Updated: Apr 2
Once I worked with an author who intentionally veiled the race of several of her characters. She thought she was being clever. To her having no race means the reader could just see them as human beings and not be categorized. She had good intentions but I advised against it. But it wasn't the first time I've had to field the question, Does this character's race really matter? If you're wrestling with the question regarding race, sexuality, or any other identity keep these things in mind.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of readers recognizing themselves in your stories, especially children. Going on a journey with a character that could be you, or a relative, or someone in your community is the best feeling because it affirms you.
You feel like someone sees you. That you matter enough to be written about and it makes you prouder of yourself.
An unintentional consequence of leaving out a character's marginalized identity is that it perpetuates cultural norms that exclude minorities and perpetuates privilege. Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Peggy McIntosh wrote Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in it, she lists the everyday privileges she, as a white person, has that people of color do not. According to McIntosh white people carry around an "invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." Things like:
"I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time." and "I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social."
These two examples are just a tiny fraction of the way people experience privilege in this country. But privileges are cultural and can shift if the members of that culture shift what is considered "normal." When character's don't have an expressed marginalized identity, we naturally ascribe to that character a non-marginalized identity because that is what our culture has taught is normal. That's our default.
Remember when J.K. Rowling admitted that Dumbledore was gay after the books were published. Many of us probably didn't think of his sexuality as we were reading, even in light of his relationship with Grindelwald. Imagine the difference knowing his sexuality would have made to how to read those pages. But better yet, imagine the difference it would have made culturally and in the publishing industry if she would have "outed" him in the books.
When to be specific about a character's marginalized identity:
The answer is pretty much always with few exceptions (which I'll get to later).
Primary (protagonist, antagonist...etc) should always be described as fully as possible either by direct description or via contextual information.
Readers should also know the identities of secondary characters. They are essential to moving the plot along and their identities will shape their relationship to the primary characters.
If you're writing multiple points of view, what we know about one we should know about them all. It provides the reader with consistency and informs on the relationship between characters.
When you don't need to be specific:
It isn't necessary to inform your readers about every single part of a character's identity. Readers need to understand why a character would think or behave in a certain way, and their identity helps inform that. Everything else is unnecessary information. Sometimes it's hard to discern what is extra, which is a perfect reason to hire a sensitivity reader.
Tertiary, or what I like to call cameo characters. These are the characters that only show up in one or two scenes. It's the couple on the park bench or the woman walking her dog. We don't need to know their sexual orientation or if they have a disability unless it directly affects the primary or secondary characters. Does the woman walking her dog have a cane and that reminded the main character of someone she once knew?
If you've established the culture of your setting you may not need to be explicit about the character's identity within the framework of those established facts. For example, if the couple on the park bench are in San Francisco's Castro District in 1972, you may not have to say they are a gay if you've done a good job establishing the history and demographics of the setting.
Identity creates backstory, advances the plot, and informs behavior. It's important for you to create authentic characters but you can't do that if you don't acknowledge the importance of your character's marginalized identities. Readers are looking for themselves in your characters. They want to connect and relate to what the character is going through. If you don't see the value in embracing characters with marginalized identities you are denying your readers the opportunity for them to do just that.
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