Is there a Rule of Three in SFF?

Somebody in my Twitter feed linked this today, which I’d never seen before. Some insightful commentary from the late Dwayne McDuffie, a kickass comic book writer and trailblazer within that genre, talking about the Rule of Three. No, not this one; something else:

Which got me thinking, of course.

I’ve said before that most of the criticism I get as a writer is perfectly thoughtful, interesting stuff, which is doubtless helpful to those who are trying to decide whether to buy my books or read my stories. But I’ve seen a very few reader responses that, IMO, crossed the line from critical into bigoted. (No, I’m not linking them, where they’re online. This is about a pattern, not individual behavior.) I’m not talking about people who didn’t notice Yeine wasn’t black, here; I’m talking about people who assumed she was black, sometimes without even reading the book, and likewise assumed that they knew what the story would be about because I’m black. As McDuffie notes, this is not an uncommon thing — he says it’s in the entertainment industry, but I think it’s everywhere. It’s what I mean when I talk about the marginalization of people who aren’t white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, and so on. People who are on the margins of society can’t be “just people”. At best, they’re assumed to be walking representations of Issues, Purpose embodied; they only show up in the mainstream to deliver a Message, and then they exit stage left. If they linger, they risk being viewed as annoying distractions from the “main event”. After all, I still run into people who insist that I should’ve had a reason to include blind people in a story. I still run into people who ask me (let’s just ignore the rudeness of this question) if I’m some flavor of queer — given that I’ve written about lesbians and allegories for coming out and ancient-society transwomen — and why I bother including queer characters, if I’m not.

I do have an agenda, but it’s not what these people assume. My agenda is to tell a good story. My definition of “good story” means that I try to write things that appeal to all readers, but with realistic social complexity.* That’s kinda it. Not much, as agendas go, is it? But some people get really, really frothy over it.

So when McDuffie complains about the Rule of Three, I think that, too, might be everywhere, not just in any one industry. And I’ll confess that as I work on the Dreamblood books — which for obvious reasons contain almost no characters in the northern European mould — I often worry about how this Rule of Three will hit me, and how hard. I mean, there weren’t any black humans in 100K, and some readers have sniped about its “veneer” of black issues, whatever they think those are. Or they’ve done things to limit its audience and potential sales based on their assumptions. So what’s going to happen when I write something with lots of brown and black characters?

I’m not that worried, I’ll confess, because other writers have done it successfully. But it’s sad that I have to worry at all about something like this.

So tell me — am I worrying unnecessarily? Is there a “rule of three” in SFF?

* Inasmuch as one can be realistic in a world where magic works and gods hang out.

37 Responses »

  1. This is a very interesting post. Just as an aside, as a writer and reader of science fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by how race is portrayed in future societies. It’s either ignored, or its presented as if the racial characteristics of humans are fixed, and the future will only see the same races that exist now. If humans spread out onto other worlds they will adapt to those environments and new racial patterns will develop. Likewise, on Earth. If climate and lifestyle change, and if there is widespread interbreeding, some racial characteristics will disappear and new forms will take there place. But no one ever seems to think very deeply about this, because we think of race as something that just is — an indelible marker of being human. (We already know, for instance, that red haired fair-skinned people are disappearing — they’ll be swamped in the general population because those are recessive traits). It would be interesting to see writers really think through questions like that, and what those changes would mean to our way of conceiving of ourselves as human.

  2. I suspect there’s a tendency of white writers with a majority of white characters to freak out about how to work one, two or three non-white characters into their story, because when you’re dealing with such a small number, all their interactions suddenly seem political. What are you saying if you put the only two black characters in a relationship? Or what are you saying if you put them each in a relationship with a white character? And if you’ve got a third one floating around, what are you saying there? Do they even get a relationship, or is that too difficult? And what about sexual orientation? SUDDENLY THE STORY IS POLITICAL OMG!

    And it’s like, dude: this problem goes away if you stop considering white characters to be politically safe, and defaulting to them for that reason. You don’t have to be Saying Something every time you write a non-white character, because non-white characters are people, too! Not walking arguments! And if you take the binary White vs Black logic out of the picture – if you try and write stories which feature characters from a range of backgrounds – then suddenly you stop looking at every non-white character as a potential political clusterfuck waiting to screw with your story. Which is a BAD WAY TO BE THINKING ABOUT IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. But there you go.

