A while back, I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter.
Imagine you’re talking to movie producers making a movie of your book. They want to change your MC’s sexual orientation or race or both! How would you feel about that?
And the answer is… well, it depends.
Thinking of main characters like Adrian in Necrotic City, it wouldn’t bother me a whole lot. He was designed to tell a story. He could be a person of color. He could be gay, or bisexual, or asexual. (And in fact, I deliberately never said that much about his orientation for that reason.) Changing those things about him wouldn’t fundamentally alter the story I wrote.
That’s the key concept here, though: it wouldn’t fundamentally alter the story.
For that reason, I also wasn’t surprised to see a lot of authors responding to the tweet with outrage. Race, gender, and sexual orientation can be key components of the plot. Those characteristics can radically affected how a person experiences life, as well as how they’re treated by society.
Editors and publishing houses that try to erase people of color and non-binary/non-heterosexual characters because they might make certain readers uncomfortable absolutely deserve the backlash. The erasure of “non-mainstream” voices has been going on for ages, and if the human race is going to move forward that needs to change. It’s also a trend that’s deeply hurtful to people in those communities (and, by extension, to a large number of potential readers.)
That said, there’s also a time and a place for changing the way a character is portrayed. It’s an editor’s job to point out characterizations that are hurtfully inaccurate (and therefor reflect poorly on the author and the publishing house.) I read a young adult dystopian fiction novel which was badly in need of this kind of help. There were only a couple of people of color; one was a Big Bad Antagonist introduced later in the book, and the other was an Aunt Mamie-esque caretaker (right down to the way she spoke.) The only queer character was a pedophile and a monster.
If you’re a writer and your editor and/or readers throw up red flags about your portrayals of certain characters, listen. Maybe get the opinion of some people from those groups. (There are some great sensitivity readers available among the Writing Community. Ask around!) And above all, be respectful to those pointing out there’s a problem. Listen. Learn. If being kind to other humans isn’t a big enough motivator, it’s also good for book sales.
At the end of the day, good fiction cannot be afraid of hurting the feelings of those in power. Fiction is the solace of the downtrodden. It’s for the poor, the marginalized and the voiceless. It’s for the people society has forced into a metaphorical closet. It’s not there to further comfort the comfortable and ease the minds of those in positions of authority.
This should go for movies and television as well as written fiction, but all too often, it doesn’t. New ideas are discarded in favor of appealing to the lowest common denominator. This needs to change.
Shout-out to Sam Clover on Twitter for the tweet that sparked this post! And as always, I’m interest in hearing readers’ thoughts. How would you react if an editor or publisher asked you to fundamentally change your characters’ identities? And why?