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Monday, March 12, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “SF, Diversity and the Author’s Dilemma,” by Eric Dontigney •

A common, and wholly accurate, refrain is that much of contemporary entertainment still aims at a white, male demographic. Movies and TV focus on white men or largely white ensemble casts. Ratings giant NCIS long-featured one of the whitest casts on TV, though a scan at the current roster shows some improvement. A look at any recent highest paid actor/actress lists shows the vast majority are white and highest of the highest paid are always men. The logic is pretty simple from there. If the highest paid actors are white dudes, the top-billed films probably focus on them. The problems in contemporary video games and comics are widely acknowledged. Surely, though, speculative fiction literature does a better job.

You’d think so, but no. SF literature routinely features white men as the POV character or the protagonist. Why is that? Well, published SF literature is predominantly written by white men, usually straight, often living in the US, Britain, or Western Europe. One of the precepts of writing is to write what you know. What these authors know best is being a white, straight, male and living in the developed world. I can speak about this with some authority because I’m one of them.

“Well,” someone might say, “that doesn’t excuse you for not writing more diversity into your fiction.”

You’re right. On the face of things, it doesn’t excuse me. We live in a diverse world. As an American, I live in one of the more culturally diverse countries in the world. I have ready access to cultural traditions that aren’t my own. So, why, under those conditions, am I profoundly hesitant to include characters of diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences? It’s simple.

I don’t want to get it wrong, and it would be laughably easy to get it very wrong.

Having access to information isn’t the same thing as understanding it. Facts and truth are not identical. Here are some facts that I know. Around 20% of women in the US have faced rape and around 80% face sexual harassment. American women make around 80 cents on the dollar compared to men in equivalent positions. Middle-aged women face substantially more difficulty in finding work than men. Middle-aged people in general find it much more difficult to find new jobs than younger applicants.

African-Americans are incarcerated at an absurdly disproportional rate. Sentencing of African-American defendants is routinely harsher than for other groups. Among Hispanics in America, about half report being on the receiving end of discrimination.

Muslims make up about 1% of the US population and about a ¼ of the global population. Buddhists account for about 10% of the global population and less than 1% of the US population. Christians make up around 30% of the global population and 70% of the American population. I could go on, but you get the point. I know some facts about the world around me.

Here’s what I viscerally understand about the vast majority of those facts: almost nothing.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve been the recipient of white, male privilege my entire life. I’ve never been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault. I’m unlikely to face job discrimination, at least not until I reach middle age. I can count the number of times I’ve been pulled over on one hand, and it was always for a legitimate reason. I’m not religious, so I’ve never faced religious persecution. It also means I don’t really understand strong faith in other people. I’ve never been arrested, let alone gone to prison. I’ve never had to explain to a child why the color of their skin or their religion makes them a target.

Of course, the ignorance goes deeper than that. Minority groups aren’t uniform. The experiences and concerns of 3rd generation Cuban immigrants in Miami are not the same as those of first generation Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles. The internal familial experiences of affluent, African-American families in Mitchellville, Maryland are not the same as those of poor, African-American families living in Chicago. As someone with a basic working knowledge of the social sciences, I’m aware that geography, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, and religion all inform your life experiences. As a writer, I’m painfully aware of how easy it would be to fall into caricature, stereotyping, or tropes.

For example, Stephen King, arguably one of the best writers of popular genre fiction in the last 50 years, gets taken to task for his use of a trope called the Magical Negro. This is an older black character who possesses spiritual powers and guides a dumber, flawed white character toward success. King didn’t invent this trope, but it crops up repeatedly in his novels. If you read enough fantasy literature, you see corollaries. David B. Coe uses a Magical Native American named Namid’skemu in his Justis Fearsson Files. It probably wouldn’t take much work to dig up a Magical Asian, Magical Latino, or Magical Muslim.

Of course, my job as a writer is to imagine situations and infer character responses. Can I imagine anger at being pulled over for nothing, time and again? Sure, I can imagine it, but I can’t trust that I imagined it the right way. Take it too far and I’m stereotyping the angry black man or the volatile Latino. Underplay it and I’m being inauthentic. Can I imagine the depression and apathy that goes along with not being able to find a job? Yup, I’ve looked for work in a bad economy. Can I give an accurate picture of that for a 52 year-old, Jewish woman in the midst of menopause? I’m not very confident.

Do the white, male, straight writers of speculative fiction have a moral obligation to include diverse characters and, in doing so, make them a given in SF literature? Yeah, we probably do. Are we mentally, emotionally, and socially equipped to write those characters well? The answer is probably not. We run the very real risk of telling minority stories through the white, male lens, misrepresenting conflicts we don’t understand, or unconsciously falling back onto tropes and stereotypes.

For my part, I’m not sure which path leads to the greater evil. Do I do more harm by writing diverse characters and likely getting it wrong in general or specific? Or, do I do more harm by sticking with characters I think I can write with some degree of authenticity?

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it!

“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at


Big Bob said...

I believe you could take this essay and substitute reader for writer and come to the same conclusion:
"Do the white, male, straight readers of speculative fiction have a moral obligation to include diverse characters and, in doing so, make them a given in SF literature? Yeah, we probably do. Are we mentally, emotionally, and socially equipped to read those characters well? The answer is probably not. We run the very real risk of reading minority stories through the white, male lens, misrepresenting conflicts we don’t understand, or unconsciously falling back onto tropes and stereotypes."

I know I can't speak for everyone, but I don't choose my books based on whether or not it will make me a more diverse reader. I choose them based on whether or not I think it will be a good story.

Eric Dontigney said...

I think there is some truth to what you're saying about readers, insofar as they decide with their dollars. Much like filmmakers or showrunners, though, writers have a lot more up front power to choose who they cast, so to speak.

There's this concept in Sociology called Normalizing. It basically holds that things become more acceptable or normal the more often you see them. So, for example, if a 1/3 or 1/2 of all protagonists in SF were black, hispanic, gay, women, muslim, hindu, etc., no one would bat an eye at it. The field would then open up more to writers from those demographics. Obviously, it takes time for the process to take root, but it has to start somewhere.

The argument goes that, since the majority of SF writers are straight, white men, they hold the most power to create the initial change. Therefore, the burden rests with them. I generally agree with that idea. My quandary is how to do it in a respectful, authentic way when I have such a lousy frame of reference (my life experiences).

I also think that, for writers, the story should come first. Shoehorning anything into a story that doesn't serve the story is bad writing.

~brb said...

It's a tough challenge. Most of the time, when a writer consciously tries to put a certain ethnic/religious/sexual type of a character into a story, the result comes off more as tokenism or pandering than authenticity. It's too easy to wind up with a cast that looks like the Village People: one black, one Chicano, one Asian, one Indian...

Eric Dontigney said...

Agreed. The best strategy I've come up with so far is to start with every character as a human being first, and then let everything else bleed through where it makes sense in the story. I'm not sure it's the best strategy, but it's the one I've got.

~brb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~brb said...

The funny/sad thing I've been seeing a lot of lately is writers producing stories that could have been published in the pulps 60 or 70 years ago, except that now the tough-as-nails spaceship captain is a women, her resourceful second-in-command is a black man, and the Irish comic relief character is now played by an Asian.

Congratulations. You've made it up to 1995 and Star Trek: Voyager.