The Diversity in Fantasy Survey: Your Responses

At the beginning of the week, I asked you, my cherished readers, to give me your opinions on a sensitive but important subject: the diversity of characters in fantasy novels.

It’s not the easiest topic to talk about, especially because the arguments on every side can quickly devolve into name calling and finger pointing, privilege shaming and plain old ugly racism.  This is especially common on the internet, where anonymity brings out the worst in us all.

I am happy to report, however, that all of my participants took a thoughtful and respectful approach to these questions, and I feel no need to filter or censor any of the responses I’ve collected.  Thank you all for contributing positively to this experiment.

So let’s get down to the data.  I didn’t receive a ton of responses, but I think I’ve got enough to draw some broad strokes.

Background demographics

Respondents were evenly split between the 18 to 29 age group and the 30 to 50 age group.  The majority of respondents were comfortable self-identifying as “male” or “female” (63 percent male), while a couple of people considered themselves to be elsewhere on the gender spectrum.

Y’all are really white.  Only two respondents said that they were not of white/Caucasian/Euro-American descent.  There was a little more variation with sexual orientation: a few not-quite straight participants, a few bisexuals, and a few who said they were gay.

How do you define a “diverse” character?

The answers to this question sort of surprised me.  While I intended the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/male/culturally stereotypical,” not all of you interpreted it that way.

A third of you said that a “diverse character” is simply a character with emotional depth and personal agency, and didn’t even mention race/gender/cultural/sexuality…which kind of makes me wonder what kind of books you’re reading where those characters are uncommon enough to be notable.

Most of you included something similar to this one respondent:

“[A diverse character is one whose] (sub)culture is not the biggest part of their character – unless one of the themes of the work is about that (sub)culture. I prefer more than ‘he’s a black cop’ or ‘she’s an Asian lawyer’ or ‘they’re the genderqueer miner’ to the character. The ‘diverse’ is interesting but the ‘character’ matters more.”

Another interesting comment:

“What is diverse? Nothing can be diverse in a vacuum. Token white and black characters in Asian fiction represent diversity there as much as the reverse is true here. I don’t want diversity, I want interesting. These days, a lumberjack who played all-state college football that fights against evil alien overlord seems a lot more ‘diverse’ than it was in 1947. So, uh, being blue-collar and from Mars are both +s in the diversity field, but I do feel that Venusians and Neptunians are underrepresented in fiction.”

Do you seek out or gravitate towards fantasy novels that promote the presence of “diverse” characters?

This isn’t really a big deal to most of you, which could be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing.

gravitate

Since most of the respondents are white, this could be interpreted as “white people don’t care about diversity, and won’t go out of their way for it because they’re happy to read about white people in books written by other white people.”

But it can also be interpreted as “readers only care about good stories,” which I think is what most of you intended to communicate, based on the next few responses.

When reading a fantasy novel that does not specifically point out the ethnic or racial appearance of characters, do you assume that means they are “white”?

white assumptions

Here’s where the mostly-white participants get kind of telling, and depending on your perspective, the answers might seem a little…meh.

First of all, my non-white respondents all said “no” to this question, and didn’t seem too bothered by the issue.  Several participants of all backgrounds said that the character him/her/itself is significantly more important than their skin color, and added that they would simply change their mental image of the character if the author revealed a new detail about their appearance or history.

A white male respondent said: “I personally tend to imagine what would seem normal for the given setting. That being said, stories set in Europe, I’ll imagine as white. That does not necessarily bother me. If later on, I’m proven wrong, I’ll not like the character any less.”

A white female said: “I guess it does [bother me that I assume characters are white unless told otherwise]. I like to believe that I’m tolerant, but I refuse to feel guilty on the same hand, just because I’m white. I hadn’t really thought about it, but since I am white myself it seems normal to just assume my own experience. I feel like if I were a race/orientation other than what I am, I would assume that experience instead – but, of course, I have no way of proving that.”

Do you believe that “white” authors can authentically create characters with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds?

