“So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athlete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly. They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.
God, what a Mary Sue.
I just described Batman.”
Ah, Mary Sue. If you’re a writer, chances are you wrote a bit of fan fic in your day, and amid the forums you would’ve come across the term Mary Sue – the positively perfect in every way character, the idealised version of the writer’s own self, the tragic, beautiful, intelligent, alluring, adjective, superlative female that is regarded with scorn by readers. I’ll put my hands up and say that I am guilty of writing the odd ‘Sue in my time, but it was beat out of me by constructive criticism and books on writing, but then:
I came across this post on tumblr a few weeks back, and it planted a bug in my head. We are quick to allow male characters to get away with a litany of traits that we would never allow our female characters to do. I recently watched all three LotR movies in one day, and while I enjoyed them so much that I can safely say they are my favourite movies ever, I was hyper-aware of the awesome skills of the men, and the inevitable weakness of the women. Yes, Eowyn gets to ride into battle and deliver the most badass line I AM NO MAN, but my friend told me she goes on to marry, get with the babies, and be Arwen’s lady maid. She doesn’t want any more battles. She wants to be a wife and mother. While I must stress that there’s nothing wrong with being a wife and mother, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHE WAS A BAMF.
While these are two separate issues (with one being of more significant importance) I want to bring up the topic of diversity in characters. I didn’t notice in my earlier writing that most of my characters were white, because I grew up on the whitest little island that ever was. The first time I saw someone with a skin colour different to mine, I was five. There’s a photo to commemorate the moment: a little Irish girl, agape, staring at the Indian kids who lived next door to my brother in England. There was no trace of racism in that stare, just amazement at seeing someone different. My primary school had an entirely white student body. There was just one black girl in my secondary school – the entire school, not just my year. Ireland has become more diverse in the past decade, but before that, we were monochrome. I love this change in our island – there’s nothing quite like hearing an Irish accent come from an unexpected source!
Is this an excuse for only writing white characters? I suppose it is, in a way, since it was what I was used to. I wrote what I knew, and it didn’t occur to me to write differently. It might be an excuse for how I started out, but once I became aware of the flaw in my writing, the characters that were born in my mind started to take on different shapes and colours. Suddenly, my writing wasn’t populated by white girls, but filled with a diversity that made my fictional world feel real.
But I don’t see colour! Just, don’t. The ‘colour-blind’ mantra of the understanding-smiley face of the internet is doing more damage than good. It doesn’t come from a mean place, but it comes from an ignorant one, and that is just as dangerous. To say that you don’t see colour is to say that you don’t acknowledge the differences between races. White people can never know what it was like to be a slave, but as an Irish person, I feel like I have some grasp of being considered less than another race, of having your identity, history, language and land stripped from you and being beaten or murdered if you resisted. If you say you’re colour blind, you’re choosing to be blind to cultures different to your own, making them less than your experience. If you want to read more on this topic, read this post.
Luckily, this is an easy mistake to fix. Whether you need to write women with the same level of badass respect that you give to men, or you need to write characters who are different to those already on our shelves, my advice is easy to follow: choose your characters consciously.
I’ve been ruminating on the story I was working on before Figment, The Girl Who Plucked the Stars from the Sky, and it has been so long since I worked on it that it needs major revisions. I was considering my cast when I realised that yep, they were mostly white, and anyone of colour was a secondary character. I’m making the conscious decision to change that. They don’t need to be white – there is no significance of this in the story – so there’s no need for it to stay. Another thing that I’m changing? My villain was originally a man, for no reason that I can readily explain except that I am used to male villains. He is now a she, and he’ll be every bit as seductive, charming, and ruthless as she was when she was a dude. It makes me so excited to make these changes, I can’t wait to get back to work on it!
I don’t mean for this to sound as preachy as it does, but I think it’s important, and so easily fixed. Have a badass dude? Why not make him a woman instead. There’s no excuse for not writing a POC in your work – ask questions, read blog posts, pick up a newspaper, read a biography. You can learn about other cultures, and while you might not ever truly be able to fathom what your life would be like if you were a minority, you can do your best to portray it in fiction and give everyone a character to relate to. Respect the heritage of your character, but remember, it’s not all that they are.