    So, yes. The rule of three definitely exists. Which is annoying.

  3. Alex,

    I agree with you. But there are two competing pressures at work here, and that has to be acknowledged too. The first is science; as you say, race is a dynamic, socially-constructed concept rather than an absolute, and should rightly be treated as such. The second, however, is fairness. People of color are severely underrepresented in SFF, and it’s most noticeable in depictions of the current and future Earth. This is the most typical face on the planet right now, but you wouldn’t know it from reading English-language SFF. (I note the language because there’s a vast amount of Chinese and other non-English SFF out there that monolinguals like me aren’t seeing.) So it’s hard to ask current writers to skip over depicting the way people are now to get to the way they will be in the future. That effectively means perpetuating the same underrepresentation of the world as it is.

  4. I think your worries are totally justified. McDuffie, I think, is really on to something with his mention of the power fantasy aspect of comics; while this doesn’t apply to all SF/F, I definitely think it’s a core element of the genre’s appeal to a lot of people. Your books aren’t power fantasies per se, but both of them so far feature a protagonist that starts out marginalized and relatively powerless and who becomes a lot more powerful and influential (esp. in Yeine’s case) by the end; of course, that applies to about ten zillion protagonists in every genre and medium, but in SF/F the power that a character gains is usually of a very tangible and visually striking variety (being able to shoot fire from their hands as opposed to, say, getting a job they always wanted) which makes it a little more fun for readers to project themselves into.

    And yet for a number of (white male) readers, somehow, projecting themselves into a fire-shooting magical fantasy is no problem, until the character with the power doesn’t look like them. Then that character starts to look like a threat to THEIR power thanks to the zero-sum perception that plagues so many privileged white people. At that point they start thinking about all these feverishly imagined affronts to their privilege (racial quotas and such) that McDuffie hints at, the lines between the protagonist and the author and the plot and the reader’s life blur together, and it just degenerates from there.

    I don’t think that encompasses the whole problem – there are subtler and more insidious symptoms involving more well-meaning and open-minded readers – but it strikes me as a big part of it.

  5. I, for one, don’t get why the skin-color of characters is so important that the story takes back seat.

    Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE stories with multiple cultures. The world is so much richer for the variety. The same thing goes for this world.

    But why, in the case of superheroes, do we still care what color they are? Or authors, for that matter? I have more questions, but at the risk of sounding insensitive (instead of truly seeking input), I’ll stop here.

  6. CB,

    This is why. When realistic social complexity becomes normal in fantasy — because it isn’t, now — then it will no longer matter.

    ETA: I missed that you’ve actually made two points here; sorry ’bout that. Your first line asks why skin color is so important that the story takes a back seat. Can you point to some examples of where this has been done?

  7. I was referencing the video. He said that if he has one white character kick a much stronger character’s trash, then it’s clever. If the black character does the same thing (the only thing to change is skin color), then it’s unrealistic.

    At that moment, story took back seat to skin color (or so it seems to me).

    Also, it seems to me that such presumptions are there because they still exist in our society…whether or not people admit it. I don’t understand why that’s the case.

    I read the articles you posted. I really don’t want to hijack your blog post, though. :/

  8. CB,

    At that moment, story took back seat to skin color (or so it seems to me).

    Er, because some readers think it’s wrong for a black character to be just as capable as a white character? That’s got nothing to do with the story, or with the characters’ skin color. The only reason it’s an issue is because readers who think black characters should be inferior are racist. What needs to change is their thinking, not the story or the characters.

    Also, it seems to me that such presumptions are there because they still exist in our society…whether or not people admit it. I don’t understand why that’s the case.

    Because not enough people are doing enough of what’s necessary to change society. Asking “why do we still care?” doesn’t change a thing.

  9. I’m already started missing Dwayne McDuffie. I’m a big DC Comics fan, and I loved his writing.

    Frankly, I would love to see DC do a storyline that leads to the Justice League becoming all black members for a while. And I wish McDuffie were still around to write it. Not because he’s black, but because I think he’d capture all the characters perfectly, the way he did with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.

