I recently read an absolutely amazing YA supernatural book by Jennifer Lynn Barnes called Raised by Wolves. It’s on the younger end of the YA spectrum—the main character Bryn is fifteen—but she was complex, witty, and smart. I finished this four hundred page book in only a couple hours. I couldn’t put it down long enough to even get coffee. I was completely absorbed in Bryn’s struggle, both emotional and circumstantial. I cried and laughed and cheered at the end. In other words, read this book.
A few hours later—after coffee, shower, food, etc—I picked up an anthology of YA short stories centered on the theme of “warriors”. I picked up this particular anthology from the library to see how my character Aria stacks up against other “warrior” types. I got three pages in and I haven’t picked it up since.
So soon after reading Ms. Barnes’ book I couldn’t get into the flat character of the first story. I can’t even remember his name. He was so…simple. His thoughts are shallow “warrior” thoughts about fame and glory and marrying a beautiful girl in the noble class. As a prolific reader of fiction, this is so genre standard it was boring to the point of anger.
The thing that really pricked me about this is that it is genre standard. Every book I’ve ever picked up that involves a tribal or non-Caucasian culture has this flat character. The sentences and vocabulary is simple, short and they lack variety. It’s almost like these characters are written for grade school children not teens or even adults. The catch is, once these simple characters come into contact with the dominant, primarily Caucasian, culture they suddenly gain depth and more complex emotions. Suddenly, the syntax is more elegant and the vocabulary elevated.
My character, Aria, sprang from Inuit/Nordic cultures. She lives in a clan society, but she isn’t simple. Her emotions are complicated when it comes to who and what she is and how she interacts with her clan. If I were to change her setting to the modern world, certainly she would have trouble describing modern technologies, but that wouldn’t make her any less intelligent.
This sub-conscious ethnocentric assumption needs to stop. So you’ve chosen to write a character with more melatonin than you? That doesn’t mean they are stupid and slow witted children who need a more dominant culture to hold their hand and “educate” them.