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02 June 2009 @ 01:20 pm
Diversity statistics  

Originally published at Vylar Kaftan. You can comment here or there.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve said I’m committed to diverse characters in my fiction. Am I doing it?

I analyzed all of my published and circulating stories. I tracked six attributes:

1. Gender
2. Race
3. Sexual orientation
4. Age
5. Class
6. Ability/disability

I looked at 133 characters. Some of the classifications were tough. What class is a human girl trapped in a deer’s body? Is an alien in the bathroom faucet part of the working class? Are deities fully able, by definition?

Anyway. I did my best to sort it out, and here are the results.

1. GENDER

42.9% female
51.8% male
5.3% other (aliens, machines, divine beings)

Pretty straightforward.

2. RACE

The trouble here is that race is often not mentioned, especially if the protagonist is the narrator. I went solely with what’s written on the page (not what was in my head as the author). Very few racial indicators are explicitly mentioned, but sometimes they can be inferred from context and story. For example, a Polish Christian is reasonably likely to be Caucasian; an 11th century Islamic ceramics merchant is pretty likely to be Arab. “Unknown” means that there are no clues whatsoever about race in the text.

33.8% Caucasian
6.0% Asian/Asian-American
6.0% Divine
5.3% Alien
4.5% Native American
3.8% Arab/Arab-American
3.8% Hispanic
3.0% African/African-American
1.5% Machine
32.3% Unknown

Given that “white is the default” and many readers assume white characters unless told otherwise, here’s another way to look at those numbers:

66.1% white, actual or implied/defaulted
21.1% people of color
12.8% unclassifiable

I’m not saying that any character whose race goes unmentioned must be white. However, it’s worth noting that some readers will perceive the numbers this way.

3. SEXUAL ORIENTATION

While sexual orientation isn’t always explicit either, I found it easier to infer a character’s identity based on their thoughts. At least that’s true in my stories, which might be because I write about love and romance a lot. So here I have two kinds of straight: Straight which is “quite likely heterosexual”, and straight* which is “the character shows interest in the opposite sex, but we can’t rule out bisexuality.” Unknown means there’s no indication in any direction.

17.3% straight
31.6% straight* (could be bisexual)
9.0% GLBT
57.9% unknown

By the same logic as above (that many readers assume heterosexuality unless told otherwise) it looks like this:

91.0% straight
9.0% GLBT

If you’re curious, it’s 4 bisexual, 4 gay, 3 lesbian, and 1 transgendered character.

4. AGE

I thought I’d see if I was defaulting to young heroes and heroines, or representing a wider part of the population. Most ages were possible to infer from the text.

12.8% ages 0-17
42.1% ages 18-35
24.1% ages 36-65
5.3% ages 66+
6.8% n/a (mostly divine beings and machines)
6.0% unknown
2.9% varies (the story covers full lifetimes)

The number categories are somewhat arbitrary.

5. CLASS

I was surprised at how easy this was to infer from characters’ access to resources, regardless of what the story was about.

0.8% ruling class
21.8% upper class
17.3% middle class
44.2% working class
8.3% n/a (mostly divine beings and machines)
5.3% unknown
2.3% varies (the story covers full lifetimes)

These categories are nebulous. I just did my best to sort characters based on their jobs, living conditions, histories, and so on.

6. ABILITY

This category was tricky, because you can’t really say a character is fully able without knowing a lot about them. So there’s only two categories here.

88.0% able or implied able
12.0% disabled

The disabilities included cerebral palsy, deafness, mental illness, chronic pain, depression, social anxiety, limited movement, speech impediments, epilepsy, and others.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ll let you draw your own.

But here’s what I learned. Diversity matters. Reflecting the real world matters. Just the act of sorting all my characters increased my awareness of these issues. It brought up questions and assumptions in my mind. Is class a matter of income, lifestyle, or both? If I write sexual orientation clearly in my fiction and race not so often, does that reflect my own experience as a queer white writer or does it reflect inherent differences in the nature of those two “isms”? And on a side note, where the heck are all my Jewish characters? Maybe that’s just chance…

Anyway, I was surprised at how many working-class and disabled characters appeared in my fiction. I was also surprised at how few people of color and older characters populated my stories.

Overall, the number-crunching didn’t take very long (perhaps five hours), and it was well worth it for the learning experience.

I certainly don’t think writers should shove diversity in people’s faces. But there’s plenty of ways to give subtle cues that work very well. Like these:

Blatant bad example: “Johnny looked in the mirror. Yep. Still Mexican.”
Better example: “Johnny smelled home when he entered the kitchen. Only his mother’s cooking smelled like roast turkey, enchiladas, and horchata on Thanksgiving Day.”

I’ve heard the arguments that class/race/whatever is often irrelevant to a character in a story. Sure, that’s true sometimes. I hate stories where a character “needs” to be female (for example) simply because she must fall in love or get pregnant, and heaven help us if we have a female starship captain just for the heck of it.

But really, all these social elements influence a character’s outlook and interaction with the world. And while sometimes they aren’t explicit, they do influence the character’s experience. They’re part of that character and they deserve our respect as writers and readers.

Effectively, here’s what this means for writers: If you know your character’s background, you have a tool for making that character come to life in your story. If you don’t, that character will tend to reflect your own experience–and that’s often why characters come out flat or indistinguishable, rather than as individuals that readers love as real people. And for readers: Question your assumptions. Are you assuming that character is just like you? Did you stop to think about it?

Comments? Questions? Other stats I should try to pull from these numbers?

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( 50 comments — Leave a comment )
Annenetmouse on June 2nd, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
Heh. now I want to read the rest of the story that starts out with “Johnny looked in the mirror. Yep. Still Mexican.”

