Why we need to write fewer white male protagonists
If you are looking for an audience for your stories you could do a lot better than targeting white able-bodied blokes. That market is already saturated.
There are a lot of people hoping to read about people like themselves. You are missing out on willing readers if you ignore them.
There is nothing wrong with white protagonists
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with white dudes (at least I hope not because I one) but if you are really interested in telling interesting and varied stories with interesting characters, then it is time to expand your character palate.
We writers have an amazing opportunity to create characters that can be role models that inspire people. That inspiration can be as simple as seeing someone like you achieving. So why do most of us choose to have straight white male dudes as our protagonists?
As a white dude, I have a huge array of super-heroes, action heroes, and all sorts of other heroes to aspire to. In marketing terms, I have too much choice. That choice means that I am pretty unlikely to get all that excited about your story. Of course, if it has cool spaceships in it you might be okay because I have a bit of an addiction to those but you are still going to have to compete with a lot of classics I still have on my reading list.
Choose a different market segment
While I have all the white male protagonists I could want to read about, I have none that are exactly like me. If your story were about a dyspraxic geek with ankylosing spondylitis and a problem with weight loss, well, you might just find me pre-ordering your book on principle. Even if there are not many cool spaceships to be seen.The reason for that is that I do not have a wide range of choices when it comes to fat semi-crippled geek role-models.
The same is pretty much true of the vast majority of the whole spectrum of humanity. The only reason we write male characters more than female and able bodies more than less able is that this is what we grew up reading.
Dylan Alcott told a TED conference in Sydney that what disabled kids need to see is disabled people achieving so they knew they can achieve too. As writers, we can make that happen.
The world is full of interesting people achieving
The real world is full of interesting people achieving so why not reflect that in our writing? Take this young record breaker, for example.
Isn’t it time to stop telling the one story
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED conference talk on “The danger of the single story”. Her stories show us that the limited view of others reduces them from complex and interesting people to some single story.
We call these single stories “stereotypes”. They are unhelpful through being woefully incomplete.
Diversity must be natural, and sensitive
It is one thing to decide to broaden your appeal beyond young white males but quite another to deal with other cultures without sufficient understanding. Cliches and stereotypes are not enough. A badly written dyslexic hero is going to do more to put me off than inspire me. If you were thinking of doing that please stick tot he standard white protagonists.
Justine Larbalestier suggests, in an article called “how to write protagonists of colour when you’re white” that you should be calling on the services of a very sepcial branch of beta-readers – sensitivity readers. A sensitvity reader can help you make sure that you’re not being offensive unwittingly but they cannot do your research for you.
The case against writing outside of your race
The blog, Read Diverse Books, makes a strong case for not just forcing people of colour into the protagonist role just because of some guilt about being white. That is not helpful at all. That much I can agree with.
The article suggests that white people should stick to white protagonists. I’m not sure if I fully agree with their whole point but forced diversity n your story is cheap and should be avoided, that much should be clear.
The case for writing outside of your race
Writers Unboxed have a guest article that I suggest you read. It makes a strong case for writing characters that do not just include your own race. By extension, this case would apply for writing outside of your own abledness (or lack thereof). The case for crossing cultures, ability, and gender. To tell stories about people. Stories that are rich and diverse.
A rich diversity of characters is the path to success
Crafting a rich diversity of different characters with different skills, problems, races, genders, preferences, and the whole spectrum of humanity is key. It is, quite possibly, the key to commercial and cultural success as a writer. It might be a strange thing to talk about commercial success. The truth is that it is rare for a writer to be culturally influential and not also be commercially successful too.
Adventure stories do not have to be just about white dudes on motorbikes. Love stories do not have to be only about middle-class girls and handsome princes. Quite frankly these are both boring to me because (as a semi-able geek with average looks and a tendency to write blog posts) I cannot relate to them at all.
There is nothing wrong with writing strong white protagonists. There is nothing wrong with making them male and able-bodied. Just don’t write only that one character.
If you want to find success as a writer do this one thing. Find a group of people, learn all you can about them, and then write stories that contain characters that those people can relate to. Not only will literature be richer for such a contribution but your life will be too.