1. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    Racial representation

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Man in the Box, Aug 27, 2014.

    I was reading a reply from George RR Martin to a question from a reader of his works regarding the racial representation in A Song of Ice and Fire series, in which there's an abundance of white characters and few prominent black and Asian characters. In the show there's even less... In fact, I recall only Xaro Xhoan Daxos (who's white in the books), Missandei and Grey Worm being black people, and there are no Asians.

    GRRM says it's because the series revolves around Westeros, and Westeros itself is based on medieval England, but the world of the series has places with predominantly black and Asian populations as well, the problem being that they don't appear in the story at all since Westeros, and thus, the white people, occupy the spotlight.

    This makes me realize that the racial issue is a reality and, if authors want to describe their character's appearances, they're going to have to address it in some way. If your work is based on (semi)realistic worlds, it's unrealistic to imagine all the people around you are going to be white. If you're dealing with humans (or humans converted into creatures), adding diversity could enrichen your world.

    However, I'm so used to Caucasian white-centric works that it influences me in a bad way and creates a subconscious "standard" of characters being white in my mind. And this is bad IMO. I think it's frustrating for black people to look around and see that most pop icons are white, and most important characters like superheroes etc. are white. I mean, I don't mind that most characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are white, but I'm white. People were rightfully bothered by it, and it's a valid complaint about the series, though.

    On the other hand, there's the issue of creating unrealistic characters. Though I don't like to follow stereotypes and I think that I should be fine if I create the character as a human first and later give it color and atributes. But some people might "like" those stereotypes.

    Basically, what's your opinion on this subject?
     
  2. PensiveQuill
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    PensiveQuill Contributing Member

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    I think that anytime an author sets our to right an injustice through their story they run the risk of preaching instead of storytelling. The modern world is, yes you guessed it multicultural. But it wasn't very long ago that it wasn't. The natural order of things is for people of varying colours and creeds to populate their own corner of the earth, so I see no problem with encountering a mono-culture in fiction. It's quite natural unless of course you're in a modern city with a large number of migrants.

    I think the major reasons why white people are over represented in [English language] fiction, is because a lot of the English speaking world is actually caucasian. I'm white, and no way in hell would I want to write a book about say, Thai people. I simply do not have the understanding of Thai culture, history or language to do it justice. All I would create is a pastiche of Thai stereotypes based on a bunch of assumptions and prejudices I've been brought up with. Do other races really want to be misrepresented in fiction? I don't think so.

    So for me, having an ethnic character requires a certain level of understanding about that characters culture, otherwise you run the risk of parody and offence. I don't think caucasian authors leave out ethnic characters in some grand conspiracy. I think they do it because they lack the essentials to truly create a good ethnic character.

    A lot of foreign language fiction is never translated into English so we miss out on ethnic stories from the source. I did however read Taiko, which is a story of a legendary Japanese figure translated into English. It was interesting but the book lost a lot in the translation, whoever translated it did not go to any lengths to explain some of the cultural background necessary to truly understand the person and the work.
     
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  3. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    I think you make a valid point. In fact, it could easily be expanded to consider our conditioning prior to creating characters. Just this evening I was considering, for the first time, a major edit to an important character in a completed work - changing her from a hetero heroine to a bisexual one when I realized that I didn't have a LGBT presence in the MS and couldn't come up with a reason except my conditioning.

    Okay, that's all true. But I'm editing it to add something else that I really don't want to say but am going to anyway. I think the above is a good enough reason to consider changing the sexual orientation of a primary character BUT I can't tell if I'd be basing a decision solely on the fact that it's a good choice for my story and my own sense of right and wrong.

    Fact is, it might be a good marketing move too.
     
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  4. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't describe my characters unless it's necessary for some part of the story (a fight scene, for example). So readers are free to imagine them looking however they want. If writers want to deal with various group representations, that's their choice. But I don't think anyone should feel pressured by society or individuals to do so.
     
  5. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Neil Gaiman's novel Anansi Boys goes the whole novel without ever once mentioning that the main character is black. Nothing about him or the people around him. And reading it I would occasionally think to myself, "Huh, I wonder why these people are white, because Anansi is from Africa."
     
