I’ve come across several references to the “overrepresentation” of minority characters lately, including remarks about my own work. (In my case, it’s been about LGBT+ characters.)
In theory, I assume overrepresentation means portraying a larger proportion of a particular type of character in your fiction than you’d expect to see from a sampling in the real world. For example…
Overrepresentation of white men:
Overrepresentation of straight white men:
Overrepresentation of straight little blue men:
Overrepresentation of male … whatevers:
And so on, and so forth.
Focusing on my own work — the remark was about the Magic ex Libris series — let’s take a look, shall we? I’m adding a cut-tag here, because we’re about to get into minor spoiler territory.
Readers in the U.S. tend to assume a character is “default” until proven otherwise. Many people do the same in real life, which is also problematic, but for the moment I’m focused on the books. So let’s start by looking at who in this series is identified as something other than straight.
- Nidhi Shah is a lesbian, in a long-term relationship with Lena Greenwood.
- Lena Greenwood is pansexual. She’s a hamadryad, and was specifically created as a sexual being, designed to mold herself to her lover regardless of sex, gender identity, etc.
- Johannes Gutenberg is bisexual, and has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Juan Ponce de Leon going back several centuries.
- Juan Ponce de Leon is bisexual. (See #3.)
I wasn’t thinking about statistics when I wrote these characters. I wasn’t worrying about whether or not I met the Quota for Adequate Inclusion of Straight People.
Growing up, my understanding was that roughly 9 out of 10 people were straight. Of course, given the universe I’ve created, 10 out of 10 hamadryads are pansexual, and I suspect the statistics would be different for folks who’ve lived five centuries, too. But hey, as long as I have 36 other characters who fall into the “default” sexuality, I should meet the straight people quota, right? I’m not going to make a list, but there are a lot more than 36 other characters in the series. I suppose if it makes you feel better, you can assume they’re all straight and cisgendered. (At least until book four comes out…)
But those four characters, one of whom hardly appears in most of the books, make some readers hiss and back away, whispering “Overrepresentation! Agendas! Unclean!”
Why is that, do you think?
Ready for some psych talk? Let’s start with the concept of salience. In a nutshell, salience refers to our tendency to give additional weight and attention to things we perceive as different, things that stand out from what we’re used to and what we expect. “In one study … a person who occupied solo status (the only Black person in the room) was perceived to have spoken more.” (Source)
A related phenomenon has been observed in the perception and overestimate of how much women talk. Another study found, “Although the number of words spoken was identical for each column, listeners believed that in mixed-sex conversations, females spoke more.” (Source)
There’s a lot more research about this stuff, and it’s interesting reading if you’re curious about how the human mind works. What it suggests to me is that expectations and perceptions of “normal” representation are often skewed. This effect will be even stronger if your own life is … let’s call it lacking in diversity and representation. And let’s face it, we’re inundated by stories and casts like the examples I posted earlier, where mostly-male, mostly-white, mostly-straight teams are the norm.
When that’s what we’ve learned to see as “normal,” then it’s understandable that a little more realistic diversity can trigger accusations of overrepresentation.
But understandable doesn’t mean accurate. We’re talking about perceptual errors here, the tendency to exaggerate the status of a handful of non-straight or non-white characters.
This is especially clear when you move beyond a single book or series to look at the larger picture.
Representation Across the Board
A few years back, Malinda Lo did a study of LGBT representation in YA, and found that “Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.”
To flip that around, in more than 99% of YA novels, LGBT characters simply didn’t exist.
I haven’t found similar research on adult SF/F, which is unfortunate. But using these numbers, it comes back to context and expectation and perception. If 99% of what you’re reading has no LGBT representation, then of course a book that includes multiple LGBT characters is going to feel like a lot by comparison. That’s not a problem with the specific book in question; that’s a problem–a big one–with the field as a whole. (This is one of the reasons you get agents/editors pressuring authors to make gay characters straight.)
In other words, if you actually do find a book that genuinely overrepresents a non-majority group? There’s a very good chance that book is what we call a statistical outlier.
So let’s say you do count all the characters and find that Those People (LGBT, PoC, non-cismales, etc.) really are objectively and statistically overrepresented in a book?
Well, first of all, you’ll open yourself up for people to ask why you’re so worried about quotas for representation of straight and white and male characters.
More seriously? I suggest you get over it. We are drowning in stories that overrepresent straight white dudes. Hell, the protagonist of the Magic ex Libris series is a straight white dude. It’s not like you’re going to lose all of those stories. So if an author really, truly does overrepresent a different part of humanity, why not just go with it? Read the story. Meet some new characters. Share different experiences. Enjoy something that isn’t the same as 99% of the other books and stories out there.
