Guest Blog: Nathan Wall, author of ‘Evolution of Angels’

When a posed I couple of questions about diversity in writing on a Goodreads forum, Nathan sent me a response that I found extremely interesting. With his permission, I’ve shared it below:Teamup picture

1. Do you plan for diversity in your novel/short story? How do you go about it?

I don’t so much plan diversity as I just try and make something seem realistic. For instance, in my book series Evolution of Angels, the basic premise is gods of ancient religions were once angels. That means Thor, Zeus, Set, Isis, Shiva, so on and so forth were all angels, along with Michael and the traditionally known slew of Heaven’s elite. Each faction of angels was tasked with governing their portion of the planet, or their “Corner” as they’re referred to in the books, giving birth to the term (at least in my series) the “Four Corners.”

So if that’s what I’m going for, then how realistic would it be to make Thor black just to buck the establishment, or to white wash the cast of characters from Egyptian or Hindu mythology? It’s all those blonds on the Indian sub-continent that lends credence to that type of change, right? Can’t forget all those traditionally black Vikings…

Both changes, in my opinion, would be just plain stupid. There’s nothing that annoys me more than when Hollywood casts a movie like “Gods and Kings” for the Exodus story and place actors like Sigourney Weaver as a Queen of Egypt. Seriously, she’s a redhead with the fairest complexion imaginable. We’ve all seen Ghost Busters. She’s supposed to be Egyptian? Just slap some eye shadow and a black wig on her, and no one will know! She’s a very talented actress, but there are a bunch of those all over the globe. It wasn’t even a big part where you just had to have an actress of her caliber and fame to pull in audiences.

Conversely, there’s nothing more eye rolling than something that tries to pull a racial/gender/sexual preference swap just for the sake of doing it. For instance, the much maligned Fantastic 4 reboot. That movie sucked, but not because the Human Torch was black. In fact, I think Michael B Jordan is a fantastic actor. That movie wasted his talents. But was there any real reason than to say “hey, this dude is black now and guess what, his family was the smart rich one that adopted the white chick. Take that social expectations!” No. There really wasn’t. They didn’t develop the dynamic at all, and it would’ve been equally as bad had Sue’s family adopted a black Johnny.

In my opinion, it’s always best to just make really great characters and only worry about their race in the context of “does it make sense for this character?”

The only time when race should be really factored into the decision making process is when you want your story to tackle some sort of issue. Are you dealing with a journey to a new land for a better opportunity where assimilation is difficult because of a language barrier? Think about your setting. If it’s in San Francisco, maybe you don’t choose a Latino or African American family, but someone from Asia. It makes sense. And when that becomes the case, you’ve got to think about social issues, context, and how you’re going to present your debate or take on the issue.

Most of the time, however, my intent is not to tackle a social issue as the main part of the story. It’s not that I can’t or don’t like it, it’s that too often those types of stories don’t translate the way you want. I can tell a story about settlers from Europe coming to the New World and the travesties inflicted on the Natives, or I can set my story in a far away planet where that becomes less of the focal point, and more of a paint color to choose from for the canvas that is my story. What’s more effective? What’s more entertaining? Avatar or Pocahontas?

Writing should be about entertainment and not trying to preach a message, at least that’s my feeling on the subject. I find writing that becomes too preachy or at least makes a concerted effort to draw attention to a perceived injustice, or make a statement about an issue, ends up coming off like the author is trying to jam something down your throat. And in the instances when it doesn’t come off as a pulpit message, the reader just puts their own meaning into a story anyway. After all, once it’s out there, the story takes on a new life and is no longer under the author’s loving hands. Readers will glean from a story whatever they want, despite your intent. So it’s best to not riddle your book with intent, but just a good story.

For instance, Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, the last stanza is often debated. The narrator talks about two roads diverging in the woods and he took the one less traveled. It’s often misquoted and misrepresented to help perpetuate the notion that you should forge your own destiny and that your life will be all the better for it. That’s a great moral lesson to take away, if it weren’t completely wrong in the context of that poem.

I take it as the narrator standing at a fork in the road and deciding to take the path less worn with traffic, though he flat out says both paths will be equally troublesome to their navigators. So we know there neither path was easy, so that throws out character building through tough work. He then goes on to say he often thinks about the other path, but doubts he’ll ever get to go back. Then finally, you’re hit with the whammy:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If you analyze those two lines at the beginning, in context of knowing the road was going to wear on him just as much as the other, and that he spent time thinking about the other path, does that seem like a happy man? It seems like someone weary, in my opinion.

I argue that the poem isn’t meant to chastise one’s choices or to build character by being different, but that we as humans are always unhappy no matter which road we take. Sure, things could have turned out great, but there’s always a “what if” inside of us. We want our cake and to eat it too. Human nature!!

