How To Ruin Your Series For Me In One Easy Step

September 9, 2013 Opinion 28

A lone orange gummy bear sits beside six red gummies arranged in a pyramid.

©jeffcheng

Today’s post is from our friend Alicia, and she hits the nail on the head. You can find her on Goodreads. 

It is probably something that didn’t even cross your mind. Or, at least, I hope it didn’t. You wanted to include some diversity in your cast of characters. So you included at least one character of color, or LGBT character. They’re a great friend, funny, and an all around great person, right? Sometimes they even get their own love interest eventually. But then, to continue the series, you conjured heterosexual, white characters out of nowhere instead of advancing the already established minority character(s) primed for his/her own book.

It is just that simple. Because when that happens disappointment and irritation fester and it ruins the reading experience for me.

I have read two series that have done this in recent memory.* Maybe that’s not enough to say, “pattern!” But there are also plenty of series out there that I haven’t read and it’s quite possible that this has happened in more than a few. And, quite frankly, it’s a symptom of the greater problem.

*I want to make it clear that I’m not casting aspersions on any authors. I wasn’t there when they were writing their books, I don’t know what their thought processes were, how inspiration struck, or what their editors may have said. I can’t know that. These are their books. Authors need to write what they’re comfortable with, what moves them to write. All I can attest to is what I’ve observed and how it has made me feel.

In Donna Kauffman’s Cupcake Club series one of the secondary characters is Charlotte, (the heroine) Lani Trusdale’s best friend from culinary school who comes from New Delhi. Charlotte is around the same age as Lani, and she’s given a side plot of falling for a man who works for Baxter Dunne (the hero), named Carlo (I believe it’s said in the second book that he’s Puerto Rican). In the second book their relationship has advanced and there are some rather interesting hurdles they’re working through. The thing is, the second book isn’t about them. Instead, in a tacked on epilogue, Riley Brown the white heroine of the second book is introduced. The, you guessed it, white heroine of the third book was introduced in the second book through a randomly mentioned business card. At a couple of points in the book there is a lengthy discussion of the continued issues with Charlotte and Carlos’s relationship and those few pages held more tension and conflict than was between the primary couple the entire book (which was hardly any at all once the initial semi-misunderstanding was resolved). I don’t recall the white heroine of the fourth book being mentioned ever, so she materialized out of nowhere.

Overall, I really enjoyed the third book, even though there were some other issues. But I found myself gnashing my teeth in utter irritation reading scenes with Charlotte. Why, exactly, is her and Carlos’s relationship so uninteresting and less than the relationships of the white couples given full books? It was at that point I realized I quite likely won’t read the rest of the series. Having this in my head really affects the enjoyment I derive from reading these books.

And I didn’t even get into Franco, the gay friend, and his relationship issues that are also not worthy of a book.

I have to say this next example hurts me, because it is one of my favorite (if not favorite, period) contemporary romance series: Julie James’s FBI/US Attorney Series. In the first book we’re introduced to secondary character Sam Wilkins. A black FBI agent who is infinitely adorable and funny. He’s perfect hero material. But the next book in the series features Nick McCall, who was not present or mentioned at all in the first book. (Make no mistake though, I absolutely love that book and adore the hero and heroine, Nick and Jordan.) The third book ties closely to the plot of the second, and the hero was at least in that book. In it Wilkins gets his meet-cute, but we’re told to ‘assume he rode off into the sunset with [his heroine]‘. Why? How is it possible he’s not interesting enough to carry an entire book? The fourth book’s hero is another far in the background secondary character from the third. The disappointment when this was announced and it, again, wasn’t Wilkins, was palpable. My excitement for that book deflated like suddenly releasing the air from a balloon. I haven’t had the chance to read the fourth book yet but I’m told Wilkins doesn’t make an appearance, which is even more disappointing, and the hero of the fifth book was in the fourth. Now, to be fair, we do know that James has at least thought about a story for Wilkins. It just hasn’t or won’t happen. I will read the fourth book because I was so excited for it before my hopes were dashed, but I can’t say I’m too inclined to continue the series for the same reason I probably won’t continue the Cupcake Club series.

I was set to start reading J.D. Robb’s In Death series this year. However, when I was complaining about the above books to my sister she mentioned that it bothered her that Robb’s books, of course, feature a white hero and heroine when, in the futuristic world Robb created, most people were of mixed race. Just coming off of the previous two examples I felt reticent to start that series. I probably will at some point, I just didn’t think it was prudent at the time.

