So there’s an early scene in Southern Discomfort (which may not survive into the next draft) where one of the supporting black characters is reading Chester Himes’ The Real Cool Killers (all rights to cover image reside with current holder) It’s part of a series starring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two black Harlem detectives (one book became a good movie, Cotton Comes to Harlem). It seemed like a natural idea to have a black character reading black fiction, but then again, I wondered, is that stereotypical — like black readers don’t pick up some of the same books as white people?
This a question that bugs me a lot when writing outside my usual racial comfort zone. In the real world, people are what they are: a real black woman may Terry McMillan or Robert van Gulik. Reality justifies itself. In a novel? The questions of believability, plausibility, cliché character or No Black/Woman/Gay Person Acts Like That become pertinent.
This is less of a problem, of course, if you have a wide range of black/gay/women/Japanese characters in a story. There’s a fair number of black characters in Southern Discomfort, so I doubt my handling of race will be judged on what one elderly gentleman picks to read. Or a black teen having a poster of Pam Grier on his wall. But still, I could easily make some sweeping error about my black cast — several beta readers pointed out that one apparent lynching should generate a much more horrified reaction among the black community (and in the next draft it will). I don’t think there’s any convenient rule of thumb for this, it’s just something to tackle on a case-by-case basis.
The boundary between stereotype and authenticity can be confusing too. Writing on the Science Fiction Writers of America website a few months back, Megan Leigh discusses “strong female characters” and says ” Another common feature of so-called strong female characters is having them shed traditionally feminine traits in favor of masculine ones. These women don’t want children, are interested in sex more so than love, and are typically callous when it comes to emotions of any kind. Why do we feel that for a woman to be strong she needs to be more like a man?”
I find the assumption this is being “more like a man” dubious. I know quite a few women who don’t want children and don’t particularly like them. And I know (not in the Biblical sense) women who are very interested in sex without love. Maybe they’re a minority, but I don’t think they’re “more like a man.” And I don’t think the more conventional treatments (women are innately nurturing about babies!) are in any danger of fading away (as I observed in another post on strong female characters). It’s the old idea that some female characters are just men in drag — and the same problem, of defining what women are “really” like. Although perversely I agree with Leigh in the sense that no, not wanting children isn’t a measure of strength, just a personal choice. Depending on culture and background, the choice not to become a mother can be an act of courage and defiance, or it can be just a cliched gender-nonconforming character.
As Leigh points out, having a variety of female characters can fix that. And with some female characters, just like male characters, their love life or their views on children may not even come up in the story. Cohen’s in Pharisee Georgia as an FBI agent; Maria’s a wanted fugitive; their opinions about marriage and sex don’t come up. It’s the only novel-length fiction I’ve written that doesn’t have a romance subplot.