You may completely disagree with my take on the poem, and that’s perfectly fine. It just goes to illustrate the point that Frost’s intent was his own. He’s dead now and we can’t ask him what it meant. So no matter what type of reason or theme or moral you’re trying to convey through your story, or your choice in a character’s sexual orientation or race, people are going to put their OWN meaning into it. The best thing to do is just make good characters and not let their race be what defines them or the story.

And for the love of God, when you change a character like Wally West from white to black, do you have to change everything that made him a beloved character? Why does every black character have to be from the wrong side of the tracks, live in the projects, fight off joining a drug gang, or have an attitude with authority? Wally West went from being a jokester who was unsure of himself to a kid who doesn’t like being told what to do and who gets in trouble. I guess all African Americans get in trouble or deal with drugs, because that’s what those social issues tell me when you put a black character on a page.

Talk about cliché…unless I am totally missing their intent…

See what I did there?

2. Tell us about diversity in one (or more!) of your novels/ss.

In my novella, The Descendants, my main characters are an immortal Ourea and a former Scotland Yard detective. She is half white-English and half Syrian-Kurdish. The Descendants is the second book in my Evolution of Angels series. Even though it’s the second book, it actually takes place at the same time as the book one (about 2/3rds of the way through E.o.A) and finishes before the events of book one are over.

Emma Brighton is the head strong detective looking to clear her reputation, but clearly has a chip on her shoulder due to a previous life experience. She became a detective to investigate homicides because her mother was murdered as part of an honor killing. Her mom married a white man, and was lured back to her homeland under false pretenses and killed. Emma specializes in Sharia Law cases, which is currently a big deal in England and Europe in general, because of what happened to her mom.

The book itself isn’t about Sharia Law, but more so she stumbles onto a case that was mistaken to be Sharia Law simply because of the ethnic background of the family in the inciting incident. When in reality, it had to do with using the pure soul of a human to activate the powers of something called “the gem of Durga.” That’s when these Ourea get involved.

Ourea are beings created by Zeus to assist in his war against Michael. They’re made of the five elements: Dirt, Water, Fire, Wind and Electricity. They look like normal humans, but obviously their composition is different, and their features vary based on the condition of their surroundings and their mood.

So I chose to make Emma white and Syrian because it fit the context of the story. She has to have a reason to solve why this girl was murdered because it hit close to home. In the end, it was nothing more than the fact it could have been anyone.

People have made all sorts of conclusions about why I wrote that, and whether or not it was intended to be judgmental or shine a light on issues in England and even here in America. Am I pro Sharia Law or not? That’s not what I was going for. I was simply trying to make a compelling character, and therefore she took on the issues for me. I’ll tie this point in with the previous question in that your book shouldn’t be about an issue, but about plot and characters and to be entertaining.

All those readers put their own views into the story. They weren’t picking out mine.

3. Why do you think diversity in fiction is important?

Objection, your honor, leading the whiteness!

Over ruled!

Dammit.

Ok, well, here it goes. Go to the grocery store. Chances are, whether you’re in Loganville, Georgia, or inner city Detroit, you’re going to see a cross representation of individuals. No one place is all one thing or another. Well, maybe Iran and North Korea. But there’s a story as to why, which gets me to the next point.

Unless you’re setting a story in a very specific place, like a 600 AD Congo tribe, or you have a specific premise, like a society that looks to stay ethnically and sexually pure, you should probably mix it up a little bit. I’m just sayin’.

It’s not that you need to be fair. No, screw that. It’s your writing. Be as unfair as you want. Just be entertaining. Part of what makes things entertaining is an aura of realism.

How realistic would it be in today’s society if every man in your military thriller about a Marine going through boot camp were straight, white and Christian? Not very. In fact, I bet they’re not all men. So, yeah…

Now, how realistic would it be if you wrote about a Marine corps where 30% of the graduates from OCS were female? Not very at all. In fact, you should probably subtract that all the way down to ZERO percent. I’m not riffing on women here, I’m just stating facts. It’s actually a pretty big issue in Washington right now, and there have been all sorts of news stories done on it. I would know because my brother graduated from OCS. There wasn’t one woman among his class. Again, just sayin’…

Life isn’t black and white, and neither are issues.

Life is full of color. So throw in some red, yellow, black, white, blue, pink, whatever. If life in your story is black and white, I bet it’s pretty dull.

As well, no single issue is black and white. They’re all different shades of gray. What do you get when you mix black and white? Someone ask the former Mayor of New Orleans…he’d say Chocolate milk. No, you idiot, you get gray!

Gray issues are the best to write about. We all know you don’t drop kick babies. But what if that baby was going to grow up to be Hitler? Ah, well, wait until he’s 18 months and then it’s ok.

I’m kidding! Well, maybe a little. It is a gray issue after all and not so black and white.

www.facebook.com/evolutionofangels

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