The Action Figures Diversity Report

I’ve been a cautiously optimistic fanboy this week, due to the news that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is in development as a series. American Gods is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’m curious to see how it translates to the screen — even more so after reading that Neil has asked the producers not to whitewash any of his characters of color.

That got me to thinking about the diversity of the Action Figures cast of characters, and whether I was doing a good job of representing a variety of genders, sexual orientations and identities, and races. As a bit of an internal exercise, I went through the main and prominent secondary characters and tagged them, and here’s the result:

  • Carrie/Lightstorm: white female
  • Matt/Captain Trenchcoat: white male
  • Sara/Psyche: white female
  • Stuart/Superbeast: male, quarter African-American
  • Missy/Kunoichi: female, half-Japanese
  • Concorde: male
  • Mindforce: white male
  • Nina Nitro: Hispanic female
  • Dr. Enigma: white female, bisexual
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: male
  • Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: female
  • Meg Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male

You’ll notice that only one character, Dr. Enigma, has a distinct sexual orientation. Three other people on the list are homo- or bi-sexual, but their respective reveals are tied to story and forthcoming (if not in book three, definitely in book four).

You’ll also notice that the cast is primarily white. Eight characters are explicitly described as white, nine if you assume at least Rockjaw or Doc Quantum are white (which is a natural assumption, considering the kids are described as pale-skinned with very light blond hair).

If I start adding prominent tertiary cast members (the kids’ parents, recurring supporting characters), things don’t necessarily get more colorful, so to speak. Missy has a Japanese father, Stuart has one half-African-American parent, but the rest of the parents are white (implicitly if not explicitly). Much of the supporting cast is of unspecified ethnicity, which can be good or bad; readers can fill in the blanks and assume these characters are people of color if they like, but I could also take a bolder stance and say “Character A is a person of color.”

My concern with establishing as canon that a character is someone of color is that it would wind up as little more than paying lip service to diversity. I realize it could be argued that simply having a person of color present is enough, that it makes them a presence in the story, but I want the character’s ethnicity to matter, to the character or the story, and not become a throwaway element — but, as the writer, it’s incumbent on me to do just that, isn’t it?

I am pleased with the gender balance. Of the above-listed characters, half are women, and two are in leadership roles (Carrie and Doc Quantum). Additionally, the male characters are portrayed as comfortable with that, and I’d like to think that sends a good message all around.

If I were to give myself a grade for diversity in my novels, I’d give myself a solid B-minus, at best. I could definitely do better, and hope to as the series progresses.

Neil-ing At The Feet Of The Master

Not much to report on the Action Figures front right now. I received a new batch of editing notes earlier this week and plan to go through them tomorrow or Sunday, and that’s about it there.

Saturday I get to spend part of the afternoon with none other than Neil Gaiman, who will be holding a talk at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts entitled “Myth, Magic, and Making Stuff Up.” I am beyond excited to be attending this. I’ve been to one of his book signings before, in Cambridge, during his Anansi Boys tour, and he was funny and charming, and after he signed my copy of American Gods with what he deemed the worst signing of the name “Michael” ever, he apologized profusely and made sure my name was very tidy when he signed my wife’s copy of Anansi Boys.

The man himself. Image gakked from the MFA website.
The man himself. Image gakked from the MFA website.

I am oddly proud to own a book signed with one of his less graceful inscriptions.

Anyway, book signings are one thing, but to attend a dedicated lecture on the craft led by Neil is thrilling beyond words. I don’t care if he doesn’t answer questions, mine or anyone’s, or if he doesn’t stick around to say hello to people personally, I just want to sit there and soak up whatever he has to say. I want to learn from someone whose work I love and, in a way, has served as a long-distance (and unknowing) mentor.

Through his blog I’ve picked up on some interesting and valuable lessons about the process of writing that have helped me immeasurably.  Best example off the top of my head: back when he was working on The Graveyard Book, he wrote one day how he was stuck somewhere in the middle of the story, and how middles tend to confound him. The beginnings of a story were easy, he said, because that’s when you’re laying down your ideas and introducing characters, and endings, while intimidating, were about bringing all the pieces together and reaching the climax of the creative process.

Middles, however? That’s when a lot of stuff has to happen to connect the Point A of the beginning and Point B of the ending, and drawing that line isn’t as fun or easy.

As it happened, I was in the middle, literally, of my Bostonia manuscript, and having a mother of a time getting through it. I knew important stuff was happening, but writing the middle third felt way too much like work. The words didn’t flow. The ideas didn’t flow. I worried something was seriously wrong, that my creative mojo was suddenly gone, or that the story was revealing itself to be a dead end and I would never finish it. I didn’t know struggling with the second act was not unusual…not until Neil said so.

It took a long while — several months, in fact — to get through that rough patch, but after reading Neil’s blog post, I stopped freaking out about it. I’d work on it as much as I could, until I felt I hit a roadblock, then I’d walk away, let the manuscript sit and let the story percolate in my head for a while, and hit it again when I was ready.

If I get even ten seconds to speak to Neil directly, I plan to use the time to thank him for his advice. I know he’ll have no idea what I’m thanking him for, but I’ll know. Good enough.