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(For reference, I am not white. I've asked another question about race here).

So I'm pretty far into writing my dystopian novel and I was reading over what I had. Something that helps me when I first start a novel is to get a clear picture of my characters in my head and put a face to a name, so I usually sculpt a personality and find a Google image of someone who I think matches that, and I put all of those into documents for my personal reference. I looked over my main five characters--Analise, Poet, Shove, Star, and Nova--and then suddenly something jumped out at me. Analise is Hispanic, Shove is Japanese, and Poet, Star, and Nova are all black.

I had forgotten about their races because it wasn't important to me and I had not noticed while I was writing, because the story isn't about their racial backgrounds. But is it, I don't know, somehow alienating or offensive to white readers that the characters aren't white, and that no main characters are white?

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    How is the race of these characters mentioned or alluded to in your writing? – Laurel Jan 25 at 4:16
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    What's the skin color of Winston Smith from 1984? Did Orwell ever mention that? – Philipp Jan 25 at 9:46
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    Preface: I've read a couple of your other questions about your books. I'm a white guy that hates identity politics. I don't like when unrealistic diversity is forced in media, or being preached to. Point: Even if I think taking offense at such things is silly, thank you for caring about the "other side" enough to ask the question. Many media/content producers today seem too blinded by tribalism and social narratives to apply the Golden Rule, and I appreciate that you are doing that. I would like to read your novel when you are through – automaton Jan 25 at 23:03
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    About the question itself: This is just one opinion, but I don't like when a token minority character is thrown in when they would obviously be out of place in any realistic sense. I don't think a token white person should be thrown in as a main character simply for the sake of diversity. Ignore the trolls, learn from constructive critics, and at the end of the day write what you want to write. A good story can come from any cast of characters – automaton Jan 25 at 23:14
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    Perhaps I'm reading too much into the title (that made me picture a contrastless demographic). If it had been, is it ok to have an otherwise diverse cast that has no Caucasians? Then I'd see no problem. – Mazura Jan 25 at 23:55

16 Answers 16

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The answer I'll give you here is the same as the ones I've already given you and others: write what works for you. If these are who the characters are, then that's who they are. If you're forcing diversity, then it will come off as forced. That includes making some characters white just to be diverse.

Will you alienate or even offend some white readers? Yes.

But this is not the type of offense to worry about. Some people are so used to being in the mainstream everywhere and for everything, that they loudly protest when suddenly they're not. If they don't like your story, they can go literally anyplace else to find beautiful, stirring, authentic depictions of all sorts of white people. Even within works about people of color.

Some people will argue that this is exactly the same as novels only including white people. But, no. It isn't. Because representation isn't just about a single work. It's about the entirety of our culture. Americans (and most Westerners) find white people so central to their understanding of the universe that they insert them in places they might not otherwise be and tell entire stories set in nonwhite worlds from the white character's point of view. (I just watched The Last King of Scotland which does exactly this...they invented a white character for this very purpose...in a movie about real events in Uganda.)

Write the story that matters to you.

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    You already nailed it, so I'm not even going to write an answer, lol. The only thing to add is that people forget that "white" (we could talk forever about the problems inherent in that term) people are not even a global majority. If you took a hundred humans from the planet, at random, there actually wouldn't be all that many white folks, comparatively speaking. So, depending on the hows and wheres and whys, it is, ironically very possible that a cast of color is actually more true to life than the inverse. – user49466 Jan 25 at 3:01
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    In Brandon Sanderson's epic The Stormlight Archive series, most of the characters have tan or darker skin, dark hair, and almond-shaped eyes. The Shin, an isolated people with fair skin and round eyes, are considered just kinda weird by pretty much everybody. Sanderson is white, as am I and also the majority of his readers, and I'm not aware of anyone having any problem with this, because the setting is intentionally very, very different, so this just sort of fits. (How different? The Shin land is the only place in the world that has familiar things like birds, horses, and topsoil.) – Mason Wheeler Jan 25 at 16:38
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    Sanderson has said that he did this intentionally because he wanted something that was as far from the "standard fantasy setting" as he could get, while still being something that readers could relate to. And really, he does such an excellent job of telling the story that you don't feel like you're reading something that "doesn't represent you" as a white reader; you just feel like you're reading something that's awesome and interesting and fun! – Mason Wheeler Jan 25 at 16:41
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    @vsz It doesn't sound like you've understood my argument then. Repeatedly choosing white-only settings is indicative of it's own bias. And if the only way to "target certain audiences" is to remove POC from your world, that's a bad sign. – user49466 Jan 28 at 18:54
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    @user49466 : so, if someone is Scottish, and likes medieval history, therefore predominantly writes historical novels set in medieval Scotland, it meas an evil racist bias? We should force such an author to write contemporary or sci-fi novels set in New York, or in Africa! Or we should force such an author to include anachronistic characters (just like BBC did with their "historical" cartoons). – vsz Jan 29 at 5:01
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Novels are not a visual medium. Your readers never actually see your characters.

