Welcome to Urban Fantasy 101, where we look at Dos and Donts along with discussions about good and tropes when writing Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance stories. Later on there’ll be themed book reclists (AKA – Required Reading) and eventually we’ll even include guest posts from/interviews with published authors writing diversity into these genres.
It’s been a couple of years since I read the last Southern Vampire Mysteries book from Charlaine Harris or watched the show, but one thing that really made the series difficult to consume (aside from well… a lot of other stuff with regard to sexual content) was how the vampire Bill Compton was originally a soldier in the side of the Confederate Army.
I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to sympathize with or even like a character that fought on the side of the Confederacy. It doesn’t matter what he does in the present day story or even if they’re a current crusader for justice. They were a part of something horrible in history and chances are, that they weren’t forced into it.
I still remember watching those first few episodes of True Blood and just frowning at the way that the townspeople in Bon Temps were fawning all over Bill. I felt so uncomfortable. It wasn’t only the fact that he was a vampire in their tiny town that had them losing their minds, but that he was old enough to have fought in the Civil War – on the side of the Confederacy.
I’m betting that Bon Temps isn’t a place where I’d feel comfortable living…
Or how about how several vampires in the universe of The Vampire Diaries were slave-owners or supported them? Marcel was a slave owned by a human that the Mikaelson’s were close-ish too and then once Klaus turned him, he had to deal with what was undoubtedly racism from Klaus in his attempts to be with Rebecca. There’s no way that racism doesn’t shore up the nasty way that Marcel is treated by several of the other white characters that don’t treat similar behavior as harshly when it comes from white vampires.
Back in the day, Anne Rice gave us Louis and while he’s darling, he also owned slaves. On top of owning a plantation, he also (with Lestat’s help) killed and psychologically tortured many of those same slaves. It was quite distressing to read and okay, I read Interview With A Vampire when I was twelve and thirteen years later, Rice’s “good” vampires are still actually awful. Like across the board.
Hell, I literally stopped reading that Dark Secrets paranormal noir anthology I bought a few months ago because of the first story that was so laden with period typical racism and anti-blackness within the first few pages that I felt unclean.
The main hero in the first story (written by Rachel Caine, I believe) was so racist and so casual about it that I found myself unable to continue on. I can’t even bring myself to read the rest of the stories in the anthology because I’m so worried that there’ll be more of that kind of thing.
If the hero is racist (and still supposed to be sympathetic), what can I expect from the rest of the story/book?
Is your vampire a soldier in a war? Was he on a side of (relative) good? Or was he fighting the good fight to marginalize people and reinforce values that left people homeless, hurting, and subject to horrific oppression? (Seriously, your Spanish vampire that fought in the Crusades and your werewolf agent of British imperialism are incredibly worrisome because have you seen what they were known for in terms of oppression?)
This isn’t me saying that any urban fantasy or paranormal author absolutely shouldn’t create main characters who were Confederate soldiers or slave owners or anything historically awful. Not really. But here’s the thing:
When you introduce a character whose historical background or backstory revolves around him being actually awful (with regard to race) as not only your main character, but the sympathetic lover getting the girl/boy/non-binary babe (even if it’s just for a little while), it sends a message.
It can pull readers straight out of the story and maybe even ruin their day or experience reading your work because it’s almost always unexpected AND handled poorly. Seriously, your drive for “historical accuracy” shouldn’t come at the expense of readers who would for once, just like to read stories where they’re not told to empathize with someone that would’ve owned them a couple hundred years ago.
There’s a difference between reading Raymond Chandler or Ian Fleming in 2015 (when you expect that their racism will inform the characters’ racism) and reading anything from a NYT bestseller written in the year you’re reading it and dealing with racism there. I mean, it’s something that’s definitely jarring to people of color and I know that it’s hard to talk about because sometimes, we just want to read a good book about vampires finding their mates. We don’t want to be yanked out of the story because we find out that the main character owned slaves in the South or that they’re casually dismissive of issues.
We don’t actually want to feel like we need to start up discourse about how these important immortals we’re supposed to love or the heroes working on the side of the angels make us feel as if we’d be unsafe around them.
I think that authors need to be more aware of the history behind characters and how that history informs their actions in the stories that they’re telling now.
One reason I see that people give for writing without taking these things into consideration is that they don’t feel comfortable writing this sort of thing out or thinking about their characters that way. I get it. It’s difficult to tackle because there’s this fear of getting things horribly wrong, but not considering these things isn’t the answer because it comes across as poor research and character design at best and outright ignorance and erasure at the worst.
These writers should ask themselves the hard questions when writing characters who are of a certain age in UF/PR stories depending on where they live.
Did these immortal characters support certain wars, certain laws? What side were they on? How have they historically reacted to change and opposing oppression?
Seriously, if your vampire was a slave owner in their human life, how do they handle being around Black people now? What are their interactions with characters of color (human and otherwise) like?
How did these characters live through periods where people of color wanted to receive their due civil rights? How are they handling the here and now with police brutality and terrorism and endless systematic racism? Do they own slaves now? (Here’s looking at the UF/PR authors that give us archaic vampire culture that revolves around owning human/shapeshifter/etc because it’s honorable or tradition but don’t really make an effort to look at the effects of slavery or why a slave-owning hero isn’t all that heroic.)
Don’t overlook stuff like that because you don’t want to dwell on the ugliness. What happens is that readers see A (the fact that your immortal owned people) and C (that they’re not doing it now and could be considered a “good” guy) but they’re not seeing B (what got them to this point and how they feel about it).
It looks lazy, feels uncomfortable, and doesn’t provide readers – especially readers of color – with a good reason to come to terms with that character’s backstory. After all, why should we like characters that don’t look as if they’d like us?