No one had too much of a problem with this.  Three-quarters of you said “yes, this is almost always fine,” and the rest said “sometimes, but it’s difficult to get right.”

No one said that they don’t think white authors should attempt to write characters of different backgrounds, or that most of the time white authors get characters of other backgrounds painfully wrong.

Do you believe stories that do not include a high proportion of “diverse” characters are inherently less valuable for modern readers than stories that do?

The vast majority of you said that you don’t make value judgments about stories based on the diversity of characters…but the vast majority of you also don’t have to look too hard to find characters you can relate to when reading fantasy novels.

This is where I was hoping to get some more responses from people of non-white backgrounds, because the question was aiming at how traditionally underrepresented groups feel about the current state of the genre.  So I’m not sure this piece of data accurately reflects much of anything.

Note: I have purposely not addressed the whole issue of young adult literature in this survey, because I think it’s a much more complicated question for a different audience.  While it’s important for readers of all ages to be able to identify with and relate to characters in the books they read, I feel like it’s even more important for teenagers still rapidly developing their sense of self to have access to books with characters that make them feel accepted, normal, and part of the world they live in.

As an adult, I don’t feel desperate to find clues to my place in the world from my fantasy books.  As a teenager, I absolutely did.  If I was a teen who didn’t more or less fit the straight white female demographic, I may have been very disappointed in the available selection.  I am glad to see this is changing in the YA world, even if I’m not too keen on the rest of what YA literature tries to achieve.

Do you think some stories include a higher proportion of diverse characters just because it’s expected rather than because they are truly integral to the story?

A few of you thought this was problematic, but more of you chose to view token characters in a positive light.  More than a third of you chose to say “yes, but I believe recognizing the need for diverse characters is a good first step, even if it isn’t perfect.”

authors

I would like to agree with you here, but then I think back to my frustration and rage at half-hearted, one-dimensional attempts at inclusion like Tauriel in The Hobbit, and I have to stand by what I said at the time: I would rather not have a token character than one that is done so badly.

One of you disagreed: “I think it’s dangerous to assume our imaginations and interpretations must be censored. I think evenly poorly done characters open important conversations as long as the author is willing to have them.”

Fair point, but I still hate Tauriel.

What are your other thoughts on diversity in fantasy?

I’m going to share these without comment, because I agree with some of them and disagree with others.  I would be happy to see you all discuss the issues raised here in the (moderated) comments, but since each of these responses could spark an entire series of blog posts on their own, I don’t want to take too much time dissecting everything.

Each response is from a different participant.

“I personally like to see a somewhat demographically accurate picture of the time and place a story is set in or based on. But nothing should be forced on the story, just to attain that. The story should be most important, not the diversity. Diversity, however, can be a driving factor in a story, and a meaningful element. But it needs to be done well. Discussions over who can or cannot include a certain character, should end at whether or not they can write well, and listen and research, as any author should.”

“Because of the quest for ‘check box diversity’ a lot of truly great writers and works that actually were diverse get written off because of a cultural myth being woven that everything was white men until just the last couple of years.”

“If there seems to be a lack of ‘authentic’ non-white experiences in the literary world, I think it should largely be the burden of the non-white authors to contribute to the medium and impart these experiences onto the audience. If cultural appropriation or misappropriation is to be frowned upon, the best way for people to learn and experience cultures other than their own is to be shown and taught by someone who is a member of said culture. There will always be the issue of a majority and a minority, but if there is a lack of diversity in the literary world, it isn’t necessarily the majority’s fault.”

“One of the great things about reading stories is that it helps us develop the important human quality of empathy. We can live the experience of others, even those who are very different from us. As a writer, I also develop my sense of empathy by creating characters who are different from me. Is it my responsibility to do my homework and make those characters as real as possible? Absolutely. But no one has the right to tell me what stories I can create. And readers certainly have the right not to read them.”