I promise it won’t hurt you.
September 24, 2015 @ 11:55 am
Also I’d like to point out something about social lives. This isn’t 100% of course, as people do cross barriers, but a lot of peoples social lives are spent with people like them.
When a story is written, people do not look at stats to determine how many of things are in their lives. If they did, as you mentioned, there would be more diversity in things that are all or almost all straight white men. Creators do what makes sense for the characters.
And honestly, representation matters. Yes it matters to the young and teenage straight white males, but it matters just as much to everyone else. It shouldn’t have to be this needle-in-a-haystack search for a book that stars people like the reader. And for those of us who are straight white men…what does it hurt to read something about someone different? Worst case scenario, you just won’t be able to relate and might have to stop reading due to it. That’s not bad at all. (I’ve had a few things I’ve done that to. Well loved books but I just could not get into them. They weren’t for me. Whatever)
Scariest thing for me as a father is seeing these small minded idiots on the internet and worrying my son will one day be like them.
September 24, 2015 @ 12:33 pm
Good entry, Jim. I’ve discovered that this topic is almost guaranteed to implode when it comes up on SFF-writing forums. People get very angry when they feel like someone might be writing fantasy that doesn’t fit their perception of how the genre is supposed to look. I even had someone tell me that they read fantasy to escape all those “real world” issues (I guess the simple existence of people who aren’t white, straight, and male is an issue they want to escape).
You nailed it when you said that the straight, white male is perceived by many readers to be “normal, generic” humans who don’t need a “reason” to exist in a story. The only thing I can hope is if enough writers refuse to bow to this (and write good stories), some traditionalists will come around. Or at least the people who enjoy seeing a greater slice of human experience will be loyal and consistent customers who support these writers (so publishers don’t decide diverse books are unmarketable).
September 24, 2015 @ 12:46 pm
Statistical “overrepresentation” also happens because of another factor.
It’s very likely that, were the books from Nidhi Shah’s perspective, we’d have a significant number of other lesbians and plausibly other LGBT among her non-Libriomancer friends and acquaintances. Because they would be people she had consciously sought out at an earlier stage in her life and would have made friends among and maintain ties with. (It’s not a given – not every LGBT makes themselves a part of that community i the same way. But it’s likely). Probably also many more non-white people, from the Indian-American community.
In the real world, my church community (as well as being demographically a spike in Christian representation for obvious and realistic reasons 😉 ) is disproprortionally LGBT, and our choir more so. Because we’re a congregation that has made our welcoming stance explicit, people who are LGBT and Christian will seek us out from areas across the city, not just in the neighbourhood. Write a story where aliens or unicorns show up in our church, and it will be filled with LGBT, with the elderly (and, which seems like it would be a shock to some readers, those are overlapping circles), with parents and kids, with enough non-white people to notice. And some demographics would be “overrepresented”. Because Reality Does That, and Communities cluster.
September 24, 2015 @ 3:29 pm
Similar anecdote: I used to hang out in a Usenet newsgroup that had a very diverse religious representation — Christian, Jewish, pagan, atheist, probably a few others that I’m forgetting at the moment. More to the point, nobody was *afraid* to mention their religious orientation, and there were a fair number of multi-sided discussions of religious issues. And every so often, we’d get a new person coming in who would say, after a week or three, something along the lines of, “Aren’t there any CHRISTIANS in this group?” or “Is EVERYBODY here pagan?” Even though there were active and devout Christians — including a couple of ministers! — who made no secret of their faith, and who posted no less than anyone else.
I’m fairly sure that, for these people, that newsgroup represented the first social milieu they’d ever encountered where there were any non-Christians *at all* — or, perhaps, any who weren’t closeted either on purpose or just because they didn’t talk about religion. And so, even though the percentage of non-Christians was still nothing approaching 50%, it seemed to them that EVERYONE was non-Christian.
September 24, 2015 @ 4:50 pm
Oh, darn it! Now I have to worry about whether I’m over-representing Wiccans and gay people! What’s worse, I don’t have nearly enough straight white dudes! Thanks for pointing out this glaring error in my entire writing style!
All sarcasm aside, it does seem like it’s that same phenomenon where once you see something outside your normal experience, it suddenly starts showing up EVERYWHERE! And as to escapism, those folks who complain about you muddying up their fantasy worlds with all those icky Other people…that isn’t escapism, that’s intellectual laziness. “Don’t make me see Other people as human beings! I might Change! And Change is scary!”
