Rethinking the Default

I’ve got a lot to say about this. How to organize my thoughts…

So a while ago, a fairly large review site posted a review of a book that was mostly positive. However, at the end of the review, they lamented the fact that the main characters were in an interracial relationship, but that fact wasn’t addressed and explored fully in the book. The reviewer felt that it was impossible for people in an interracial relationship not to receive backlash for it, and that the book should have addressed and included that backlash.

Similarly, another author I follow recently received a review for a short story they wrote in which both of the characters ID as trans. The story is a fairly short, cute romance, but the reviewer thought it was odd that the author didn’t delve deeper into the characters’ past, and their trans identities.

Noticing a trend?

Both reviewers assumed that if the characters belong to a minority, then that fact has to be addressed in the story. For them, the characters identities/race were just sitting there like a big elephant in the room waiting to be addressed, and they felt let down when it never was. Now, if the characters in the books had been white and cis, would they have reacted similarly? Felt let down if the white characters didn’t at some point contemplate their privilege over any non-white characters? Or if the cis characters never stopped to think about when they really realised that they were cis, and all the ways they perform their gender to make sure people know what it is? Probably not.

For most readers, characters who are white, cis and (for readers outside of m/m and f/f) straight, are the default. The invisible norm. They assume that characters are going to be this way unless they have a specific reason to be otherwise. Something that serves the story. The reason for this bias is our culture, and our culture’s stories. Mainstream movies, books, television shows. The vast majority of these stories have main characters who are white, cis and straight. And if they aren’t, you’d better believe that the story revolves around that fact. I read a post a while back that talked about famous, award winning roles by African American actors. The vast majority of them are roles that are based on real people, and real events. Black actors are very rarely allowed to step outside of specifically “black” roles and play characters who’s race isn’t the main point of the movie. (Unless, for some reason, they’re Will Smith.)

So, because of all this, we start to see white, cis, straight people as the “default” and everyone else as the “other”. Which is incredibly faulty logic, but it forms the basis for a lot of discrimination. And this default is no more present than in movies and books with straight, white, cis characters, and in the criticism of stories that feature the “other” without devoting the story to that fact. But when minorities hear criticism like this, what we’re hearing is “there is nothing interesting or important about you besides your struggle and your pain. You are not a full human being, with a life and interests and dreams beyond your struggle. No one wants to hear about you falling in love, or saving the world, or achieving your dreams, unless it is secondary to hearing about your subjugation.” And right now, it kind of feels like no one does.

That’s why it’s so important that stories exist with minority characters that don’t make that fact the main point of the story. And I’m not saying that stories about minorities’ struggles aren’t important. I’ve written them, and they can be incredibly useful in educating the public and changing people’s minds. But so can the stories that just have minority characters in them, for no reason except that those kinds of people exist in real life. We need these stories, and lots of them, so that maybe one day, the “default” will just be human.

I should note, also, that it seems to be much more common for authors to receive backlash for writing a minority character if they belong to that minority. There seems to be this very shitty universal assumption right now that if a white person writes a book about a POC, they’re being forward and brave and breaking stereotypes etc. but when a POC writes a book about someone like themselves, they have an “agenda” and the book needs to be more harshly critiqued. Which is bullshit, but there you go. I sometimes wonder if my decision to make Luke in Ink & Flowers of Chinese descent would have been more harshly criticized if I was Asian-Canadian myself, and I think that yes, it probably would have been. And that’s a problem, and something white authors have to keep in mind.

Getting off track a little here, but this topic is a whole can of worms that I could probably write a million more blog posts about. I’d love to hear people’s opinions in the comments. Have you ever read a book with a minority and felt that it was missing something by not being about their race/gender identity? Do you think “coming out” and “racism” narratives are still important, or that they should be retired for the time being in favour of more books and movies about “incidental minorities”? What are some defaults that you’ve had to unlearn, as a writer or as a reader? Let me know! And thanks for reading!


I’m excited to announce that Ink & Flowers will be available as an audiobook from Less Than Three Press on December 28th! LT3 now has a collection of audiobooks available for download on their website, and from Audible, Amazon and iTunes. Check it out!

