Since many of my stories are set in Hawaii, I pay attention to news reports from that state. A recent report on the national news made me laugh. According to this report, more than half of the businesses in Hawaii are minority-owned. Why did this make me laugh? Because more than half of the people in Hawaii belong to minority ethnic groups. There is no majority in Hawaii. So this was a "dog bites man" story and I wondered why it was even newsworthy.
Because my stories are set in Hawaii, I people them with a variety of ethnicities. To make everybody white would not reflect the reality of the setting. In most cases, I don't even mention a character's ethnicity and let the name take care of that. Some readers have commented that my stories have a lot of Chinese and Japanese characters. Well, yes, there are a lot of Chinese and Japanese living there. Some of my characters have Anglo-sounding names and the reader doesn't know their ethnicity unless I tell them. In most of my stories, ethnicity is unimportant.
For the major characters, of course, ethnicity is important. It's a part of who they are and it explains some of the things they do. I give a lot of thought to their ethnicity because my choices have implications not only for how the story is told, but for how it is received by readers. Stories have protagonists and antagonists. Mysteries have good guys and bad guys. Does portraying a bad guy as a member of an ethnic minority slander all members of that ethnicity? The complaints of some Italian-Americans that they are unfairly demonized in gangster movies is a case in point. Most authors will say that the ethnicity of their characters simply reflects the reality they are portraying. If there are Italian, Chinese, African-American, Japanese or Hispanic criminals in any population, there are many more people, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.
But stories are not about demographics. They are about protagonists and antagonists. So how does an author deal with ethnicity? Despite a few remarkable exceptions--S.J. Rozan's Lydia Chin, George Pelecanos's Derek Strange, and Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn, for examples--most authors seem to draw their protagonist from their own ethnic background. I'm Caucasian and so is the main character in most of my stories.
What about antagonists? In Pilikia Is My Business, the antagonists were Caucasian, Japanese, and Hawaiian-Portuguese. In Splintered Paddle, the bad guy is a Caucasian. I had in mind a Robert Mitchum-like character. My short stories have included antagonists from a variety of ethnicities. Other writers of stories set in Hawaii have done the same, for the simple reason that the population is diverse and the composition of the characters reflect that diversity. I personally view that population diversity as a strength of the state and set my stories there for that reason.
However, I admit that I worry how my readers will perceive that diversity, especially on the part of my antagonists. Do I offend people of Chinese ancestry if the bad guy is Chinese? Likewise for Japanese or other ethnicities. Some years ago, I took part in a discussion group in which one of the participants, in all seriousness and with great vehemence, contended that a white author who creates a minority antagonist is motivated by racial prejudice at worst or racial insensitivity at best. I don't believe that. I believe a writer must be faithful to the setting and its people. Nevertheless, every story-character attribute is the result of a conscious choice by the author. Our antagonists, in particular, will have many undesirable traits. When we combine those traits with ethnic identity might we be perpetuating hateful stereotypes?
I don't have an answer. I think it is a cop-out to say we're simply mirroring society and culture. At the same time I abhor the idea of balancing characters, e.g. creating a good fill-in-the-blank-ethnic character for every bad fill-in-the-blank-ethnic character. What do think? How do you authors handle it? How do you readers feel about it?
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