The 2017 Diversity Report

For the past few years, I’ve taken a look at my own writing to see how I’m doing in the realm of diversity and representation. I check out my major character rosters and break them down to see whether I’m not falling into the trap of writing primarily straight white cis people.

This year I’m not going to engage in that practice because it’s come to feel rather smug and self-congratulatory. Oh, hey, look at me, the straight white cis man writing characters not like me. I’m so progressive. Go me. All I’ll say about that is I remain dedicated to maintaining a strong sense of diversity in my work.

But I’m not enough. Literature, especially genre fiction, needs more women, more people of color, more writers from the LGBTQ community to tell stories I can’t, represent perspectives I will never fully understand and appreciate, and relate experiences I will never have. We need more diverse voices in fiction.

Further, writers like me need to be more diligent about presenting diverse characters in their own work — and if they can’t see fit to do that, they at least need to stop actively trying to oppose diversity, and yes, this is a problem. Over the past few years two organized groups of genre fiction authors, the so-called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, have tried to game the Hugo Awards to undermine efforts to acknowledge diverse authors and works (it failed spectacularly, by the way).

Why would they do this? you might wonder. I’ve wondered that myself, for quite some time. Why would any author be so vigorous in his or her efforts to snuff out representation?

Because that author fears obsolescence.

Genre fiction has long been the domain of straight white cis men, both on the writing and the reading side of things. People like me are the default. But over the last several years there has been an increase in diversity — among authors, among characters, and among readers who have shown that there is a powerful appetite for such material. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, they all want to read stories about people like themselves written by people like themselves.

So where does that leave the traditional straight white cis male genre writer?

Well, really, it doesn’t leave him any worse off than before. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has since 1985 charted the presence of authors of color and children’s books featuring lead characters of color, and the statistics show a steady increase over time — steady, but the increases are incremental and there is still plenty of material out there written by and for white people.

If that’s any indicator — and I’ve been unable to find a similar source for YA or adult publishing to confirm or refute the hypothesis — it’s not like white guys are getting muscled out of the game. There is still a demand for their stories, and it’s not like we’re all playing in a zero sum game in which one writer loses sales every time another writer gains sales. Readers are not, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource.

But that’s not the way the old-school genre writer sees it. In his mind, if readers are buying books with diverse casts written by diverse authors, they’re not reading his books. That means he’s becoming irrelevant.

Faced with that prospect, the “endangered” author has a few choices. He can accept his fate and be content to continue practicing his art, knowing that there are still plenty of people out there who want it. He can adapt and start injecting diversity into his own work to capture readers outside his standard demographic.

Or he can pitch a fit, blame the success of others for his own real or imagined failure, and dedicate time and energy to fighting against diversity — and that is what happens far too often. You see that pointless, fruitless resistance every time a writer makes a disingenuous comment about the evils of “pandering” to an audience — and I call it disingenuous because those writers are not acting in anyone’s best interests but their own. They might say, “Pandering to diverse audiences is nothing but a transparent cash grab! Publishers just want your money! I’m trying to protect you from these exploitative capitalists!” but what they mean is, “I view your buying habits as a threat to my livelihood and I’d like you to go away now.”

You’ll of course note that straight white cis male authors who churn out nothing but the same-old same-old are, somehow, not pandering to their demographic.

I take it as a powerful indicator of a writer’s skill if something as relatively simple as injecting more diversity into their work is such a daunting challenge they feel compelled to shut the whole concept down. As storytellers, our whole job is creating characters unlike us. If a science fiction writer can create realistic alien races and sentient robots with no problem but finds the challenge of writing a lead character who is a woman or black or gay or — gasp! — all of the above too great, he’s failing at his job.

And if you can’t do your job anymore, it’s time to step aside and let those who are capable of doing it take over.

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The Action Figures Diversity Report 2016

Two years ago, I decided to take a look through my Action Figures series to see how the cast was shaping up in terms of diversity and representation.

This bit of introspection was prompted by the American Gods TV series, then in the early stages of development (now in the casting stage, if you haven’t been keeping tabs on it). Neil Gaiman took a firm stand on the principle that the producers should honor the novel’s racial diversity, and that got me to thinking about how my cast of characters stacked up in terms of diversity.

I repeated the exercise last year to see if I’d stayed the course, if not improved upon matters. I’m doing it again this year for the same reason. I’m honestly not looking for any pats on the back for being mindful of presenting a variety of genders (and gender identities), races, sexual orientations, etc., but I do want to keep myself honest, and putting all this down in writing helps me better assess the state of things.

What I do find gratifying is how my readers accept cast diversity without question or, better yet, without resistance. Only once has someone chided me for being “too P.C.”, specifically because I made it clear some of my main characters were from the LGBTQ community — and at least that individual didn’t go the extra mile and accuse me of “pandering” to non-straight white male audiences, so I’ll file that one in the “There’s Still Hope” folder.

So here’s the main cast line-up as it stands as of the latest book (Issue Five: Team-Ups), so be warned there might be mild spoilers if you haven’t read too far into the series.

  • Carrie Hauser/Lightstorm: straight white female
  • Matt Steiger/Captain Trenchcoat: straight white male
  • Sara Danvers/Psyche: lesbian white female
  • Stuart Lumley: male, one-quarter African-American
  • Missy Hamill/Kunoichi: half-Japanese female
  • Edison Bose/Concorde: straight male
  • Bart Connors/Mindforce: gay white male
  • Natalie Guerrero/Nina Nitro: straight Hispanic female
  • Astrid Enigma/Dr. Enigma: bisexual white female
  • Dr. Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: straight white female
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: straight white male
  • Megan Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: lesbian white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: straight white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male (sexuality TBD because he’s only six)
  • Tisha Greene/TranzSister: African-American transgender female (heterosexual by virtue of her current gender)

So really, nothing has changed here since last year. However, with Team-Ups I had the opportunity to flesh out the supporting cast a bit. I introduced Bo, Tynan, and Ashlyn, members of Kingsport High’s LGBTQ student group (they are, respectively, a bisexual white male, a bisexual African-American female, and a lesbian of unspecified ethnicity); Peggy, a potential love interest who has a mild physical disability; Zina, a Korean girl with an eye for Matt; and made Gordon, Stuart’s brother, a more prominent supporting cast member.

