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:

  1. have I mentioned race in my book at any point? If so, then
  2. 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.

Thank you!

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40 comments so far

  1. Marie on

    I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but there IS a a secret cabal of awesomesauce adolescent redheads. Really. I know, because I am their queen.

    • bookavore on

      Oh god…everything I know about life is a LIE…*sobs*

    • Jaime Adoff on

      Excellent post, but I think we need to ask the question which is why are all of these books being published and marketed so heavily? This is the America that many in the business view as the true America. (Or at least the America that they feel they can sell.) Good writing and realistic representations of actual teens really don’t matter as long as they can sell it to the masses. Most publishers and book sellers (large chain) for that matter are still operating on the old stereotype models of decades past. But the sad thing is most don’t want to change. It’s still a largely segregated field. You either write YA novels, or you write “Black” YA novels, or you write hispanic YA novels etc… Why don’t reviewers mention the race of the white protagonist? It’s always the 16 year old African-American . . or in the case of Jason Porter- Biracial. How about 16 year old caucasian- Bobby . . .? The lack of understanding of actual diversity is a systemic problem that continues from season to season starting from the top down. As long as these books continue to be published, people will continue to write them.

  2. Sherry on

    Let’s make an awesomesauce redhead club. It’s begging for T-shirts.

    • Marie on

      OMG YES! 🙂

      • Miranda on

        please do. 🙂 I need one bad. XD

  3. delzey on

    I have a growing list of similar complaints, but top of my list right now are what I call the Impossible Boyfriends of YA. At the risk of sounding sexist (because it is) there’s a whole spate of YA written by women that feature male protagonists who are impossibly good-looking, smart, self-aware, and tend to be any combination of artistic, musical, athletic, sensitive… basically the perfect guy they longed for as a teen.

    My problem with this? It turns YA into a subdivision of Romance novels. Aren’t there enough problems in retaining guy readers without parading the impossible standards in front of them?

    • bookavore on

      Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Those impossible boyfriends are irritating. And from a girl’s POV, partially because one of the impossible things about them is that 100% of the time they fall for the plain-Jane-irritable-with-male-attention-shy protagonist, which does not happen even 50% of the time IRL.

    • Lynz on

      I hate the Impossible Boyfriends, too. I find them annoying.

      That being said, romance-based YA is both popular and valid in its own right. I know many people who only read YA with romance in it because that’s what they want. And even the books with Impossible Boyfriends are incredibly different from romance novels aimed at adults in so many ways, especially since Impossibles aren’t in a lot of adult romances. I don’t understand why they’d scare of male readers, either: in my experience, these books aren’t marketed at them in the first place. Most of the guys I know would rather be caught dead than be seen reading one of them, because they’re so clearly marketed at girl readers.

      I love YA because the genre barriers aren’t as clearly marked in it as they are in adult fiction. But if you want to play it that way, if you’re going to call romance-based YA books a subdivision of the romance genre, you also have to call fantasy YA a subdivision of the fantasy genre, urban fantasy YA a subdivision of the urban fantasy genre, sci-fi YA a subdivision of the sci-fi genre, etc. Every YA novel could be described as a subdivision of some adult genre.

      • delzey on

        How sloppy of me. YA is a marketing category, and not really a genre, but as such it IS a subdivision of all adult categories.

        I don’t recall saying that these books scared off male readers, my point was that real boys were and are being unfairly compared with fictional Impossible Boyfriends. While girls moon over Edward Cullen in their virginal fantasies of having a 170 year old lover who’s cut like an Olympic swimmer poor boys are thinking (a) that’s not and never will be me and (b) is that what reading is all about? No thank you.

        And this past weekend when I was in a Borders there was a section for YA fantasy separate from the regular YA books. As the titles available in any sub-genre expand, so follow the breakout sections.

        • Lynz on

          Ah, sorry if I misunderstood you about the male thing. I assumed… well, it was obviously a wrong assumption. I must say, this comment made me laugh out loud. The way you phrased the part about Edward? Priceless. And thank God that’s not and will never be what boys are like, because I, for one, find the image you described rather frightening. Sadly, many, many girls would disagree with me

          Also, I am incredibly jealous of you for getting to go to such a brilliant bookstore. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that one of these days the Chapters near my house will start dividing their YA books by subgenre, because if I pick up one more paranormal YA about Impossible [insert otherworldly creature here] Boyfriend that doesn’t look like it’s about said creature on the spine, I may scream.

  4. carleen on

    As a reader, I thank you. As an author, I salute you!

    • bookavore on

      *salutes back*

  5. Holloway on

    Ditto on ALL of the above. Some hope: my white kids (12-19) never mention race when they tell me about friends/teachers, etc., as compared to my (ahem) older relatives, who always mention it when describing a non-white person.
    And don’t get mad, but I always wanted to be a redhead, an aspiration that I acquired when I was a kid and read a book (can’t remember the title) about a circus performer who lay back on her circus steed and let her gorgeous red hair stream over his rump (I’m sure the author called it something else).