I have to wonder, are some folks so invested in white-washing their worldview that they’re afraid anything different at all is going to somehow infect them? “Oh, damn. I’ve got a case of empathy.”
September 24, 2015 @ 5:07 pm
You who is over-represented? Red-heads. They’re all over the place! In real life, if you get five red haired people in one crowd, it’s a lot. In SFF, if you get a bunch per book, it’s normal.
September 24, 2015 @ 6:14 pm
One of my all time favorite book series is Mercedes Lackey’s “Last Herald Mage” series. I also love the “Bedlams Bard” series. Both feature either a Bi or Gay relationship (which was HUGE back when “Magic’s Promise” came out), and I was somewhat surprised when I identified with Vanyel, the overtly gay male main character of the series . When i read the Magic Ex Libris series, the relationships of the characters were secondary to the storyline. The relationships were mentioned to help understand the characters more. I have seen other books where they force something into it, that doesn’t make much sense, and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, because it doesn’t fit the established story. Your characters seem much more natural, in their personalities and relationships, than half of the ones we see. I mean, half of Kirk’s relationships made no sense, and felt forced, as if they were a cheap way to advance the story.
Mason T. Matchak
September 24, 2015 @ 9:41 pm
Well said. The statement I keep seeing when it comes to representation of people who aren’t straight white cis males is people saying it’s being “shoved in their faces”. I see this most with regards to sexuality, and it boggles my mind.
I mean, think about it. Most couples in most media – books, movies, TV, what-have-you – are made up of a woman and a man. The vast, vast majority of romance novel covers will feature a woman and a man in a sexualized pose, despite that the term ‘romance’ is gender-neutral. Most advertising that features couples features M-F couples. I’m willing to bet that if you counted the number of M-F couples you see in media on any given day, and counted the number of M-M or F-F couples you saw, you’d have hundreds more examples of the first couples than the second, assuming you had any of the second at all.
So what’s really being shoved in peoples’ faces?
September 24, 2015 @ 11:38 pm
They see it as a threat. If gay characters, etc. are main characters, supporting characters and more common than the 1-15% of what they are used to, and some of those books do well and get attention, then that means the world is changing and those groups of people are not ignorable, more open, getting more political and economic equality, etc.
Which means how they have to view the world and interact with it will/might change. Things that you never thought about before become no longer tolerated any more because they were repressions or power plays. For the insecure, it’s seen as loss of status, sometimes money, and a cheapening of what they considered theirs alone (girl cooties, etc.) And they’re absolutely sure that more equality means repercussions for them, and possible attacks because they don’t trust those folk in the first place. Variety that reflects real life means variety is more accepted in real life, which they figure means that they and their interests have to “lose.” Why they think interests that insist on ignoring and repressing variety is a form of winning is one of those sad and weird things — but it justifies a lot of doing stuff to people and taking their stuff.
So when you have characters who are not white straight people and protagonists who aren’t men, etc., it’s a threat. But a lot of them aren’t going to come out and say I don’t want any gay/non-white/disabled/etc. main characters in books so that my world won’t seem to change. So they say that it’s simply a trend, that the author is only doing it to be seen as cool, to send a message that non-SWM are cool and SWM aren’t — message fiction, shoving it in our faces, checking boxes, over-representation, etc. That it has no merit, that it’s pushy. That the underrepresented groups already have equality somehow and are now over-pushing it. They think they can hold back the tide in the real world that way.
And every time they don’t hold back the tide in the real world (though often they do,) then the characters remind them that they control the picture less and less and the real picture is coming through. So when there was a tiny uptick of interest in non-white characters on U.S. t.v. in the wake of several series’ success, we got the sad and completely wrong article that now white actors have to go begging for pilot season. We get a white middle-aged male published poet whose convinced that posing as an Asian woman will better help him get published, when the statistics say that Asian women hardly ever get poetry published in the U.S. and the majority of published poems are by white men. We get the Puppies. We get the gamerzs. We get AllLivesMatter and ignorant teenagers encouraged by their parents to try and force Confederate flags on a high school. We get people going, I know there’s a problem, but do you have to keep bringing it up. We get people saying under-represented groups need to be patient and polite and not disturb anybody. It’s like a kid hiding under a blanket.
You scared them because you had queer main characters, you big meanie. 🙂
And the funny thing is, we don’t know that all the Smurfs are straight. In fact, there’s been a lot of speculation about that. But that’s the default, that they are all straight. If there is no default, then things will change in ways they cannot control and don’t necessarily get. So they want to eliminate any deviation from the default.
