Everyone wants to see themselves in a book. For some, this is easier than others. For me, it’s easy. There are plenty of books out there with straight white female protagonists with average skills and relationship problems.
Because of that, I had a hard time understanding what it meant when someone said “I can’t see myself in this character.” I’d like to think I have a better understanding of what it means to not see yourself, but like most everything, there’s always more to learn.
Think of the last book you read in which the main character was black. Was that book in the mainstream? Was it in the indie stream?
The last book I read with a black protagonist was this cool steampunk book, Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar. (It’s a cool book if you’re into steampunk.) The main character, Lady De Winter, is a badass. She was tall, built like an Amazon warrior, and did I mention how badass she was? She wasn’t the typical “petite princess.” She’s the kind of protagonist I can get behind, and I did.
I’d like to say that things like a character’s personality, strengths, and voice go beyond race and gender. They do, sometimes, but then other times, readers want to know that white people aren’t the only people in the world of books. Especially when you’re growing up and you aren’t totally sure about yourself and where you stand in the world. You want to see someone else like you that you can identify with. You want someone you can look up to. You want someone cool to think, “I can be like them.”
I’d like to say that it doesn’t matter whether a character is black, white, yellow, or purple, and to some people it doesn’t. But does that mean we ignore it?
The stories that I write have people that look like me. (White/female/totally average). I know that type best. It’s easy for me to get into the character’s mind. But look at the world – there are a lot of people that aren’t like me.
So what’s an author to do? Should I do the children’s book thing and make each character a different race and hair color? (Seriously, there’s always one redheaded white kid, an Asian kid, and a black kid. I don’t have anything against that formula, but it’s something that I’ve noticed. (See? People do notice race, even unconsciously.))
There’s no easy answer. If I were to write a black character, would I come across as racist? There are people out there that, no matter what I do, will think it’s wrong in some way.
But, I do think it’s important for everyone to be able to find themselves in a story. And if you can’t find a story with you in it, maybe you’re just the person to write it.