So unless the racial background of your characters is relevant for your story, you can easily get away with never actually telling your reader their skin color or eye shape. You said that you had "forgotten about their races because it wasn't important to you". When it isn't important to you, then it likely isn't important to your story and it isn't important to your readers either.

So just never tell the reader what race your characters are and let them insert whatever they feel their race should be. In the unlikely case that anyone then gives you feedback asking "why is there no character of [ethnicity] in your book?" ask them back "why are you so sure that [random character] isn't [ethnicity]?". When they give you a good reason why they think that's implausible, then there are two possible reasons:

  1. The reader has racist preconceptions and applies them to your characters (like "someone of [ethnicity] would never have [job] or do [action] or hold [opinion]"). Some people just are that close-minded. There is nothing you can do about that.
  2. The reader is actually right and you did write the character as a racial stereotype. In that case, make sure your characters are not primarily defined by their race.
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    To add to this: bringing something up which isn't important to the story could very well just be a distraction. On the other hand, describing how characters look (which may or may not include race, and which may or may not clearly imply some race) helps readers better visualise what's going on and get more immersed, so it may be a bit of a trade-off. – NotThatGuy Jan 25 at 20:17
  • You can even describe your characters. Unless you really focus on the race, half of the white readers will just assume the characters are white anyway, no matter how you describe them. – TheEspinosa Jan 28 at 13:49
  • There's a serious problem here though. To quote NK Jemisin "In American society, for example, it’s very rare to see people of color in fiction, especially SF/F, and when PoC appear it’s frequently as a stereotype or caricature. Your readers will be used to this, and it will affect their thinking, even if they believe that racism is wrong. So if you don’t explain/describe what race your characters are, most American readers will assume the character is white." – Laurel Feb 11 at 5:48
  • I would disagree with this. If the visual isn't important, why do we describe a character's surrounding? Because although a fiction story isn't technically a visual experience, it is an experience which engages the visual. Virtually. If you hide the fact of a character's race you are deliberately deceiving your readers. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jul 5 at 15:59
  • Why would you bother do that? Not for any story reason (mystery novels will legitimately lead readers to make false assumptions as part of the story) but because you are afraid of offending some racially-biased special snowflakes out there who probably wouldn't read your novel anyway if they knew the author wasn't white. Just describe the characters, so that people who want to be able to visualize the character correctly, and more on. Most people will, as you say, not even notice the description. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jul 5 at 16:01
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My answer is somewhat similar to the ones already given, even from a slightly different perspective.

I had forgotten about their races because it wasn't important to me and I had not noticed while I was writing, because the story isn't about their racial backgrounds

You already got the hang of it. If it's not important to you as you're writing it, if it's not the focus, it ought not be important at all.

Your job as a writer is to make your audience care for your characters, showing their personality and their struggles. Racial and ethnic labels aren't needed, and in fact they might even be detrimental.

Think of it from the opposite point of view: do you want your book to be liked by hispanic people because the MC is hispanic? Do you want black people to root for the three blacks in your cast?

Or do you want this to happen because they are well-rounded, interesting characters, caught up in a compelling plot?

The real offensive thing nowadays is the underlying assumption, in many medias, that the audience won't be able to empathize unless given a token character of the same demographic. We're humans before being black or white.

