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.