Writing about race in speculative fiction

Ever since I blogged about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, I've been thinking about a broader question: How exactly should one write about race in a novel of speculative fiction that is not set on this here Earth right now, so that readers understand what you mean?

I've blogged on writing about race in fantasy twice before, so if you want to see the development of my thoughts on this subject, read this and then this. Before I jump into this potentially fraught subject, let me lay out my cards:

Today, I'm blogging about my opinions on how a writer could approach the issue of racial identification in a work of speculative fiction ((I.e., fantasy or science fiction.)) (from now on abbreviated as spec-fic) that is set in a world that is not the here-and-now. Your opinions may differ, and that's partly why I'm posting about this. I'm curious to see what other perspectives are out there. Although I think my post could apply to adult as well as young adult spec-fic, my experience has been in YA, so that's where I'm coming from.

I've published two secondary-world fantasy novels, one of which is not overt about race (Ash), and one of which is more overt (Huntress). I'm also working on a book that does include race, but is set in the very near future in the United States, so it's practically a contemporary. All of these books require very different negotiations with race, and I think the first lesson is that you have to figure out where your book falls on the scale of how similar it is to the present day.

How different is your spec-fic world from the here-and-now?

The closer it is to the here-and-now, the more you can rely on the reader to make correct assumptions about racial identity in your novel. The less it is like the here-and-now, the less you can rely on the reader to make correct assumptions; you will have to do more work to situate the reader's experience in this different world. Which brings me to another point:

Consider the reader (sort of)

Every book is an experience that is shared by at least two different people: the writer and the reader. Every writer has a different perspective on how much they are willing to be influenced by readers' expectations. I personally write stories for myself, but I am also aware that certain aspects of the story will be read differently by different readers.

No writer can guarantee that every reader will get the same thing out of a story; in fact, it's pretty much guaranteed that won't happen. But there are certain things that do need to be clear. For example, I think that the main elements of the plot need to be clear to every reader. If a character is meant to be heroic, that needs to come through clearly. But there are other things that don't need to be as crystal clear.

In YA specifically, I've found that sex is often unclear. This is partly because it's often off-stage, and if something is not described explicitly, some readers will assume that it didn't happen. I think this is actually quite a useful tool, and I admit I've totally used it.

When it comes to race, I think that its significance varies according to character and situation. In Ash, even though I saw the characters as looking Asian, I did not describe them as such because I did not believe that race was important to that story. What this meant, though, was that most readers probably read the characters as white, because that is the default in fantasy published in the United States today (and yesterday, for that matter). I am OK with this in the case of Ash.

But what this taught me was that for every book, I have to decide if I'm OK with the reader assuming that any given character might be white. If I'm OK with it, then I don't need to describe their race. If I'm not OK with it, then I need to make their racial identity clear. That brings us to:

How do you make a character's race clear without sounding totally awkward or like a jerk?

A lot of times I see writers debating which words to use when describing someone's skin tone, or worrying that if they simply say "brown skin," readers might believe that the character just has a tan rather than being South Asian. There also seems to be a fear that if you just write, "The Asian girl at the counter turned to look at me," people will judge you negatively for calling out the character's race so clearly.

I think that writers really cannot be beholden to political correctness. If a word fits, use it. That's what words are for. Of course you have to be careful about which word to use, but you have to be careful about which word to use in every sentence. Every word counts. So I think it's a bad idea to reject some extremely useful ones just because it's not OK in contemporary American society to identify people (in some contexts) by their race.

If the book in question is set in the near-contemporary United States, it's even sillier to not use a word such as "Asian" in favor of, say, "black-haired and almond-eyed." For one thing, that's three words instead of one, which is both inefficient and possibly inaccurate.

But also, writing fiction is not the same as real life. I know that in some real-world situations, it's awkward to mention someone's race. In other situations, it's perfectly natural. But fiction is a totally different ballgame. In fiction, the writer is telling a story, and that story must be told with words that convey the author's intent as clearly as the author intends. If you intend a character to be African American and you want every reader to understand that, then I think it's fine to use those words to describe him.

If the book is a set in a secondary world or very far in the future, the writer needs to think first about how race is experienced in that world. Is it a multiracial world or not? Do people notice others' race when they first see them? Are different races exotic or normal? Figuring this out will help you figure out how to describe your characters' races and their reactions to other races.

It's also important to remember that race is only superficially about skin color. It's also about cultural practices, beliefs, rituals, food, language, etc. In a near-contemporary or a secondary world, culture can be a useful way to describe the differences between characters.

A few things to remember

Keep it simple: If race is unimportant but you still want the character's race to be noted, it can blend into the background more easily if race is just described as simply as possible — "black," "Asian," "Latina" — than through some wordy description of the person's skin color or hair. I think that the more words you use to describe someone's race, the more emphasis you give to that race.

Names: Sometimes, you can signal race quickly through a character's name, but that isn't always the case. African American names do not necessarily sound any different; Willie Brown could be black or white. Asian American names can be used as racial signals, but the writer must then be careful to indicate the correct nationality (Korean names are different than Chinese names, for example, even though to an untrained ear they might sound the same). So, names are a tool that can be used in some cases.

Metaphor: The one thing I think is very important to remember when writing any spec-fic is that metaphor is extremely powerful. Even though the world of that book may be extremely different from our here-and-now, it is being read by a reader in the here-and-now. So the writer must be aware of how race in the spec-fic world might be interpreted through the lens of the here-and-now.

Be aware of the metaphor you're broadcasting if you make all your evil people dark-skinned, and all your heroes pale and blond. Be aware of the metaphor in play if a pale-skinned hero saves all the brown-skinned natives.

Ultimately, that's what writers have to do all the time: Be aware of the words we choose. I don't think there's any short cut here. You have to do your research, and you have to think about every word you use.

But I also don't think you should let fear get in your way. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes, and there's always going to be someone who totally does not understand or like your book. But if you put careful thought into the choices you made, at least then you'll be aware of what you did and why — and better able to learn from mistakes if you do make them.

How do you think race should be handled in spec-fic? Please keep the discussion on-topic and friendly. I'll be moderating the comments.