they’ll grow out of it some day and realize the world–and the universe–is much bigger and different than them and they need to embrace its many nuances.

But I am not going to live my life in shame and guilt because people want something from me that I cannot give back.

So I’m doing whatever feels natural to me and I’m going to go to bed thinking the same.

It’s my world. My life. Not yours.


#14

Yeah, I’ve fought urges to try and ‘justify’ why certain characters are who they as well and it’s been such a big part in my stories progressively getting naturally diverse. If I see a character a certain way, I will portray them that way, and since learning that I don’t need to give a five paragraph justification or subplot for them being who they are there’s less anxiety about it.


#15

That’s how things go, isn’t it?

I read a book because it’s a book with a genre, themes etc I like. I don’t read a book because the author wants me to read the book.

In this case isn’t it the author that feels entitled to my readership?

As you write what you want, readers also read what they want. To each their own.

[Might also want to stay on topic, because this isn’t it.]


#16

Yeah, but if they do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? If there are tons of details and none of them are relevant or hints with payoff that’s frustrating, but if there are tons of details and all of them are indicators of some sub-plot it’s equally bad in my opinion. I always aim for a healthy mix. :slight_smile:

That’s why I love writers like Haruki Murakami so much. His stories are almost impossible to guess.


#17

This is a good point! You could also say the same about hair tutorials. I’ve found it hard to find tutorials on how to draw type 4 hair in detail (light, shape, curl patterns) because most are about type 1 & 2.


#18

I make my female MC’s have have either blue eyes or green eyes because that’s what I have, I’ll make them left-handed because I’m a lefty, and for the most part, I’ll make them Atheist or Agnostic because I’m an Atheist (sans my 3rd WIP, where’s she’s a Celtic pagan).

I think the small things can make a difference to some people. I know whenever I see a fellow lefty, we bond over it.

Those are very basic diversity attributes though. I’m not speaking about race in this instance.


#19

I think this is a really interesting topic and really thought provoking.

I think we should check that bias, but to play devils advocate, books to a certain degree have to play to a litle bias. Introducing to many unnecessary elements cen be very confusing and does not streamline it along. Now, that has nothing to do with the stuff mentioned. I don’t think being cross eyed or gay or what have you “needs” a reason. I’m speaking more to the phenomenon of “if you have a loaded gun in a scene, it better go off”. You don’t want to pad a scene with unnecessary detail and start writing purple prose.

You also don’t want to pile on random quirks to play at character development, either, like you’re going for bingo. “But my character is vegan, has a birth mark, suffers PTSD, shaved their head bald, and only wears green on tuesdays for no identified reason whatsoever because she’s WOKE.” When we do that, we run the risk of trivializing sensitive and important topics. You may not need a reason for a certain trait nor does it have to be a huge story impact, but these are not things to use instead of character development. That’s part of the reason we get so many repeated harmful stereotypes in story telling.


#20

You bring in a lot of good points!

Very much agree.

:joy:


I think a way to separate this would be more what’s ‘natural’ and what’s ‘unnatural.’

Like, you don’t need a reason for why a character’s hair is black, because that’s just how they’re born. (In the same vain race, ability/disability etc) There’s no need for that to be plot provoking. But, if you have a character that dyes their hair a pastel color every other day, I feel that’s something worth explaining even though the explanation is nothing more than ‘she likes pastel colours.’