In which I get frustrated and plead with authors
You’re on notice, authors. You are totally harshing my winter-is-here-curl-up-and-read-a-lot mellow and it has got to stop. How? I’m so glad you asked!
1. Please, for the love of Pete, STOP only mentioning the race of a character if that race is not white. I know you are trying to embrace diversity and create a more realistic world, but the fact of the matter is this. If I meet five characters (say, your main character, her mom, her sister, her best friend, and her other best friend) and you describe them but DON’T mention their race, and that is followed in the next few chapters by a black teacher, or a cute boy who’s Hispanic, that doesn’t prove to me that you embrace diversity. It proves to me that you assume all characters are white unless otherwise announced; that white is, in other words, the default race in your fictional world and by extension, the world in general.
More importantly, it annoys me so greatly that it yanks me right out of your book and then I spend five minutes reading the back cover again and wondering how much more time I really want to devote to your book, and frankly I am sick of wasting my time that way. From now on whenever it happens I’m just going to stop reading, period.
I’ve been thinking about writing this for awhile, especially ever since I read The Lost Symbol a few months ago (Dan Brown is so proud of his decision to include noble characters of color that it practically drips off the page into your lap), but it’s really come to a head recently, since this has happened in the last five books I have picked up. So, authors, quit it. Either create for me a completely colorblind world, or, create for me a world in which race is a noticeable detail because it’s a very basic physical descriptor of a human being, but in which ALL races are a noticeable detail. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable and weird.
I feel like this problem could be really easily solved in almost every book I’ve ever read if authors would ask themselves these questions when they finish a manuscript:
- have I mentioned race in my book at any point? If so, then
- have I mentioned the race of my protagonist?
Make sure that if your answer to a. is yes, that your answer to b. is also yes.
2. This one is for YA authors in particular, and I am begging you, all of you, please, please, before I have to give up on YA as a genre because really I am on the verge of breaking a window with all the books I am flinging around my apartment sometimes:
QUIT IT WITH THE MAGICAL PIXIE AWESOME HAS SO MUCH SELF-ESTEEM TALL SPORTS-PLAYING FASHIONPLATE BEST FRIENDS. JUST QUIT IT ALREADY. PLEASE!
(And while you’re at it, STOP MAKING ALL BEST FRIENDS REDHEADS. Let me tell you something: if there was a secret cabal of awesomesauce adolescent redheads, I would have gotten wind of it at some point in the last decade. There is not. So stop using red hair to stand in for actual character development.)
To go a bit further: look, I know WHY you create these mythical best friends, these girls who wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, who pair Converse with tutus, who play viola in the morning and varsity soccer at night. It’s because they make your protagonists seem normal and relatable. Of course we all think other people are cooler than us (especially when we’re 14) and of course this is a good way to impress upon your reader that your main character is “JUST LIKE YOU!”
But if you read as much YA fiction as I do, you must have started to wonder something: why don’t these jaw-dropping doyennes of girlhood ever get their own freakin’ books? They seem a lot more interesting than the seventy plain-Jane-hiding-I’m-just-me girls I’ve read about so far this year.
Let me answer my own question, actually. First, I know that a few of them DO have their own books, but man oh man is the balance ever out of whack. But the real reason is that most of these best friend characters are completely over-the-top and two-dimensional, and therefore could not support their own books without veering heavily into the realm of the melodramatic and unrealistic. And supporting character or not, that sort of flat character creation is going to bring a book down every time, which is what keeps happening in books I am picking up.
All I’m saying is, I’m starting to get to a lot of third chapters and wondering if maybe the author chose to write about the wrong character in the story. And I’m starting to get to a lot of seventh chapters and wondering if it is actually possible that there are this many people involved in the writing and editing of books who are painfully clueless about race. I wish that would stop happening. Authors, please make it so. I don’t like it when reading makes me this cranky.