Last night I got mildly frustrated watching the #kidlitchat about diversity on Twitter and posted a string of tweets of my own:
I get tired of hearing people say they want to read books where the characters “just happen” to be LGBT/people of color/disabled/etc.
But that they don’t want the book to be “about” that aspect of the character’s life.
As though any good YA novels are only about one single aspect of a character’s life.
As though it’s possible to write a good YA book about a character and not address a major aspect of that character’s identity.
Now, I understand where people are coming from when they say they want to read more books about characters who “just happen” to fall into these categories. I too certainly would like to see more diversity across the board among all YA characters. What I don’t understand is what YA books people have been reading thus far that are actually guilty of being only “about” the main character’s “other”-ness, whether that be race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or something else.
I’ve seen this line of argument come up in many chats that touch on diversity issues, and it was said over and over during the #YAlitchat that centered on LGBT fiction a while back, too.
Where is this epidemic of books that are only about this one aspect of the main character’s life? I’ve never read one. At least not one written above picture book level. Am I just supremely lucky in that I have avoided all these bad books?
I feel the same way when I see complaints about coming out books ― accusations that books about coming out focus on too narrow a part of a LGBT character’s life. Every book I’ve ever read that had a coming out story at its center has had a ton of other stuff going on, too, from family issues to friend complications to relationship drama to a desperate desire to go to a Kylie Minogue concert.
The one case I can think of where I have seen a focus on a single aspect of an “other” character’s identity is in the stock Gay Best Friend character. You know, stories with a straight protagonist whose best friend comes out to them halfway through the book, and the straight protagonist is the first person they’ve told. From then on, all conversations between this character and the straight protagonist focus on this character’s gayness, and the whole thing serves as a device to further the character growth of the straight protagonist. Yes, that trope, I’m tired of. So I wonder if some of these complaints stem from that trend ― which actually has nothing to do with LGBT books, at least not the ones I’ve read. I would like to read more LGBT secondary characters who are there to serve the plot in ways other than by inspiring the protagonist through their courage, or whatever. I’m thinking now, for example, of Darlene from Boy Meets Boy, who is not so much the token trans character as she is a gossip who can’t keep her opinions to herself and who orchestrates our two titular boys’ makeup scene.
But the Gay Best Friend cliché doesn’t explain the complaints that refer to characters of color, though. I’ve certainly never read a book about a person of color where that entire book was “about” the character’s race or ethnicity. Yet from these chats, you’d think there were scores of them.
If you’re writing the book well, your characters ― all of them ― will be multifaceted. Their race, background, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, nationality, gender, and other factors will be among those facets, as will their sense of humor, their relationships with family members, their attitudes toward their school and their friends and their community, and everything else that makes up their lives.
But the thing is, unless the character lives in an alternate universe where the “other” aspect of their identity really is a complete non-issue (like in How to Ditch Your Fairy or Ash) then if you’re writing a realistic story about the character, sooner or later, that aspect of their life is going to come up. Maybe it doesn’t get much screen time, but it’s there. Think of the scene in Dramarama when Demi, the best friend character, tells Sadye, “I’m black. Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed!” because she’s been tiptoeing around his race (and for that matter his sexual orientation) for the duration of their friendship. Sadye thought that by not mentioning it, she’s been doing him a favor, when really she’s just been doing herself a favor by avoiding having to think about the complicated stuff.
And yeah, sometimes a protagonist’s “other”-ness is so minor in their own perception that they forget it exists. The Explosionist is one of my favorite recent examples of this. Its main character has a disability which she mentions early on, then doesn’t mention for the next hundred-odd pages. So you, the reader, forget. Until she’s abruptly reminded, and so are you. Because eventually it does affect her life. She falls behind when she’s trying out outrun an adversary. Other people mention her limp, and it’s clear that they haven’t forgotten about it even if she has — and that wherever she goes, people notice. Her disability doesn’t define her life, or define her as a character, but it’s a part of her. She can’t ignore it. And as the story progresses, she, being very clever, thinks of ways to use it to her advantage.
And then there are books like Hero, which is about a kid discovering his superpowers and dealing with a complicated relationship with his dad. It’s also about a kid coming to terms with his gayness and making his first shot at a relationship. Does that mean the book is “about” his being gay? And then there’s Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story, which is about a girl looking for love, and sort of finding it; the fact that she’s gay has no impact on her love life, aside from the fact that her partners are women. There’s a secondary character dealing with coming out issues, though. Does that put it in the category of being “about” gayness?
What about a book with a really strong “other”-ness-oriented plot, like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? That’s centered on the protagonist’s struggle with living in two cultures and among people of two different races. But it’s also about family and addiction and romance and basketball and bulimia and a government-sanctioned caste system. And it was considered sufficiently complex to win a billion awards and get itself on a billion critics’ lists.
Yes, sometimes a character’s “other”-ness really is the biggest thing in their life. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t still complex. Right now, for Kurt on Glee (it always comes back to Glee with me), the fact that he likes boys really is the most important thing in his life. Partly because other people are making it that way by calling attention to it, and partly because right now he desperately, desperately wants to have a relationship with a boy. Because he’s a kid, and that’s his current reality. It doesn’t make him a less complex character, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on in his life, and it doesn’t mean the story itself is flawed.
Seriously, I’m racking my brain here trying to think of a YA book I’ve read that was “about” a protagonist’s “other”-ness, or where that aspect of a character’s identity was the lone trait that defined them. I’ve read my fair number of books, but I’m coming up empty.
Books, good books at least, aren’t like TV shows, where you can easily identify the A, B, and C plots of each episode because they’re only loosely strung together. That makes for good TV; your perspective shifts from scene to scene. But in books, things need to be interwoven. Each scene is accomplishing multiple things, and often addressing multiple plot threads. Whatever makes a character who they are will inevitably come out in the story. That’s just how characters work. It’s what they do. It’s what makes good stories good.
OK, rant over. *grin*