    As for the Rule of Three question….hm. I think there is an expectation among some readers that the moment a character, or a bunch of characters, are identifiably ethnic, or black, or non-Christian, or whatever, that there must be an agenda behind it. That said, I don’t think it is something we should overly concern ourselves with. I once wrote a story with an Orthodox Jewish main character, not because I felt I needed to play up the character’s differences with the rest of the world, but to show that the story I was telling could happen to anyone.

    I think we should write the stories with the characters we want to write about, whoever they may be.

  10. I wasn’t trying to suggest that the characters or story needed to change. Not at all.

    I was trying to wrap my head around a reader for whom color makes a huge difference to a story’s believability.

  11. Quinn,

    You make a really good point about the power fantasy and the zero-sum fantasy — using “fantasy” as a pejorative this time, because in this case they’re unrealities rooted in fear and ego, and which are often used for ugly purposes.

    But I would say the Inheritance Trilogy does hit the power fantasy button. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t love — whoops, spoiler —

    – turning Yeine into a god at the end of 100K, and having her smack her new brothers in the head for being idiots. Don’t think it wasn’t thrilling to have Oree basically pull a checkers “king me” at the end of the book and powerup Shiny into Itempas, then let him loose to smite.

    There’s a visceral, existential thrill in the power fantasy, that all human beings can grok and cherish equally, I believe. We are hierarchical beings; this is not necessarily problematic in itself. We like to see people move up the hierarchy. The problem comes in when the power fantasy becomes tied up with elements of one’s ego that really have nothing to do with the individual, but instead are about getting and keeping and defending privilege for a group. So for me to write Oree’s line of “I chose to believe” and think, YEAH! BRING IT, BABY! YOUR WILL CHANGES THE UNIVERSE!! was uh, maybe juvenile, but perfectly healthy and normal. But for me to think all that and add, even subconsciously, BECAUSE BLACK WOMEN ARE SUPERIOR!! …is an issue.

    So the problem isn’t power fantasy, it’s bigoted power fantasy.

  12. CB,

    Oh, I see what you’re saying now. It’s hard for me not to be aware of readers for whom color matters, because I live in a racist society and am bombarded with messages about race every time I turn on the TV or go to the movies. I don’t know where you live, but maybe you’re fortunate enough to not live in that kind of society.

  13. Well, that’s the funny part. I live in a predominantly white state.

    I’ve had so many questions about race and no one to ask (without pissing them off).

    I watch the video you posted, and sure, I notice the guy’s black. But I “see” an intelligent man making an intelligent point about his field and the society we’re in.

    Perhaps I’m naive, but it doesn’t make a shred of difference to me if my favorite author or character has a particular skin color.

    And for what it’s worth, I really do hope asking “why does it matter” does something in people’s minds. Perhaps they’ll consider just what prejudice they hold on to, and change it.

  14. CB,

    Personally, I think it’s far more effective to acknowledge that it does matter, and talk about why it matters. Asking “why does it matter” allows a quick, easy, feel-good response: “It doesn’t!” Which is basically just denial.

  15. Sure, very true.

    I’m not afraid to call someone on their inconsistency, though. If we got to that point in a discussion, then clearly something led us there. And then, if the answer is “it doesn’t” then my response might be “Ah, yes, but you just said ___, which indicates that it DOES matter to you.”

  16. Great post. I can’t speak from personal experience as to whether a Rule of Three applies in the sf genres — I don’t have the fiction under my belt that would have run afoul of it, and even if I did, not being black I’m less likely to be accused of an agenda. So what the fuck do I know? But everything McDuffie says makes perfect sense, gells completely with my own understanding of it as segregation(ism), so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear black sf writers say they’ve run into this.

    It strikes me that the threshold makes sense as a “one, two, many” way of thinking. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, right? Two can be collapsed into a pair, a duality, but three… three represents a community. So the white reader who abjects blacks is going to see a black group identity in there — a Black Justice League within the Justice League — because the abject can’t by definition just be part of the larger community. Add the third character and you no longer have a doubled token of the abject within the non-abject community; you have a whole sub-community of the abject within that non-abject community.

