Developing Diverse Characters

Cover to Black Goliath #1 [1]
I seem to be on my "Social Justice Warrior" kick and my previous post on Diversity in Comics got a decent amount of traffic (well by my blog's standards) - with some interesting comments, both here and in other places I posted links.

One thing that showed up in some discussions is the absolute possibility of being extremely clumsy in the well meaning attempt at including diversity. The 1970s is rife with this - an era when diversity often meant tacking the word "black" in front of a character's name. Black Lightning is perhaps the most notorious example and Black Goliath comes to mind as well. The character Black Panther headlining a comic book entitled Jungle Action just seems terrible in retrospect.

What you're running into in those cases is creation of a character whose entire reason to exist is their ethnicity. We don't live in a color-blind world so totally ignoring a characters ethnicity is untrue but making their ethnicity (or religion or sexual orientation) totally irrelevant seems less than genuine.

There is also the challenge of writers needing at least some knowledge of the people they are writing about. That's not to say one cannot write about a character of a different background from oneself - if so the author is limiting what he or she can write. My wife went back to school several years ago to obtain her Master's Degree in Teaching and they spent a large amount of time focusing on the different experiences of people of different races, economic backgrounds, etc. An author can absolutely learn about different backgrounds beyond his or her own. When authors don't write from personal experiences or honest research, the results can be very clumsy - something which has been seen very often.


Though it's perhaps something of a side topic, something that really has been on my mind is a class of comment I read in Chuck Wendig's blog post Star Wars: Aftermath - Reviews, News, and Such! His new Star Wars novel covers the time some months after the events of Return of the Jedi, being the first book in the Force Unleashed continuity to do so. There have been three main controversies about his new novel:

  1. The fact that as being part of the new canon it breaks with the previously established EU continuity.
  2. The use of third person present narrative.
  3. The inclusion of several gay or lesbian characters (one of the protagonists is gay, there is a lesbian couple, and another character is mentioned as having two fathers).
It is the third objection that I'm thinking about now. One of the comments says:
I don’t mind gay people, I have some gay friends. However, I don’t like it when people, like you, try to include real life problems and controversy inside of a Star Wars story. If I want to read a book about a gay character, I will. However, as soon as I learned there were gay characters in this book I thought “well there is going to be a fight about this controversy.” You put them in there just to bring out controversy, that is the problem I have with your book. I say I don’t care if the characters are gay because I could care less about their sexual orientation, in this case it adds nothing to the story value. [2]

I'm not picking on this specific comment - it is rather representative of a perspective I've encountered with some frequency that I disagree with. My own response to such a comment is "why not?" It is worth noting that the lesbian couple in Mr. Wendig's book is also a interracial couple:
Shirene is the opposite of Esmelle in many ways—Esmelle is thin, reedy, pale as a ghost. Shirene is rounded, pillowy, skin as dark as a handful of overturned soil. Her hair is short and curly and close to the scalp; Esmelle’s is long, a silver cascade down her back. [3]
Go back to the 1980s and you will find the presence of an interracial couple would be controversial in and of itself. Pew Social Trends writes that:
As of 1987, two decades after the Supreme Court ruling, just 48% of the public said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” By 2009, that share had grown to 83%. [4]
What is controversial today may not be controversial tomorrow. A heterosexual interracial couple would generate be viewed acceptable by 48% of the public back in 1987, suggesting over half would find it unacceptable. I do not believe it is the obligation of an author to wait for the public to be comfortable with a controversial topic.



[And since I'm going back to school  part-time for my Master's Degree - which may kill my recently restored posting frequency - I'm getting used to using MLA citations...]

[1] Buckler, Rich. "Cover to Black Goliath #1, February, 1976. Art by Rich Buckler." Black Goliath #1. Marvel Comics, 1 Feb. 1976. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Foster_(comics)#/media/File:Blackgoliath_bill.jpg>.

[2]  "Star Wars: Aftermath -- Reviews, News, And Such!" Terribleminds Chuck Wendig. 7 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

[3] Wendig, Chuck. "Chapter Fourteen." Aftermath: Star Wars: Journey to The Force Awakens. New York City: Del Rey, 2015. Kindle Edition.

[4] "Chapter 4: Public Attitudes on Intermarriage." Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

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