What still challenges and intimidates me is in how I present all these characters. I want their differences to mean something and not be throwaway elements of their characters, yet I often read how important it is for characters of color, LGTBQ characters, the disabled, etc., to simply be there. They don’t always need to have a flashing neon sign pointing out how they vary from a cis straight white “norm,” they just have to exist within the story, because visibility matters and readers will pick up on this.

Hopefully readers have noticed, and not just because I’m pointing it out now. If it takes posts like these to get readers to notice, I’d say I’m doing something wrong as a storyteller.

The Action Figures Diversity Report 2015

Last year, I took a look at the cast of my books to see how well I was doing in representing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I did this because I’d been reading a lot of articles and essays about how the entertainment media, in particular TV and movies, have been falling down on the job in giving audiences something other than stories featuring straight white male protagonists. If you Google “representation in media” or “diversity in media” you’ll find a treasure trove of data confirming that visual entertainment needs to seriously step up its game when it comes to giving audiences diverse characters.

The issue has been on my mind again recently, but for a different and even more distasteful reason: reactions from what I’ll call “audiences of privilege” to efforts by some media companies to increase diversity. Specifically, some of the reactions to recent pushes by DC and Marvel to attract what can be rightfully called “non-traditional readers” — meaning women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

This should be cause for celebration. Attracting new readers, people who might not have shown much interest before in comics because they found none of the current titles appealing, strengthens the industry with an infusion of new blood (and, not at all coincidentally, cash).

Yet there’s been no small amount of push-back from the old boy community. They’re accused DC and Marvel of “pandering” to diverse audiences…because when you give, say, women more female characters and update their costumes to be less sexualized, that’s pandering to women, but keeping her in the same skintight leotard is, somehow, not pandering to men.

Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.
Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.

(FYI, “pandering” means “to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.” If someone wants to step up and explain to me why it’s unreasonable to give non-straight white male readers characters they can identify with, go right ahead. I’ll enjoy watching you dig your own grave with great amusement.)

I received a little bit of push-back myself on Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer, which explicitly establishes certain characters as openly homo- or bisexual. A reviewer on Amazon said I was getting “too politically correct.” Hardly a scathing rebuke, but what does it say about any reader when adding diverse characters is succumbing to political correctness rather than endeavoring not to be mindful of the fact not everyone in the world is straight, white, and/or male?

I admit, it took me a while to adjust my own thinking on this issue. I began the series open to creating diverse characters, but did so with the attitude that their diversity had to mean something. It had to matter to the character and the story. I didn’t want to simply throw in a bunch of diverse characters for the sake of it.

Then I read a few things on Tumblr (which, for once, provided me with civil, sane discussion points rather than a profanity-laden, anger-driven rant) that opened my eyes. I can’t find the original post to quote it verbatim, but the argument was, essentially: why do diverse characters have to have a deeper reason to exist? Real people are different for no reason other than that’s how they are. Do you walk up to an African-American and demand they explain why they’re African-American, and challenge their right to exist if they can’t provide a satisfactory argument?

The other post that made me rethink the way I approach storytelling stated that sometimes, simply seeing a diverse character in a story is enough. Giving the character depth and meaning is great, making their diversity meaningful is a lofty goal, but for some audience members, it is very gratifying and encouraging to see a character who is fleshed out, fully realized, isn’t a lazy stereotype, and matters to the story, and just happens to be someone of color, or just happens to be gay.

I understand some of you might be rolling your eyes at all this because it none of this matters to you. Well, guess what? As William Shatner said, you’re not the only one living on this planet. It might not matter to you, but to someone else, it matters a lot, and frankly, I’d rather piss off someone who complains about diversity than someone who complains about the lack of it — because those in that latter category are right.

I’d like to think I took some positive steps toward a more diverse cast with book four, and I’ll give you a head’s up now that the following updated cast list contains a few SPOILERS (capitalized to grab your attention!), so if you haven’t read book four yet, you might want to stop reading now.

  • Carrie Hauser/Lightstorm: straight white female
  • Matt Steiger/Captain Trenchcoat: straight white male
  • Sara Danvers/Psyche: lesbian white female
  • Stuart Lumley: male, one-quarter African-American
  • Missy Hamill/Kunoichi: half-Japanese female
  • Edison Bose/Concorde: straight male
  • Bart Connors/Mindforce: gay white male
  • Natalie Guerrero/Nina Nitro: straight Hispanic female
  • Astrid Enigma/Dr. Enigma: bisexual white female
  • Dr. Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: straight white female
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: straight white male
  • Megan Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: lesbian white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: straight white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male (sexuality TBD because he’s only six. Give him time)
  • Tisha Greene/TranzSister: African-American transgender female (heterosexual by virtue of her current gender)

I dare say I have the LGBTQ spectrum well covered, and I readily admit I am more comfortable presenting these kinds of characters because it’s what I’m familiar with. I know a lot of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, at least one asexual individual, and one transgender person (that I am aware of, at least) through the renaissance faire community, and I encounter these people frequently at the pop culture conventions I work with my wife.

Obviously, my failing continues to be in presenting people of color in prominent roles. There are many minor supporting characters of color, but few in any major spotlight role. Let’s see if I can correct that as I move forward with the series.

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.