“I do think it’s important to realize that we all come from somewhere, and while it’s good to explore other cultures and bring diversity into a story, it in no way invalidates the stories we write that are based on what we know and understand. Depending on the context and culture of the story, having diversity might not make sense. Whether or not we understand or fully relate to another person’s culture does not determine the value of the work.”

Conclusions

Overall, I think this survey was an interesting and positive experiment.  I’m going to leave it open for more responses, in case anyone missed their chance to participate but wants to speak their piece.  If I get a lot more, maybe I’ll do another roundup in the near future.

For now, please do share your thoughts in the comments.  Were you surprised at some of the answers?  Taken aback?  Pleased?  What jumped out at you?  Be vocal!  Let me know!

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Half of readers own a tablet, but just 4% are “e-book only”

Note: I’m sorry for the lack of posts last week, but I was fighting off a sinus infection.  Everything should be back to normal for now.

Rumors of the death of print continue to be greatly exaggerated.  The Pew Internet Research Center’s newest annual report on e-reading and print popularity provides plenty of hope to the paper-bound masses, despite the continuing rise of tablet ownership.  iPads may be enthralling children during long car rides at a record rate, but most Americans would still rather sit down with a musty old paperback instead.

Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

That doesn’t mean e-books aren’t popular.  Twenty-eight percent of adults have curled up with a Kindle in 2013, which is up five points from last year and eleven points since 2011.  The number of print readers, meanwhile, is up a few points from 65% in 2012 to 69% in the latest poll.

Pew separates tablet ownership and e-reader ownership, although the more recent generations of flat, handheld computing devices are usually capable of crossing genres.  If you don’t own one or more of these devices, chances are pretty good that the person sitting next to you does.  Chances are that if they don’t, they might still read an e-book on their computer and/or cell phone, because three screens are better than one.

Yet the number of people who will only read by the cheerful glare of the backlit display is still very small.   Just 4% of readers refuse to gaze upon the printed page anymore.  In contrast, audiobook listeners are the most omnivorous and will consume content any which way they please.

pewchart

The study also includes statistics on the demographics of tablet ownership.  Not surprisingly, iPad enthusiasts are more likely to be young, educated, and wealthy (those things are stupidly expensive, after all), and only eat organic kale for breakfast.  Almost half of readers under 30 have read an e-book in the past year, compared to 17% of senior folks.

So what does this all mean?  I don’t know.  Maybe not much.  The results aren’t particularly surprising, although if you’re an author looking to publish a guide to Medicare enrollment, you might want to stick to print.  Readers are still slurping down an average of five books a year, which gives authors plenty of latitude to pick which format works best for their content and truly develop it.

Digital content is super great, but it wasn’t displacing print last year, and it won’t displace it this year, either.  I think the point is that people who like to read will read everything and anything.  Just like you might leave your expensive hardcovers at home and take a paperback to the beach, tablets and print books both have their place in the grand scheme of things.

A Worrying Confession

Sometimes I think I don’t like books enough to be an author.

They say the best way to be a good writer is to read everything in sight, including the work of your contemporaries, because that’s how you know what sells and what doesn’t, but that’s just not me.  While I might be familiar with the hottest names in my genre, mostly through Twitter, the agents and publishers that are promoting them seem to have an all-consuming enthusiasm for books that I lack.

lotusI can’t remember the last book I read that wasn’t my own.  I’ve been writing The Spoil for a year solid, and for two years before that, I was so addled by other things that I was unable to keep my eyes on a page.  I have no interest in the paranormal, in urban fantasy, in other people’s characterizations of the perfect kick-ass woman with her uncanny lack of everyday flaws.  I gave away three dozen books while moving without any emotional strain.  I don’t even watch Game of Thrones, nor have I read the books (and I can’t even tell you how much flack I get for that).

My excuse – no, it’s a valid reason, I think – is that I can’t read or watch fantasy while I’m trying to write it.  I can’t have other people’s ideas in my head, because I’ll run with them, and some people call that plagiary.  So I lock myself in a little mental bunker and pretend other books and other authors just don’t exist.  It also helps keep the jealousy monsters at bay, as long as we’re being honest.  Hearing about other people’s successes can be discouraging when you’ve been staring at the same half-formed sentence for six weeks, convinced that you should just go crawl into a hole and cry.