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    I agree with those folks who have argued that the lack of non-white faces shouldn't be a problem, although I want to argue against 'color blindness': you as the author should not be able to forget the character's ethnicities ... because their ethnicities will have an influence on who they are. My comic book (in a very visual medium!) has a lead who is Latino, and I pretty much write him simply as 'an American' in that he works in an office and wears a suit and doesn't drop Spanish phrases all the time; but I never forget he's Latino because, frankly, he wouldn't.. – El Cadejo Jan 25 at 20:42
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    Echoing El Cadejo, this answer makes me think of the notion of the "invisibility of Whiteness". I think only a throughly white character could successfully pass as this sort of race-agnostic character to a white reader (like myself). Either that or the plot takes place in an alternate universe in which race per se does not exist. – jberryman Jan 25 at 22:56
  • Sara Costa argued better than me in her answer. I wasn't advocating for color blindness, but against racial labelling. Even if in some places the prejudice on "races" is strong, we don't have to perpetuate it in our writing. To me, culture is more influential on the growth of an individual that whatever was the genetic markup of his parents. In the dystopian setting that weakdna is writing, presumably in the future, what is a Latino person supposed to be like? How did Latino culture change, and how did it affect her MC? Those are legitimate questions. Discussing about skin tones, imho, is not. – Reinstate Monica. Jan 28 at 8:44
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Analise is Hispanic, Shove is Japanese, and Poet, Star, and Nova are all black.

Racial terms are relative. In English, people categorize people in specific racial categories, inherited from the Western race classification system. I can instantly tell that you are using the Western race classification system - Black, White, Yellow, Red. "Yellow" is now deemed offensive, so it is replaced by "Asian" or a specific "Asian" group. In the United States, "Asian" refers to people of Far Eastern descent and appearance. In the United Kingdom, "Asian" refers to people of South Asian descent and appearance. "Red" is now deemed offensive as well, and it is replaced by "American Indian" or "Native American". However, "Black" and "White" remain as race classification terms. It is obvious that the Original Poster is thinking in American racial terms. Poet, Star, and Nova are all Black. Shove is Japanese. And Analise is Hispanic. From an American POV, anyone from Central and South America who speaks Spanish as a mother tongue would be "Hispanic", even though the Central and South Americas have gone through the same amount of colonialism as North America. The only difference is that North America is mostly colonized by England and France, while Central and South America are colonized by Spain and Portugal. Yet, "White people" in North America probably don't identify with people of European origin in Central and South America, so they box the people in a separate category called "Hispanic".

In contrast, the Chinese people view race differently. In the Chinese language, if you look like a foreigner and behave like a foreigner, then you will get labelled as a foreigner(外国人,老外). So, Poet, Star, Nova, Shove, and Analise are all foreigners. If you are of Han people or 55 ethnic minorities in People's Republic of China, according to Zhong Hua Min Zu(中华民族), then you are part of the Chinese people or Chinese "race". In the Chinese language, there is also the Western concept of race, 种族, which is used to describe the physical characteristics of Chinese people and foreign people. So, the indigenous Russian people of PRC are racially Chinese (中华民族), but have "white" characteristics(白种人).

I had forgotten about their races because it wasn't important to me and I had not noticed while I was writing, because the story isn't about their racial backgrounds. But is it, I don't know, somehow alienating or offensive to white readers that the characters aren't white, and that no main characters are white?

If the race is not important to you, then why do you mention the race in the first place? You can just create characters and let the reader fill in the blank. If the reader imagines a White character or non-White character, then so be it. You don't have to spell everything out for the reader. Given that you are following the Western/American classification of race, if you allow your work to be translated into Chinese, then your Chinese reader will be able to tell that you are writing from an American perspective, with American/Western perceptions of race. You can say whatever you want about being inclusive and adding in minority characters, but your Japanese character will probably feel like an American character to an actual Japanese reader, reading the novel in Japanese translation.

I am going to assume that the OP is American, because of his/her race classification system. As a Chinese-American, I am aware of the popular trend in literature: more non-White characters. Somehow, including non-White characters will make non-White readers attach to the characters more. But the truth is, writers are people. And people write based on what they know and experience. A story about a fictional Chinese character written in English by a White American author who does not speak any variety of Chinese will feel distinctly different from a fictional Chinese character written in Chinese by a Chinese author who speaks Chinese as a native language. While the White American author wants to insert in non-White characters in the work, the author is limited by his or her personal knowledge and experience.

If the character's race is irrelevant, then the Original Poster should just write the story. The reader will assume whatever race for the characters. Maybe the Original Poster sees Shove as Japanese, but a Japanese reader reading the Japanese translation of the story opines that Shove is American or non-Japanese. In fact, the character can be of any race. It's the bilingual translator's job to make the characters appeal to a specific language group and a specific people. Take a look at the Bible. The Bible is a work that has been translated in several different languages, and people from all over the world picture Jesus and Mary (mother of God) in several depictions. Do people really care about Jesus' original race? No.

