Friday, April 13, 2012

My mirror ain't like yours

Think back to the last book you read that didn't include a picture of the characters on the cover.  Before you started reading, did you assume they were of a certain race?  Were you correct?  If you were wrong, were you disappointed?

I ask these questions in light of the recent flare ups around the Internet in regards to characters in The Hunger Games.  I've not read the book or seen the movie, but one of the most beloved characters, who was described in the book as having brown skin turned out to be...brown in the movie.  And people were all "boo hiss, why's this little black girl in the movie, she totally ruined it.  Instead of an innocent white girl, we got a black girl."  The implication being that white equals innocence and black equals blah.  I don't even know how you look at this adorable kid and not ooh and ahh over her.  She's totally adorbs!

From the audience reaction comes an interesting conversation about what we see when we read.  Is it your assumption that characters are white, black, Asian? Why?  How do you decide, without a description of characters (and sometimes with), what your character looks like?  It would be easy to say that readers project their own image onto characters, but that's not always the case.

As a child, I distinctly remember assuming all of the characters I read about were white unless it was specifically pointed out that they were not.  I'm not white, so why that assumption? Because American history and media have dictated that white is the default color and everything else is "other."  It's this subliminal messaging that causes readers to disregard descriptions of characters and re-imagine them the way they think they should be.

As an adult, I'm much more likely to imagine characters based on the race of the author (if given no description), with the thought that writers write about what they know.  And that's not to say writers have to limit themselves when creating characters.  I believe that writers can do a fair job with enough dedication and research to the topic, as I touched on in last year's post Does It Matter Who Writes the Story As Long As It's Written?

So what's your default? When you pick up a book, what do you see?

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