That’s not to say I don’t have a strong literary foundation, or that I don’t know anything about the industry.  I spent my entire teenage decade reading voraciously, soaking up ideas and cadences, myths and sorrows and words and action scenes, living in imaginary worlds that were far more attractive than my 10th grade English class (sorry, Mr. Perry, but you know what you did).

But I also spent those years convinced that I would never be able to write.  Maybe I just didn’t have the discipline; maybe I was afraid.  Of failure.  Of losing my tenuous grip on the real world.  Of being mocked.  Of not being any better than the people I did mock.  I got a B in my creative writing class in college because I couldn’t critique my fellow students’ short stories without being incredibly frustrated and more than a little mean, so I just didn’t hand in my homework.  I have since found a way to moderate myself in such situations and actually be constructive, but that was a lesson that took a lot of time and effort to learn.

Now I write.  I write a lot, and convince myself it’s okay that I don’t read.  But it still bothers me that I don’t spend time in the bookstore, even while desperately hoping that I join all those authors on the shelves someday.  I don’t keep a paperback in my purse to read at lunch.  I don’t have stacks of non-fiction volumes propping up my ceiling.  My Kindle is empty, and gone are the days of sneaking some snacks up to my room and staying awake with a story until 3 in the morning.  Now, when I’m up until the wee hours of the night, it’s because my own stories are filling my head.  I’m producing, instead of consuming, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong with that.  Maybe it’s just one more quirk to add to my list: I can only have the switch flipped one way, while most people can do both.

Am I the only one?  Am I selling myself short?  Or should I just stop freaking out and finish my manuscript already?  Yeah, I think I know the answer to that last one.  I’m almost there.  Really.  Shush, you.

Eureka

Today I had one of those rare but always awesome “eureka” moments.  No, I wasn’t in the bath, but I was taking a shower when I decided to write about it on my blog, so I guess that counts for something.

I don't have a picture of a light bulb.

I was just sitting here in front of the computer, grumpy and dissatisfied about my new project.  Prequels are tough, especially when you’re trying to fill in specific gaps in the plot of the next book in line.  I know what has to happen, but massaging the timeline to fit into something already constructed isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since I would have done things a little differently in TLDTC if I had known I was really going to write a prequel.  But that’s bathwater under the bridge.

The problem I was facing – and I was having a similar issue with The Paper Flower – is that no one really wants to follow some dude around as he finds stuff out that will eventually, but clumsily, forward the plot.  That falls on the wrong side of the “show, don’t tell” rule, which is one of the most important in fiction writing.  But you also can’t have non-stop crash-pow-bam action, especially when your main character is a clerk in a merchant’s office, because that’s equally unrealistic.

And then I got an idea.  Out of nowhere.  What if [name redacted for spoilers] was really a [redacted] instead of just a [redacted]?  And then so-and-so could do this, and ooh, maybe then this guy could be here, and she would do that other thing, and bring such-and-such to that place, etc. etc.

It all fell into place with a joyful little click, and suddenly I was the master of the universe.  It’s a lovely feeling, like everything is right with the world for that one brief moment of rushing, bubbling excitement.  I felt like a real author who could write things and control the very fates themselves just by tapping on my keyboard.  I was a god.  My story would be awesome.  I would sell a million copies and win all the prizes and retire at age 30 to my beach house in Key West.

And then I looked at what I actually wrote, a sample of which was this:

Okay.  So maybe it needs a little work.  But believe it or not, it was a real breakthrough in my brainstorming, and I ended up sketching out the whole plot, so now I have something to go on.  I’m very pleased, if a little full of myself.  I think this should hold me for a while.