It’s awful to feel this way because all of the books mentioned are good and really the kind of romances I enjoy. But the message I’m getting is that we, as minorities, are good enough to be the interesting friend or sidekick, and sure, get an HEA on the side, but not good enough to headline a book. That an audience would care more about an unknown straight, white character than an already established, dynamic character of color or non-heterosexual orientation. It’s deflating. I think it’s almost worse than the genre being predominantly white. I maybe don’t think about it as much as I should. I typically just read what piques my interest. A stand alone novel with diverse secondary characters doesn’t set off any flags for me. But in a series it just highlights the lack of diversity in general in blinding bright neon. In these cases diversity feels like it is just a show. That these secondary characters don’t actually mean anything other than to prop up the hero and heroine and we aren’t meant to truly care about them and their stories.

This is why I’m about to latch onto Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series. I recently read the twelfth book which features a gay couple getting married. I know they were in the previous books of the series but I don’t know to what extent. I love that they were given their own book (I still had some questions and issues, but they don’t negate this fact). From what I understand from reading that book there has been a black heroine and an interracial relationship featured in the series. There is not just a superficial show of diversity here, these characters actually mean something to the series. So, of course, I’m really excited to start it from the beginning.

Have you read any other series that appear to go out of the way to bypass “non-standard” secondary characters? How about series that actually have elevated them to their own book(s)? Do you feel like if enough of the secondary character’s story is told within the books of the series it’s not as disappointing if they don’t get their own book? Or more so?

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28 Responses to “How To Ruin Your Series For Me In One Easy Step”

  1. John

    Maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable doing it because they’re worried about getting the details right about the LGBT/person of color experience.

  2. Ridley

    @John: Is that a good justification for exclusively writing straight/white characters as protagonists?

  3. John

    It’s not a good justification at all. It may explain why someone may include characters in a secondary role, but not as a main character. I guess comfortable wasn’t the right word to use. If an author doesn’t feel like they could tell a story from that viewpoint and do it justice they may not attempt a full work that way.

  4. Ridley

    @John: Well, if it doesn’t justify it, what does it matter? Does explaining why authors do this negate Alicia’s annoyance at it?

  5. John

    I didnt say it negated it. I’m just saying it doesn’t necessarily mean the characters aren’t interesting enough for a full book or just there for a superficial show of diversity.

    I would rather read well developed gay secondary characters than have to suffer through another awful m/m romance that reads like the equivalent of a straight man watching lesbian porn.

  6. Fiona McGier

    There are discussions raging on other sites about this as well. The whole romance genre seems to use white as default, and people of color, no matter their sexual proclivities, are the “spice on the side”, but rarely the main course. Writers of color (not just black, but also Hispanic and Asian) are trying to break this pattern, as are many white writers who find it just as easy to get into the head of someone of a different color from them, as it is to get into the head of someone of a different sex, or even a vampire or shifter. Few of us think that the FSOG author is either the virginal doormat or the egotistical dom, but she still wrote 3 books that have her rolling in money. So how can it be so hard to imagine the inner thoughts of people of a different color or culture?

    Of course, vampires and shifters won’t ever write blogs railing against your erroneous and stereotypical portrayal of their culture, so that might be “safer”. But we’re writers and not supposed to take the easy way out! Right?

  7. Las

    @John: I lean towards cutting authors a (very tiny) bit of slack, if only because I think many readers are all talk when they claim they want more diversity in romance. But that slack disappears when it comes to series. Authors can’t have it both ways–they can’t claim to be writing diverse characters and then continually keep those characters in secondary roles when it’s pretty much law in romance that every secondary character and their mother will eventually get their own book. It cannot be a coincidence that the exceptions to that rule are minority characters, especially when an author brings in a brand new character to star in the next book of a series when there’s an established characters waiting in the sidelines. That’s deliberate, and whether it’s because authors aren’t comfortable writing for them or editors/pub don’t want them, it needs to stop.

    Alicia, damn, that sucks about James’ series. I’ve only read two but I was looking forward to reading Wilkins’ book. We have to “assume he rode off into the sunset with his heroine”? I guess she gets some credit for being honest and not holding him out as diversity bait.

  8. Alicia

    @John: It’s not a point I expanded upon, but I did/do make allowances for the author’s comfort level. There is always the possibility of backlash. Quite frankly there is about everything, but does that really mean they shouldn’t try? Kauffman isn’t a world famous Michelin starred chef with her own Food TV show, nor is she a James Beard Award nominated pastry chef, but she wrote about them. James isn’t an FBI agent, yet she wrote about them. How? They went out and *talked* to people who were. If they’re writing the story and are unsure why not talk to people? (To riff off of Fiona’s example, maybe if ELJ actually sought out Hispanic men or saw a portrayal of a hispanic male that wasn’t Speedy Gonzales, José/Jacob 2.0 wouldn’t have been so egregiously racist. Of course she couldn’t get Americans, BDSM, people in their 20s, romance, sex, or writing literately right either. *shrug*)

    I also think there’s this notion that the ~other has to be highlighted. That because the character is, say, black, they absolutely have to be different. That’s not necessarily true depending on the character you’ve created. I’m an upper-middle class, black, female attorney. I already identify with James’s characters, and the way she wrote Wilkins. My sister is an upper-middle class, black, female pastry chef. She identifies with Kauffman’s characters. It doesn’t always have to be this big, scary DIFFERENT.