Ink & Flowers [Audio]

About to lose his apartment, and desperate to avoid having to move in with his horrendous relatives, shy art student Luke impulsively agrees to a deal from hell: sex with a man he doesn’t know in exchange for a couch to sleep on.

His new “roommate” Cooper is everything that Luke hates: crude, uncouth, and covered in tattoos, not to mention openly gay. Luke has all but resigned himself to a miserable fate when it turns out Cooper might want something a little different than he expected.

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9 thoughts on “Rethinking the Default

  1. I know I had said a bit of my piece about this on Twitter, but thank you for this post. It’s rather depressing how many (typically white/straight/cis) individuals think every “other” needs their “struggle” to be the point of the narrative which really only forces readers to view them even more as the “other” and not a fully actualized person. As a reader I get sick of the stale stereotype plots that make you feel like you’re reading “Generic Coming Out Story #864” or what have you and crave those about characters who have a full, deep life about so much more than being one facet of their identity.

    As a writer, I try to avoid those tropes. Admittedly, I’m terrible about not having POC protagonists (I worry about my own cultural ignorances slipping out) but many of my stories feature characters whose race is ambigous or implied subtly but not the focal point because in the long run I have no interest in writing stories about cardboard cutouts.

    • Thanks for your comment, Amber! I know for me, it’s always a difficult tightrope between making characters who’s race or sexual orientation are the focus of the story, and making them too subtle or ambiguous. Because of the default, if a character’s race or sexual orientation isn’t clearly spelled out (and sometimes even if it is) people will still see them as white and straight. In a perfect world, no one would automatically assume that a character who’s race isn’t specified is white. But in the real world, we have to actively work against the default, to make sure that minority characters are visible.

  2. Reblogged this on Archer Kay Leah: Author of Romantic Fiction and commented:
    AND HOW.
    I recommend this article to everyone, whether you’re an author or a reader or just breathing. We need to step outside of narrow-mindedness and expectations. We need to embrace diversity, not just in people but in stories. There’s more to life than shoving people into boxes and regurgitating the same old stereotypes.

  3. This is a great post. Certainly it’s the type of post I’ll happily stand behind and share because I’m a big fan of diversity and getting over the default!

    With regards to your question ‘Do you think “coming out” and “racism” narratives are still important, or that they should be retired for the time being in favour of more books and movies about “incidental minorities”?’ : yes, I definitely do think that these are still important because they’re still problems. They will continue to be problems for a very, very long time, which is sad but a reality. As a species, we seem more interested on zeroing in on what makes us different from each other than all of the similarities, and belittling each other for them even though we can’t change them.

    But having said that, these should not be ALL there is. More authors need to write stories that don’t fall into these categories. Push expectations. Overstep that annoying little line society’s drawn into the sand. There’s room for all of these stories to exist, and literature needs to go there. People go there; so should our stories.

    Although change is difficult for many, and it takes stepping outside of ourselves to see what we could do differently. It doesn’t mean, however, any author should back down from presenting something different. So if someone presents a story where the minority part isn’t explored as being an “issue”, then I fully support them — no matter what the reviewers think. That’s the subjective part of art, not to mention the complete and utter assumption of the individual reviewer. If they see the world in “default”, that’s their problem. No author should be pressured to cater to it. The story is the thing. If the story doesn’t need it — if the characters and/or plot aren’t improved by it — authors shouldn’t worry about it. Just be aware of it.

    /drags away soapbox

    • Thanks for your reblog and reply! I definitely agree with you that coming out and racism narratives are still important, and probably always will be, the problem is just that seems to be all there is right now.
      Also I think the problem with a lot of these stories are that even when they’re about a minority, they’re still catering to the majority. All these movies about queer people being sad and dying are there so that straight people can understand us and empathize with us, but for queer folks, all we get is to be reminded of all the bad things that happen to us and be even more depressed. As a queer person, sometimes I just want to see a romantic, light-hearted story about someone like myself, and those kinds of stories are very sadly lacking. Someone attacking the stories that are there and criticizing them for not being depressing enough is kind of the last proverbial straw. >_<
      But yeah, I definitely don't mean this post to be super negative towards reviewers. Just to remind them to keep an open mind and think about the bigger picture and why they might feel uncomfortable when a story is different than they expect it to be.
      Thanks again!