September 25, 2015 @ 8:07 am
Ok so Jim knows me..sort of.
Im not ‘educated’ but am an omnivorous reader and so voracious that if the library gave airmiles Icould visit all my favourite authors..twice.
I have no issue with representation. Neither do I have issues with people period.
I try to make no distinctions and judgements based on race gender or such. I frequently adopt people I get to know well and call them by familial terms.( My favourite little brother is a girl from work. )
Ok back to topic.
So I have read books like a weasle in a henhouse and have done so for years. Nothing absolutely nothing suprises or shocks / disturbs me.
Why? Because most of what I read was Sci Fi and Fan Fi. ,Heinlin, and one Spider Robinson story immediately come to mind.
It was through reading, of ‘fictional’ literature or what I thought of as ‘forward looking ‘ literature, I learned that people come in many different forms some quite unlike our own. But they were still people. Nowadays some of those same authours who enlightend my young mind are pilloried (sp) but that is another rant.
What bothers me is not Representation, over or under. What bothers me is my observation of what seems to be the……. Damn no word.
Ok example time. Used to watch Buffy yes I admit. So they have a lesbian sub arc big deal. Viewership goes up because its titillating for some supportive for others whatever. Then BAM! Every show had to do it or something like it. Some networks seemed to thrive on it ,and the whole sexuality market so much that the story gets lost.
Hence no more cable for me.
The other thing bothering me is more recent.
The addition of or altering of characters to make them ‘representative’ Take Iceman in Marvel. When I was a kid he had a cartoon with Spidey and Firestorm I think it was. There was always a little tension because he liked her and she liked him but fire and ice dont mix. Now Icys fame fades hes not real big even in the new movies. Marvel gets big Godzilla freaking big. What happens? They start catching heat from people. ‘Your not representative.’ representative.’ BAM! or BAMPH! (or is that DC terminology) whatever. Iceman is coming out. My response, “waaait a minute there are already openly gay characters in your comics why dont you develop them? ” I remember a few years ago a broughhaha about a gay hero and his partner adopting or somesuch.
To me the whole Iceman is now gay and Johnny Storm. New FF is an insult to our intelligence.Along with any story that places its sociopolitical agenda over its worth as a story.
I wish to conclude if anyone has read this far with this thought.
Story telling writing is an art and a craft.
Story telling is also a means of conveying news and ideas come on people you are the modern day bards.
Writers and tellers of tales are wizards in that.
The penultimate magicians are subtle no one know the magic has happened till it happened.
Misdirection gets the most results.
Tell you story give us your worlds and your people in it.
Show us through your craft how to love and accept those different from us.
Do it with subtlety and care so that thick heads like me can walk in the light without beeing flasblinded.
You are wise you understand what Im yrying to say
Ps thanks Jim I finally think I found my voice on all this. Now I have to make my own song.
September 25, 2015 @ 10:39 am
I blame Heinlein for the redheads.
Jim C. Hines
September 25, 2015 @ 10:49 am
Re: the Smurfs, I was basing that on the fact that the only romantic preferences we’ve seen from any of the Smurfs was an attraction to Smurfette.
That said, who knows what really goes on in those little mushroom houses…
September 25, 2015 @ 11:56 am
I blam him for my love of cats
September 25, 2015 @ 4:21 pm
You get the same reasoning about real-world situations unfortunately. One conservative columnist who routinely argues that just because there are almost no women/minorities in a particular field is no proof of discrimination takes a shortage of whites or males as prima facie proof that affirmative action was in play.
September 25, 2015 @ 6:52 pm
SF/F readers love redheads. My youngest is a redhead, and I brought him to Worldcon this year. Virtually every comment from other attendees was about his red hair. “Oh my goodness, I love his hair!”
I don’t know if Heinlein is to blame or if he just tapped into something latent, but the love of redheads in the US is a real thing.
September 25, 2015 @ 7:31 pm
This is great! I read a similar article that observed men and women in classroom settings and it found that men percieved women to have spoken the same amount as men when in actuality the women had only had 15% of talk time. Any more than that and men thought the women had monopolized the conversation.
September 25, 2015 @ 9:42 pm
Before Smurfette, were the Smurfs celibate? Gay because they were all men? Committing, er… Smurfonanism?
And now, are they still celibate? Still M/M? Or one tiny but frightening gangbang/male harem?
Best not to think about it.
September 25, 2015 @ 10:24 pm
I totally undersand Jim’s point.
I went to a very small all girls private school k -5th grade. My sister and I were only redheads in the whole school that was k -12. There were more asian and blacks than redheads.
