Creative Process

We Need More Non-White Protagonists In Fiction

By April 8, 2015 24 Comments
Beverly Katz

The Katz at work.

I will always remember what my business professor said once during a unit on leadership. He was an award-winning academic of Indian descent, yet when he envisioned an accomplished leader, it was not himself who he saw, but a “tall white man in a sleek suit”.

“I had achieved everything that man had,” my professor said. “But I still cannot see myself up on that podium.”

I had the same problem when writing. For the past two years since I started working on my Long-Suffering Manuscript, I had trouble visualizing my main character, who is made of many parts, but mainly of me, who is Chinese-Canadian, as someone who is not white.

As I wrap up plotting the LSM and move into the actual writing itself, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to tell a full story, and be authentic while telling it.

Popular books, films, and TV shows don’t star non-white protagonists very often. I get it—there are simply more white directors, writers, and producers than there are non-white counterparts. Certain vocations, like acting, attract more white talent than talent of colour. The problem is when what we see in books and the big screen does not accurately reflect what’s out there in real life.

According to a recent study published in the Time, for every non-white person in a movie, there are three non-white persons in real life. Women are also disproportionally represented, with half as many women in movies as there are in real life. The patterns in the arts and entertainment industries are deeply rooted and widely upheld, but it doesn’t mean I should allow these standards to dictate my narrative.

I grew up on Law & Order: SVU, Quentin Tarantino, and many types of media that, in retrospect, gave me very little to identify with outside of its primary appeal of hard-boiled action and twisty plots. There was nobody in the stories I read or saw that looked like me. If there was somebody of Chinese descent, they were stereotypically reductive. Think Cho Chang from Harry Potter, though Law & Order: SVU was the worst. I can count the number of times an Asian woman was shown on that show with one hand, and 100% of the time she was a prostitute. She had no agency, no soul, and existed purely for Benson and Stabler to rescue.

What a waste of an opportunity to tell a story.

So I’m choosing to do things differently. I will write a multi-dimensional non-white protagonist who exists outside of her race, sexuality, and gender, and so-called industry expectations be damned. And every time I erroneously think my main character should be white because it’s what I see in the media all around me, I will remind myself why I’m doing this writing thing in the first place: to tell a story that matters, and to tell that story honestly. I will stick to my guns. I will see this through.

I’m not expecting sudden industry-wide change, but I hope to contribute to the ripple effect that is the recent increase of diverse voices in books and the big screen.

Just look at Frank Underwood in House of Cards, whose bisexuality is not a focal point but one of the many attributes that make him a three-dimensional villain protagonist.

And Beverly Katz from Hannibal, a FBI agent, friend, killer sharpshooter, and altogether believable human being who just happens to be an Asian woman.

And so, so much more.

I’m Chinese-Canadian, female, and twenty-three years old. There’s still a ton I have to learn about writing, about art, and what it means to be successful at both, but there’s one thing I know for sure that has worked time and time again.

If there’s no book, film, or TV show with characters you can identify with, go create your own.

And don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t.

Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • borkchop says:

    It wasn’t the first such role, but it struck me as I watched Will Smith in “Enemy of the State” that this was an African-American actor playing an American lawyer. It didn’t feel like a ground-breaking movie until I realized what I didn’t see: an African-American actor playing an African-American character. There wasn’t anything about the role which called for a non-white actor, but thanks to the star power of Will Smith and a few others like Denzel Washington, I started to see more of this. It was refreshing and I don’t think the box office figures suffered.

  • I like your attitude about it. If you don’t find what you like write your own. I see things changing. There are changes on television. Mills on Sleepy Hollow, Melinda Mae on SHIELD. Iris West is a black woman on The Flash, but was white in the comics. Even S. Jackson as Nick Fury in the movies and TV shows. I also remember when Will Smith played the lead in Wild Wild West, which was originally a white character.