    And what I find really interesting here is that the Rule of Three actually turns the whole “quota” argument on its head. Essentially, this is a quota of two black characters max being applied as a practical measure by the segregationists.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this

  17. I am not sure that this Rule of Three really does apply for Fantasy Novels, and specifically Epic Fantasy or Non -Earth (current or future) worlds. Unlike other genre’s there tends to be a larger cast in fantasy novels, If 3 characters of a “race” determine a racial label for a work, then would Lord of the rings be a Hobbit Book. Though I do recognize that there is a real lack of non Eurocentric main characters in most fantasy and Sci-Fi, I do not feel that race is ignored. Fantasy and Sci-Fi race usually pertains to other races of non-humans, Human vs. Non Human conflicts and interactions are common.

    World building in and of itself in creating a cohesive and identifiable race, nationality identity within a fantasy world tends to use physical traits, hair, eye color, skin color body types, along with clothing, habits, beliefs .. . to identify and categorize who a character is and how they fit into the world and story. Yes there should be more fantasy books that have cultures that are both the good guys and non white. Just as there should be countries where the color of a characters skin is not the identifying trait that makes them part of that kingdom. But then we are more likely in SF/F to have a race of people with fur, or blue skin as we are to have those that are black or dark skinned.

    Do people who read fantasy actually visualize the characters in the books to be one race or another, do we imagine them differently, to me that is one of the benefits of reading. I am not sure i have ever visualized a fictional character to the extent that I was assigning them to a specific race. Again much of that would be determined from our experience and the extent of an authors description. My concept of tall dark and handsome may be completely different from someone else’s, even the authors.

    Though I do think a Rule could be applied, I do not know if I would consider 3 to be the defining number. Is the protaganist described as having this or that color skin? Does the “good guy group” have a higher percentage of characters of color?

    Three is such a strong symbol used in myth and therefore fantasy that any use of 3 takes on meaning. Any specific grouping of 3 similar characters objects, people I would first think of the symbolism of 3 and not the meaning of the race, sex, type or nationality, Who ever heard of 4 magi? Two questions or wishes?

  18. Follow,

    A good point about the fact that secondary-world fantasy doesn’t always feature recognizable “Earth races” (though usually it does, and they’re all white), and that sometimes non-humans are treated as a kind of substitute for human races (which is problematic in itself, but occasionally handled well). And a good, if sad, point that we’re more likely to get people with fur or blue skin than something so ordinary as a person of color.

    But I don’t think the rule of three would apply to a fictional race. What triggers the rule, IMO, is cultural baggage — a sense of real-world discomfort that comes with real-world racial interactions. In other words, no one has heard jokes about how blue guys can’t dance; no one wonders if furry men have giant penises and are prone to rape; no society is ashamed of ever having enslaved the rhino people; nobody assumes that purple-polka-dotted people have inferior intelligence but get all the good jobs. There are feelings and historical baggage associated with real-world races that simply don’t apply to made-up races — hmm. Wait. Unless the author makes an effort to evoke some of that real history. Offhand I’m thinking of C. S. Friedman’s rakh, in the Coldfire trilogy. They weren’t meant to stand in for any human race — since there were plenty of black and brown people in that world — but it was made very clear that what happened to them emulated what happened to some American Indian groups in the US. And if I recall, Friedman used some “loaded” language to describe this, like genocide and holocaust.

  19. If there is a “Rule of Three” for speculative fiction (and there probably is) then I think that is unfortunate. Even though fantasy and science fiction are often about alternate worlds, timelines, or realities, the best authors use those opportunities to create really amazing characters. I get irritated when I read the same old stereotypes (particularly with women characters, but also with culture and ethnicity). What I really look for is a character with depth, an ability to grow/change, and real complexity. I think that minorities (ethnic/ racial/ religious/ sexual/ etc.) have a lot of possibilities in this regard.