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2014
  6. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I know I'm missing the mark a bit but bear with me... and don't say, but you 'don't get it'. I'm also not talking about natural assumptions based on conditioning. That's another matter and a more personal one for everyone.

    I'm not going to use unrealistic racial diversification in a story that doesn't justify it. If it's in a suburb of mostly white middle class people, as exists in reality, they will mostly be white. If it's in Thailand, they will mostly be Thai. How many Thai movies are full of white people, or have a token white or black person. Few. The truth of the world is that there are racial groupings, and there are stories that are predominantly Anglo, Asian, African, Indian, Mongolian, whatever. I'm not going to hide the fact that there are purely European enclaves in case someone who isn't from that background is offended because they are not included in the story. If I were setting a story in Ancient Rome, my racial diversification would, obviously, be greater. So if someone gets offended because I only have one racial group in a particular setting, they can go **** themselves and read something else. I'll decide the relevance. My stories are about the characters, not pandering to the self-worth of the reader. So that's my thoughts. I get incredibly annoyed when people start calling the race card on anything Anglo. Yes, there is usually a strong whitewash of Western media and entertainment because they are generally targeting the largest demographic. There are also purely 'black' films in America and also make perfect sense considering the family or friends of the main cast. I find those just as entertaining. A whitewash of media isn't about being racist, it's about hitting the largest target market. It's simplistic, idiotic thinking, but there you have it. That's why so many ads are for families. What about people like me that don't have a wife and kid? Should I be offended that almost every advertisement for cleaning products or insurance or whatever is targeted at a loving family? No. No matter where you are on earth, the media and entertainment will reflect the largest demographic, and reflect the experience and background of the creator. I personally think seeing a token black guy in a movie is more insulting to African-American culture than just having them not always be included. It's insulting to any group to add them just so they feel included and not on the merit of the character's own personality. PC is bullshit. A character should be black only if that's the true identity of the character, not because you don't have enough black people in your story. If they're all white they're all white. if they're all black they're all black. If they're all tiny ducks with a limp, that's what they are. As long as it rings true to the story.

    I have a gay character not because I want to be inclusive of gay culture and embrace them in a sense of equality. I have a gay character because she's gay. She's also white. Not because I'm white, but because she's Ukrainian. She's Ukrainian because I connected her story to that of family members in the Holodomor.

    A song of Ice and Fire makes perfect sense to be primarily Anglo for the reasons stated.
     
  7. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    No it's not. It's a bullshit complaint. The comments about why are correct and make perfect sense. First, there is already basic racial diversification in Westeros, with the Dorne being more Spanish and the Wildmen being more Norse. Some pirates are Asian, because it makes sense that they would be able to travel far in search of work with ships. Across the narrow sea there is more diversity, with the various tribes and regions being more Middle-Eastern, even Mongolian, bordering on African as they head further out to different regions. Traders and such are generally more racially diverse, as they would be. The Targaryans seem more Roman inspired. I'm just basing it off the TV show of coarse. The books are way too long.
     
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  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    That it's another example of political correctness run amok. The ethnic distribution of a fictional setting is what it is. If someone takes issue with it, someone can write his or her own book.

    On the other hand, never pass up an opportunity for self-exploration. It never hurts to re-evaluate your own assumptions and biases. That's for your own sake, not to satisfy someone else's obsessions.
     
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  9. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    I think it's difficult for me because, while I live in Brazil, and more than half of Brazilians are black, I also live in a city with not much African presence and more European presence, so I don't see black people very often. And black people tend to be poorer where I live so I usually see them only doing basic services and almost never sharing my space. It's rare to see a middle-class black family where I live. And, combined with the fact there are more famous white actors in media and zero black people in anime for example (since anime is Japanese and there are very few black people in Japan, so they don't have to appeal to that demographic), my first thought when creating a character is to make them white. I also like to describe since I like to visualize my characters in my mind, so it becomes a problem.

    On the GRRM subject, I don't think his works are racist at all. He writes about prejudice against certain people, and particularly Tyrion takes abuse because he's a dwarf. But GRRM himself shows no prejudice towards this or that group.

    I've been following the news on the new Captain America being black, or the woman who is Thor now, and I agree that it was done because of the new demographic that reads comics nowadays, with the increasing amount of girls and the different groups in American society. Personally I care more about she-Thor than Captain America, since Captain America is a mask anyway, it doesn't matter who wears it.
     