My suggestion for the OP is this: just leave a blank on the race part. Just don't mention it. The character's race can be anything the reader imagines the character to be. If the reader imagines Shove as White despite the author's intention, the author should not freak out and punch herself or himself in the face. Rather, the author should understand why Shove is portrayed as a White character with a weird Japanese name or East Asian appearance. Maybe Shove is a Banana, a person who is yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

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Speaking as a white person, I can't imagine that I would be offended that a story contained no white characters. Depending on the setting, it might or might not seem odd. I mean, if the story is set in a major city in Sweden and there are no white people in sight, that might seem peculiar. But if it's set in Africa and everyone around is black, or it's set in Japan and everyone is Asian, well that's pretty much what I'd expect.

If the story is set in some diverse place, like 21st century America or Europe, and all the main characters are non-white but they run into white people now and then, that would also seem totally normal to me.

I've seen some movies where the main characters were black and while I guess I'm race-conscious enough that I noticed, it didn't stop me from watching the movie or affect my opinion of it.

Are there racists out there who would say, "I don't want to read no story about a bunch of n----rs"? I suppose. I'd tend to not worry about it.

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This started out as a comment, but got too big and I decided to change it into an answer, focusing on the OP's last question:

But is it, I don't know, somehow alienating or offensive to white readers that the characters aren't white, and that no main characters are white?

Being white or dark-skinned depends a lot on culture. I'm from Southern Europe and I consider my skin rather light. While in the UK for a spell, I was told my skin was dark and my first thought was 'are these people colour blind?' - if you draw your face and paint it using a light coloured pencil, then the skin isn't dark, it's light. It makes no difference if you're from China, Mexico or Norway. The skin is light coloured.

Anyway, I feel the obsession with breaking down people by race (Hispanic, black, Chinese) is annoying, whether it's done in a racist or an inclusive way. Do we really look at a person and the first impression we get is their race? Yes, I admit that I notice skin colour, much like I notice hair colour, but race? We're not in the 19th century anymore to talk about races like they're a real thing! The only reason I notice skin colour is because it's a distinguishing feature on par with hair colour and length, or eye colour, not because it makes someone a different race.

To answer your question, to see light skinned people called non-white (in films or TV) is annoying to the point of pulling me out of a story. It's one of the things I most hate in a lot of American based story-telling: everything boils down to white and non-white, with non-white being specifically termed Hispanic, Arabic or whatever. How can people even tell where one (or one's parents or grandparents) are from? When I'm reading a novel, having characters described as Hyspanic does feel alienating because even within an ethnic group there is a wide variety of appearance, both in skin tone and hair colour.

It is so, SO refreshing when a story ignores all that and simply treats characters as normal people, even if they're described as having light or dark skin (because of visualising their image, not because they're part of a race or a mixed race or whatever).

Do write a refreshing book in that aspect, please. Especially if the story is not supposed to focus on racism.


Edit in reaction to some comments:

I'm very much aware of racism, make no mistake. I know that people will discriminate based on skin tone and ethnic background and I do not think that particular reality should be ignored or overlooked in fiction. However, if a story is not supposed to tackle racism, then why must characters be characterised into 'races'? That was the point I (may have) failed to make clearly.

Allow me to present it in a different view: if we have a story set in current day USA and if the characters are 'racially categorising' each other, then it makes sense to present a character as Hispanic because that is how the world within that narrative sees the character.

But if the story is set elsewhere or in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world where race is not a thing anymore, or even in a present day location where locals do not do racial profiling, then presenting a character as Hispanic will be inserting the racial categorisation that doesn't exist within the fictional world.

The reason why the constant 'racial profiling' annoys me is that it expects me, the reader, to see the character first and foremost as the race they supposedly belong to. Tell me a character's family is Mexican or that a character is black as a way to physically describe an individual character, not as the moniker I'll remember them by. To use the OP's example, I do not want to remember Analise as the Hispanic or Poet as the black person. I want to remember Analise as the one who makes silly jokes and Poet as the one who is always on the look out for old books.

Again, even though I live in a sheltered area, I am still much aware of racism around me, so I have to wonder: if one wants to diminish racism, why keep on using race as the main descriptor or identifier of a character. Let them be individuals we can relate to despite skin colour.

And my appologies for the long rant.