I have no idea why he felt the need to check that. but it seems like it could be *made* to be interesting. In fact there could be a whole raft of stories that start with looking at oneself in the mirror... do they all suck?

hmm...
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on June 2nd, 2009 09:49 pm (UTC)
Yes. That blatant bad example is actually FAR SUPERIOR to the supposed good example. It's evocative and clever.
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 2nd, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 2nd, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
It would work as a comedy except for the fact that looking in the mirror is a cliche. Writers just shouldn't do it anymore unless they've got something great. Too many writers use this as a cheap way to describe their narrator.
badgerbagbadgerbag on June 3rd, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
I'm there with you imagining the rest of the story not sucking!
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Alex Dally MacFarlanealankria on June 2nd, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
I’ve heard the arguments that class/race/whatever is often irrelevant to a character in a story.

Even if the story doesn't need a certain race/class/etc, subtle implications of defaulting to white, middle class, etc, have a strong and bad impact. And that is what many people going "Oh it's irrelevant, why should I mention it?" are probably defaulting to.

This is an interesting exercise. I might give it a go, especially on my short stories where I think the white / middle class / etc defaults will show up a bit stronger. (My last two novels feature entirely non-white casts, though I'm sure an examination like this would reveal other gaps. Age, for instance, and ability.) Like you, I want to write diverse fiction. It's definitely worth opening my eyes to the ways I'm not doing that.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 2nd, 2009 09:51 pm (UTC)
Exactly.

If I'd included my novel drafts, I think the numbers would tilt to less white and less straight. But probably more able. That's a guess.
Kate Schaeferkate_schaefer on June 2nd, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Is an alien in the bathroom faucet part of the working class?

Well, is it?
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
n/a. :)
akabaakaba on June 3rd, 2009 06:02 am (UTC)
I very much enjoyed reading that sentence :)
(no subject) - badgerbag on June 3rd, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Rachel Swirskyrachel_swirsky on June 2nd, 2009 11:22 pm (UTC)
I've done this at various times.

Also, I think “Johnny looked in the mirror. Yep. Still Mexican.” could be awesome in the right context.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
See above. My bad example was a bad example of a bad example.
chasing the soul: flowerfronovapsyche on June 2nd, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
For the record, I rarely if ever assume that the narrator is "like me", that is, black and female. Usually, if a character is black, that is blatantly described in some way (except, notably, in Invisible Man by Ellis).
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:05 am (UTC)
Point taken. The way I wrote that sentence implies that all of my readers are white/heterosexual/male/etc. Which I know of course isn't true, but my careless phrasing points out just how insidious these things can be.
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - novapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 12:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - novapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 01:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 02:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
Entering the discussion late... - guppiecat on June 3rd, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Entering the discussion late... - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - novapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 12:21 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
Hmm... - ysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Hmm... - vylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
eub on June 3rd, 2009 08:25 am (UTC)
I'm impressed by how illuminating it can be to have a little concrete data. Thanks for doing this work.

It would be interesting to read a collection of authors each writing up this exercise.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:32 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
Ada Milenkovic Brown: Blues Singer Ada Brownaccordingto_ada on June 3rd, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
This sounds like a very useful exercise which I intend to try on my own stuff.

I wonder if we should be paying attention to major vs minor characters. Because you could have a protagonist of European heritage who encounters people of many demographics but all the major players are also caucasian. To me that would be less diverse than a story where the protagonist is GLBT and everyone else is heterosexual Scots-Irish 5th generation American. Especially if the GLBT character looks in the mirror and says, "Yep, still Mexican."
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
I do wish now that I'd tracked protagonists. Maybe I can do that really quick...

I also wish I'd done more classes: separating "upper" and "wealthy" for example. Doctors are not the same as tycoons. Also I wish I'd separated "working" from "poverty"; the AT&T phone rep is not the same as the Russian serf.

Probably a result of my middle-class background that I didn't think to split those.
(no subject) - guppiecat on June 3rd, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
badgerbagbadgerbag on June 3rd, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
this seems like a great thing to do as an exercise !
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
I admit, I thought I was procrastinating somewhat, but this turned out to be helpful to me.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on June 3rd, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Wow, neat meme! I've done the same over on my lj, thanks for the idea!
I’ve heard the arguments that class/race/whatever is often irrelevant to a character in a story
I've heard them, and I can see how they might work for some stories. I just can't work like that, though--I need to know about sociocultural background, religion and other stuff in order to know how the character will think, how they're more likely to react, what they're more likely to value...
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm so glad to see your results too.

Some of the unknown race characters are from modern America, where they could be almost anything. Others are in fantasyland, where their race is... well, unknown. Especially some of the flash fiction pieces. And sometimes I knew the characters' race, but it didn't fit into the story--so they come out "unknown" even though I know.

Maybe I should make another post as an example.
(no subject) - aliettedb on June 3rd, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Elizabeth Barretteysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)
Wow!
This is such a great idea. I'm ... not sure how my numbers would crunch out, if I tallied the sold stuff, the drafted stuff, etc. Not to mention thousands of poems. I am pretty sure that I should resist the temptation to do this exercise at the beginning of my busy-season. But I would love to do it someday, and shall recommend it to my readers. Thank you so much for sharing your data!
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
I stuck to published and circulating for just this reason.
Re: Wow! - ysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Wow! - vylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Marshall Paynemarshallpayne1 on June 4th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for putting this up! Reading yours really helped me put mine together.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! I'll check out your results.
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 on June 4th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - vylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 on June 4th, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
( 50 comments — Leave a comment )