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  10. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    It's mainly for the first point and not the second.

    And as for the Cap America and Thor thing, both changes are idiotic. If they want a black or female superhero, why can't they just make one, rather than hijack an existing one?
     
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  11. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    Ideally, I'd prefer that Captain America was always Steve Rogers, the Spider-Man was always Peter Parker, etc. I don't like these changes of identity, unless it's an alternate universe. But the Falcon becoming the new CA doesn't really bother me. What bothered me was turning Thor into a woman, because, I mean, Thor is Thor, he isn't (just) a mask.
     
  12. the Sídhe's Writer
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    the Sídhe's Writer Member

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    Medieval England isn't as white as people think it was, and it's bitterly hilarious that that myth still persists. So whenever I hear 'it's based of medieval england' all I here 'I didn't do my research, I'm just saying that so you'll get off my back, I don't care'

    Racial diversity is important, and if you don't think it is, there's a good chance you're already being represented! When you say that 'it's not important for them to be ____' what you're saying is a) that "white" is the default b) that other races should only be used to show racism.

    And finally, it's a fantasy world! Good god, dragons are more believable then different coloured skins? Really?

    My feeling: diversity is important, because we are diverse.
     
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  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's quite a blunt statement to make without providing some support.

    When Shakespeare wrote "Othello - a Moor of Venice" he had his "man of a different colour" as a captain in the Venetian army, since it wouldn't have played as credible in the English army at the time. It is suggested that he based his "Moor" upon a member of a Moroccan delegation that had visited the court of Queen Elizabeth a few years earlier, and a portrait of the leader of that delegation is clearly not a Black man.
     
  14. Mike Hill
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    Mike Hill Natural born citizen of republic of Finland.

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    If I would read a book/ watch a show about Vikings adventures I would be annoyed if there wasn't any Finnish. Vikings didn't have much of Fins but that minority shouldn't be ignored.
    That's just something from my point of view.
    Most people of any race can relate to people of any race but I have heard that many feel disrespected when there isn't a single character of there color when there should be.
    For example, if you make story about Chicago there should be black characters. If not you are making some sort of statement.
    About A Song of Ice and Fire. If your fantasy is full of whites what does that say about you?
    This is going to make some people mad but I have to tell it like it is.
    I can be ignorant but I believe this series was made for "nerds". Also at least TV series has a lot of "beautiful" women I have heard. Maybe they thought that minorities don't fit that world?
     
  15. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    If I wrote a book about Viking adventurers, I probably wouldn't include any Finns...not because I am prejudiced against Finns, but because my (very general) knowledge about Vikings is that they mainly came from Denmark and Norway. As far as I'm aware, those Vikings who colonised Iceland, Greenland and Vinland were all Norwegian (Iceland was subject to the Norwegian - and then Danish - crown until 1918).

    On the other hand, if I wrote a text-book about the history of the Vikings, I would hope that my research would uncover enough about the Finns to include them.

    It's actually tempting, now, to write something with a Finnish Viking hero, just to be different. Problem is, I'd need to research the Finnish Vikings to know enough about the world that my hero is going to live in to be able to write convincingly about him - and that would be just as true if I wanted to write about a black man in Chicago!
     
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  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If by "medieval" we mean prior to 1500, I'd be curious to know what non-white people you're thinking of.

    As to the OP, I'm reminded of a Broadway revival a few years back of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-black cast, including James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard and Phylicia Rashad. The acting was excellent, but every time they referred to Big Daddy's plantation, my mind rebelled. A black family owning a plantation in the American South in the mid-twentieth century? Really?

    My own view is that people are what they are. So should it be for our characters.
     
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  17. Empty Bird
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    Empty Bird Member

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    I think the problem is that people put too much basis on colour.

    Write a black person. Write a white person. Write an Asian person. Whatever. Why does them suddenly changing the colour of their skin suddenly have to be such a big issue.

    "But I have to write a black person and I'm not sure how..." I'm sorry, but I have to say that's pretty silly. Let's take out the one thing that people struggle with:

    "But I have to write a person and I'm not sure how..."