    • Millie Ho says:

      There’s a similar counterpart to Iris West in Kamala Khan, who is the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel. The TV shows, comics, and movies being reinterpreted nowadays seem to cater to a more diverse audience, which is very cool to see. And yeah, if you don’t find what you like, there’s nothing else you can do except write your own. And that’s an age-old truth that transcends characters.

      • I’m not in favor of re-engineering existing characters. They already have a fan base that might not take kindly. Make new characters, good new characters. I understand Thor is a lady now. What’s up with that? It feels more like pandering than anything else. Make a great Nordic female character if that’s what they’re going for. When another person takes over they can change any aspect they like. That works well.

        • Millie Ho says:

          Well, I think there’s an argument for both the creation of good new characters vs. the injection of new traits into existing characters. You can try to please a fanbase, but you can’t be stifled by their demands, either. I see the entertainment industry as being largely financially driven, so it makes economic sense to rehash an existing brand name (and generate some controversy while they’re at it) than to start from scratch. Incidentally, the latter is where writers like us come in.

  • Ariana says:

    Goodness I could talk about diversity for hours! Should I?

    I realized quite early on that my characters and stories tended towards whiteness. I began drilling diversity in my head, seeking out diverse authors and characters and settings. I kind of rewired my mind to look for diversity and include it in my work, and I’m glad to say my casts are much more diverse than they were back when I was sixteen.

    Being half-Chinese has been interesting for me – I’m white passing and as a result, I am treated differently than my friends who are half Asian but not white passing, or my friends who are fully Asian. There’s a lifetime of experiences and stories there and I would love to discuss.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yup, I relate to that Sixteen Year Old Writer Syndrome, thanks to my trying to emulate Philip Pullman (and failing) during those years. And yes, I am happy to discuss. You have my email!

  • Hells yeah. Tell your story!

    I really liked the comments from Borkchop above as well, because it affirmed something I’ve believed in for the longest time: we CAN relate to a non-white non-male lead, once that starts becoming a thing (more often). The human experience translates well across all kinds of boundaries, and it just takes that conscious decision on the part of the writer to put it on the page.

    George R.R Martin has us getting inside the heads of characters that are of every size, shape, gender, and persuasion. Chuck Wendig has a very believable gay pirate in the Heartland series. This kind of writing is opening minds through entertainment, but that’s not even really the agenda: it’s simply more honest and interesting this way.

    So uh, tell your story. *waves pom poms*

    • Millie Ho says:

      You’re getting me very close to buying the entire series and reading it with magnifying glass and legal pad in hand. Any writer that can write unique characters with universal relatability is top notch. That’s one of the reasons why Chuck Wendig is so effective, and why directors like the Coen brothers, with their focus on quaint characters and hugely subjective experiences, are so believable despite the extraordinary circumstances often described in their films.

      They bring honesty to the big screen. Even the caricatures are believable. That’s as close as I get to demystifying it. I’m still trying to figure out their magic sauce.

      • Hahaha, you might enjoy if more with a glass of wine in hand. It’s still educational, because everything the guy does is very nuanced and creeps up on you.

        Okay, occasionally leaps out at you with an axe

  • kvennarad says:

    I’m not even going to start listing non-white characters in literature. Okay, right, I am, but only because Chingachgook and Uncas spring to mind. I also confess I like Jim in ‘Huckleberry Finn’, for the simple reason that Twain uses him as a kind of tabula rasa on which to write observations on and objections to what he sees around him.

    As for Cho Chang, ugh, give me strength! A device to give the impression that HP is becoming a teenager, nothing more. Just another thing to show that JKR is nowhere near a great writer, just an adequate, successful one.

    Non-white protagonists. How about Joey Martin in ‘KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE’?

  • It’s really funny how topics seems to just “align” in life. I was just discussing a similar idea with some of my friends, talking about how even I find myself writing white characters although I’m Hispanic. Sure, I’m pretty white in skin color, but there’s not doubt about the place I was born and my heritage, so it has always made me feel a bit of a hypocrite towards my own culture. I guess I empathize with that teacher you mentioned. It’s just such a shame.