  4. My very first reaction to reading this blog post was YES EXACTLY. I hate the assumption that because a protagonist happens to be [insert minority here], that the narrative has to explicitly address that. Which is not to say that I don’t believe stories that do address the issues faced by minorities shouldn’t be written, but as you say, the default shouldn’t be that the story has to address those issues because otherwise why bother???

    Something interesting I’ve noticed, though, particularly with including people of color. If you do not go out of your way to bring it up (say, if you describe your character as having dark skin a few times, but otherwise don’t mention it), people will whitewash. They absolutely do. Megan’s gotten fanart of her Harem series that has all of the men in the picture white as snow, despite the setting and descriptions that speak to their differences. I made a bigger deal out of Ackley’s skin color in Battle of Will because I didn’t want that to happen.

    A weird parallel here is that if you’re writing a gay romance and have unattached (male) side characters, readers tend to assume that those characters are also gay. (Is that a wishful thinking thing, a misogyny thing, a realistic (as in gay people hang out together) type thing?)

    But I’m getting off topic. ^^;; (One of the many reasons I never get my act together enough to write comments or blog posts. I meander. Fiction == all the edits, STG.)

    In any case, I grew up with stories of queer people (all white? I don’t know, I remember them all being white, but that could just be me whitewashing b/c I was young and stupid) who either (1) DIED tragically or (2) the narrative was all about their queerness (and usually they did not end happily either). It contrasted with my love of fantasy (where yeah, people die, seriously wtf is with all the death), where the stories were about people doing amazing things. 99.9% of the time they were straight white people, obviously, and then fanfic came and showed me the light. You could have queer people Getting Shit Done and finding love and not dying.

    Which is why 99.9% of what I write is queer fantasy that does not feature the MCs dying or narratives about coming out or homophobia. I don’t discount their importance! They are important, and I want to say particularly for younger queer people who are trying to find their way (which, incidentally is why I love that we’ve got two major YA imprints going from Dreamspinner and Riptide now). But for me personally, it’s more important to write about what a society free of stigma against queerness in its many flavors looks like. I want to read about and write worlds in which being LGBTQ is not an issue, where the main queer characters Get Shit Done (or don’t, and need rescued by other queer peeps ^__~).

    So I guess my answers to your questions are that nope, I don’t think a book is missing something if it includes a minority and doesn’t focus on their identity and the societal issues around it. I do think coming out, racism, and other such narratives are still important, but that stories ‘incidental minorities’ are just as important.

    And I think my biggest default that I’ve had to unlearn (which I’ve alluded to earlier in this lengthy, lengthy comment) is my propensity to whitewash.

  5. Great post, and a lot to think about. I was just reading another article about tendency in comic books to wound, maim, or kill off female characters simply to provide anger/motivation for the (male) hero characters, and all this has me thinking a lot about privilege and the assumption of the default.

    I’m a fantasy/romance author, but I’m also a leader and teacher within the Pagan community. Though I’m cis/het, I sort of became an accidental activist for glb and especially trans/genderfluid rights within the Pagan community. You’d think that Pagans, given that we ourselves are marginalized and discriminated against, would be more on top of things, but unfortunately some of the Pagan traditions are very hetero-focused, and very invested in the gender binary.

    That being said, if there’s one thing I have realized, as I stumbled into this kind of activism, it’s how much my own assumptions were part of the problem. I think that so often those of us coming from that place of privilege have these big blinders on. We are the default, right? And anything else is “other,” right? And we don’t even think about it until someone brings it to our attention. And…that’s a whole side tangent, because most people don’t deal well with finding out they’re coming from a place of privilege and being discriminatory. I didn’t deal with it well at first.

    I know that I’ve struggled to bridge my ethics and values as an activist with my fiction writing. Almost all of my characters are white, most are hetero, with the exception of the occasional menage. I’ve been reluctant to write a character that is a person of color because, even though my ex fiance’s Black, I don’t pretend that that gives me anywhere near the kind of insight to be able to write a realistic Black character that isn’t stereotyped or troped. Writing elves, sure. Vampires, sure, Werewolves, sure. Because I get to make it up.

    I’ll stop rambling, but I just wanted to thank you for giving me a lot to think about. Thanks!

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