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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.


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

Pretty straightforward.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

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?

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.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 2nd, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
Might have been me being snarky. You can use this bad example if you want: "Johnny was five foot nine and Mexican."

It's very hard to write examples with no context at all. The "better" example isn't one I'd open a story with because it's bland. My point was, there are subtle ways to indicate diversity without shoving it at the reader.
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!
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
Clearly I shouldn't try to make my bad examples funny!
(Deleted comment)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 2nd, 2009 09:51 pm (UTC)

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 :)
badgerbagbadgerbag on June 3rd, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Is it salaried or hourly? LOL!
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. Well, it's trying to eat human toddlers by baiting them with Halloween candy. That sounds like your average Republican to me. Shall we say upper class?
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
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.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:17 am (UTC)
And my apologies for not catching that as I wrote.
chasing the soul: sexytypewriternovapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 12:19 am (UTC)
I respect that you went through the effort to map out these characteristics. I know that the info will be useful to you as well as enlightening.

(As a poet, I generally don't have to worry about the race or class of the speaker of a poem. However, gender does sometimes come to the fore. I try to make the speaker as neutral as possible, though, so that more people can immediately identify.)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
I think class and race matter more than you're thinking they will. They influence things like whether a character feels accepted or at odds with the world. They influence things like what decisions are made, what images are noted... heck, I think class and race matter just as much to your poetry as they do to my fiction.

The personal becomes universal.
chasing the soul: bluejewelmasknovapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
What I meant to say was that I don't intentionally code class or race into the speaker of my poems. Not usually, anyway. There are times I use vernacular or mention specific body parts. But I strive to have a transparent speaker, if that makes any sense.

I agree that my class/gender/race influences my work as a whole.

Edited at 2009-06-03 01:45 am (UTC)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)
It does make sense, but I still think that attempts to make the universal narrator in this fashion lead to the assumptions that the narrator is white and upper/middle class.
guppiecatguppiecat on June 3rd, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
Entering the discussion late...
Would that not depend on the context of the work?

I've been re-reading Kipling lately, and there are some characters that are non-specific and "read" as white and upper class... but white and upper class in India during the English colonization period is extremely different from white and upper class in, say, Atlanta in 2150.

I'm seeing a lot of discourse about this issue in the SF community (and a lot of speechifying masquerading as discourse), but I've not seen much about the reader*. Yes, as a writer you should consider such issues, but it seems to me that there is a lot of responsibility to be placed on the reader. They are the ones contextualizing, and it seems that a more transparent narrator** as novapsyche uses would be more accessible to more readers. I am concerned that emphasis on current race/class/gender divides in Western culture just serves to limit the work in both space and time... especially in SF which is supposed to (at least to me) reach beyond the contemporary.

* Not working in the SF industry, I fully realize that there may have been such a discussion and I missed it.

** I may be unusual here, but if I'm reading a story that is based on a specific culture, I tend to assume an otherwise non-specified narrator matches a generalized stereotype of that culture. If the culture is a "generic Western future", I tend to assume that the character is non-racial (i.e. that race isn't much of an issue after several generations of cross-racial marriage). Similarly, in a fantasy setting, I tend to view characters as non-racial outside of your tropey human/elf/dwarf sort of thing.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Entering the discussion late...
I don't have a good answer here, sorry. I think that race won't disappear like this, though it may be reframed or redefined in some way. Someone else may have a better perspective.
chasing the soul: winkingsailormoonnovapsyche on June 3rd, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
No need to apologize. I took the question at face value. I wasn't offended or anything. :)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 12:24 am (UTC)
Good. But your point brought out an interesting observation. So thank you.
Elizabeth Barretteysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:05 am (UTC)
... but it makes me wonder if that affects how a writer works, because some writers do favor characters who are "like" them in some way(s). Octavia Butler wrote a lot about black characters. After a while, I tended to imagine her characters as some shade of brown unless the text specified otherwise.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmm...
I think it's different because that's something she explicitly and consciously chose. Not just something that is assumed, as in the case of readers who see only white characters.
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.
guppiecatguppiecat on June 3rd, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
Is there an existing sociological methodology to define classes? It seems like this could get so fine grained as to be useless data. For example, a doctor is different from a tycoon, but a third generation doctor is different from a doctor whose parents were migrant laborers. (And even then, the latter doctor, when older, is probably closer to the former doctor than when younger.)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
I think that kind of granularity wouldn't help an analysis like this. But I do think three main levels wasn't as detailed as I should have been (not counting the unusual classes). Five might have been more useful.

It's true that class boundaries are fuzzy. I just gave my best estimates.
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.
(Deleted comment)
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.
(Deleted comment)
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 3rd, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. And the two stories I've set in Europe both had Caucasian characters rather than unknown.
Elizabeth Barretteysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)
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.
Elizabeth Barretteysabetwordsmith on June 4th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
I might start there, for that reason, but I suspect it would skew my numbers: the more far-out stuff is harder to sell. *chuckle* Except for poetry now that I'm doing the fishbowls: my audience likes far-out writing and readily sponsors it.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
You could also just do work in the last 3 years. I noticed that most of my "unknown" were earlier stories; I think I'm getting better at specifics.
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.
Marshall Paynemarshallpayne1 on June 4th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
Cool! You have to drop down one post past where my apocryphal three-eyed toad died at the factory. ;-)

You seem to be so much better organized than the many of us.
Vylar Kaftanvylar_kaftan on June 4th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
Illusions are powerful.
Marshall Paynemarshallpayne1 on June 4th, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the add.