Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What is Representation in Fiction, and Why Is It Important?

I want you to do something very simple; think of your favorite book. Just lean back, close your eyes, and re-live for a few moments the story or stories that hold a place of honor on your bookshelf. Got a clear image of the book? Good. Now take a look at your favorite character. Is he a dashing secret agent, by some chance? Perhaps she's an intrepid police detective who doesn't take anyone's shit?

Whoever your favorite character is, and whatever s/he does, ask yourself how many traits that character shares with you. Do you have the same ethnicity? Religion? Do you come from the same part of the world, or the same kind of family or culture? Do you have the same hair color, sexual orientation (or lack thereof), or ability/disability?

American... that's a start...
Now that we've conducted that little thought experiment, let's do a follow-up. How many times have you read a book (or seen a movie, or watched a TV show) where no one in the cast except a minor character in the background seemed like someone you could identify with? How often have you seen characters whom you feel do you and those like you a disservice because of how they're written? If you answered all the damn time then chances are good you are experiencing a lack of representation in fiction.

What Is Representation?

The easiest way to explain representation is to give examples. For starters you could check out this story about a young boy who falls on the Autism spectrum, and how he fell in love with Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy because they shared a similar way of experiencing language. There's also the story of Anthony Smith, a young deaf boy who often rejected his hearing aid because superheroes didn't wear them until he discovered that Hawkeye was both deaf and wore a hearing aid. There's even this case about how, if you believe Hollywood, the entire continent of Africa is nothing but savage tribes and corrupt warlords in a hostile waste.

That's two examples of positive representation, and one of negative representation.

Why does everyone think we all have terrible grammar and cram cheeseburgers down our throats?

Why It's Important

Representation is important to authors because it's important to readers. I'll give you one more example, and it's about my experience with representation.

For those who don't know me I am in fact a white male. I was born into a middle class and upwardly mobile family, my parents are still together, and I have one brother. From the outside my life up to the point that I wrote this blog entry looks like something you'd see on a 90's sitcom where the dad's a little too stern, the mom is demanding yet fair, the younger brother is constantly trying to tag along on adventures, and the older brother gets involved in all kinds of shenanigans while he comes of age.

And then grows up into this handsome motherfucker.
With that kind of setup you'd think it would be easy to find characters I could identify with, but that wasn't the case. The reason for that was because my dad was in the military, which meant every few years I went to a new school, had to learn a new set of standards, and had to go through the arduous process of trying to make new friends all over again.

Also, I had bright red hair as a kid.

That might not sound like a big deal (particularly to those who often find themselves maligned or made fun of by crass stereotypes in fiction), but to me it was. I loved comic books, monster movies, video games, and every character who had red hair was either a bespectacled caricature or the goofy best friend who bungled his way through the plot (if, that was, a ginger showed up at all). This fact didn't stop me from watching He-Man or reading the Hulk, but I noted the differences and wondered what they said about me.

Then Thundercats came on TV, and that was a game changer for me.

I had always had characters I liked or identified with in minor ways, but they were always heroes I might be some day. Liono, by comparison, was a kid in an adult's body (something I sometimes felt for since I got my growth spurt before everyone else), and he had to deal with being an outsider on a planet he had come to from a home he barely remembered. Beset on all sides by foes, he and the other cat-themed heroes on the show had to dig deep to triumph.

All of that, and he was a leader with a thick, ruby mane. It was the first message that I felt spoke directly to me and said hey kid, you can do this too! Now go out there and be awesome!

That's Really Why Representation is Important

When someone sees him or herself represented in fiction it transforms the experience. Tyrion Lannister is a great character in his own right, but he is also a little person who has to deal with all the challenges, slights, and difficulties that comes with his condition even while he struggles not to let it define who he is. John Constantine (at least in his source material) was a character who happened to be bi-sexual, and while that trait didn't define him it could act as a touchstone for viewers to identify with him (particularly men who are having trouble finding heroes that aren't purely heterosexual).

This book has even been praised for its female lead, if you can believe it.
You're probably noticing that in the examples I keep giving there's a plethora of characters for white males. That observation just goes to prove the point that while there are examples of diversity and representation in fiction, it could be argued that many more are needed to reflect the makeup of the audiences who are actually reading all of this content.

That is the point of the current discussion about representation in fiction.

No one is telling authors that they have to write books about leads from non-Western cultures, who have non-Christian religions, who have non-mainstream sexuality (including asexuality), or characters who have disabilities. No one is going to force authors to change their characters' genders, ethnicities, ways of speech, or even the way they dress. It's been made very clear that the reading public will be happy to consume good stories if the characters are well-constructed, the plot is engaging, and the book leaves them wanting more.

That said, it does bear thinking that in the changing demographics of the world it might be a good idea to have someone save the day who isn't a heterosexual white man. Especially if you really want your book to stand out.

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