    Even given your reasoning I do think it is superficial diversity. What do the characters actually mean to the series if they’re so easily cast aside or ignored for brand new characters that came out of nowhere? I get what you’re saying about M/M. That’s why I moved away from reading it. What I’m saying is I’d prefer they try, that they put in the work that they do other aspects of their characters, rather than let it go because it’s too scary and hard.

  9. Evangeline

    I mostly read historical romance, and diversity in that arena tends to take on the form of secondary romances, or the hero or heroine is mixed race–and the other protagonist is usually white (hmm…another thing to ponder). But I will say that I was thrilled by Simone, the cop hero’s partner in Victoria Dahl’s “Good Girls Don’t.” I’m still holding out hope that Dahl will write her book even though she expressed wariness over getting Simone “right” on a Dear Author blog from a year or so ago…which befuddled me because Simone leaped from the page (and I wished she was the heroine over Tessa). :/

  10. Alicia

    @Las: Thank you. My point exactly to your entire first paragraph.

    Yeah, it’s still frustrating though because even though Wilkins’ meet-cute was . . . cute, it wasn’t entirely satisfying and that being all there is doesn’t do his character justice. She does get credit for at least considering a story for him, but that doesn’t quell the disappointment of him being left in the dust.

    @Evangeline: Uh oh. I haven’t read that series yet, but I plan to (I have the first and third books, I’m hoping I can catch the second on sale too so I can start reading). I’m not excited to hear I might have this issue with that series as well. I hear you about the character leaping from the page. That’s how I felt about Wilkins.

    Is the reason I can’t figure out how to actually reply to a comment because I’m on my iPad?

  11. Ridley

    @Alicia: Could be the iPad. This reply plugin is kind of outdated.

    And given the things Dahl’s said at Dear Author and on Twitter, I really wouldn’t ever want to read her take on a character that doesn’t look like her. She’s pretty bad at listening or examining her privilege. YMMV

  12. Tina

    I am always befuddled by the notion that a white writer is afraid to write non-white characters because they are afraid of getting the character “wrong”. Admittedly I can see if you are writing about a completely different culture, there may be nuances of the culture that may not feel authentic especially if you are not immersed in it yourself or a close observer. But if you are an American writer, writing an everyday regular American person what can you get wrong? Not all people are alike. Not all of them have the same life experiences.

    Honestly when I read something like this you may have as well said:
    “How can I correctly convey the stereotype of that race I see on tv all the time so that my reader recognizes it?”

    How about just starting with the character: smart lawyer or determined doctor or world weary social worker and go from there? Suzanne Brockmann’s Alyssa Locke is a very popular heroine in her Seal 16 series. In the most literal way possible Alyssa is not defined by the color of her skin but how SB created the content of her character. Alyssa is a black FBI agent but her defining characteristic is that she is a crack sharpshooter and she has a chip on her shoulder because she’ll never be a SEAL. It is as simple as that. There are thousands upon thousands of black women who are nothing at all like Alyssa. But I would challenge anyone to describe exactly how she is a “wrong” portrayal of black woman. or to describe what makes her so intrinsically different from how SB would have written her as a white character.

    @Evangeline: I also thought Simone simply leapt off the page of that book. She was way more interesting than the heroine. And I had absolutely no expectation she’d get her own book. Too bad because she was fascinating.

    Susan Wiggs’ Lakeshore Chronicle series two most recent books in the series has main characters who are black. In Marrying Daisy Bellamy the hero is black and in Return to Willow Lake, the heroine is black. Both characters recur in the earlier books as teenagers who grow into adulthood and their respective romantic relationships actually tease and run throughout the earlier books. Interestingly as the series goes on, it veers closer and closer to Women’s Fiction than romance so these two books especially have a more WF vibe.

  13. Beks

    re the whole comfort thing: people NEVER ask authors/screenwriters of color(queer) if we’re comfortable writing white (or straight) people. they just assume that we are. i have no idea what its like to be white straight dude. i will never know that ease, but people never question me when i put one down on paper. i think that’s what annoys me the most about this issue. the characters you put on paper are a choice. if you are afraid that you are going to write a stereotype, then you believe those stereotypes and have a weak imagination. lol sorry i just get really hot about this topic.