    The character development really shone through with Yeine and Oree, which is a huge part of the reason why I loved both HTK and BK so much. It was interesting to see them interact in a society where the ruling class was a different race who imposed their customs on the world. That was only one layer of social commentary among many in the book, and it seemed to me that it was a crucial component of character development. I find it boggling that someone would be offended by it. I didn’t relate any less to Yeine or Oree because I’m white– I was happy to love them for who they are and cheer them on.

    In general I agree with your philosophy here: “I do have an agenda, but it’s not what these people assume. My agenda is to tell a good story. My definition of “good story” means that I try to write things that appeal to all readers, but with realistic social complexity.* That’s kinda it. Not much, as agendas go, is it? But some people get really, really frothy over it.”

    But I have to add this– is there something really wrong with an author having an agenda? Is it so terrible for a person to want to write about his/her own experience as a minority or to support minorities in speculative fiction? Maybe this just seems so odd because there are not many minority writers in the genre. Or maybe, people don’t want to feel uncomfortable in their escapist fantasies, and this source of the discomfort is a society where these issues are dismissed or ignored. What if agendas were used purposefully to promote healthy discussion about stereotyping and racism/ sexism/ homophobia? Maybe we need that!

  20. I’ve seen this come up some in the romance genre blogosphere, which does have some crossover to SFF now with the popularity of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. The examples given were how books with black characters on the cover were relegated to the African American Fiction section of bookstores, regardless of whether they were genre romance or not. It was pretty shocking how many white people responded saying that’s where they thought those books should be, because they didn’t want to read about black characters, because they thought that the “black lifestyle” (not scare quotes, literally quoting the phrasing that was used) was so different from theirs that they couldn’t identify with it.

    That just… boggled me, because many of these comments came from people that talked about reading paranormal romances about supernatural characters. Okay, so you can identify with a werewolf or vampire or person from a completely different world… but you can’t identify with a black character? WTF?

    I’ve heard similarly racist arguments about SFF, too. I’ve heard that fantasy is supposed to be European based and thus black people don’t really have a place. (Which, the assumption that all fantasy is European based… I don’t even.)

    Sadly, I do think that McDuffie has a strong, valid point in general. I would love to believe that he didn’t, but I’ve seen it play out too much in reader spaces to not. I think of the issue I mentioned above with the romance community, and the issue with whitewashing covers. I think of the comments from readers that they won’t buy books with black people on the covers because then it’s a “black book” and thus not for them, and publisher marketing and art departments speaking to that reaction. Not that I think it’s right at all to misrepresent characters, but the attitude doesn’t come out of nowhere.

    That being said, there are plenty of readers who love stories for the stories and don’t care if characters belong to minorities. I love getting glimpses into someone else’s life, even if some of them can be uncomfortable for me in my privileges. I would like to believe the world is changing, albeit slowly. I have to have hope for that.

  21. Kawaii, :)

    But I have to add this– is there something really wrong with an author having an agenda? Is it so terrible for a person to want to write about his/her own experience as a minority or to support minorities in speculative fiction?

    There’s nothing wrong with an author having an agenda, if she wants to have an agenda. But if she doesn’t want to, I think it’s wrong for her existence to be treated as such. I am not “a minority”. I am not my breasts. I’m not even my job or my education or my family. I am me. And I should have the same right as anyone else to be treated as a person, and not as a walking Message.

    This is not to say that those who do want to be Messages shouldn’t do so. I’m just saying they should have the right to be “just people”, if they so choose. And the only way that all of us will get this right is if we stop assuming that black people exist only to talk about being black. Women write SF only to protest sexism. And only white men can do whatever the hell they want.

  22. Hal,

    Brilliant as usual, and spot-on. I have nothing to add here, except applause.

  23. Some good points have been made here and I don’t have much to add.

    There is certainly a rule of three in SFF, horror, in all literature and other mediums as well.

    WOC, especially Black folks have to explain almost everything we write. Why did we have this? Why didn’t we have that? What does that mean. It seems as if everything has to mean something. It’s really quite exhausting and attitudes need to change.

    I really hope I don’t sound too muddled this late at night. :)

  24. In one of my novels I decided that everyone would be dark-skinned and with dark either straight or very curly hair, and next to no body hair, not for any political reason, but just because it felt right. It’s the images I had of the characters and nothing more.