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    A lot of what you call "obsession" is reality in the United States. So not acknowledging race has a very different meaning here than it might for you. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 25 at 16:01
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    Mazel tov, somebody said it! Heck, Hebrew, my mother tongue, doesn't even have a word for 'race'. We have a word for 'breed' as in 'dog breed', and it's the one used to describe the pseudo-scientific twaddle that was so popular in the middle of last century, but it is understood to be not applicable to humans. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 25 at 16:29
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    @Cyn: while I don't want to seem confrontational, I must ask you one question (I'm assuming you're American based on your answer, which seems to imply personal experience; apologies if it's not the case): does the average American really look at any person they've just met and categorise them as likely Hispanic, Arabic, Chinese...? Does the average person really go about racially profiling those around them? – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 25 at 21:06
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    Absolutely. The problem with color blindness though is that it erases people's cultures and experiences. "See, you're just like us white people except your skin is darker (etc)." It's a form of assimilation, but one that isn't about learning to be like a native in a new country...rather, only the ruling culture counts. It also, as you point out, makes invisible the reality of racism. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 25 at 21:59
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    ...'treat everyone as people and accept the different standards of different cultures as neither is above the other'. If I can accept different cultures whitin my country and within the same genetic make-up of people, why can I not accept the cultures of people from elsewhere without judging those cultures? Besides, it is absolutely essential that we do not forget the evils done in the name of race and culture and civilization, but it is also essential that we go beyond it and accept once and for all that different cultures are equally worthy. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 25 at 22:14
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But is it, I don't know, somehow alienating or offensive to white readers that the characters aren't white, and that no main characters are white?

Yes, some people will be offended, just like people are offended when there aren't any BAME characters in shows or movies - but this is your world, and you choose what happens there.

But, to give you some more arguments to keep going with your lineup, remember that a group of 5 with no white person is not "unrealistic" and wont look like you're intentionally leaving white people out of your story.

If it would be, say, an earth-like scenario where no white people exist at all, I would have my doubts - but a group of 5 where coincidentally no one is white is a completely normal thing.

Also, I actually doubt that anyone will notice the "lack" of whiteness at all if you don't rub it under the readers nose - of course, if your first sentence is "It was a group of five, of which no one had white skin" that wouldn't be very sensitive.

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Just want to add to @xyn's excellent answer, it isn't necessarily out of any bad will or intent that white people might be alienated. The more different a character is from me, the more difficult it is to relate to him or her. This goes for almost any aspect of characterization. Having a different colour of skin is just a slight "dent" in being able to relate to him. Meant with respect. It just depends on the fact if that is everything the character is. If he is just a character with a different ethnicity, and that is all he is, I will have difficulty relating to him. If he is from a different ethnicity, and has many other aspects that influence his character, I almost certainly won't notice.

Think of Jules Winnfield from Pulp fiction. He isn't different from Vincent Vega because he is black, but because his entire character is different. I can relate to many aspects of his character, because he has so many things that make him interesting. Him turning religious after him apparently being part of a miracle. How he handles it. What that means for the story. Him being or not being black barely changes his character.

Think of Captain Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You would think he would be the most box checking character there is. He's black and homosexual. But it doesn't feel like that, because it isn't the only thing he is. He's tough, a hard worker, very precise, all things people can relate to or aspire to be. His sexuality or ethnicity influence his character, but don't dictate who he is. His character dictates how he deals and shows those things.

So what I'm trying to say is, good characters don't rely on what they look like or what they represent. They rely on their interesting aspects, the things that breach the stigma. What it means for them, and makes them who they are. How they handle it. In the end were all just humans with similar problems and struggles. And these problems come in many different packages, but often are the same deep down in the core.

So you shouldn't worry too much about your characters being non white, worry more about who they are as a person.

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Does it matter? Not really. Write people, not colours.

Read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, and you have to be quite alert to notice any mention of Fat Charlie and Daisy Day's skin colour. I certainly know I didn't on my first read, and I had to go back and re-read when I hit a cognitive dissonance moment of "how does a regular English guy have a family into voodoo?" That didn't mean I disliked the book - it meant Gaiman had done a great job of writing.

