Essay–Characters of Privilege

Last year, a certain writer asked me if most of my characters came from privilege. When I asked him exactly what that meant, it turned out he was not only talking about wealth, but also race. An interesting question.

When I explained that not a single one of the Garaaga’s Children stories, save for Scrolls, had a single “white” person in them, he was shocked. Most of the characters in those stories are of either Semitic lineage or what today might be construed as Arab. The Greeks in Scrolls were the only “white” people in the entire damned series.

But it got me thinking about the whole race thing. I don’t think about putting in token characters in my other works. I do my best to describe the world as it is. That means that characters will be of different races, socioeconomic status, and religions.

I can’t remember the name of the writer, but my wife and I attended one of his readings and the interview that followed. He was a writer of African American descent and his latest book was about a military family that was white and the scion of the brood was a bit of a racist. When asked about why he wrote the book that way, he said that if we don’t talk about race and the different viewpoints of people that actually exist, we’ll never resolve anything.

He more or less challenged the predominantly white group of writers in the room to experiment with race. Don’t be afraid of it. Plumb the depths of the stereotypes–you might be surprised what you actually think.

I’ve written several stories about folks with very twisted minds. My short story Momma has one of the most racist and bent psyches I’ve ever channeled. I hated myself while I was writing it, but I was able to study the frame of mind that would bring those thoughts and prejudices to the table. A lot of it had to do with upbringing. If you study racism and the sociological aspects of it, you discover it’s mostly bred out of what you’re exposed to as a child or from personal experience. This goes for any culture, not just Americans.

Some Germans, for instance, had a huge axe to grind with Turks. Most of it has to do with “they took our jobs!” or “they’re eroding our culture!” kinds of mentality. This was a huge problem in the 80s and I’m not sure if it’s continued to this day. But the bottom line is that there are some lingering problems in our different societies. That includes India, the Middle East, China, Korea, and etc. It’s not just us evil Americans and Europeans. It’s endemic worldwide.

So I think writers should experiment with race. They should research other cultures and hold up the mirror to the reader. If a white person can’t write about people of color, then we’re doomed. And the converse is the same. Prejudice needs to be explored to be understood. And while you might be horrified that some people believe you actually think that way, or feel ashamed for writing a character that does, it’s a worthwhile journey. Characters of privilege? The world is broader than that. Make your stories do the same.



2 thoughts on “Essay–Characters of Privilege”

  1. Sometimes I consciously choose a character’s race, but largely there’s just this picture on my head and I’m not sure where it comes from. I don’t know why Ginnie Dare is dark skinned other than perhaps I subconsciously thought it would be nice to have a dark skinned girl as the hero in a SF novel. I agree though that we do need to give it some thought and tackle those kinds of tough issues.

  2. I read “Momma”. The protagonist was a disgusting piece of trash. You described him perfectly and even using his own words showed the source and the flaws in his belief system. You hinted at things that would have also formed his beliefs, but because he could not approach those issues that would destroy his beliefs you let him lie to himself. “Momma” was an excellent study in twisted character. It fit with the psychotic theme of Fiends. It was classic psychosis–getting one thing fundamentally wrong then building on that foundation.
    I agree, prejudice is not tied to any single race or culture. Almost all cultures have their own sacrosanct prejudice. What seems most destructive is to bury these flaws away. It is a sad fact that your parents teach you who it is acceptable to hate. Even more, who it is required to hate. When you were not raised to believe the twisted flaw that is the root of your cultures/races particular prejudice, you find the whole structure almost laughable.
    Garaaga’s Children was what it was—historical horror fiction. I appreciated the research you did for that series. Of course the people weren’t white. How could they be. Yes, the cradle of westeren civilization was not populated by blond haired blue eyed peoples.
    I can see people of all races and cultural origins in your literary universe. Your srories work because they are profoundly human. I think including characters of different races/cultures is a very good idea for writers. Ultimately, they will learn how alike we all are.

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