  6. Ronnica on

    I definitely second your first comment!

  7. […] pleads with authors to a) stop describing every non white character’s race because the default assumption that all […]

  8. kaigou on

    This-plus-infinity, on both counts. Maybe if we all repeat it often enough, eventually authors will stop nodding their heads at us and actually put the advice into practice. I can hope, at least.

  9. Sasha on

    You’re awesome. And it’s 4:30 AM in my side of the planet.

    We need to get going on that cabal. There’s clamor for it.

  10. […] In which I get frustrated and plead with authorsAuthors, agents, editors, pay attention. Bookavore has some advice. If you’re trying to kill a market, this is how to do it (re: YA): 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. […]

  11. Mariethea on

    I totally agree with #1 and wish I could express myself as well as you 🙂

    As for #2, I also agree, because I swear redheads are everywhere anymore, and it’s a little ridiculous. Now, if some of those authors started pointing out the *fake* redheads…

    However, I also must confess that a) I have always desperately wanted red hair (because my mom had red hair) and b)I have noticed that I notice *every* person who walks by with real red hair, and keep getting jealous of the redheads on tv, mostly because of (a).

  12. lisa peet on

    Holloway, I noticed that too when my (white) son was in middle school 10 years ago (NYC public school, for what it’s worth) — he’d give all sorts of identifying details but race was very far down the list. I remember him talking about a friend of his whom he described a few times as “light-skinned,” so I just assumed black or Hispanic. But nooo… the kid turned out to be super-white, pale and freckled. Light-skinned indeed. Hey, maybe even a redhead, I forget.

  13. Biblibio on

    This is quite interesting. Such a concise note to authors… If I may, though, I’d like to add the storyline of the younger sister trying to follow in the glamorous older sister’s footsteps. I’ve read numerous books (any genre, too) with this theme and it gets to be slightly repetitive and dumb.

    About a character’s race, though, I have to give the authors a little more leeway. I understand and agree with your sentiments, but sometimes a person’s identity can be better understood through their race. I’m not saying this is ideal (and your point about assuming a character is white, as though white is the “norm” is dead-on), but if the race is relevant to a certain character, it might be needed. Now, this is typically not the case (in 98% of cases) so I most certainly get your point. This is a great and interesting post to think about.

    • bookavore on

      Oh, yes, I do get a little sick of the perfect older (and inevitably distant) sister.

      I think I actually disagree (or maybe agree? I’m not sure!) with you a bit: I think at least 98% of the time a character’s race is at least relevant enough to rate a one- or two-word mention in a book. We describe our characters in practically every other way; why do we so frequently ignore one of the most immediately noticeable things about them? Not to mention that, especially in books set in the United States, there is literally no time in history in which a person’s race has been irrelevant to the way they’re treated by other people.

  14. Lee Pound on

    I like this post because it shows how writing and politics keep getting mixed up. Although it is politically nice to show many races in fiction, many times this does not advance or have any relevance to the story. I think part of the problem is clumsy writing. If the race of a character is important there are a lot of ways to show it without just saying “John, who was black.” Each individual comes with a lot of collected historical baggage and race is just one of those factors. Writers need to keep in mind the subject of their story and point they want to make before inserting racial characteristics into the story. When you do, it becomes relevant because, as you said, race relations are not historically irrelevant. So, authors, if you need to use race to advance your story, make sure all the races involved are clear to us. If not, it’s best to leave it out.

  15. Jill on

    I see your point, however, at least one exception must be made.

    If you’re writing in a first-person voice and your character is someone who ~would~ operate on the assumption (for example) “that white is, in other words, the default race,” then her descriptions of her world need to be as uneven and inconsiderate as her point of view, if we are to understand who she is. We shouldn’t be writing stories in such a way as to pretend we live in a world that is already equal and colourblind, even if we try to practice this in our own lives.

    • Marian Schembari on

      Oh my goodness, I’ve been sitting here for at least 10 minutes trying to come up with an appropriate argument to the race thing. But Jill just totally hit it on the head so I haven’t nothing more of interest to say. Just that whatever the character’s race is, is – in fact – their default race.

      Bear with me on this, but if you think of race as just another appearance thing (rather than a biological characteristic) then there’s nothing wrong with pointing it out. Just like an author describes a character’s hair color or fashion choices. Whether or not they’re being racist by actively diversifying their characters is entirely up for debate. My point is we’re at this point in history where we’re so PC we don’t point out the obvious. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with describing a person’s race only if they’re not white IF the main character is white. The racism comes in when you categorize someone only by their race. I realize I’m rambling here, so apologies. The real problem lies in the fact that there are just way to many “white” YA books. Let’s fix that problem first.

  16. David Lubar on

    Sometimes, the cover artist turns one of your characters into a redhead, and you just have to go back and make it work.

    Nice post. We miss you in Bethlehem.

  17. Matthew on

    I’m a beginning author and will have to look back over a recent set of stories I’m working on to make sure I don’t violate Gripe #1, but I sympathize with you.