    Will someone comment on my choice of creating “Islander/Polynesian” characters – likely, but my attitude is: once the book is out in the wild people can think what they like about it. My part is done.

  25. I think McDuffie is spot on.

  26. Since reading this post, I’ve been stuck on the revelation that Yeine isn’t black. And I’ve been thinking about I assumed that in the first place, and figure that there are a few reasons, that all sort of overlap in a messy way.

    First, of course, is because Nora is black. Yet that fact was also one of the reasons I picked up the book in the first place, because until reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy 5 or 6 years ago, I had been completely unexposed to SFF by writers of color. That book triggered a want/need in me that I didn’t even know that I had – namely to see people of color represented in SFF – and so I’ve been on a mad dash ever since to consume as much as possible.

    I knew of Nora from the ABW blog, and when I found out she was writing my kind of fiction, I was automatically on board. Because of her presence on that blog (which tackles issues of representation and marginalization regularly), and her own ethnicity, the assumption that Yeine was black was an easy one to make. And nothing in her description indicated otherwise. Also, because of what I said earlier, I also “wanted” Yeine to be black. Nothing short of this blog post plainly telling me that she’s not, was going to convince me otherwise.

    However, the assumptions about Yeine on the basis of her “ethnicity” stopped at appearance. I did not assume I knew what the book was going to be about, or even that it would attempt to tackle any of the issues I knew Nora cared about from the blog. For me it was all about the aesthetic, about imagining the THTK world as not yet another lily-white world so typical of fantasy.

    This whole thing about “agendas” reminds me of an exchange between David Gaider, the lead writer of the video game Dragon Age: Origins, and one of the players who managed to correspond with him through the Bioware message board. When asked about the absence of characters of color from the Dragon Age world, Gaider said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the game was inspired by medieval Europe and that he felt no need to include characters of color just to be “politically correct”.

    Since when is it “politically correct” just to feature different kinds of people in your story? It is incredible to me how easy it is for white people to take their “default” status for granted, to think that there must be some “purpose” or “agenda” behind including anyone that isn’t “mainstream”.

    Gaider’s comments were particularly striking because I learned of them after I had just finished writing a long post about how DAO was more “inclusive” than other games I’d played for enabling gay romance, for apparently drawing from the African slave trade and its subsequent social legacy (represented by the Elves), as well as the Indian caste system (Dwarves).

    But if we’ve learned anything from X-Men (and it’s well-acknowledged borrowing from the Civil Rights movement and Malcolm:Martin / Magneto/Prof. X dichotomy), it’s that it’s okay in SFF to appropriate people’s history and ideas while leaving them completely unrepresented in the work itself.

  27. This post is fascinating, and the Rule of Three is so true. However, I think it should probably be tweaked the slightest bit. It’s not that certain readers can’t handle three or more characters of color, it’s that certain readers can’t handle three or more *main* characters of color, ones who are fully fleshed out, have distinct personalities, and make decisions that actively influence the plot. But lots of character of color on the sidelines doesn’t bother those people (especially if they’re nobly killed while protecting white people).

    I’m wondering if some of this has to do with the fact that certain people view one character of color, and one woman, as representing *all* characters of color and *all* women (unless the story is specifically about characters of color and women, in which case it’s OK to have variation). And if you already have a stand in for *all* characters of color, then what’s the point of having three? That’s just too much! Two works because you can then show the good and bad versions of the race or sex, such as the good or hardworking character and the lazy or evil character, and for woman the good virtuous one and the wicked whore. But three?

  28. Hi Kermit,

    I’ve actually talked about Yeine’s race here many times — because it keeps coming up. You’re by no means the first person to “want” her to be black. I understand why some people, especially black readers, would want that; there just aren’t enough of us in SFF. I feel that lack as keenly as anybody else.