Or film-wise, one of the big recent films has been Black Panther. I haven't seen any signs of the skin colour of the majority of the cast affecting its takings. :)

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    Must be a Neil Gaiman thing-- I got to the last few pages of American Gods and suddenly it occurred to me that I didn't really have a mental picture of what race Shadow is (Or Laura for that matter). Not that it mattered particularly in the context of the story. But it seems that race doesn't much enter into his POV characters, although it certainly is alluded to for much of the rest of the cast. Pretty clever, if you ask me. – Meg Jan 25 at 19:03
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    @Meg, Robert Heinlein is similar. Take Starship Troopers: it's rather hammered home that Shujumi is Japanese. But what about Johnny Rico? Sergeant Jelal? Carmen? (Hint: "Johnny" isn't a diminutive of "John".) – Mark Jan 26 at 0:21
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Depending on your world and how far it is in the future, it actually might be an interesting social commentary...

What we think of as the standard definition of whiteness is nothing more than a political construct.

There was a time in Europe where only Anglo Saxon (which includes the nordic people) were considered white.

Then Germany lost 2 world wars, all of a sudden, white now includes everyone who isn't asian or black. Except, Middle eastern asians are now white, especially in america. In Europe, Middle Eastern Asians are definitely not white.

But even if we follow the US rule, one still needs just 1 drop of black blood to be black.

The point being, in your future, maybe there are simply no more white people, not because of genocide but because everyone got too mixed to be white. Or maybe it is no longer politically cool to be white, so that whole vague label got abandoned.

I don't think any of this matters, but it seems to matter to you. And if it matters to you, you might as well have some fun with it.

And will it really impact how your story is read / received? maybe.. but it will be marginal at most.

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    "In Europe, Middle Eastern Asians are definitely not white." Except if you live in a Southern European country where the skin tone is probably pretty much the same as the Middle Eastern Asians. In that case, they'll all be 'normal white' while the nordic folks will be 'milk white' (or 'little glasses of milk' - a term which may or may not be used offensively). It all depends what skin colour is most common around you. I do completely agree with your second paragraph! – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 25 at 15:39
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    Want to have it even more confusing? Jews, particularly Israeli Jews, are considered in the US and in South Africa to always be white, no matter what they actually look like. This guy? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel#/media/… White. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 25 at 16:34
  • Also, "middle east" is a term which means different things depending on where you are. (It seems like the us term "middle east" corresponds to "near east" in German usage.) – Paŭlo Ebermann Jan 27 at 17:03
4

But is it, I don't know, somehow alienating or offensive to white readers that the characters aren't white, and that no main characters are white?

No.

Even if your characters live in predominantly Russian Moscow but their story involves interacting with each other or with a community of color (neighborhood, tourism group, students at an international school), there is no reason to specifically include European main characters unless the plot calls for it and reason would suggest that the character would very probably be European. Putting a European character in the story just for representation would probably come off as artificial at best and awkward at worst.

Think about this way:

If a white reader were reading a story about a samurai warrior in Japan, would he or she get upset because there were no white main characters? Of course not.

If a white reader were reading a story about an Arabian warrior philosopher in the year 700AD, would he or she get upset that there are no white main characters? Of course not.

If a white reader were reading a story about a Mexican-American teenager living in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Southern California and dealing with his relationship with his grandparents from Mexico, would he or she get upset that there are no white characters? Of course not.

Something really great about your question is this:

I had forgotten about their races because it wasn't important to me and I had not noticed while I was writing, because the story isn't about their racial backgrounds.

That's perfect!

Normal people will infer from the setting who's around (like a taxi driver in Moscow is probably Russian), and they'll just enjoy the story.

2

Don’t worry about it. Race is a very minor consideration when it comes to characters. Focus on character traits, not skin colour.

If you offend someone because you do not clearly state that character X is white and therefore they can relate to them, those are the readers who would have complained because War & Peace was full of Russians and French. You do not want to pander to those.

As others have said, write what makes sense to your work. It is your world.

If you decide that Day and his dictator father are white and oppressing these mutants who are also people of colour you might be making an unintended political statement. Of course, you could explain why the dictator of your country is white when the population is not.

What tools you use to understand your characters need never make it into the finished work. There are things I know about each of my characters that will never be stated in the book, but the knowledge colours my treatment of certain scenes and such details could be inferred by a discriminating reader.

In my current work, I have a character who is of Irish descent but was born and raised in Columbia. If readers choose to see her as a Latina who chose an Irish code name, so be it. As long as they are interested in her, I am pleased.

With most of my characters, I am silent on race. If a reader chooses to see themselves in that character, they are free to so do.

