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Storytelling

Why representation matters in fiction

I talk a lot about sexism in fiction, probably a lot more than you'd expect given how much I also talk about how superficial traits don't matter and I don't like the leftist way of thinking about discrimintation. So I thought I'd explain my reasons for caring so much about the representation of superficial traits in fiction.

Sexist tropes

Protagonist versus leftist ideas of bigotry

Short answer: instinct learns by association. Therefore, giving most or all characters one superficial trait when its negation is as common in real life, or constantly lumping one superficial trait on villains tends to encourage double standards in real life, besides being insulting. (The reason it's insulting even to reasonable people is because reasonable people understand that this is how the mind works, so they don't excuse it with "it's just a story, it means nothing" because they know that it *inherently* means something no matter how much the author claims it doesn't.)

Interesting anecdote: I heard some people talking about some statistic that a disproportionate number of criminals have one of three names, I think two of them were Wayne and Lee. I pointed out that acting on this statistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe a man is more likely to be guilty if he's named Wayne or Lee, then we'll convict men with those names more often and thus create the original statistic.

Objection: what if it really is true that a disproportionate number of men with these names are guilty? wouldn't it be more accuracte to account for that information? No: if they're guilty more often, then there will be *actual evidence of their crimes* more often, so just looking at the actual evidence will already give you the best accuracy. If you try to account for this perceived pattern, you'll be double-counting.

Anyway, that instinct learns by association is why I value diversity in representation of superficial traits. If I seem to care a lot more about gender than about other traits, it's because I do, and the reason is that diversity has to be considered locally. For example:

You have *no* Chinese characters in your story with twenty characters!?! China is almost a fifth of the world's population, you know!

Stories made in America and likely to be mostly consumed in America should be held to the standard of diversity that reflects reality in America. And that's why gender diversity is different than most other superficial traits: it's present in all human societies, whereas real human societies can have an ethnic majority without having any sort of bias.

One other thing: lumping a superficial traits on villains all the time is different in kind from not portraying it at all. You can't excuse that with "it reflects reality". Even if it does, portraying it as false is the better course of action for its effects on the culture of the real world. For example, it's a common claim among conservatives (and I find it believable but for different reasons) that black Americans commit a disproportionate number of crimes compared to white Americans. That doesn't mean we should portray this as the case in our stories. That would create a stereotype similar to the Wayne-Lee example. It would also offend reasonable black readers and make it more difficult for them to enjoy your stories.

An obvious exception is if the trait isn't actually superficial but something with moral signifiance, like religion. I won't complain if all the Christians in a story are villains, because it's a pretty morally messed up religion. A morally messed up race, on the other hand, can't exist.

Traits that aren't inherently moral but also aren't superficial, like skill set, should still be paired diversely with superficial traits in fiction even if it doesn't reflect reality. The point of stories is not to describe reality,. it's to describe a possible reality. (Setting your story in "the real world" is a tool to avoid worldbuilding work when your story doesn't need an original world, not a reason to copy over even the most variable aspects of it for no gain in story quality and no significant saving in work.) For example, if you're going to write a story about a group of programmers, it's still a good idea to use a balanced gender ratio, even though in real life programming is a male-dominated profession, because such a trend in real life is due to cultural gender roles and not to a difference in biological fitness. Erasing those arbitrary roles is a good endeavor.

For one that *is* based on a legitimate difference in biological fitness, like physical combat prowess, reflecting that in stories is fine. Just don't exaggerate it.

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