    But I also feel the danger of being pigeonholed, as a writer trying to build her career. I will happily accept branding as a fantasy writer, a science fiction writer, a romantic writer, a writer who tries to tackle thorny issues of representation and social justice, a writer of feel-good fluff, anything content-based… but I do not want to be branded based solely on what I look like. That way lies danger in multiple layers. First, it encourages stereotyping. Second is the financial danger; I do not want to see an “African American Interest” subset get a foothold in this field. I’ve seen what’s happened to black romance writers, which Nonny alludes to a few comments up: even though they’re writing in the single most lucrative area of fiction worldwide, they’re not doing well. They don’t make nearly as much money as white writers, they don’t get the attention that helps them survive for a long time in this business, and at least one of them has had to sue for the right to write characters who aren’t black. Their books end up in the creepy, spider-infested corner of the bookstore reserved for Thug Lovin’ Part 23 and old MLK speeches that only sell a few copies every January. They almost never manage to sell foreign rights (which I would say make up maybe 30% of my writer income), and the best they can hope for from Hollywood is for Tyler Perry to take pity on them. To use Hal’s segregation framework, they’re in the back of the bus, and they can’t get out.

    The third, and biggest, danger is tokenism. Which is really what the Rule of Three is all about, IMO — the feeling on the part of the white mainstream that the token presence of PoC is OK, but truly representative numbers — and the power that comes with them — are threatening and a problem. I’ve felt this for years in SFF, since I started appearing at cons and people saw that I was black. Reviewers and and interviewers and panel moderators have constantly tried to proclaim me “the next Octavia Butler” despite the fact that I write nothing like her, don’t want to be compared to her, and in fact do everything but wear “NOT OCTAVIA, DAMMIT” t-shirts to make the distinction clear. (I love Octavia; she’s one of my favorite writers. But so are a lot of dead white male writers, and nobody compares me to them.) There’s such a persistent effort to “fill the hole” created by Octavia’s death that every black female SFF writer publishing today has had to fight the same “next Octavia” bullshit. As if there’s only one hole to be filled, or two… or three.

    While that kind of thinking exists, opportunities for all PoC writers will be restricted. The holes will get filled, and no new ones will open. The Rule of Three is reinforced, and takes a step closer to becoming incontrovertible law.

    I want to break this Rule. That means I have to constantly, vigilantly, work against whatever assumptions people are going to make about me — including the assumption that, as a black woman, I’m only going to write about black women. I’ve gotten some shit about this from black readers, some of whom seem to feel it’s my duty to risk the pigeonhole dangers. I think they just don’t understand the long-term implications of catering to “segregationist” thinking. You can’t accommodate the status quo and still expect things to change.

    …Aaaaaand, I did not mean to bust out the soapbox. Sorry ’bout that. ::blush::

  29. “There’s nothing wrong with an author having an agenda, if she wants to have an agenda. But if she doesn’t want to, I think it’s wrong for her existence to be treated as such. I am not “a minority”. I am not my breasts. I’m not even my job or my education or my family. I am me. And I should have the same right as anyone else to be treated as a person, and not as a walking Message.”

    Makes sense to me. I just wanted to play devil’s advocate earlier, and now I am going to play it again. How much do you release ownership of your writing to the reader? If the reader finds a message or a commentary in your work that you never intended, does that bother you? A what point are the words (and their meanings) not yours anymore? I am curious about this because I was an English major once upon a time. I remember a lot of debates about how much we should “read into” an author’s work. Is any interpretation valid if it is supported by the text, even if it wasn’t purposeful? I know you discuss your writing a lot more than many authors. Does the fact that you are open about your intentions make a difference?

  30. Well the guy is obviously correct. I would say the Rule of Three is also correct for all written fiction, but written stories aren’t as visual a medium as film and comics and often have larger casts, especially in SFF. So I would suspect that in written stories where there are large casts, the Rule of Three is less applied if the black characters are supporting and major characters. If one or more of the main leads is black, however, and there are three major black characters, then I would expect the Rule of Three to unfortunately apply to a segment of the reading audience. For women, you don’t even get the Rule of Three in written fiction if the lead character is female. But in comics, it’s okay to have a fair number of female main characters. Of course, there’s usually less inner pov in comics.

    I don’t think there’s any answer except continued challenges to preconceptions, not only with readers, but also publisher and bookseller notions of readers. The audience is multi-racial, the world is multi-racial. The shift should have already occurred, but did not.