    Just because a person is from a different place, a different race, a different country, why is there such a faffing and fussing over it? We live in a wolrd full of different people. Just because they happen to be of a different colour I don't see why it has such a big impact on the writing world! It doesn't change that they have human reactions, it doesn't change that they're still human. A colour is a colour and no offense, but I don't see why in literature or films you can't change the colour of a superhero or something. What's wrong with Thor suddenly becoming Asian? Spiderman suddenly becoming black.

    Does the whole premise of the story change just because they've changed colours? Surely if you walked into your favourite supermarket, and they'd painted the walls blue instead of their usual green you wouldn't moan and back out of the shop, saying how it was siimply impossible for you to shop there anymore because the colour change made it so different to being the supermarket of before.

    But at the same time, I cannot understand people who write a different racial character and then lean back in self-satisfaction because they've added a character of a different race.

    If you see your main character being white- write them white!

    If you see your main character being black- write them black!

    A person is a person, different race or not. Tiptoeing around how to write a (something) character is ridiculous. People don't suddenly change depending on what their skin colour is! People change due to their circumstances, their situations.

    I don't mean to be insulting, and I apologise if I'm coming across that way, I just feel like the whole issue is way too overblown. There's too much delicacy over the issue of race and culture. I think people should just do what they want and go for it if they want to write a character.
     
  18. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    What's wrong with Thor suddenly becoming Asian is that he is a character from Norse mythology.

    Nothing wrong with having his adventures being played out by an Asian hero (Seven Samurai becomes The Magnificent Seven - in reverse) but let's not just have a cosmetic makeover.
     
  19. Beloved of Assur
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    Beloved of Assur Member

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    Very interestin thread which I found as I returned from the cyber-void.

    I kind of agree with the crowd that says to write characters as they are and not strive for some quota here or there. Now of course I'm not from America so the concept of "race" is a bit alien to me, as my culture think more in terms of ethnicity which means for example that white Russians can be just as "other" to us as Blacks. Or even more "other" if the Black person is raised within my culture.

    I would however also love to see some info and sources on the non-White population of Medieval England.
     
  20. the Sídhe's Writer
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    the Sídhe's Writer Member

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    Well, there's art sources but this link has a bit more information is an assort of time periods, before, during and after medieval era. But I'd suggest beginning here, but really you should probably begin by reading this
     
  21. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    In fantasy I think the setting does affect whether it makes sense to include racial diversity. A small, isolated community is likely to be quite homogeneous (in this case I wouldn't expect skin color or race to be mentioned) but in say a bustling trade city it would be strange if there was no racial diversity amongst the characters. If say a group of characters went on a journey from said isolated village to the busy city I would expect them to meet a wide variety of characters but if no opportunity arose for a new central character to join them I wouldn't be irritated that there was no racial diversity to the group as it just wouldn't make sense.

    Regarding medieval England does anyone have any idea of the numbers? It would be interesting to see what proportion of the population the non-white population made up.
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    An awful lot of this is speculative. There is also a presumption that anyone from the Middle East would be considered nonwhite, which is certainly debatable. But beyond that, I see evidence of some individuals, but nothing to suggest that there was any major incursion of nonwhite populations. Vikings, Saxons, Normans, yes. People from the Kingdom of Nri, no.
     
  23. neuropsychopharm
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    neuropsychopharm Active Member

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    Just from a personal perspective, when I was younger my main characters used to be white by default because it was what I saw in books. As I grew up, I realized I wanted to write from a black character's perspective even if their being black has little or nothing to do with the plot because I do think representation is important, and reading about a normal teenage black girl doing normal teenage girl things would've been nice at that age.
     
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  24. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think my biggest beef with the "representation issue" is the whole no-win aspect. Writers are told to be "inclusive" - and then when they decide to, they're told they have to research black people or Native Americans or women or short people so they do it "right". Or, after they've written these "diverse" characters, they get jumped because they didn't do it "right". Why? Because these critics seem to think that (an actual example I went through) a black man couldn't have been born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood of a small midwestern town and do things that had nothing to do with being black. That just wasn't the "black experience". It's like we're supposed to pick the right stereotype to use.

    So, yeah... My characters generally aren't any color. The reader can decide.
     
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  25. Mike Hill
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    Mike Hill Natural born citizen of republic of Finland.

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    I respect that also. Then it is up to reader.
     

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