I was not a quiet kid, tomboy, messy, geeky way before that was a thing. By 2nd grade I was tired of hearing “red heads don’t know how to be lady like and well behaved”. The thing is my sister was the postcard perfect student, straight A, never broke or bent a rule, never a hair out of place, and there were plenty of blondes and burnettes as “wild” as I was, but I stood out because of the redhair, so the teachers noticed my behavior more.
September 25, 2015 @ 10:33 pm
Smurfs are like eusocial insects or naked mole rats. As long as the population is stable for its environment there is no need to produce new colony members. They function as single organism so individuals are asexual. If that changes there will be hormonal changes and the queen will produce reproductive individuals
September 25, 2015 @ 10:37 pm
We are actually everywhere plotting a secret recessive gene revolution.
September 26, 2015 @ 4:52 am
This exactly. Because people seek out people with similar interests, once you include one minority in a group you will get introduced eventually to other people in their social circle.
Also the default assumption is not always, correct and only the author might know it; or provide little clues. Remember the panic when it was revealed that Dumbledore was gay.
I have two gay and one bi in the book I’m currently writing. I’m only going to be dropping hints about, it because their orientation isn’t the main focus of the story.
Maybe I ought to put a disclaimer on my book. “I’ve rolled a 1d10 for each character’s orientation in this novel, it’s up to you to figure out who rolled a 1”.
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September 26, 2015 @ 8:38 pm
[…] Jim C. Hines on “Overrepresentation” […]
September 26, 2015 @ 11:54 pm
I think another par tof this whole issue is not just the perception of how many non”normal” people are in a book, but why are they that way?
And I think the why is what really breeds the argument about “checking boxes” or “filling quotas.”
For example, when someone looks at Nidhi Shah, they eventually ask. “Well why is she a lesbian? What is she doing that a straight male or a close female friend wouldn’t do?” And when the answer is either nothing, or not satisfacory to them, they try to come up with a solution.
I think that’s where those things come from. An inability to just acknowledge that indeed, the world has people who are different and those different people can lead very regular lives. and *shock and awe* do everything straight white men do.
That’s just my theory of course.
Jim C. Hines
September 27, 2015 @ 10:35 am
But people so rarely turn it around and ask, “Well why is the protagonist white? Why are they straight? What are they doing that a black gay man wouldn’t do?”
September 27, 2015 @ 2:36 pm
I don’t think that having to have a rationale for “non-standard” people has anything to do with it. If I choose to make a character blond, that may have nothing at all to do with the plot — it’s just a character detail. Why shouldn’t I make them brown-haired? After all, most people are brown-haired, so isn’t that just filling a blond quota? Sometimes diversity is just about reflecting RL differences, not about “quota” filling. I might make a character dark-skinned or light-skinned, dark-haired or light-haired, dark-eyed or light-eyed. I might make a character straight or gay or bi in a way that is part of character building, not part of the plot. And character building _should_ have diversity, or no one will be able to tell the characters apart 😉
September 27, 2015 @ 11:06 pm
I suspect the thing they’re actually resenting being “shoved in their faces” is the blunt truth they’re not the centre of the universe, and therefore not likely to be the “default human being”.
Statistically speaking, half the world’s population is female. Over fifty percent of the world’s population isn’t white (there are seven billion of us, and of those at least one billion are Chinese nationality). So white men are a minority, statistically speaking, without stopping to consider any other factors. So far, our “default human” is likely to be non-white, and could be either male or female. They’re also likely to be living outside the USA (there are more people living outside the USA than there are in it – your population is 300 million out of 7 billion). Okay, they’re more likely to be heterosexual than not, and they’re probably going to be able-bodied and neurotypical.
But if we do a statistical search for the “default” human being – the one who is more likely to exist than any other – they probably aren’t going to be an upper-middle class, white, blond-haired, blue-eyed cissexual heterosexual man from the USA.
So who’s over-represented again?
September 28, 2015 @ 7:19 pm
Depends on your social circle. If you hang out with people who go to cons, or with pagans, or with artists, the percentage of redheads is a LOT higher. At the con where I was over the weekend, someone pointed out at a room party that there were 5 redheads all sitting in one group of chairs. And we weren’t by any means the only ones in the room. 🙂
September 28, 2015 @ 7:24 pm
It gets worse. Tom Smith has a song that includes the lyrics:
“Of the Smurfs that live in there,
Only one has body hair!
Do you love your Papa, Smurfer Girl?”
Which, when you think about it, is absolutely true.
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October 4, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
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