Words Are Hard

Writer, Messenger, and Professional Weirdo

Picture time!

Yay!  Pictures!  Pop Quiz!  What do all these pictures have in common:

If you said:

  • They are all examples of awesome books.
  • They are six of yours truly’s favorites.
  • Every single character on each of these covers is white.
  • All of the above.

The answer is D: All of the above, but before breaking out the pitchforks, I’d like to point out it’s the covers I’m on about, not the content of the books.  Mercedes Lackey is pretty in your face about sexuality, Jim Butcher has characters from all over.  Ditto for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett (and I picked that book in particular for a reason) is pretty vocal about deconstructing racism in many of his books and he’s funny when he does it.  Double win.  So content is not an issue here.

What is an issue is that you can walk down the fantasy/sci-fi section in any book store and be hard pressed to find a cover that doesn’t feature that lovely Caucasian look.  We default to it.  Granted, you might find one or two and, as time goes on, you’ll find more and more and that is a good thing.  Having a white person on the cover of a book isn’t bad.  Having nothing but white people sorta is yeah – especially when other people exist in the world.  Hello!

Like I said: we default to white.  Especially if we are white (hi!).  My leading lady, Sam?  Her looks were based off of a mix of this lovely lady and this one – because I am no less susceptible to falling into the default rut than anyone else.

Then something weird and totally unintentional happened.  I sat down to write the second draft.  Joseph stopped being a priest and Sam’s hair got curly.  A person whose intentions I’m sure were pure [sarcasm tag] pointed out that an urban fantasy novel with an obviously African American lead (that’s right: curly black hair = obvious African American) wouldn’t sell easily.

Thank you Mister Fillion.

So what did I do?

Nothing, actually.  It became a quirky side-story to tell and make people laugh or roll their eyes.   I didn’t change her personality, her description, nada.  She’s pure nut-bar pixie dream girl who will mess you up if you look at her boyfriend funny.  She’s been that way since her initial makeover during that fateful November.  If people wanted to see Sam as black I was totally okay with that.  I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of a good reason why it would be a bad thing.  Then the time came to describe her to my cover artist, because yeah, Sam’s going on the cover.

And while I realized that it didn’t matter to me what color her skin was, I could do one of two things:  I could “correct” the assumption that curly black hair = dark skin, because that’s just a dumb assumption to make no matter what.  Or I could jump in with both feet and go, “Yes, this creative, spacy, smartass hyperactive half angel superhero who is her boyfriend’s knight in shining armor is, in fact, a black girl.”

And if it really didn’t matter to me, then why couldn’t she be?  We’ve got plenty of pretty pale girls in the genre and Sam is not herself if she isn’t standing out from the crowd.  She usually does this by wearing Rainbow Brite arm warmers, mind you, but y’know: whatever.

And if having a black girl on the cover of my self-published e-book means I don’t sell a copy to someone, then gosh I …I just don’t know what I’d do!  /sob

That may have been a lie.

This happened unintentionally.  At first, Joseph didn’t have a last name.  When I actually needed to give him a last name it took me a very long time before (and writers will understand what I mean when I say this) he just sort of sat down in my head, exasperated, and said: Singh.

Oh.

Well okay then.

I didn’t start out to make a statement with my characters.  It sorta happened and I’m good with going with the flow.  My first goal is to tell an entertaining story.  If I manage that and just one person who hasn’t had much in the way of heroes to look up to finds one in Sam or Joseph (or Ben, or Gretchen, or Theo, or Simon – have I mentioned that the majority of the cast is not white?) then awesome.

I hold no illusions.  This will never ever be my day job.  My book isn’t going to end up in the fantasy/sci-fi aisle at your local bookstore so putting characters with darker skin on my cover isn’t going to make the slightest dent there.  It makes my job more interesting because what does a white girl know about this sort of thing?  How do you write a character of color?

Gosh!  Turns out it’s not a whole lot different from writing a white character.  You give them flaws and strengths and personality quirks, just like any other character.  You make them as rounded and real as you possibly can while avoiding the landmine field that is offensive stereotypes which really isn’t that hard.  And then you hope you did it right and if you didn’t, you listen to critique and then you apologize and change what needs to be changed.  Chances are if you treated your characters like people you did mostly okay.  At least, I hope so.

I also trust that if I hit on something offensive by accident, my friends would graciously beat the ever loving snot out of me until the stupid went away.

Here, have a bunny:

BUNNY!

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