  31. In some ways, I think it’s less relevant in science-fiction. Or, at least, the books with only one race feel so fake it doesn’t quite work anymore. One of the advantages of sf is that you can diverse enormously in population and that’s what makes it fun. The books I personally enjoy most are those were things like skin color, hair and eyes are noted but not noticed. It just the way they look, no big deal.

    Right now, I’m thinking of a military sf-series where one of the major supporting characters is a black female. In a spin-off series her cousin (also female) is the main character. But I’m wondering whether the main female character is black or white because I honestly can’t remember. Best guess, white father, Asian mother. She has the eyes, that much I’m certain about.
    But my point was that in these books race is irrelevant. The books have a lot of mixed race people, but what they look like isn’t mentioned every time someone is introduced. That would be too much, as well as boring.

    Hoping I made some sense here.

  32. I have heard that parents of two children tend to see them as opposites: child A is The Outgoing One and child B is The Reserved One; child A is The Smart One and child B is The Not-So-Smart One; etc., etc. With three children, it’s easier to see each one as an individual.

    So I suspect that the Rule of Three reflects a similar dynamic. One black main character can be pigeonholed (by either the author or the reader) as a token or as fitting some stereotype. With two such characters, one can be fit to a stereotype and the other can be the foil for the first. But with three, if you can’t see each of them as a fully-developed person, you’re not going to see any literary reason for including them all, which leads to imputing a political reason.

  33. “Reviewers and and interviewers and panel moderators have constantly tried to proclaim me “the next Octavia Butler” despite the fact that I write nothing like her, don’t want to be compared to her, and in fact do everything but wear “NOT OCTAVIA, DAMMIT” t-shirts to make the distinction clear.”

    I thought Nalo Hopkinson was supposed to be the next Octavia Butler. :) I’m sure she has interesting stories on this and perhaps has a “NOT OCTAVIA, DAMMIT” T-shirt she could loan you. I think that because Yeine is described as darker skinned than some of the other characters, and having wild dark hair, it’s assumed by some that she and her father’s people are black. I never saw her as black, but not as “white” either. Nor really Latino or South Asian, etc. I saw her as not human as in Earth humans, but her own multi-race in a world where god worship and nationality had much more to do with inter-relations than skin color, although skin color was perhaps not ruled out as it was part of nationality. That may not be how you meant it either, but it seemed for me to be how the story was structured. And I loved that Nahadoth constantly changed in appearance and mentality and refraction of light.

  34. KatG,

    Like I said, the “next Octavia” thing has happened to every black female SFF writer. I’ve talked to Nalo, to Nnedi, to Nisi, to Alaya; we’ve exchanged the war stories. If there’s a published black female writer out there that it hasn’t happened to… wait.

    Re: Yeine — well, readers are going to see what they want to see. And given that it’s not Earth, and the races don’t exactly correspond to our own, there’s some wiggle room. But the clues are there for those who want to look. The Darre have straight black hair. They’re brown-skinned although not as brown as people like Oree from book 2, or gods like Itempas. They tend to have dark eyes. They built sprawling stone cities a la Macchu Picchu and calendaring monuments a la Chichen Itza (which is Mayan, but you get my drift)… all that’s there, however readers want to interpret it.

    That said, you’re right, religious choice is one of the definers of life in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (though less than wealth and power) — but since skin color is often linked to how a particular group chose to worship Itempas, it has a social association. So skin color’s definitely a part of the game.

  35. Does this mean you all do or do not get accused of ripping off Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as well?

    I got the South American reference, especially with the long straight hair aspect. But as you were not modeling the countries on any particular Earth countries, I saw them as Darre and that’s what the Darre people looked like, not oh look, there are the Mayans. :) If it’s worth anything, I thought it was pretty dazzling world construction. And I’m looking forward to reading Book #2. Got to love a god in the midden heap.

  36. This reminds me of the “missing-black-woman formation”, coined by Scott Westerfeld in “So Yesterday”. It is a black man, a white man, and a white woman. Like The Mod Squad, or Obama/Biden/Clinton.

    http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2008/01/mbw-formation/

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