There’s been a lot of discussion, debate and argument in the past year on the topic of minority characters in YA. I won’t rehash any of the more famous controversies that have come up recently, because you’re probably already familiar with them if you follow the industry at all, except to point out that there are still remarkably few YA books that go against the white-straight-cisgender norm. This, despite the fact that everyone, from agents to editors to authors, apparently agrees that the status quo is horrendously outdated.
But like I said, plenty of unpublished YA authors will enthusiastically tell you that they have a gay or bisexual or Asian character in their work in progress. Even better, many of these people are writing fantasy or science fiction, a field still typically dominated by masses of straight, white characters. ‘Unusual’ (read: conveniently tragic) characters are thankfully no longer relegated to the infamous ‘issues’ novel. This is a good thing.
Most of the time, anyway.
(Yes, I’m going to start complaining. Before I do, I should point out that I’m not talking about any specific person, book or forum exchange in any of what I’m about to say. If you think I might be talking about you…well, I’m not.)
How many of the unpublished (or even published) authors congratulating themselves on their inclusiveness are writing about gay or non-white main characters? From what I’ve seen, it seems to be relatively few. Forums like Absolute Write are full of people writing about gay best friends and mixed-race siblings, but most people still seem to go right back to what they’re comfortable with when it comes to choosing a main character.
It’s all too easy to give side characters a few ‘minority’ traits and call it a day. I’m not saying that that’s what most people are intentionally doing, or that they’re doing it at all, but a lot of the time it’s what ends up happening anyway: we get a stilted conversation at the beginning of the book where (for example) the main character’s sister casually mentions her girlfriend, at which point said sister proceeds to do exactly nothing for the next 350 pages. In situations like this, I can’t help but feel that the gay character’s sole purpose is to demonstrate the main character’s inclusiveness – they’re fine with having a gay sibling, so they must be a good person, right?
I get the impression that a lot of people feel they need to include minority characters in their writing, or that they’ve subconsciously turned inclusiveness into a kind of competition – I’ll see your black Jewish lesbian, and I’ll raise you my transgender Chinese exchange student. If your sole motivation for including a minority character in your novel boils down to ‘All my friends are doing it!’….well, you might want to stop and think about what you’re actually trying to accomplish. It’s very, very easy to jump into a forum thread with ‘Oh, I’ve got a mixed race character too, LOL’, but getting that character right is a hell of a lot harder.
You also might want to take a closer look at whether you’re playing right into unfortunate stereotypes. Yes, people do it accidentally. Yes, even people with perfectly good intentions. And yes, it can happen even in science fiction, and even if you’ve set your novel in a Star Trek-esque utopia where discrimination of all kinds are a thing of the past. If your motivation is shallow, there’s a good chance your characters will be as well.
To deal specifically with science fiction for a moment, there’s an unfortunate tendency among a certain class of writers to wildly appropriate real-life cultures while creating futuristic or alien societies. Remember James Cameron’s Avatar by James Cameron? Remember how the blue alien things were exactly like the worst stereotypes of Native Americans? Remember how you sat in open-mouthed astonishment throughout the entire excruciating film because you naively assumed that nobody was stupid enough to do this kind of crap any more, yet there it was, projected onto a cinema screen in migraine-inducing 3D? Yeah. Don’t appropriate. (If you’re asking yourself what ‘appropriate’ means in this context, you have some serious Googling to do.)
Finally, I’d like to caution against any temptation you might have to become a Minority Warrior. Typically, this is where a white author/director/journalist takes it upon themselves to solve the Plight of Those Other People, with disastrous results. See, for example, Dances With Wolves, The Help, virtually every Hollywood movie ever made about race relations in the USA, and any book whose central message boils down to ‘Racism is bad, you guys’. It doesn’t have to involve race, though; you can just as easily be a Minority Warrior about sexual orientation or feminism simply by assuming you know more about the experiences of your rescuee group than they themselves do. Thus any stereotyping becomes magically transmuted into ‘authenticity’, and your poorly-handled subplot where a minority character dies to teach your hero a valuable life lesson is cathartic rather than, you know, an abomination.