    On the other hand, your discourse also reminded me of a couple of things I’ve been checking out lately, including some of Junot Diaz’s articles on writing programs and people of color, talking about how writers avoid writing about race because of who knows how many reasons. Also strangely enough, I saw a youtube video by an Australian video maker (Natalie Tran) about this very issue. I’m sure you can find it easily online.

    As far as talking about this idea with some of my friends, we ultimately arrived to a conclusion that if you’re a writer, specially fiction, you should write whatever you want to write. It doesn’t matter what your character’s color is as long as the character is compelling (and of course informed). So, you don’t really HAVE to focus on race if you don’t want to do it. Though race makes up a part of a person, it doesn’t completely define them. Therefore, focus on the story you’re telling and have fun doing it.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Funny you mention Diaz, as I saw an article about him in The Guardian recently. The article mentioned that the lack of diversity in arts and literature is partially due to poets of colour trying to fit in and thus forgoing their own uniqueness in favour of the dominant white aesthetic. I totally see where they’re coming from, and it’s a hard habit to shake, because it started during our formative years, in our classrooms. I remember a middle school math teacher telling me how odd it was that the textbook mentioned Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician, in a field (science and maths) that celebrates progress made by predominantly European innovators.

      I completely agree with your conclusion to write whatever you want to write. That’s basically the best part about being a writer: you’re making different perspectives accessible to people who previously had not a clue, and it’s this ability to add to the human narrative that makes all those gruelling nights editing and pulling one’s hair out worth it.

  • aetherhouse says:

    Abso-freaking-lutely. I think all artists have a duty to show the world in a realistic light, even if that world is fiction. And that means including people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations, and actually making them PEOPLE instead of a plot device! My main character in Paradisa is gay and half Middle Eastern. I don’t want to gloss over the struggles he’s experienced due to his race/orientation, as those have shaped him, but neither are the crux of the actual story. I hope most readers will be able to relate to him because his actions, feelings, and thoughts are far more important than his DNA.

    It’s also kind of funny because he’s a Navy SEAL, and some of my betas were like “Nah, I don’t think a Navy SEAL would be gay.” And then I discovered that one of the members of Seal Team Six, the team that assassinated Osama Bin Laden, is transgender and has begun transitioning into a woman. It’s important to show that yes, this happens in real life! Most marginalized people are invisible just because they don’t fit a stereotype, yet they absolutely deserve to be represented.

    I also pay special attention to my female characters, because it’s a bit easier for me – as a woman – to see what equals good representation and what is bad. A lot of times, authors write “strong female characters” as masculine loners who have no fear, but I think preserving the feminine is crucial. Feminine does not equal weak. Women are hard to write these days because a lot of female personality types have become tropes, but simply writing them as people with a broad range of emotions, morals, etc, is a good start.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Your character sounds awesome! I’m looking forward to reading your work once it’s ready to go out. I agree, most marginalized people are invisible and the more we write about them, the more they become salient to the reader who previously had no context to draw upon.

      The Seal Team Six member reminds me of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who leaked documents to Wikileaks and came out as transgender but is still recognized as male by the military, as per protocol. The support she received from the media and various advocacy groups following her announcement made her story more visible to the public eye, especially given what she’d done and everything that transpired after. People like Manning obviously went through struggle because of their orientation, but it’s definitely not all that defines her.

      Yeah, I share your writing process for female characters. It’s easy to spot what equals good representation because we are and live these characters. I agree that some authors write strong female characters as loner-types that happen to wear lipstick, that exist purely to satisfy the trope that is the action girl, and little else. I love, love the Mako character in Pacific Rim, because she started out confused and anxious, but became strong and powerful by the end. She was on an equal playing field with her male counterparts, and that’s saying something for a film that only had her as a lead female character.

