It's possibly worth bumping the comments section from the last post up into a post of its own. zandperl
made the observation about "Every Hero Needs an Origin Story" that I specifically call attention to the fact that two characters are black, whereas I never explicitly say that any of the characters are white. It's a valid point.
One of those characters is Nick Fury. Fury was racebent in the Ultimate Marvel universe, and since the movie versions of the characters are mostly inspired by Ultimate Marvel, Samuel L. Jackson was cast to play him in the movies. Prior to Ultimate Marvel, Fury was white, and past representations of Fury on film include David Hasselhoff. In the story, I describe him thusly on Casper's first meeting, "The bald, black man who has somehow entered Casper's locked office is immense and the first clothing Casper notices after the eyepatch is not the heavily modified army general's uniform but the black leather jacket that covers his broad shoulders."
None of the other characters in the story have that kind of complicated racial history. Only one other character in the story has any history at all prior to the story- my hero, Mike Casper/Phil Coulson, who is white. The rest are original characters I invented. Of those, the characters who speak the most are Agent Richardson, who is African-American and is described as "A short black man at the back of the table" and Agent Molly O'Bannon, who is described as "a tall brunette with round cheeks, a sarcastic leer, and a slight limp." In fact, the only three characters in the entire story who are given any physical description at all are Fury, O'Bannon, and Richardson.
There's been a lot of talk in reader/writer circles I frequent about reader defaults. If I don't tell you what skin color a character is, many people will make some assumption in their head. For many readers, that default assumption is that any unmarked character is white. Similarly, if I don't tell you what gender a character is, many people will make an assumption, and for many readers, that assumption is that unmarked characters are male. I've been trying to work against those assumptions in my writing, for a couple of reasons. First, 50books_poc
has exposed me to a lot of fiction where defaulting to white is wrong, or where default assumptions are cleverly challenged, and I've found that stories that do those things open me up to new worlds. I like reading stories without a white default, so I aspire to write the same. Second, more generally speaking, the better I am at keeping readers from making assumptions, the more vivid my writing is. This is the difference between a thug with no description beating up the hero and a thug with a scar across his face beating up the hero. As a writer I'm always looking for new techniques to build compelling detail into my narrative as quickly and easily as possible.
So as I wrote this story, I was thinking about this. I was especially worried because Phil Coulson and Mike Casper fit the movie stereotype of the government agent: white, straight, male, and wearing a dark suit. I knew that if I wrote Mike Casper sitting around with his team, and didn't give any descriptions of anybody, it would be very, very easy for someone to imagine a table with ten white guys in suits sitting around and talking. This is a problem, but also an opportunity. The nice thing about this is that every little detail you provide is working against a premade image in the reader's head. As soon as you introduce a woman, you're working against it. As soon as you introduce someone who isn't white you're working against it. And each time you do that, you make the scene less of a stock trope and more of a dynamic environment.
So for example, Richardson says, "I'm working with Agent Casillas on the money trail. She's found a few leads in, of all places, the Guatemalan National Bank." That second sentence, in a very minor and subtle way, explodes a default. Casillas never appears in the story again. There's nothing Casillas does that relates to her gender. I couldn't tell you anything about Casillas other than that she's an agent and she's female, and in my head she's a forensic accountant. But in that moment, any person who imagined this table as a bunch of male G-Men in black suits has to recalibrate their imagination, surrender a little bit more control to me. That's not why Casillas exists in the story. She's there to paint a little piece of the picture, to suggest that Casper is a man with a whole team working under him of competent, skilled people who move all around the world hunting down leads. She's there to show why SHIELD would want him, even before Fury lays it out for us. But I had no reason for her to be male, and I had no reason for her to be white, so I gave her a female pronoun and I gave her a hispanic-sounding name. And for that little effort, I've made the room that much less predictable, and I've worked against the white male default as a bonus.
is right, so I'm wondering how to do it better. I DON'T think the answer is to mark white people. I had several other characters in the story that in my head weren't white, who I didn't mark. As I discuss, most characters in the story don't get any physical description at all. This isn't the kind of story where that matters all that much. Getting tied up in description would slow down the action. These characters, at best, are stereotypes. A bit of dialect, a style of quip, sometimes just a hair color or type of hat, that's all a reader needs to wrap their head around the differences in background characters of an action story.
One thought I mention in the previous thread is to use culture and ethnic background as proxies for race. When Molly O'Bannon reveals that she's a short, fiery BU graduate working at the FBI, that's a lot of signals that she's Boston Irish Catholic, in a small amount of exposition. Just as there are many white cultures, there are many black cultures. If Richardson drops that he's a Howard University graduate who volunteers at his local AME Church, it's different than if he's a City College graduate from the Bronx who used to go to underground rap battles, yet both signal black cultures that might produce FBI agents. This is an easy, cheap way to build more complicated stereotypes, to stop specifically marking for race, to invest a little more individuality in characters while still resisting a white default.
It's also a hellishly more fraught paradigm. If Richardson were a Harvard Law Graduate from a wealthy suburb of a major city, he could just as easily be white as black, but the reader with only that information would likely assume that he's white. There are lots of these cultural markers we can use that don't signal a particular culture because the culture is itself a melting pot of different cultures. On the other hand, if his mother served fried chicken with collard greens, I play into the ugly, lazy, nasty side of stereotyping. Marking characters as white or black doesn't make any assumption about backstory and lets the reader discover the characters as they are today, not as what made them. That's why it's a bad thing to do; it's also why it's safer.
I don't know how I'll end up. At the moment, I'm not going to change "Every Hero," but I'm not going to write any more stories using the techniques I employed there until I have thought about it some more. I'm still thinking about this, and still experimenting in my writing with different approaches. I'd love to hear what other writers think.