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The Most Popular Characters in Literature Are Never People of Color

Think of the most popular books in our literary canon. Maybe your most favorite or the ones that top bestseller lists; even the ones you read in school. Mostly. Think of the most popular characters in literature. You’re probably thinking Harry Potter, characters from Shakespeare‘s plays, maybe even characters from fantasy, like The BFG.

These books are not written by people of color and do not feature prominent people of color as characters. But why? Yes, there are popular characters of color but only when the book is about their race, like in The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Toni Morrison‘s novels. Usually, the prominent theme in each is how their race has impacted their lives. The most popular characters in literature are never people of color, partially because they’re never there and if they are, the books they’re featured in are geared towards a specific demographic: their demographic. 

The problem stems from the lack of people of color as characters as well as in the publishing industry as a whole. 

1. Where it starts…

If you consider the names of people of color who have broken through as great writers of all time, we think of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Roxane Gay… Now, think of white authors who have achieved great fame and I bet you could go on for days naming them. 

There are few authors of color who are able to reach the kind of fame that Murakami and Morrison have. Thus, less “popular” characters of color exist in literature because:

1) Authors who write them aren’t able to achieve popularity

2) There aren’t enough publishers putting books out there by people of color

3) People do not consume them enough

2. Diversity within the business

This has to do in part with marketing and the overall makeup of the industry.

According to the Diversity Baseline Survey, which calculated the makeup for the publishing industry in 2015, 79% of the entire publishing industry is white: 86% at the Executive level, 82% in the Editorial department, 83% in sales, 77% in publicity, and 89% are book reviewers. While there are many authors of color out there writing books, there aren’t enough publishers to put them out there or market them. The Diversity Baseline data speaks to that.

If we want more representation on the shelves, there needs to be more diversity behind the scenes in the industry, pushing people to publish and make popular the books by and about people of color.  

3. Literature about diverse characters just don’t do as well

Not enough people read literature by or about people of color. 

This ties in to the above point. While there are novels out there about people of color and people of color writing them, they aren’t read as much as say, Harry Potter or Divergent. And while characters of color do exist within the realm of the popular novels, there are usually one or two thrown in between the pages. The “black best friend” or the “smart Asian friend”, even the “friend that just moved from out of the country” are the stereotypes that are frequently portrayed.  

4. Diverse characters are generally typecast

People of color are always represented in similar ways in literature.

For the most part, people of color are portrayed in the same ways. Race/the way race affects the characters as well as family and friendships are go to themes. Stories about black people are usually about slavery, such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad 

If you compare that to characters portrayed as white, for example, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, etc, then there’s a unique distinction. Katniss and Tris save the world. They are superhuman, powerful figures that we all look up to. But where’s the superhuman character for people of color? Some are there, but usually to support white characters. 

Katniss and Tris have struggles and fight to overcome those, but they are always external. People of color are always faced with the fact that they are just that – people of color. Characters like Katniss and Tris never have to struggle with the fact that they are white.

Conclusion

I want to see people of color in books that top charts and get movie deals. Don’t get me wrong, I love and cherish literature by Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and authors who write complexly about race, but I think there needs to be more of a selection. In addition to those great works, we need our own Katniss and Tris. Our own Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. There are books out there like that, but to be recognized, there needs to be an endless list that we can point to and reference.

The industry needs to recognize that there is a market for these books. People like me are literally writing how there’s not enough diversity. People are turning to self-publishing to get their diverse books out there, because no one else will take it. 

People of color have unique stories to tell. We should never stop talking and writing about race, because in order to understand the problems we face today, we need to understand where we started. In addition to that, we need to create literature that will expand on our stories. We need people of color at the forefront of adventure stories and fantasy novels. We need to keep creating diverse literature, because that is who we are. We are a group of diverse people and literature only representing some of us, does not represent all of us.  

 

Featured image courtesy of The Atlantic