  • dekutree41 says:

    Thanks for writing really honestly about this struggle! The story about your professor is really powerful – just the way that people can internalize these cultural narratives and how insidious they can be. I think bias can be so deeply ingrained in us that sometimes we really have to consciously force ourselves to examine our creative decisions. And I do believe the pop culture landscape is changing for the better! Some of the other commenters pointed out SLEEPY HOLLOW and AGENTS OF SHIELD. These are shows that have been rightly praised for their very deliberate decisions to portray diversity as just, like, normal – which is kind of revolutionary.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Yes, it begins with self-awareness and then the commitment to make a change. I’m cynical when it comes to pop culture, and think most changes are partly due to financial gains (i.e.: Millennials are becoming one of the most multi-ethnic groups, thus the target market for these shows are changing simply to meet demand) instead of a sudden wake up call that highlights the need, from a humanist point of view, of increased cultural diversity. But the end result communicates the right message, so A+ to these innovative TV shows and films.

      Most of these shows featuring diverse characters are reincarnations of classic source material. It would be interesting, as writers of books and graphic novels, if the source material already featured diverse characters to begin with.

  • elmediat says:

    Very true. Another example of a constructed reality – who plays a role & what type in all mass media narratives re-enforces a belief system & related values about gender, sexual orientation, age and race. There is one more that has pretty much slipped under the radar ethnicity.

    From the outside, I am a typical old white guy Canadian. So I would appear to be part of the established power structure, but growing up I was aware that I could blend but there was this “ski” at the end of my family name, reflecting my Polish & Ukrainian heritage as a second generation Canadian.

    There were lots of “ethnic” people around in the southern Ontario community where I was growing up. But what there wasn’t very much of were community leaders who did not have English names ( includes other British isle surnames). In books, comics, movies or television, ethnicity indicated something foreign and therefore non- North American or off the boat secondary & tertiary characters for comic relief, sidekicks or villains ( It hasn’t changed too much).

    In the real world you passed for English. We had a neighbour, Mr. Smith. He had a much more pronounced Ukrainian accent than my parents. He had changed his name so he could become a foreman at one of the Hamilton steel companies. my mother pointed out that there were several other neighbours who were very English last names, but their grandparents not so much.

    The value structure is still in place. We have not broken the race barrier for Federal or Ontario provincial leadership – and the ethnicity wall is still there. The only Prime Minister that was not Anglo or French was John Diefenbaker ( German- Scottish). Only female Prime Minister – Kim Campbell ( Blondish Hair & blue-grey eyes ). David Lewis NDP leader was Polish-Jewish actual last name Losz. I remember when it was mentioned in a news article while he was still leading the party – how dare he “hide” his Polish-Jewish heritage – he could become (not) a Prime Minister.

    When selecting names/backgrounds for your “white” characters how many were “ethnic”. ? There are layers of social acceptance within our society and its power structure. The Mass Media view has not changed that much – the most visible layers have become more noticeable because of education – better jobs, better incomes, more money to spend on products & services makes you a valuable target audience.

  • colonialist says:

    I have had fairly stereotypical ‘whites’ as my main (human) characters in all novels until the latest, where I introduced a young Zulu lad purely as background. To my surprise, he and a female counterpart assumed an increasingly important part as the writing progressed.
    It was even more of a challenge, though, than when, in a previous one, I ventured to portray a convincing female protagonist. It has struck me that women writers generally seem to do a more convincing job on males as main characters than vice versa, and both easily go wrong when stepping outside their comfort zone of ethnicity.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Some female authors write great female protagonists while others fall short. Part of this has to do with values instilled from childhood (i.e.: good girls are not supposed to ‘act out’), which are then transferred onto their female characters. Another part could be because they like to conform to what is mainstream.

      I like challenges. Pushing past comfort zones with gender and ethnicity is one way of learning to write better.

Leave a Reply