I do not see my character as you do. It was not until a cousin of mine who is much more visual wanted to know what actors they looked like that I gave it any thought. Who would I cast as my MC? That made me wonder what he looked like. Until that moment, I only knew his eye and hair colour.

If it works, don’t fix it.

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Here's my perspective as a white person residing in the USA.

I must disagree with some of the answers. I don't believe it's ever really a matter of being offensive or alienating to any significant number of white people. Only the craziest white people take slight at the very existence of BET or Ebony magazine. There's a phenomena in visual media that would be a bigger problem. To generalize it, when white people see an advert for a movie, or happen upon a TV show, if the cast is for example all black, some of them will subconsciously think, "I'm really not the target demographic here. This probably won't interest me."

There's two reasons for this. Firstly the way many people consume visual media we usually have plenty of options and rule most of them out within seconds when looking for something we want. Because most people do not consume books through broadcasts or online, and they are a longer commitment than a movie people tend to not give up on reading a book in the first few pages.

Secondly, for white people in the USA at least, most profit driven media cater to us as the default, to the point where "white-washing" is a big problem in Hollywood. Because of this, when white people aren't present in the leading roles, it really does stand out and signal to the viewer that it will heavily focus on issues and culture belonging to that race/ethnicity. If it didn't, it would get white-washed like all the rest. It's a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop.

In a book, I would imagine that the majority of readers would not feel alienated or offended in any way upon realizing that none of the main characters are of the same ethnicity as them. It is perhaps all the more true when they are of an ethnicity that doesn't encounter a tiresome amount of marginalization. You just may risk losing some white readers if you somehow advertise this in the first few seconds of your book jacket description, before you've hooked anyone's interest.

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Usula K Le Guin wrote a very famous series Earthsea which is very much a classic of the fantasy genre.

Most of the major characters and the larger population are not white, despite the fact that the author and a lot of the readers were all white. This was a deliberate decision she made and didn't prevent the books being very successful.

The complications really came when someone is working on cover art for the book or decided to make a TV show and whitewash the whole thing. You can read up more on it here and see her own words here.

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There are thousands of books with no black characters, no Asian characters, no Hispanc characters. How is this different? You don't have to include white characters when many white authors have included only white characters in their books for centuries. Representation of other races is important. White representation is everywhere, and therefore not important.

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I'm reminded of a story that I love of Dwayne McDuffie, a comic book and cartoon superhero writer. He did important work on the DC animated universe, including Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, and both Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. His most famous character creations were Harley Quinn and Static Shock.

Before Static Shock was a cartoon, he was a comic book character that premiered in the early 1990s (I want to say 92, but I'm to lazy to look up for certain). It's one of the few characters to surivive from his comic book imprint's line into the modern era. Early on, a co-worker of McDuffie returned from a ComicCon with what he thought would be great news: He had seen a black kid at the con dressed as Static!

The co-worker assumed this meant that Static was a successful character, but McDuffie didn't see this as such. He argued that Static would be successful when the co-worker saw a white character dressed as Static. McDuffie wasn't writing a Black Character for a Black Audience. He was writing a character for all audiences and that character just happened to be black.

Even more recently, in one screen adaption of Shakespeare's Othello, The Moore of Venice, the titular role was played by Patrick Stewart. What's funny is that while Patrick Stewart wasn't intending to play Othello (and wanted the role to go to a black actor) the casting department realized that Patrick Stewart was a very big name in the public conscious and as a classically trained Shakespearean actor, brought a great deal of reputation to any work he starred in with that crowd, decided Stewart must have top billing and cast him as a white Othello playing in an otherwise all black cast (the play as written has a black Othello in an otherwise all white cast). The intent was to show that the story of Othello was indeed about race, but that more importantly it was about being in a situation where one person is clearly the other or outsider... it didn't matter what race Othello and the cast were, it mattered that they were different.

  • Othello the Moor wasn't black - he was a Moor. The Moors were the people of the Iberian Peninsula (a.k.a Spain), North Africa, Sicily and Malta. Casting him as black is as erroneous as casting him as white. His main 'stranger' characteristic was in fact not his skin colour, but that Moors were Muslims. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 28 at 14:37
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    @Galastel: Shakespeare's time the word Moor was a general catch all for people from Africa, and it is debatable if he was more Mediterranean or African. A specific line in the play (Referring to Othello as an "Old Black Ram") hints that Othello was of an African descent. – hszmv Jan 28 at 14:41

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