***

On a promotional note, I will be recording an interview for the wonderful and entertaining podcast Friends and Other Strangers tomorrow.  I’m not sure when it’ll air, but I’ll definitely be letting you know.  The host is someone who’s been very supportive of my writing journey so far, so please check it out if you have a chance (it may not be entirely safe for delicate ears).

Measure Twice, Cut Once. Ctrl+Z Afterwards.

Much of the advice given to aspiring authors seems to be centered around one major thought: if you’re not actively writing at any given moment, you should be.  Simple as that.  Write, write, write.  Write even when you feel blocked, because something might shake loose.  Push through, because the glorious land of inspiration lies just beyond, and spewing out all the nonsense in your brain will undoubtedly get you there every single time.

Now, I half agree.  I think there are times that you need to turn off the editor in your head and just go for it.  No harm ever came from getting something down on paper, even if you’re not sure if you like where the scene is going, or you think your character is a prat.  You can always cut it later.

But that’s the important bit.  Remember to go back.  Just because you managed to write it even though you were feeling blah about it doesn’t mean it’s good.  We all get attached to what we write by virtue of the fact that we have written it.  But sometimes it’s just not good, and it has to go.  There’s no shame in it.  Not everything you do will be genius.  Practically nothing of what I do is, either.  Turn off the editor, by all means.  Just don’t forget to turn it back on again.

If I’m not sure about something, I mark it in red, and then return to it later and give it a critical read.  Sometimes I just need to give myself a little distance from it before realizing it’s not quite as tedious and awful as I thought.  Like most people, I get bored writing the necessary exposition, and the intermediate bits when no one is doing anything particularly interesting, but stuff needs to happen so the good part can come along.

I’m in that sort of lull right now, in my new story.  My main girl is somewhere dull, and yeah, character development is supposed to happen that will eventually move the plot forward, but she’s spent the last three paragraphs making lunch, after spending most of her life being weepy and timid, and I want her to stop being so lame.  I want the bad guys to launch a full-scale invasion of her stupid little manor house and kidnap her and make her be interesting, because she’s annoying the hell out of me.  I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like that sometimes.  About characters in general, not this one specifically.  Please don’t hate my characters unless I ask you to.

Will I cut the lunch scene?  Yeah, probably.  It’s not very important.  Will I find something interesting for her to do while she’s in the middle of nowhere?  I certainly hope so.  That’s why I sent Potential Love Interest #2 along with her in the first place.  Will she find her footing and get over all the horrible things I’ve been doing to her?  Of course.  That’s why I’m writing her story.  But right now, I’m so sick of it, that I just can’t even think about her whole world.

Could I go on and write another scene, then fill in the blanks later?  Sure.  I do that sometimes.  I did that yesterday, and got some good stuff out of it.  But I’m tired, and it’s too nice out to concentrate, and I’m so burned out with trying to figure out the nuances of who is going to betray whom and how and when that I’m starting to resent my story.

And that’s where I start to disagree with the “write all the time” theory.  Knowing when to take a break is just as valuable, if not more so, than knowing when to force yourself to keep going.

My advice is more along these lines: write until you can write no more, then stop.  Make yourself stop.  Don’t start writing again until you’re absolutely bursting with the pent-up energy of holding it all in, and then write and write and write until the cycle repeats.

Intentional withholding reawakens that childlike anticipation and impatience in us, and it goes a long way towards refreshing your mind and rekindling whatever passion you had for your plot to begin with.  I’m told that works in other areas of life, as well, but that’s something else all together.

That method might not work for you, just as the constant outpouring doesn’t always work for me.  That’s okay.  It’s just my opinion.  And I guess technically, I’m writing this blog instead, so I’m still doing something, but I don’t really feel like it counts.

See? Flowers. This is what I accomplished today.

But anyway, that’s my thought for the day.  I spent all afternoon at the park, soaking up the sunshine, so I’m feeling relaxed and lazy and unable to understand why everyone in my book likes fighting with each other so much when they can just go look at some pretty flowers instead.

How do you handle being frustrated with your own work?