Character Race in Fiction

  • by Gitabushi

In this post by author Jon Mollison, he says:

My current work in progress, tentatively titled Adventure Constant, features a hero of undefined race (character insert vagueness for the win!)

Is undefined race/vagueness a win?

Personally, I think it is, but I’m not sure how strong the foundation is for my view.

One thing that often irritates me in fiction is when the author feels the need to describe the character.  It seemed like there was a string of books I read in the 80s where every character managed to look in a reflective surface within the first few pages, to give an excuse to provide a description of the viewpoint character’s appearance.  Maybe it was just a temporary fad, maybe it was just luck that I ran into a string of them, or maybe it was merely an artifact of memory adding coherency where none actually exists (meaning, I remembered a string of stories simply because the ones that lacked that mechanism didn’t stick in my memory).

But as irritating as that was, it was even more irritating when a character was introduced without any description, and then the author would provide an attribute later in the book that contradicted the image I had independently developed in my head.

To me, then it is better to not provide a description at all.

In the story I’m working on now, a major plot element is that the Chinese martial arts skills the protagonist acquires are restricted to Chinese only (by the police elements of the secret societies formed around the martial arts skills).  That means the main character cannot be Chinese.

I could make the character be indeterminate.  Although I don’t believe a reader can only enjoy a story about a person of the same race, gender, orientation, etc., as themselves, I do think a character of relative indeterminate identity can be less jarring to the reader, making willful suspension of disbelief easier.

On the other hand, I could make the main character explicitly Sub-Continent Indian.  The location of the story (the Cupertino section of San Jose, California) has a significant Indian presence (from the top high school population, about 40% are Chinese, about 40% are Indian, and about 20% other).  For both geographic and historic reasons, there is some additional rivalry and even animosity between the Chinese and Indian peoples.  And, Life of Pi notwithstanding, there aren’t many main characters of the Indian race.  If I have a story that intimately involves the two largest national races (about 1.3 billion each), it seems like that could be a nice way to reach a potentially lucrative market with up to 2.6 billion possible readers.

What are your thoughts?


8 thoughts on “Character Race in Fiction

  1. “It seemed like there was a string of books I read in the 80s where every character managed to look in a reflective surface within the first few pages,”

    Ah, yes, the old “He paused in from of the mirror and saw…” It’s bad writing, really. I’ve read a few writing manuals that specifically said NOT to do that, and it was one of the examples of amateur writing they usually give.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yep. That’s why I want to just let my character be, and let the reader assign physical attributes as they see fit.
    But there *is* a decent argument to make the character Indian, although without describing height, weight, etc.
    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think that a person’s ethnicity is a part of the character–not The Most Important Thing, but it is a significant thing. If you have an Indian protagonist then that is going to show up in a lot of little ways–his relationship with his parents and his expectations of dating, how people react to him, what they expect when they hear his name, and so on.

    I’ve been listening to Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers Of London” series. The hero is a mixed race policeman in London–his mother is from Sierra Leone and his father is a white man. The character, Peter Grant, has his background show up in a lot of little ways throughout the books and it’s part of what makes his voice interesting.

    I can’t think of any scenes where he describes himself in detail, other than he’s mixed race and in good physical shape. But he does talk about growing up eating West African food, and dealing with his mother’s family’s disapproval of his father and so on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hm. From that perspective, maybe I shouldn’t make him Indian. Because I know zilch about that culture. I was going to make him of that race, but fully Americanized. Cuz, you know, I am and I can write from that viewpoint better.

      I think.

      I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You might consider making him ethnically Indian but raised by a white American family. A lot of Americans adopt children from India. Having people make assumptions about him based on his appearance and him explain that he knows nothing about Indian culture might be fun. (I did that with a minor character in my books–she was born in Bombay, but raised in Ann Arbor.)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Great food for thought. The way I see it, as long as it works for the story and not for PC points, describe away.

    Unless it’s in that hackneyed way you described. Even as a kid I thought that was cheesy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Description of the character can be a tool to hammer something deeper home. In what I’m working on the character is scarred horrifically on his face and is missing an eye. His leg is in a brace to support his knee. So I have to give a description. Through the eyes of a monk who is greeting him at the monastery where he is retiring at the beginning of the story. Does that sound hackneyed? I’m not a writer and now I’m considering it as a bad idea.


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