    I grew up reading fantasy fiction (YA or not), so the race question was always an odd one to me. If a form asked me to write what race I was, I put human. I certainly wasn’t an elf or an orc. (I don’t think I realized what it was really asking until high school, when I began applying for jobs–which again is unbelievably frustrating (why does it matter?!)).

    My writing tends to be the same (even though it’s not all fantasy). I don’t see much call to differentiate between “race” (within humanity) because there aren’t that many differences in the context of the stories I’m writing. I could see where it would be needed–discussing challenges in a racist community, the feelings of an outsider experiencing racism, etc.–but it’s irrelevant to character development. Someone’s race doesn’t necessarily determine their personality, upbringing, education, dialect, etc. Not anymore, anyways. It’s better to show these than to state a race and assume the reader will have the same experiences/biases as the writer.

    • bookavore on

      Hm, yes, fantasy is definitely a different world (no pun intended, natch). But while I don’t think race is necessarily crucial to character development, it is a part of what all humans look like. It sounds like it’s possible that you just don’t mention race, period, and I can see where that would work. But also, to a certain extent, I feel like if you describe someone’s hair color, eye color, height, weight, etc, it’s almost a deliberate decision NOT to mention their race, as skin color makes up like 90% of a human’s physical presence. A choice every writer makes, I guess.

      I do agree that it is lazy writing to expect your reader to be make inferences about a character just because you mention their race, for sure.

  18. Ana on

    Great great blog!

    I couldn’t agree more about the race. I just wished authors also stopped describing ALL Latinos as having abuelas, and eating tortillas and guacamole…

  19. Michael on

    Agreed and agreed. I would also like to point out that YA is overrun with star quarterbacks and/or captains of the football team. I understand what this is being used to signify, but it is statistically ridiculous and just lazy, bad writing.

    • bookavore on

      haha! I think you might be mocking me, but I am laughing anyway.

  20. Lindsay on

    Thank you for posting this. I have all these thoughts and more, but have always been nervous to post them because
    a) I’m not published yet and
    b) I try to play nice

    But sometimes you can’t play nice, especially when the last ten YA books I’ve read have nearly the exact same plot line and characters. Seriously, where is the mad lib people are using?

  21. Larry Mike on

    And we will now have to suffer through a slough of YA Vampire 90210 type stories or “No one understands me ’cause I’m a teenage blood sucker” angst nonsense.

    I’ve tossed books in which it seemed the author was trying to celebrate diversity rather than just tell a good story.

    When PC-ness trumps story, then we have indoctrination rather than a good tale.

  22. Miranda on

    Thank you. lol. I agree whole-heartedly. I’ve been writing since I was little, and I have a knack for it, but I just can’t ever seem to finish anything I start! I get other ideas and get distracted. lol. 🙂 I totally agree with you.

    I’m a redhead, naturally. And I only get annoyed when I see other redheads who have dyed it red. It looks like crap on most people. 🙂 This was a funny read, and I agree with you on all arguements. 🙂

  23. Kathryn on

    I LOVED this post. It reminded me of a conversation I had almost ten years ago now when the fourth Harry Potter books came out and my friends and I realized Hermione wasn’t black. Seriously, we ALL thought Hermione was black for like two years and all of a sudden had to change our view of her. Why we thought an English dentist’s daughter would be anything but white, I’ll never know.

  24. Venus Vaughn on

    Oy! Thank you for saying this. I just read a book that I will refuse to acknowledge here. When I started the book I thought the author was going to be all inclusive-n-shit. Yes, she mentioned the race of the non-whites without mentioning the race of the whites, but hey, at least there was more than one color in her book. But what happened by the end just pissed me off.

    See, by my count she had, 3.5 fully realized white characters and 3.5 fully realized black characters. And guess what? Every white character was good. Every black character was bad.

    I wrote a letter to the author via her publisher because I HOPE that eventually the editorial staff will catch on to the real world.

  25. Kim Wells on

    All for the secret cabal, but if we let just anyone in, it won’t be a “secret” anymore. Duh! 🙂

    What do you all think of just describing them (say, she “has red hair & fair skin w/ freckles” he has blonde/blue eyes, she “has brown hair hazel eyes” and is named Amelinda…) sort of and letting people guess the race?

    Saying “and Amelinda was a young Latina” or “and Joe was a black guy” or “Pete was a Germanic Norseman of a cowboy” or some such seems awkward to me. (Even aside from my deliberate awkwardness for effect added in the phrasing…)

  26. Paula on

    And another thing… has anyone else noticed an abundance of dead parents in YA? Or parents who appear to be living but who exhibit no brain activity when dealing with their teen protagonist children? Parents who are conveniently never at home, or who never notice anything or who are actually the children in the family? And then there are all of the parents who are writers or artists or musicians. Oh, don’t forget the rich, pretty, spoiled, snotty antagonist-girls who turn out to be okay–in a superior, snarky sort of way. They fit right in with Impossible Boyfriends, awesomesauce redheads and quarterback stars. “Sigh.” Enough with the cliches, already!


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