    Alicia, you’ve saved my from buying a whole bunch of books.

  14. Liz Mc2

    Laura’s right that older characters often get relegated to secondary romances, where I don’t learn as much about them as I want to. So often secondary romances/characters are “allowed” to stray further from romance types and seem more interesting than the main couple.

    I think this issue bugs me the most in sports series. Football, baseball, basketball, soccer (even, increasingly, hockey) are so NOT all white. But mysteriously, the protagonists of sports romances almost always are, and the characters who might make up the majority of many real teams are bit players.

    Do writers have imagination and research skills, or not?

  15. Janet W

    I agree with what Liz said about sports romances–it should be so realistically easy to have a multi-cultural cast and yet, where are they? One I have always liked is Beloved Stranger by Joan Wolf, about baseball: hero is from Columbia. Central American players are everywhere in baseball so home run for reality. http://www.likesbooks.com/cgi-bin/bookReview.pl?BookReviewId=1360

    Suz Brockmann always mixes it up and that makes her books unusual even today. The world of Roarke and Eve hosts quite a motley crew of diverse characters (race, sexual orientation) but it could be better done … maybe when she started the series it didn’t occur to her the way it might now.

  16. rameau

    @Janet W: I don’t actually buy that. Eve’s background—at least in the first six books I read—was set up in a way that her racial profile could have been left a mystery and I expected it to be. Instead Robb/Roberts goes to extreme lengths to describe her as white. It shone through even in the translations. And this observation is coming from someone who is blind, deaf, and dumb in these matters.

  17. Alicia

    @Ridley: Hah, well, on Firefox it’s at least showing the reply function, but it isn’t working.

    @Tina: I agree. Like I said I think apart of it is feeling like they have to write a certain type of person, which is ridiculous. A series I forgot to mention is Jill Sorenson’s Aftershock series. In the first book there is a Latina secondary character who becomes the Heroine of the third book. I won’t spoil her background because I think it was kept a secret until the end of the first book for a reason, but it is an interesting one. It’ll likely be a compelling part of the third book. You’re right, Tina, there are so many different experiences it doesn’t make sense to me to say it’s too hard. Thanks for the Susan Wiggs rec! I’ll look into those.

    @Bek: Did you see this article? http://www.policymic.com/articles/61987/the-one-thing-white-writers-get-away-with-but-authors-of-color-don-t and it also pretty much makes the case that white authors “being afraid” is ridiculous.

    @Liz: Really good point about sports stories. I haven’t thought about it that much, but you’re definitely right. The teams in those books are oddly white and that’s nowhere close to reality.

  18. Roslyn Holcomb

    Call me cynical, but I don’t think these authors are so much worried about “getting it wrong” as theyare about lost sales. And why wouldn’t they be? Clearly it’s understood even if it’s not explicitly stated, and even if it is, a la The Hunger Games, that most whites have no interest in and lack the ability to empathize with, POC. Even in fashion there are peoplewho say they can’t imagine themselves in an outfit if they see it on a black woman.

    Personally, I’d rather they not because too many authors totally lack the ability to write POC as, yanno, people. (Side eye at Patricia Briggs.) And, of course, this is completely self serving, but history has shown us time and again, that when white folk adopt something, they never bother to credit the originators. thus we get Bo Derek cornrows, hiphop being “saved” by Macklemore and whatever the fuck it was Miley Cyrus called herself doing at the VMAs. But if y’all really want to see this happen, pick a series with POC and make it a bestseller. Once they realize there’s money to be made you won’t be able to keep them away.

  19. Evangeline

    @Roslyn Holcomb: “But if y’all really want to see this happen, pick a series with POC and make it a bestseller. Once they realize there’s money to be made you won’t be able to keep them away. ”

    Ha! Money talks…

    @Liz Mc2: that’s why I have a difficult time picking up sports romances.

  20. Roslyn Holcomb

    Yeah, I had to let SEP go for that very reason. After she did her fourth or fifth football story with no POC leads I was like, what? And the few she had as secondary characters were so stereotypical, yanno the illiterate linesman. The black woman with the “sassy mouth” (yes, she used the word sassy) I just couldn’t take it anymore. Haven’t read her since and she used to be an autobuy.

  21. Alicia

    @Ridley: Yeah, responding this way is easy enough. It’s not a big deal. I only think having a working plugin that links back would be necessary if the comments get into the 50-100+ range.

    @Roslyn: Ugh. I was interested in SEP’s sports books. Her ridiculous whining about Goodreads and reviews stopped me from reading her. Now I’m really glad about that if that’s what I would have been reading.

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